Beneath Floes (Bravemule, Pinnguaq)

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Beneath Floes is a folk tale of Inuit culture, created in collaboration with Inuit contributors. (There’s a browser-based play option as well, but at the time of writing, that version wasn’t serving audio well, so you may prefer the download.) Recently a Kickstarter raised the funds to have Beneath Floes 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.

Spring Thing 2015, and Aspel

Spring Thing is now open, with nine new games: six in the main category, three in the “Back Garden” area for games that aren’t in competition for prizes and have somewhat looser entry requirements. There’s a mix of systems, too — Twine, Undum, Seltani, Glulx and z-machine, and Ren’Py.

My contribution is a Back Garden game called Aspel, which is a realm in the choice-based multiplayer Seltani platform. As my entry blurb says:

Aspel is an experimental interactive experience designed for multiple players, featuring asymmetric information and collective decision-making. The text you see on the screen won’t necessarily be the same as what everyone else sees, so you’ll need to communicate with your fellow players in order to experience it most fully. To make that easier, I’ll be around to participate/host at the following times:

Tuesday April 7 at 8 PM British/3 Eastern/noon Pacific
Sunday April 19 at 8 PM British/3 Eastern/noon Pacific
Friday May 1 at 8 PM British/3 Eastern/noon Pacific

…but of course people are more than welcome to arrange their own visiting hours.

At some point I’ll likely write something about the experience of writing for Seltani.

Interactive Narrative GDC Talks (Part 1)

Every year GDC talks are recorded and stored in the “GDC Vault”, which is accessible to people who have attended a recent GDC. There are also usually a few talks that are outside the paywall, though — and this year, there are quite a few non-paywall talks that might be of interest to IF and interactive narrative folks. There are also quite a few talks where the actual recording is behind a paywall, but the slides are available for free.

There are so many recommendable talks in this collection that I’m going to break them out over a couple of posts, starting with these fairly IF-specific talks:

Leading Players Astray: 80 Days and Unexpected Stories, Meg Jayanth, Freelance/inkle. (Slideshow, recorded talk.) An entertaining and watchable presentation about the tension between 80 Days’ boardgame mechanics and the story and the way the game tempts players into embracing bad strategy decisions. Meg also talks about the research that went into building 80 Days and the process of constructing the story as a whole.

Adventures in Text: Innovating in Interactive Fiction, Jon Ingold, inkle. (Slideshow, recorded talk.) Talks about narrative structure and tool implementation in inkle products, usable lengths of text, choice design, and a lot else. Well worth a look for anyone working in the choice-based game space.

Classic Game Post-mortem: Adventure, Warren Robinett. (Slideshow, recorded talk.) This is about the construction of the action-adventure game Adventure for the Atari 2600, but it talks about how that game was based on the Crowther and Woods game — and it also gets into a lot of delightfully sticky detail about the memory costs of a lot of the game elements. The latter is something that people working on interactive fiction now only have to worry about rarely, and usually only if they’re doing something either very large or targeted at a very restricted platform. A neat piece of game history with IF relevance.

Harvesting Interactive Fiction, Heather Albano, Choice of Games. (Slideshow only.) Intended to acquaint games narrative folks with recent developments in IF, this talk covers material that may already be familiar to IF veterans. Includes discussion of Hadean Lands, Codename Cygnus, Blood & Laurels, various Choice of Games titles, and much of the inkle collection, among other things. Edited to add: it’s a little hard to work out fully from just the slides, but I meant to mention that Heather did talk a lot about the use of ambiguity in text, and the storytelling leverage that you get from not overspecifying everything (which is sometimes easier when you’re working with words and not a full 3D model). This is an interesting area I’ve heard the Choice of Games folks talk about on various occasions but I’m not sure it’s gotten the discussion traction of some of the other concepts here (such as complicity).

Twine Shorts: Silver and Gold (Rosencrantz); Isis (Liz England)

Silver and Gold is a Twine piece “in two voices” by Rosencrantz. It’s a bit similar to Origins from last year’s IFComp, in that it presents two competing views of what is going on side by side:

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Silver and Gold is more of a story and less of an experiment than Origins, though: there’s more at stake, and we get more of a sense of the two main characters and of the way the agency of one constrains the other. There are times when one character or the other is locked in a sort of reverie that doesn’t affect the other; there are also times when one character gets a chance to make a definitive move that alters the other’s state. At a couple of points, seeing the same effect from two viewpoints allows you to grasp what is happening more completely than would otherwise be possible (one character can hear something that is out of earshot for the other, for instance).

The two characters in question are locked in a dark horror/fantasy situation that can end in one of at least two ways (I played several times and found two endings and no obvious directions that might have led to more, but that doesn’t guarantee I didn’t miss something). The content of the story affected me less than the way the story was told — some of the backstory adheres to standard tropes, while other parts are a bit underexplained. Nonetheless, a piece with some cool formal aspects, and the most successful I’ve yet seen to make use of simultaneous dual-viewpoint narration.

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Isis is a science fiction piece casting the player in the role of the AI life support system on a sentient space craft. It allows you to respond to your pilot in various ways, including trolling him with disobedient or subversive interpretations of his orders. If you don’t, and behave like a good little spacecraft, then the story nodes eventually start to loop and becomes boring: this creates a kind of meta-game motivation to perform the AI-spaceship-goes-mad trope. It’s not long, but I found it amusing.

The Toaster With Two Brains (Thrilling Tales of the Downright Unusual)

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Thrilling Tales of the Downright Unusual is a website for retro-futuristic illustrated choice-based fiction, set in a shiny chrome and leather universe with lots of Deco machines and mad science. Choices often run to 1-3 options, and there’s an always-present inventory list, reminiscent of but significantly fancier than ChooseYourStory games:

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The majority of the choices are exploratory: you are choosing which objects to examine and which questions to ask of NPCs. Very occasionally you’re offered choices that seem like they might affect events, but the plot strands rejoin almost immediately, via standard sorts of agency-denial: you ask a character to come with you, but they refuse; you attempt to head the wrong direction, but it’s blocked. Even the inventory is a bit deceptive: games with inventory usually let you accumulate and drop things in ways that are likely to make a difference later in the story, but as far as I can tell, your inventory is very much determined for you, and it’s impossible to get to a particular story branch with any variation in your inventory list.

You also several times have the option of following the male or the female protagonist, getting a significant portion of the story from their perspective. Later, when the characters meet up again, you get filled in on what happened to the character you did not follow. The overall effect is that the story does contain significant branching, since you see different nodes if you’re playing as Gwen than if you’re playing as Nat, but that branching provides reader agency rather than player agency.

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Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda (Tara Reed)

Screen Shot 2014-12-01 at 4.17.41 PMTara Reed’s Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda is a CYOA-style dating novel that initially appears to be a little in the vein of Night of a Thousand Boyfriends or the Date Him, Dump Him series. You’re a twenty-something San Francisco-dwelling PR flak (though we only occasionally see the slightest indication of what you do for a day job) with a couple of sassy gal pals and one obligatory gay friend. You go out for a night on the town and meet a wealthy, jaw-chiseled guy named Nick. What now?

The result is a story that runs fairly long for physical book CYOA — over 330 nodes, most of them at least a couple of pages of narration — and if your relationship runs a substantial course, it might include a hundred of those nodes.

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