Loose Strands is a choice-based interactive story app for kids ages 9+. It tells the story of Roland Bartholomew Dexter the Third, a boy who lives in an impoverished barbershop and is never allowed to go outside. His parents fashion clothes and even food out of hair leavings. Since he can’t go outside to school, he reads books about history and dinosaurs and airplanes, but these books have been so rigorously censored that they aren’t much fun. It never seems to be his birthday.
The only bright spot, if you want to call it that, is that Roland has unusually vivid dreams about the might-have-beens, the things that would have occurred if only he’d made a different decision from the one he did take.
Loose Strands is a story about regret: about being debilitated by the desire to erase the past, or, conversely, plagued by the inability to learn from our mistakes. It handles this with a kind of Lemony Snicket gloss. The villain is cartoonishly evil, the world a fantastic rendition of a totalitarian dystopia. The characters are charming, but not enormously nuanced. Now and then the narrator addresses the reader in a condescending Let Me Tell You About The World fashion, and the pacing around the end of part 1 felt a bit slow to me. Nonetheless, it’s a story about the nature of choices that makes a strong use of the choose-your-path structure.
Whenever you get to a choice point, you can swipe the page in one of two (or occasionally three) directions in order to proceed to the next portion:
And when you’ve made a choice, the book immediately zooms to the overall story map and blacks out a bunch of spots — showing you how your decision has prevented you from ever seeing certain possible futures. It’s partly a reminder that what you do matters, a “Clementine will remember that” tag — but it’s expressed in an explicitly negative way.
Likewise, you can sometimes use the map to go to an earlier page, but if you’re trying to rewind too much, you’ll get a message saying you’re not allowed to go back.
CIA: Operation Ajax is an enhanced graphic novel about the 1953 coup d’état in Iran, engineered by the CIA and British intervention.
The story is compellingly told, with the clear intent of both teaching the reader something and establishing a particular attitude towards what happened. CIA: Operation Ajax works to establish its credibility. It is thorough — it runs about a dozen chapters and took me multiple hours to read; this is not a brief pamphlet, and to lay out a story about 1953 it starts with originating events in 1908 and works its way forward. There are also a number of supporting documents that are embedded in the story or accessible through supporting menus. In some panels, a star appears — a kind of visual footnote marker, which will bring up citations or background articles for claims that the story is making. And yet this is also not a documentary. The choice of dialogue, the manner of drawing, the narrator’s plainly expressed horror and regret about what happened, all convey an unmistakable attitude towards events, and the final chapter drives home the point that the effect of American intervention was to destroy a democratic government and create significant future problems in the region.
The production values are extremely impressive, and it makes the most of the idea of a computer-aided comic format: panels slide in and out of frame, speech bubbles pop up and disappear, characters shift positions; but the comic book metaphor never drops away entirely, and the screens never cross the line into the territory of animated movie. The only exception is that old newsreels are embedded at intervals, documenting events such as the arrival of Mossadegh in New York to speak to the UN. There are no voiceovers, but background sound effects and music do a great job of establishing mood. I would suggest being sure to read with headphones or somewhere where you can afford to leave the sound up.
By the standard of most things I review on this blog, CIA: Operation Ajax is only very barely interactive at all. You can tap to advance the story; you can tap stars or look through the character roster to bring up supporting evidence. The affordances are roughly equivalent to turning pages or flipping to a set of end-notes in a conventional book — and if accessing notes is less annoying in this format than it would be on paper, conversely you’ll be tapping to advance many more times than you would turn pages under ordinary circumstances, just because of how many different frames there are. There’s too little connection between reader actions and story events to establish a sense of complicity in what’s happening, much less to leverage some of the more difficult and complex player/story relationships we see in interactive narrative. So I’m not convinced by some of the more breathless blurb-writing about how it represents a revolution in interactive storytelling. What it does do is present a fairly uninteractive story in a very memorable and compelling form.
Nightmare Cove is an interactive text horror game for Kindle Fire. I don’t have the right equipment to run it myself, but it looks to be illustrated, and its creator describes it as being choice-based with a “light inventory system” (which suggests something perhaps like the CYOA created with Adventure Book). There are also a couple of pre-defined characters to play with, which suggests a little less personal configuration than in the most open of the ChoiceScript games, but that the product does rely on some RPG features.
