Beneath Floes (Bravemule, Pinnguaq)

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Beneath Floes is a folk tale of Inuit culture, created in collaboration with Inuit contributors; recently a Kickstarter raised the funds to have it translated into Inuktitut (an indigenous language of the eastern Arctic) and Anishinaabemowin.

It is both a story and a meditation on story-telling, one which starts by explaining to the reader how much is going to be under the reader’s control. Not a lot, as it turns out: you mostly get to change small details, details that explicitly don’t branch the plot, while the horrible core story is beyond the player’s capacity to change. But the effect is very different from, say, the also very linear interaction in My Father’s Long, Long Legs, or the fact-mingled-with-fiction of Coming Out Simulator 2014.

Nonetheless the small details that you’re allowed to affect are not selected arbitrarily. Does evil, in your mind, have a hooked nose or a button nose? Do you associate yourself with an indigenous hero or with Superman? Perhaps we’re allowed to make these choices because we inevitably see reflections of ourselves in the stories we’re told, no matter who the teller is. Elsewhere — a dark sort of joke — you can pick which of two strings of gibberish numbers and letters the qallunaat, the white people, have assigned you as your identifying marker; or, in another place, you can change (by one year) the date associated with an anthropological recording. History is slippery, but the fundamentals hold.

I appreciated, too, the passages where material that relies on cultural context is presented just clearly enough for someone not native to the Arctic to understand, but yet not overly explained. A favorite passage:

It’s said that your father shot a caribou and failed to kill it, but that’s one person’s belief—not a well-liked individual, either.

From context, it’s clearly a scandalous thing to fail to kill a caribou. A whole ethos is implied but not explained.

Beneath Floes is not completely linear, however. There are at least two endings that I found, and as far as I can tell, what makes the difference is what you decide about the protagonist’s willingness to do violence.

Interactive Narrative GDC Talks (Part 3)

Previously 1 and 2. Here are a few more — the last set, for now, though I note that the GDC Vault has made a lot of past years’ material free, so I may go back and dig out some recommendations from those as well.

Anyway!

Microtalks 2015, Richard Lemarchand, Emily Short, Lisa Brown, Matt Boch, Naomi Clark, Tim Rogers, Holly Gramazio, Celia Pearce, Cara Ellison, Rami Ismail. (Recorded talk.) This includes me talking about why everyone should play tabletop storygames. It also contains hilarious microgame concepts, some beautiful reflections on intimacy in play, art in games, recommendations about workflow, and reflections about how badly games reach out to non-English speakers. This was an enormously fun session to be part of.

The Design in Narrative Design, Jurie Horneman. (Slideshow only.) Jurie makes the case for how systems design and narrative design must be integrated, which is something of a hobby-horse of mine as well.

Computers Are Terrible Storytellers — Let’s Give Humans a Shot, Stephen Hood. (Slideshow with notes.) Addresses limitations in computer-based story-telling, and looks at card-based storytelling games, tabletop RPGS and (yay) storygames again. Gets into more detail about Fiasco than I had time to in my microtalk, and talks about how these relate to their game project Storium.

Inform extension updating

I’ve set aside a couple of days this week to work on a problem that I understand to be a concern for a number of authors, namely that there are various very useful Inform extensions that have never been updated to be compatible with 6L38.

I’ve already made updates to the following, so that they either already have been or soon will be submitted to the Inform Public Library (the repository that holds 6L38-compatible extensions and allows them to be installed and managed directly within the IDE, though you can also browse it less attractively online):

Simple Graphical Window
Title Screen
Scheduled Activities
Consolidated Multiple Actions (being beta-tested before submission, as it’s complex)
Hypothetical Questions (also being beta-tested)

I’ve also done some minor tweaks to Postures and Approaches, both of which had been updated but were presenting difficulties for some users.

It’s hardly practical to try to address all extensions that aren’t yet converted, but if people have particular requests that are serious stumbling blocks for them, then please let me know and I’ll try to fold these into my schedule. I’d like to direct my attention especially towards things that either a) someone is using and the need for that extension is preventing them from updating to the current Inform version or b) someone would really like to use in a current 6L38 project, but can’t. (As opposed to “I was browsing the extensions website and this old extension looked kind of interesting in theory even though I have no actual plans to run it at the moment and so far as I know neither does anyone else.”)

If it helps, the older extensions site is here. You may also like to look at a description of how to do basic updates for 6L02 (which usually also works for the current version 6L38) or forum thread explaining how extension filing works.

I should also add that we have volunteers working on a system for a more systematic storage of multiple extension versions, etc.

