Mark Bernstein on Hypertext Narrative

Literary hypertext has a long history that isn’t always well understood or well acknowledged by interactive fiction authors, even though with the growing popularity of Twine and other hypertext tools, the techniques are more than ever relevant to us.


Recently Eastgate released Storyspace 3, a new version of software used to produce many canonical works of literary hypertext; and, to accompany it, their chief scientist Mark Bernstein wrote a book, Getting Started with Hypertext Narrative, in which he discusses the challenges and the craft of writing in this form.

Whether or not you are interested in using Storyspace or writing literary hypertext, the book is worth reading, not least because it offers terminology and insights from a body of work IF authors seldom study.

In the exchange below, Mark and I discuss various sections of his book, together with other relevant tools in the space. We find some common structures and implementation strategies that cross over from one tradition to the other, and notice that Storyspace 3 might be a viable alternative to StoryNexus for people who want to experiment with quality-based narrative structures but don’t want StoryNexus’ art requirements or styling: what Mark describes as “sculptural hypertext” shares a lot in common with QBN.

All blockquotes are from the text of Getting Started with Hypertext Narrative: I sent these to Mark with my comments, and in some cases he had thoughts in response, so this is actually sort of a three-cornered conversation between the book, the author, and me. Thanks to Mark for supplying the text and taking the time to answer, and also for his patience with how long it took me to bring this together.

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Notes on New and experimental IF Tools

Last night the Oxford/London IF Meetup had a session on three tools, and I promised to write up some notes for the benefit of the people who weren’t able to attend.

inkle’s ink, the open-source, Unity-compatible language used by inkle for 80 Days and other projects. If you’re curious about ink and missed the session, there’s always Joe Humfrey’s GDC talk on the subject; but Jon also talked to us about The Intercept, the new free and open source ink/Unity game.

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Jon was a bit apologetic about the fact that there is currently no specialist ink runner, meaning that if you want to create (say) an ink entry to IF Comp, you will need to use Unity to build standalone apps. But to me, this is also partly a selling point, in the sense that ink is designed to build custom, professional-looking apps and doesn’t constrain the author to something a bit bland.

Doing this doesn’t have to mean figuring everything out from scratch. What I hadn’t realized about The Intercept until that conversation — and it’s very useful to know — is that the whole Unity project is open-source, not just the ink script that goes into the game. This means that if you want to build an ink/Unity game of your own but you have very little Unity experience, you could download the whole thing and then copy or gradually adapt The Intercept‘s look and feel. (Also worth saying: a personal Unity license is free if you’re not making significant money from your projects.)

Edited to add: on Twitter, I learned about the existence of Blot, a rough and ready alternative Unity project using ink that has fewer genre-specific features than The Intercept. So you have options, even!

Personally I’ve found working with an existing Unity project to mod it into something of my own to be a great route into learning how Unity works, because it means I don’t have to tackle understanding every type of asset at once. So if you’re in the same boat, that might be a way to get an ink game functioning, and then later you could start to figure out things like changing the fonts and presentation. (If you want to! Because it’s open source, you could just keep the way it looks, too.)

Indeed, you may want to play The Intercept even if you have no interest in using ink yourself: it is a short piece, short enough to play through (if not necessarily win) in 5-10 minutes, and it makes interesting use of the conversational options, as in the above example. Especially early in the game, we’re offered the chance to lie without really knowing ourselves what the truth is; and I found myself hesitating over whether I wanted to take the course that seemed safest or whether I wanted to steer towards the option that might reveal most about the story. Did I trust the protagonist, or not?

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Spring Thing 2016: Evita Sempai, Harmonic Time-Bind Ritual Symphony, and Standoff

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The 17 IF games of Spring Thing 2016 are now available! This is a huge crop: historically Spring Thing has tended to have entry numbers in the single digits. I’m delighted to see it, because I think it’s useful having other events that at least somewhat rival IF Comp in size and attention. The trend towards diversity continues as well: there are a mix of Twine and Inform games, but also Ren’Py, a homebrew HTML/javascript game, and a pen-and-paper RPG submission.

