Writing for Seltani, in general

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I’ve written a couple of blog posts (1, 2) about particular design decisions for Aspel, a multiplayer game I wrote for Andrew Plotkin’s Seltani platform. Those posts were mostly about how I structured puzzles and information around having multiple characters, touching occasionally on how Seltani’s possibilities and restrictions changed design decisions.

I have a few other thoughts about the platform more generally, about what it’s like to write for.

The overall gist: Seltani offers several obvious and several non-obvious features that made me feel like I was enjoying some of the advantages of Twine (hyperlinked text, the ability to dig deeper into system descriptions, relatively low time/effort cost for embellishing with new details) but had more systemic control. On the other hand, there are definitely some things that it can’t do, and some formatting choices that I understand but am still not crazy about.

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Tightening the World-Plot Interface: or, Why I Am Obsessed With Conversation Models

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Framed is an interactive comic game in which you move around the panels of the story, reordering events in order to change what happens in the story. It looks really attractive, too.

Forgetting is a graphic novel with CYOA-style branching when you click on certain panels.

Forgetting is a graphic novel with CYOA-style branching when you click on certain panels.

When I first heard of this game, I was hugely excited about it. There aren’t that many entries in the interactive comic space, and this seemed to offer a slightly different set of mechanics to go alongside Dan Benmergui’s (unfinished but, to judge by the demos, awesome) Storyteller or Troy Chin’s Forgetting or the somewhat over-difficult Strip ‘Em All.

When I actually played Framed, though, I had essentially the same reaction described at The Digital Reader:

While Framed is based on a clever dynamic, the actual game is repetitive to the point that I am bored… Rather than have the user solve puzzles with different goals and different solutions, the vast majority of the levels I played all had the same goal: avoid the cops. Other than setting things up so the protagonist can either bypass cops or sneak up behind cops and hit them over the head, there’s not much to this game.

I’m maybe a little less harsh than this — I did feel that Framed was worth playing, and I know that some people did enjoy the puzzles — but nonetheless, I was hoping for something that did new work in telling an interactive story, rather than just setting up a bunch of puzzle levels. In that area it fell short. All of the puzzles are about a similar problem — one set of characters escaping another — and the stakes don’t alter much either. This makes for boring story.

The problem occurs at the world model-to-plot interface. That’s a challenging area for parser IF, too — and indeed for any game in which the player cannot influence the plot directly, but has to change the world model in order to move forward. Choice-based games vary in this regard, but probably more of them are of the directly-influence-plot variety than of the indirect-influence variety.

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Lifeline (3 Minute Games)

lifeline-ios-02Lifeline is an iOS and Android* mobile game in which you are fielding a distress call from someone named Taylor (gender never actually specified — I’ve seen some reviews refer to Taylor as male, but I pictured a woman). Taylor was the youngest, most naive crew member aboard a space ship that has crashed on a distant moon. They have no previous space experience and only the most rudimentary safety training. For some reason you are the only person in communication range, so they need you to prompt them through a series of survival decisions.

(* Sorry, Android users, I could’ve sworn I read there was a version, but I can’t find it now.)

The story plays out in roughly SMS-sized messages from Taylor, which sometimes come in rapid succession and sometimes only after a substantial real-time delay. These exchanges are backed by atmospheric music, and though the actual content is quite bare-bones and without visuals, the presentation is glossy and solid.

Lifeline has also garnered reviews calling it the best game available for the Apple Watch — one of those statements that might feel like faint praise while still being quite important from a marketing perspective. As far as I can tell from here, Lifeline is another example of the success of commercial IF on mobile. (This Offworld article talks a bit about how the piece was actually prototyped in Twine.)

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Mystical Creatures: Hunting Unicorn (Chandler Groover); Iron Rabbit Encounter (Caeth)

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HUNTING UNICORN, Chandler Groover (play online). HUNTING UNICORN is the recasting of classic unicorn legends, the story of a poor and unattractive woman whose chief income comes from serving as unicorn-bait, drawing the animals out so that they can be captured by hunters. It often feels as though there is nothing she can do to improve her situation, and the story is in part about whether that is really true. The unicorn itself is a fearsome animal, not at all sparkles and rainbows, which can only be controlled via its own consent.

Groover’s authorial notes explain that one of his main aims is to make the player feel like it’s not necessary to replay, in contrast with forms that encourage lawnmowering all the possible endings. For me this partly worked and partly didn’t: when I got to the end I felt that I’d experienced an effective story with a good narrative arc. Certainly there was nothing that formally encouraged me to go looking for the other branches in order to understand the piece better.

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Want to get coffee? Feral Vector, Salt Lake City, SE Asia

So I’m coming up on some travel, and — since this worked out really well last time I tried it — I’d love to have coffee with IF/interactive narrative/social AI/game writing folks. As I said then: if you’re in the area and you’d like to get together and talk — about that totally unfair review I gave your game five years ago, about possible collaborations, about your dreams for the future of interactive narrative, about whatever common interest leads you to read what I write in the first place — please do ping me and I’ll see what I can do.

So:

Next weekend I’m going to Feral Vector, a playful games conference with a good IF presence. I’ll also be in Manchester the afternoon before (Thursday the 28th), if you want to meet up at a time that won’t conflict with all the cool activities during the conference itself.

After Feral Vector, I’m hurrying back to Oxford for the Oxford IF meetup. Several people have said they’re coming who aren’t currently on the sign-up sheet there — feel free to join us.

I’m going to be speaking at the ICCC conference in Park City, Utah, June 29-July 2. Thanks to the mysteries of international flight pricing, it was cheaper for me to stay on an extra day than to fly home right when the conference ends, so I’ll be around Salt Lake City on July 3 as well.

Finally: I’m going to be in Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok later in the summer. I rather suspect it’s a long shot that I have many readers there who might want to meet up, but the same invitation applies.

Tentacles Growing Everywhere (Squinky)

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Tentacles Growing Everywhere is the story of three young tentacled aliens who are just transitioning into their lifeform’s version of puberty.

The primary mechanic is one of editing posts: each of the three protagonists keeps a blog, and you’re in the role of helping them write, sometimes deciding what to take out and what to leave in place — which puts this story in perhaps a very small genre with a few other interactive epistolary pieces. I happen to be quite fond of this form, which explores both what someone is thinking and what they’re willing to write down about their thoughts, and Tentacles uses it to good effect as the characters fuss over how their friends might interpret their adventures, whether it’s a good idea to give one another advice, and so on.

These interactive passages are interspersed with excerpts from a “helpful” guidebook to puberty, written in the same faux-casual voice so often employed for this purpose. Here’s its guidance about being bullied:

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Overall the story is pretty linear: there are some choices to make, but I don’t have the impression that they have more than a local effect on the story (if there’s major branching available, I missed that fact). Even so, there’s a fair bit of text here — 77 pages, with your current page number clearly visible as you play. It’s a novella-sized interactive read, with each protagonist having their own plot arc, though they have a fair amount of interplay as well.

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