Tabletop Storygames: Microscope Union

I’ve written before about the storygame Microscope, in which players collaboratively generate the timeline for a fictional place or institution. Microscope Union is a spinoff of that, focusing on the development of a single family tree.

You start by naming a person who did something — it should probably be something extraordinary, but you can decide what extraordinary means to you — and some traits that allowed them to do this. Then you work backwards, filling in details about previous generations (back to the great-grandparents), and showing where those traits came from. Each phase of the game, you select one “union” to focus on. (You can also choose to have parents/grandparents not be biological parents per se, but be key influencers of the child’s life — we went this route a couple of times.)

The resulting play experience feels more coherent and directed than standard Microscope: because new people and events fit into a defined graph, it’s easier to remember who’s who, and easier to reason about causation. By the time we finished the game (two sessions of about 2-3 hours each), I felt like I had a pretty good idea of the driving forces in the final protagonist’s life.

I also liked that we wound up roleplaying the same characters in the context of their relationships with their parents, their spouses/romantic partners, and their children: this gave us a reason to explore some depths and idiosyncrasies that don’t always come out in RPGs.

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Below (Chris Gardiner)

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Below is a StoryNexus world by Chris Gardiner. Chris is part of the Failbetter team, but Below is released (as I understand it) as his own personal project. He describes it thus:

…it’s a story-driven, dungeon-delving online card game you play in your browser. You play Below cards to explore the dungeon and Above cards to renew your spirit. But the more you draw on the Above deck, the more dire the plight that drove you into the dungeon.

Its inspirations are Beowulf, Moria, the Tombs of Atuan, and a whole pile of folklore. You can learn the Giant-Tongue, speak at the Althing, bargain with the White-Handed Lady who is sometimes called death, forge a Lion-Helm, hunt outlaws in a haunted barrow, outwit a Troll-Wife, and leave legacies for those who follow you (like a Streak of White Hair, Words of Caution, or Family Secrets).

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Interactive Narrative GDC Talks (Part 2)

As I noted here, there is a bunch of GDC content that might be of interest to interactive story folks. Last time I looked at talks that were really focused specifically on interactive fiction, especially work by inkle and by Choice of Games.

This time, two related subjects: social simulation and character modeling of various types, and complex morality. (And character with complex morality, as a bonus.)

Thinking About People: Designing Games for Social Simulation, Mitu Khandaker-Kokoris, The Tiniest Shark. (Recorded talk.) I’ve linked already to the Gamasutra presentation of Mitu’s slides, so you may have seen me mention this talk before. Gets into a number of types of games and also a series of criteria for thinking about social simulation games. Some of those criteria are pretty-much-always-desirable things such as “communicating to the player”; some describe a spectrum with many possible spots for productive work (“autonomous vs authored”).

Designing Morally Difficult Characters, Dan Nagler, Gigantic Mechanic. (Slideshow only.) This talk calls out the idea of giving characters complex, non-binary ideologies, and also shouts out to some of the very same tabletop storygames that I mentioned in my microtalk. If you follow the links, you’ll also find that this talk relates to a partially live action educational simulation that is sort of Senate LARP.

Beyond Binary Choices: How Players Engage With Morality, Amanda Lange. (Slideshow only.) This one gets at the issues with simplistic good and evil choices, offers some statistics about how people tend in practice to play simplistic-choice games, and then pulls out a couple of interesting exceptions to the general rules (like: Spec Ops: The Line manages to get a lot of players to do the pure-evil choice by laying enough emotional groundwork to make them feel their protagonist might be quite angry at that point).

Desire is Not A Dirty Word: Writing Healthy Fanservice for Games, Michelle Clough. (Slideshow only.) As with several of the other slideshows, there’s definitely some information being missed if you can’t see the full recorded talk, but there’s still enough here to give the gist: it’s about writing characters who are meant to be sexy and perhaps romantically active without falling into creepy objectification.

Measuring and Manipulating Player Trust, Chris Hazard, Hazardous Software. (Slideshow only.) This is the kind of talk I love to go to because it expands the boundaries of what I think I should bear in mind when working on a game. It’s an AI summit talk, it’s fairly math-heavy, and it’s about mathematical models for a) describing how likely NPCs are to make barters and do favors given various levels of trust in the player and b) conversely, assessing what the player feels about the risks and rewards in the game using similar trust modeling. It’s sufficiently abstract that I think one would have to put in a good amount of work to get from “these are some really interesting concepts” to “here is what gameplay based on this would feel like.” But I find this kind of thing fascinating.

And a bonus link not from GDC: this now-in-progress orc dating sim looks like it takes on a lot of the issues in Mitu’s and Michelle’s talks.