Minkette on Escape Room design; Secret Studio

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This post is a two-parter. Recently I went to Secret Studio, my third experience with room escapes; and Minkette, one of the creators of Oubliette, came to the Oxford/London IF Meetup to talk about the design and creation process.

I’d asked Minkette to come talk about the kind of storytelling she does: often location-based, often using physical props to communicate backstory or the flavor of the world you’re in.

She started us off with an overview of related projects, including Sleep No More, Wiretapper (reviewed here), and 2.8 Hours Later, a zombie chase game that runs through London. She also spoke about her own Train of Thought, an experience designed for the Underground, in which participants were able to listen to pre-recorded tracks that were meant to be the thoughts of one of the other passengers in their coach. (Here’s an audience member’s description of that experience.)

Next, Minkette took us through the process of constructing the Oubliette escape room, with lots of pictures of the various props in construction. It was fascinating to see what went into these: Oubliette featured a vacuum tube setup that (seemed to) let you pneumatically send messages to other characters, but that was actually just operated by someone pulling a magnet on a string.

But the parts of her talk that were newest to me were the ones where she talked about the psychological purpose of their design choices.

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Getting Hired to Write IF

Over the past eighteen months or so, a couple of interesting things have happened.

One: there are way more opportunities than there used to be to write interactive text and receive payment in return. I hear about a lot of these because they tend to be documented on the intfiction forum or the euphoria &if channel, because people email me about them directly, or because author requests are pitched at the Oxford/London IF Meetup group. I also have a certain number of email exchanges where I’m offered a contract I don’t have the bandwidth to take, so the asker follows up with a request for a recommendation. I’ve started keeping a list of freelancers I know in this space.

(If you freelance and you want me to know that, feel free to send me a portfolio link. I do not guarantee any particular result, and I do exercise my own judgment about whom to recommend in any given circumstance. I do not ever make the full list available to prospective clients or employers. If I pass your name along, it will be because I think you’re a viable fit for what I know of the project.)

Two: there are lots of people interested in writing IF for money who are unsure about some aspect of how to get into it. Sometimes they message me in one form or another and ask for advice. I’ve written some advice about setting rates before, and also a bit about how my own situation works, though it’s not typical (see below).

Lately I’m getting questions about how to establish your skills in this space and make yourself appealing to employers, so I will write what I know about that as well.

Note that this is mostly about work-for-hire situations rather than working for specific IF studios and publishers such as Choice of Games, Failbetter/Fundbetter, Sub-Q, Tin Man Games, etc. Where you already have a target in mind, you’re best off looking closely at their own websites for their submission requirements or job postings, and familiarizing yourself with the work they’ve already published to see if you’re a good fit.

Ready? Let’s go.

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IntroComp 2016

IntroComp is a long-running IF tradition in which authors contribute just the openings of games. Judges then vote based purely on whether they would like to play the complete version of the game. Voting is currently in progress, and doesn’t close until September 10, so if you’d like to play some IF and give feedback to prospective authors, this is a good time to do it.

A few thoughts on some of the specific games follow the jump. (I have not been able to play all of them yet, and in a few cases I did not have a great deal of use to say, so this is not a full roster of the competition contents. But You Too can play and judge!)

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Worldsmith (Ade McT/interactive fables)

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Worldsmith belongs to a category that is still pretty rare, even in this age of growing opportunities for commercial IF: it’s for-sale parser IF. A demo is available for free, but the full version is $5.99. Not only that, but the author has collaborated with furkle (of SPY INTRIGUE fame) to skin an Inform 7 game with images, video, hyperlinks and custom menus. The surrounding images help communicate status information, with images of the NPCs you’re conversing with, and/or the planet you’re currently constructing.

Then there’s the gameplay. Worldsmith is heavy on both simulation and procedural text; I’ve seen a lot of authors start work that made ambitious use of those, but very few actually finish something of that scope and complexity.

The essential premise is that you are a world-builder in competition with several other world-builders (a very high-powered version of the Great British Bake-Off, perhaps). In order to do this, you must combine fundamental elements such as Air and Fire to make planets; set the planets in chosen orbits in your pet solar system; seed those planets with life; and then nurture the life to a degree of sentience that will survive in the wider universe and be able to leave its home planet before said planet becomes uninhabitable.

So far as I’ve seen, this is very much a systems game rather than a puzzle game. There is loads of information to learn about how various elements combine and what sorts of creatures they are likely to produce. Though you get a tutorial (a rather exasperated encounter with your teacher, who evidently feels that you really should have mastered the elements of world-construction by now), there’s a dizzying amount to retain, and you’ll likely find yourself reviewing your instruction manual quite a lot.

I haven’t managed to win. On the contrary, I’ve made a series of half-baked planets and seeded unsuccessful life on them, and needed to restart several times. (It turns out that if you teach your lifeforms too much too quickly, they’ll probably just destroy themselves, so slow up, Prometheus.) But I feel like I’m learning, so this is good restarting, rather than the bad frustrating restarting when a puzzle game has gone unwinnable.

In response to the decisions you make, your world is formed with differently described land forms, creatures, and technologies. It’s probably the closest thing to Spore-in-text-form that I’ve seen.

