Storydeck is a system by Ian Millington and Emily Bembeneck, using the concept of Doodle God as a mechanism for storytelling. You play by accumulating story elements and combining them to unlock new storylet events, which in turn give you new elements to combine. In Doodle God those elements were things like “fire” and “water” combining to make a “steam” element; in Storydeck elements are instead characters, locations, artifacts, and so on. There are two Storydecks in current release, a Steampunk deck about a clockwork Victorian mystery and an Ella deck that appears to be a recasting of Cinderella. They’re prettily-made things, too, with evocative, mysterious illustrations for each of the story element cards.
This sounds great. I enjoyed Doodle God. I’ve enjoyed other games that were to some extent about combining narrative elements in inventive ways, often using some kind of card mechanism: Once Upon A Time, Gloom, Daniel Benmergui’s recent Storyteller game (not to be confused with his earlier game of the same name).
But the Storydeck games aren’t really clicking for me as interactive experiences, and the reason is — paradoxically — that they’re not generic enough.
This is an odd complaint for me to be making. As a rule, I’m all about specificity in storytelling. I love Echo Bazaar for its mushroom-based oenology and its Rubbery subculture; Fallout for its Nuka Cola and bottle-cap economy; the Feasts of Tre-mang for its Storm-chowder Pie. When I think about The Secret History — one of my favorite novels ever — I think of Judy Poovey’s ridiculous corset; a lone tennis shoe that is a marker of desolation in an important scene; the way one character is compared to a silk scarf in a forest of black wool. The details are so tangible and so meaningful in context that I can call them to mind a decade after last reading the book.
However. The mechanic of Doodle God is about the player thinking about two related concepts and recognizing that a those two concepts could breed to make a third; and that works only when the player knows enough about the elements to reach such a conclusion. I can imagine an enjoyable Storydeck with elements like Prince and Lost at Birth, with the Lost at Birth Prince becoming the component of a different story than the Turned Into A Frog Prince, until the player built up a particular already-known story or came up with a new one.
The two Storydecks currently on offer, though, give the player very specific items such as a “date watch” (keyed to days rather than minutes), a “street permit”, the secret passage into a castle. They’re not those items in general, ready to be slotted into a story. They are those items already endowed with a particular meaning for a particular story the author has invented, waiting for the reader to puzzle them out.
Thanks to this specificity, playing with the two Storydecks currently released reminds me of what I don’t enjoy about certain graphical adventures: the verb spectrum boils down to USE THING ON THING over and over. Sometimes that’s well-clued by the story, because you’ve got a permit and a place that you need permission to visit; sometimes it’s less clued, and you find yourself just tapping on pairs of things randomly until you have the good fortune to hit on a productive result. You’re not making a new story out of pieces, you’re finding the story already hidden there by the author. And this ergodic process is not always fun or especially revelatory about the interactive story you’re putting together.
It is also a bit unfortunate that the text is not so well proof-read as it might be. There are an assortment of typos and punctuation errors and run-on sentences, not egregious but distracting. The sentences could use a good edit to make them tighter and punchier. Then, too, the text sometimes assumes you’ve discovered something or understand something that you don’t yet know about.
I found the beginning of Ella especially confusing in this respect, because it frames the Cinderella story with fantasy content about a magic (or mechanical?) library of keys and globes and universe-hopping, and expects the player to be able to use and match up those objects without yet quite understanding what they do.
So overall, I still really like the idea of what I thought Storydeck was going to be, and in fact I think the underlying software could do something that I would find more satisfying; but I’m not crazy about the existing decks.