And speaking of new commercial choice-based work, the company Coliloquy is publishing a variety of interactive stories — 18 are already available on Amazon — including supernatural thrillers, mysteries, and interactive erotica where you can pick the characteristics of the hero.
There’s a long article about their work in The Atlantic. The description there focuses most on the reader-satisfaction qualities of this kind of book: Coliloquy uses analysis tools to track which choices are being selected and help authors write more of the content that readers want. I feel bit dubious when I read things like this, because I think it can lead authors down the wrong path: “everyone picked A therefore choices B and C were a waste to write” fundamentally misunderstands the way choice-based literature works. I also think reader gratification is sort of the least common denominator goal of interactive narrative, and that there are lots of choices to offer that are more interesting than letting the reader color in the eye color of the protagonist.
Still, having good stats on what readers are picking is a very interesting feature (see also Varytale) — and it’s extremely interesting to watch the expanding ecosystem of free and commercial textual games of all sorts.
First Draft of the Revolution is now out, available to read through the browser or as an epub. (This is the project trailed here and here.)
First Draft is an interactive epistolary story I built with Liza Daly, with subsequent design work by inkle. Set in the universe of the Lavori d’Aracne, it tells a story from the beginnings of that universe’s French Revolution, when certain anti-aristocratic forces are finally discovering how to break the magical power that has kept the nobility in power for so long.
For those interested in the concept of interactive epistolary story, there’s a fairly long author’s note on the website. This bit may suggest how First Draft compares with choice-based narrative:
[I]nteractively revising text involves multiple simultaneous choices which influence one another. Instead of asking the reader “then what did the character do?” or “what happened next?”—as choose your own adventure stories do—First Draft of the Revolution asks the reader to consider a number of simultaneous decisions, try them out, take some of them back, and finally settle on an acceptable version before moving on.
inkle’s blog also contains some discussion on the technical implementation.
Frankenstein, written by Dave Morris and implemented by inkle studios, is an iPad app retelling Mary Shelley’s original tale in a new interactive format.
Morris’ Frankenstein follows the essential plot of Shelley’s, with a couple of key deviations. Victor Frankenstein’s experiments take place in revolutionary Paris rather than at the university of Ingolstadt; the narrative frame of the original story is peeled off, so that it no longer begins with Frankenstein meeting a shipful of adventurers in the north Atlantic, and the meeting on the ice occurs only at the end.
Removing the frame gives the story a certain immediacy. Victor’s experiments are told in the present and the horror of them is more directly present than they would have been via flashback; and flashback is notoriously tricky in interactive narrative because it often makes the reader question how she can possibly be affecting events that are, from the point of view of the frame narrative, already in the past.
Periodically I check out interactive narrative projects on Kickstarter, whether they’re by people I’ve heard of before or not. Angal Tentara and The Root of All Evil is an “interactive animation” for iOS. It looks like it’s working with a fairly standard fantasy premise about a young person who has a destiny tying her back to an ancient civilization. Two things struck me about it, though. First, it comes with a backer reward consisting of a “storybook kit” with what look like some pretty nice-quality feelies:
Second, check out the video on the Kickstarter page — no, not the main video, the one a little lower down that’s titled “Story Telling 2.0″. The “you become the editor” model, with a conscious attention to the reader’s ability to expand or advance the narrative, is reminiscent of stuff the IF community sometimes talks about. Though the video is brief and doesn’t go into a lot of detail, this strikes me as a more mature/considered description of how the story is going to be interactive than I’ve found in a lot of interactive project proposals. Remains to be seen whether the project will actually deliver on that model, but hey.
Meanwhile inkle studios — the company formed by Jon Ingold and Joseph Humfrey — has just announced that it’s working on an interactive version of Frankenstein for iOS, published with Profile Books. Their press release is not so specific about the theory underlying the project (perhaps intentionally). Nonetheless, I’m keen to see what Jon and company come up with here.