Still, eventually I realized that if I wanted to blog about this piece, I was going to have to go against my usual preference and write it up without having played the whole thing. So that’s a big caveat. I have some things to point out about Worldsmith but I have not seen anything near all of it, and certainly not most of its storyline.

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Reigns

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Here is Reigns, a game about managing a series of kingdoms currently available on Steam for a few dollars. (Or £1.99, for those of us buying in the UK.) The mechanics are simple. Each turn you’re presented with a choice, typically presented as a request by someone in your kingdom. Swipe left to refuse; swipe right to agree.

Your decisions affect some or all of the four stats at the top of the screen, which correspond to the well-being of the church, the populace in general, the army, and your treasury. If any of those stats reaches either maximum or minimum states, you will die and be replaced by your heir, who will start from where you left off (but with stats set back to average). Some of those death reasons are pretty contrived: make too much money and your citizens will throw a feast in your honor, where inevitably you will choke to death. But the need for balance makes this much more difficult and interesting than if it were safe to just max out your treasury, for instance.

There are a few minor complications that turn up after you’ve played for a bit: for instance, you can make decisions that add semi-permanent resources to your kingdom, such as a placement on the Silk Road that provides income every turn regardless of what else you do, or a siloing system that helps protect you in the event your kingdom runs out of food. And there’s also a combat mini-game that you can unlock after a bit of experiment.

Still, there’s a heavy component of chance here. You don’t know in advance what cards are going to turn up, and you can never just autonomously choose an action. So you may be able to see that your Treasury stat is edging up and up, dangerously close to triggering the Deathfeast, but not be able to do anything to offload your obscene wealth.

Each card also comes with a small amount of story, and because those stories are dependent on your existing stats, this feels like quality-based narrative — though without the wild proliferation of different stat types that one sees in Fallen London. Like other QBN pieces, this means it offers cause-and-effect chains the authors might not have specifically anticipated. During one of my reigns, I accepted a marriage proposal from an adjoining kingdom in order to avert a war; then I let my new wife throw a feast, but the feast bankrupted the kingdom and brought my reign to a precipitous close. Oops. Did the authors intend that sequence? Not necessarily, but it results naturally from the way stats move.

There is a longer arc that plays out over the course of multiple reigns, but it’s easy to go through a number of deaths without getting any new content for that piece of the game.

Ultimately, the story experience is a little dilute for my tastes. The tinder-style mechanic, the randomness of card availability, and the fact that you die so often, all made me sit back rather than sit forward. After all, the stakes are low (what do I care if yet another king dies of gangrene after an ill-advised boar hunt?) and my control is likewise limited. Still, Reigns is entertaining in short spurts, and I’m always interested to see new QBN-ish pieces, especially ones not written in the StoryNexus toolset.

Disclosure: I played a copy of this game that I bought with my own money.

Mid-August Links

I’ve been quiet the past month because I’ve been traveling almost the entire time, so apologies for that.

August 23, the Oxford/London IF meetup is hearing from Minkette on escape rooms, immersive theatre, and other work in the narrative of objects. We’re holding this one in a more central London location, near King’s Cross, to experiment with trying to be a bit more accessible to people who had a hard time reaching Greenwich.

Sept 1 is the deadline if you’d like to sign up to enter IF Comp this year.

Sept 4, Oxford/London IF meetup has an open problems session in Oxford.

Sept 15, Strange Tales 5 is a London event with talks on unconventional storytelling approaches.

New Releases

IntroComp games became available: these are game beginnings, submitted by various authors. Anyone is invited to vote, and voting is based on whether you would like to play the rest of the submitted work.

Christopher Huang has released a second game, Point Blank Blank, in his Peterkin series; like Mustard, Music, and Murder, it’s a logic puzzle game about alibis.

New Tools

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Amazon has made available a new tool to make interactive adventure games for their voice-activated Alexa box. The description and screenshots available so far make it look like it’s only equipped to do branching, statless CYOA-style pieces.

Meanwhile, this isn’t a tool in general release, but it might inspire some: Lea Albaugh writes about a fortune-telling machine that she built for a wedding, which incorporates procedural text generation, image recognition, card printing, and many other neat features.

In other news, I’ve started a Pinterest board on IF visualization — mostly narrative structure visualization and puzzle graphs, but a few other things as well. I haven’t tried to copy over the whole of the Twine node garden or every single CYOA graph from Sam Kabo Ashwell’s blog, but there are representative samples and links if you want to dig further.

New Reviews and Other Content

Despite being on vacation, I did pre-schedule a couple of articles for Rock Paper Shotgun: What Will You, the Detective, Do Next?, about a number of classic mystery styles rendered in IF; and Strangely Thought, in which I cover Fabricationist DeWit Remakes the World, Harrison Squared Dies Early, and several other games about deeply unusual worlds and protagonists. (Summit gets a moment, too.)

The long, long-running IF zine SPAG launched a new issue this month, which is full of interesting things. SPAG also now pays for content, so if you’re interested in writing reviews or craft articles or other IF-related material for them, you should consider pitching. I particularly recommend Lisa Brunette’s article on storytelling in hidden object games and how that’s evolved.