So far I’ve had time to look at Evita Sempai, Harmonic Time-Bind Ritual Symphony, and Standoff.

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Lunation Series (JJ Gadd)

LunationcoverDisclosure: this review is part of the IF Comp review exchange. J.J. Gadd was kind enough to review Cat Manning’s Crossroads, and to supply me with copies of her Lunation series for review.

Lunation is a five-book series about a fantasy land in which, five hundred years before the beginning of Book 1, the moon was magically constructed as a prison for the queen Marama. In the present day, her descendants include a yellow-eyed boy with powers of sorcery who dreams (literally) of finding a way to free her. He soon meets up with a young female relative who is able to see the future by gazing into smoke and then, trance-like, weaving or embroidering an image that represents what she saw.

lunationThe first three books in the series are technically CYOA-structured, though in the very lightest sense: book 1 contains no branches until chapter 6, when you can pick which of two characters to follow, into 6A or 6B; at the end of 6A, you’re invited to read 6B as well if you’re interested. Book 2 works similarly, with a few sections following each of the two main characters. Book 3 jumps backward to tell the story of Marama herself: the “initiation journey” in which she is cast out of the castle where she grew up in order to familiarize herself with her people. In Book 4 (diagrammed), we reach the point where all the characters so far are reunited — Marama, now released from the moon, joins the fight of her descendants 500 years later. And at this point the structure becomes slightly more complicated than before, though it is still a matter of choosing which character we most wish to follow. Book 5 is roughly similar in complexity to Book 4.

Compared to something like Arcadia, the which-character-to-follow? choice structure in the Lunation series is still tightly constrained. Sometimes we have an option of which chapter to read first out of a set of two or three parallel adventures, but the tracks soon rejoin; there isn’t the dizzying sense of having to piece together the mysteries of the narrative ourselves from numerous complicated components. Instead, in Lunation, this feels like an attempt to mediate for the volume of text: to let the reader choose favorite elements of a story that perhaps runs long, but that is too dear for the author to let any of it go.

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Imaginary Game Jam

Imaginary Game Jam is an IF community project, run by Jason Dyer, in which participants first contributed reviews of imaginary, perhaps unwrite-able games — in some cases games that plainly require technology we don’t have, or belong to a universe we don’t live in. These reviews were swapped, and then people wrote… something… to correspond with an imaginary game review they’d received.

Structurally this is a bit like ShuffleComps 1 and 2, in which authors wrote games around tracks of music selected by other participants — only way weirder. Sam Ashwell’s game reviews from Tlön were an inspiration here — indeed, one of those reviews (Fire Next Time) was submitted and used in this jam. (See also Speed-IF Jacket for a shorter, less serious take on this idea; for the reason why these posts refer to “Tlön”, see Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.)

The games created for the Imaginary Game Jam have now been released, along with the reviews that inspired them. They are fairly extraordinary. Continue reading

Vesp: A History of Sapphic Scaphism (Porpentine)

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Vesp: A History of Sapphic Scaphism  is a Porpentine game commissioned for Vice. It tells the story of a person obsessed with wasps, desiring to be a wasp, and inhabiting a world where wasps are pestilentially omnipresent. Leaving our apartment requires exiting through a wasplock, lest they get into our flat. (Edit: I originally misunderstood the titling scheme and thought the title was “Wasp”, but I’ve been corrected – sorry!)

There is a lot I might say about this piece if it were the first Porpentine piece I were writing about, but now it feels redundant to tell you that her worldbuilding is surprising and terrifying; that her words come in small servings per page, and that this is as much as you will be able to take at a time, because they are poetically intense; that she is inventive in how she deploys her links and that she is adding to the rhetorical toolset of hypertext with each new thing she releases; that the story concerns a protagonist at odds with the world around her; that it touches on a trans experience in the world even when it is not explicitly about gender (and it is often about gender). These things are true each time, but the effect does not become boring.

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