This Book is a Dungeon (Nathan Meunier)

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As indicated in this screenshot, This Book is a Dungeon is a) a Kindle book about game development with Twine and b) the Twine-based dungeon developed as described in the book. The word “Bookumentary” makes my teeth itch a little, so I will pretend I didn’t see that. And I can’t comment on the success of this piece as a self-publishing experiment, so I’ll just talk about the first two aspects.

The book is 81 pages long, which means that the book and game together are definitely far outside the usual “I will play this in 20 minutes in my lunch break” realm occupied by most Twine pieces — though it’s written in a breezy, confident, slightly repetitive style that makes it a pretty fast read:

It’s truly rare to find me doing only ONE thing at a time. Ever. I’ll admit that my rampant ADD is partly to blame. I try to work this incessant need for chaos and spinning plate juggling to my advantage, though it sometimes bites me in the ass. I can’t ignore this one, though. The drive is too great. Plus it’s new and shiny, so off we go!

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Windhammer Prize: ‘Normal Club (Philip Armstrong)

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The Windhammer Prize is a yearly competition for gamebooks, specifically the on-paper, distributed-by-PDF variety. Last year I covered a few of the games, and this year the competition is about to open again, so I thought I would honor the occasion by looking at Philip Armstrong’s ‘Normal Club, the winner of the top prize in 2013. (Past entrants are archived on the competitions site.)

The image I’ve used as the header illustration for this post is a map of the town you’re exploring, and it contains some information (besides the numbers themselves) that you may need to use to solve the adventure. Its cartoony but confident feel is a pretty good introduction to the experience as a whole: lighthearted, accessible, soundly constructed, with the game/puzzle side more prominent than the story side.

‘Normal Club here refers to paranormal research, which in this world is an after-school competitive activity like chess team or debate club. The protagonists are a Buffy-style Scooby gang, and you get to pick three of six prefab characters to include. This choice determines your gang stats and opens up a number of character-specific extra paragraphs throughout the story. For any given situation, one or two of the gang members might have a personal response.

As one might expect, the resulting narrative uses characterization mostly as a spice, and none of the protagonists can afford to have unique motivations that might cause a surprise swerve in the MacGuffin Quest. Likewise, most of the choices you encounter, up until the very end, are tactical rather than moral decisions.

Like many gamebooks, ‘Normal Club starts with some forms to fill out with these stats, and spaces for inventory. Initially I tried to play using the online PDF and just keeping my notes in a notebook, but that was a mistake, for reasons I’ll get into at the moment. If you want to play, you probably need to print this thing off. (It runs to 45 pages, so this isn’t insuperable, but I usually avoid printing longish documents for the sake of the planet.) You will also need a 6-sided die or a reasonable online facsimile.

The discussion below isn’t all that spoilery, but if you want an innocent first experience of this book, you may want to stop here.

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Conversations We Have In My Head (Squinky)

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Conversations We Have In My Head is a very short, real-time dialogue game by Squinky, describing a conversation between a genderqueer protagonist (Quarky) and their ex (Lex). As the player, you’re choosing responses Lex can make to Quarky’s revelations and questions; new options come and go on the screen. This gives the game a smooth, relaxing quality — this is an odd analogy, perhaps, but it felt a bit like a driving game to me, in which you’re looking at the scenery sliding by and deciding which way you wanted to steer, but didn’t have any brakes.

If you want, you can be totally silent and just listen to Quarky monologue about the changes in their life. Or you can offer lots of feedback, or even more or less wrest the conversation around to yourself on a regular basis, reminding Quarky of the differences between you and of harm done in the past. I like the way this flows, though after about the fifth playing I started to wish I could fast-forward to important junctions in order to try some of the alternatives. Still, the game is so compact that even re-listening to the same opening doesn’t slow things down too much.

Squinky includes the following paragraph in their description of the game:

Many of us have voices in our heads that constantly remind us of our perceived failures and inadequacies. Sometimes, those voices appear to us in the form of a once-important, now-estranged person from our past. This is a game about having one of those conversations with that voice in your head, and the many ways it can go.​​

Despite the conflict implied in this paragraph, I found that the majority of the conversations I generated with Conversations We Have In My Head were net positives, rather than negative reflections on the protagonist or on what happened in the past. Perhaps growing up and coming to know themselves better has opened the possibility that the characters might be kinder to one another and keep things in better perspective than they used to. There are of course some exceptions.

