In November I wrote about the StoryNexus game Zero Summer. At the time I didn’t play their for-pay content, Fifty Miles South of Lexington, but I’ve done so now, and it deserves its own discussion. Fifty Miles is its own short story, which you can buy from within the main game of Zero Summer using Nex, once you’ve progressed far enough to move around town a bit.
From the StoryNexus perspective, Fifty Miles South of Lexington is pushing the envelope of what the engine can do. Which is a good thing! Every new storytelling engine needs some content that pushes it to or beyond its capacity; that’s how the formal capacities of the machine are discovered. Experimental stuff typically feels just a little bit odd, though, just because it is doing something that may be hacky and weird for the affordances of the toolset. Consequently, the following is a review both of the content of Fifty Miles and a discussion of StoryNexus’ ability to cope with this kind of content.
So. Fifty Miles shelves the character you’ve been working on all this time and casts you as someone else instead, someone with a particular set of experiences and stats ready-made. It’s essentially a mini-story exploring another angle of the same setting. This is kind of cool, and appropriate to the StoryNexus concept that authors are creating worlds, not single storylines.
Structurally, though, it kind of runs against what StoryNexus is (at least currently) designed to display, with the result that you’ve got a big long list of your main character’s stats on the left hand side of the screen, mingled in with the secondary character stats; and you can’t jump out of the story and go back and play as the main character for the duration.
Then there’s pacing. Fifty Miles South of Lexington is not a bunch of little storylets, like StoryNexus is generally built to handle. Even more than in the rest of Zero Summer, prose comes in longer gouts. Sometimes, in Fifty Miles, this feels like turning a page rather than interacting with a story; sometimes it is in fact literally framed as turning a page. There are long linear segments.
There are other passages, passages of dialogue, where the choice you have is not what to do, but which of several possible streams to pay attention to. The writing is strong and the characters flavorful, though, so it’s hardly a chore.
These interaction formats were right for the story. Sometimes you need longer exposition to set up an interactive moment. Sometimes you want the choice to be narrowed down to picking themes to read — as with hypertext. (You see this a lot in The Play, or howling dogs: words are linked to explanation or ideas, not to actions to take.)
They felt like a less obvious fit for StoryNexus specifically. But they didn’t not work, either; and Failbetter’s recent additions to StoryNexus suggest that they’re listening and paying attention, and expanding the StoryNexus engine so that it can do a bigger range of possible things, particularly with the incorporation of linked storylets.
Then there’s a battle scene in Fifty Miles, in which the odds are justifiably desperate and much depends on luck. You have only your opportunity deck, no pinned cards; you have to draw from it and keep hoping you’ll get good opportunities, because some cards provide only more painful and elaborate ways to be injured. And you can’t discard the opportunity cards, so if your hand fills up with bad ones, you’re going to have to accept some damage, at least once.
Whenever you have a spare slot — that is, if you’ve got room for three cards but you’ve used at least one of them up — you can draw another opportunity card and hope it’s something that’ll do you good in combat. But drawing new cards, whether you’re drawing just one or all three at a time, consumes actions, and actions are refreshed only on a timer or through the payment of real money.
So you can play recklessly — let all the bad cards happen to you and clear all your opportunity slots before drawing three new cards — or you can play with patient slowness, taking a hit only when you absolutely have to, redrawing any time there’s a slot free and no positive cards available to you, thus burning through actions at the maximum rate relative to story content.
As a reviewer, I had a packet of refresh items that would restore my action count for free, and I still found this frustrating. It took a long time to win. It was difficult to play tactically because a run of bad luck with the opportunity cards put me in a terrible position and left me there for many, many turns on end. This made sense for a while: of course the battle lasts too long, it’s a story about the experience of a battle that goes on and on and takes your last ounce of strength, it’s not going to feel like Hollywood pacing…
Then it wore on even past the point where it worked as a dramatization of being exhausted by battle. I’d seen all the text and made all the decisions multiple times, and I was really really ready for it to end.
My experience was atypical. (When I checked with Gordon Levine, he said this was definitely out of bounds of what he usually saw.) The randomness of the StoryNexus opportunity deck can mean that it’s hard to put in upper and lower parameters on how long something will take, so you can tweak what the average player experience is likely to look like, but cannot guarantee that no players will have a strongly atypical outcome. Within StoryNexus, you can set the relative frequency of individual cards — X should come up a lot, Y should be rare, Z should be very rare — but the last time I checked, it wasn’t possible to include a setting like “this card should be forced to come up if it hasn’t appeared for 4 or more draws”, or otherwise control the behavior of the deck as a deck. In Fallen London, with hundreds of opportunity cards and dozens of other, non-opportunity storylets available all the time, per-card rareness tuning tends to be fine for most purposes. In StoryNexus games with fewer assets or that rely on opportunity as a bigger aspect of core gameplay, it becomes something of a blunt instrument.
To my mind, that suggests that either the opportunity deck could benefit from some additional controls, or that StoryNexus might profitably offer authors some alternate deck models to design around. For instance, if there were a variation of the opportunity deck that worked essentially like a deck-building game — a finite set of cards that will definitely all be drawn before the whole deck was (notionally) “reshuffled”, containing one or more copies of each component card — that would guarantee a certain periodicity of content, address balance issues for certain games, and remain consistent with StoryNexus’ design metaphors.
In the end, Fifty Miles comes to a choice, and that choice reflects on everything you’ve done up to that point. The length and weariness of battle give it weight. It’s a really good moment, one of the more memorable choices I’ve been confronted with in a StoryNexus game. As with the best ethical choices, it doesn’t suggest a really easy answer; instead it forces you to deal with partial unknowns, and consider which bad outcomes you might be most willing to live with. That concluding dilemma also opens up some new questions about the rest of the Zero Summer world.
So. Is Fifty Miles worth playing? I think definitely so, especially if you like Zero Summer. The interaction can be lumpy from moment to moment, but odds are that your experience will be a bit smoother than mine; and I think the specific issue I encountered says as much about the fit between system and story as about the story itself.