Lethophobia (Olivia Wood and Jess Mersky)

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StoryNexus was meant to be revenue stream for Failbetter Games: the tool available for anyone to use, with an option to publish, monetize and split the profits between author and studio. The existence of Fallen London was one of the selling points — players had been asking for years to be allowed to make their own Fallen-London-alike. The system was also one of the few IF tools to offer a quality-based narrative out of the box, where new pieces of story become available as the player’s stats change.

But quality-based narrative is not the easiest kind of interactive narrative to bootstrap. You tend to need a lot of content before the results start feeling like a game. Moreover, a StoryNexus game specifically needs a stock of images as well as a stock of words. SN came with a range of generic icons, but that could just mean that many SN worlds felt rather samey unless the author had put in the extra customization to draw (or have someone else draw) customized card images.

StoryNexus never really took off in the way Failbetter hoped, and the monetization option wasn’t available for long. Officially, StoryNexus is no longer supported. But a small library of sizable or complete SN worlds were written, including Winterstrike, Samsara, Below, Zero Summer, Final Girl, and now Lethophobia. A lot of SN games are loosely structured and have a lot of small anecdotal interactions — sticking with the idea that they’re story worlds, or settings. Lethophobia (like Final Girl) is in a minority: it’s telling one story, and there’s a clear trajectory through that tale. There is also, mercifully, no action limit worth worrying about, so you can play as continuously as you wish without any enforced delays.

Lethophobia is the story of a haunting. The house in question is a very particular one, lovingly described and appealing to every sense. The discoveries you’re assembling about the past are rather looser and less determined: you meet a character, but is he an old friend or your ex-lover? Is this female character your sister, or is she a former piano teacher?

From early on the game communicates that it’s not so much about exactly what happened, but rather about how you orient yourself to those memories, about the process of discovery and reconciliation to trauma.

Lethophobia is also the closest thing to a classic IF puzzle game I’ve seen in StoryNexus form.

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Lethophobia acknowledges a relationship to parser IF. The storylet shown above represents a game-within-a-game, admittedly, a StoryNexus homage to Melbourne House’s The Hobbit. A move or two later, you have the opportunity to sit down and start singing about gold: apparently you’re Thorin in this scenario.

There’s a nod to D&D as well:

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Even when it’s not doing callbacks to familiar game types, the world model of Lethophobia is a model of rooms and objects. Move from place to place according to rules of connection, just as in a parser IF game; encounter items, some of which you can take, and others of which simply enable localized interactions. From time to time, make a discovery that sends you across the map, ready to try something new in a new place.

The StoryNexus/storylet model takes away the typing burden and the verb-guessing burden, and introduces a different one: the waiting burden. It takes time to click through from one room to another — much more time than it would take me to cross a typical map in a parser-based game. That becomes somewhat frustrating during the midgame, when I found myself tracking back and forth across the map, just as I might in a classic text adventure, looking for an object or situation that might respond to my current stock of resources. Still, the advantages of manual navigation are there too. I came away from Lethophobia having really learned the layout of the house and everything in it.

The puzzles are a little bit differently shaped than they would be in a parser game. StoryNexus gates access to particular storylets or action branches by determining whether you have the right collection of qualities (which might be inventory items or might be more abstract story qualities, including plot progress). When there’s an action branch the player can’t take yet, the author has an option: either hide the branch entirely until all of the requirements are satisfied (which maintains the surprise), or show the branch together with information about which qualities are currently not in the right range. This makes collection puzzles easy to articulate, because you can look at an action branch and see that you’re missing two of the five ingredients (say) and that you need to find those additional items.

Still, there are enough hidden-until-usable branches that I occasionally found, in the midgame, that I needed to cruise back through rooms I thought I’d already fully explored, and see whether any new activities had suddenly popped up there. This wasn’t too burdensome, for the most part; the point at which I got closest to being stuck was a point where I was deliberately not fleeing from a particular monster, and it turned out that this choice was preventing a new stage of the game from opening up. That’s probably my fault, though. In retrospect, the storylet text did pretty well encourage me to do the thing that would have advanced the story.

There are several scenes I especially liked: the séance to try to communicate with the ghost, for instance, and an interaction with a dollhouse that I won’t spoil. And the narrator’s matter-of-factness is very effective against the fantastical subject matter.

For my tastes, the best aspects of this piece qua story are not so much in the mystery of what happened as in the process question; how are you now dealing with the past? What gives you comfort, and how do you take care of yourself? And once you’ve faced your pain, what will you do next?

[Disclosure: Olivia edits the freelance work I submit to Failbetter. See also my discussion of disclosures.]

 

 

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