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Riddles and Madlibs UI: Blackbar; Interactive Sexy Story

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Blackbar is an interactive puzzle story, for various mobile platforms, about censorship: you see one side of a correspondence, and must guess the missing words in order to move forward, as the participants try to communicate through the filter of an oppressive regime. It got a reasonable amount of enthusiasm at the time, and appeared on some top-ten lists for 2013.

screenshot-2-3.5-outlinedI have to confess that I went to a walkthrough for some of the later puzzles. One of the issues with riddle-style puzzle design is that it isn’t very explorable: you either have that flash of understanding or you don’t, and if you are thinking along the wrong lines, it can be very hard to get back on track. A few of the puzzles in Blackbar are divided up into components that you can try to solve individually, which moves it more towards crosswords territory — you can figure out some bits, get confirmation, and then use that to work out the parts you don’t understand — but others aren’t as friendly.

I also thought there wasn’t all that much to the story when it was all stitched together. Others described its storyline as Orwellian and said that it critiqued censorship, but that critique mostly boils down to: “Censorship. It’s bad.” Orwell made points about how controlling language ultimately means controlling thought, as sophisticated arguments become impossible to form. Blackbar is more about goofy ways to try to get around the censors, and casts the censors themselves as pretty incompetent. Surely a censor who really wanted to suppress information would black out more at a time, leaving us with puzzles that were harder to solve. Still, it was entertaining and competent and lots of people had fun with it.

I was reminded of Blackbar again recently because, while I was looking for a completely different thing, the iOS app store recommended Interactive Sexy Story, a free to play app with in-app purchases. I downloaded it as a piece of potential kusoge, and I was not wrong.

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The Compass Rose (Yoon Ha Lee / Peter Berman)

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The Compass Rose is a spare, impersonal science fiction story by Yoon Ha Lee with tech support by Peter Berman; it’s the third of Sub-Q’s August lineup. It is a hypertext piece, but offers some directional options most of the time as well.

The premise is that a compass rose is a deeply powerful physical object. It is able to show directions and guide you (literally and metaphorically) in your environment, but its abilities go beyond that, terraforming a new world to conform to the values of its colonizers.

The story begins with your rescue of an old compass rose from a damaged planet, and escape. Then you have the opportunity to create your own colony, filling in your own rose-diagram with markers indicating the values you’ve chosen. Is coldness one of your primary directions, or mercy? Openness or paranoia? Each of your major actions affects the type of colony that will result, and orders the constellations in your sky. Once you’ve added to your compass rose, you can click these links for further information.

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Headstart Institute, Now Play This, and other appearances

headstart_logo Aug 31-Sept 3, Antwerp: I’m going to be presenting a workshop and mentoring at the Headstart Institute. This is a week-long summer school for indie game developers, with workshops in a whole range of topics from interactive narrative (me) to sound design, marketing, production, how to quickly put together a custom controller, and lots else. The experience culminates in a game jam (which unfortunately I’m going to have to miss), and the mentors will be around all week to provide feedback. Housing and communal breakfast and lunch are provided. I don’t know of any other programs quite like this, and I’m myself excited to meet my awesome fellow mentors, many of whom I’ve heard of but not had a chance to talk to in person over the years. There are still a few spots remaining, so if that sounds good to you, come to Antwerp!

Sept 4, London (and this is the reason I have to leave Antwerp a bit early): I’m presenting on intimacy in games at Now Play This, alongside Meg Jayanth and Merritt Kopas. This is a ticketed event.

October 7, London Literature Festival: I’m on a panel with Cara Ellison and Naomi Alderman about stories and games.

Later in the year: I will be on the east coast of the US and Canada in the first couple of weeks of November, including doing a couple of talks at WordPlay in Toronto. I know a number of other IF people expect to be at that session as well. After that, I’m spending a few days in Boston and then going to PRACTICE in New York City. My schedule is filling in, but if you want to talk while I’m in town, let me know and I’ll see what I can do.

March 2016: I’m part of a proposed panel for SXSW Interactive on interactive fiction, esolangs, and other juxtapositions of language and code. I don’t know whether this will be approved, but if you would like it to be, you can vote or comment on the proposal.

There are a couple of other items on the calendar that haven’t been announced yet, but when they are I’ll mention them here. And I’m trying to be good about keeping my Contact page updated with information about upcoming events that are announced and open to the public.

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More generally: I routinely give

— introductions to interactive storytelling
— workshops on choice writing and other IF design skills
— classes in specific IF tools
— in-depth talks on past projects and technical subjects

…and I’ve worked with a range of target audiences, from members of the general public interested in stories to game developers to graduate students working in procedural narrative. If you’d like me to present to your conference, classroom, or studio, please do get in touch and I’ll see whether it’s feasible.

(But if you’re considering coming to Antwerp, you should definitely do that. It will be much cooler than just me talking.)