This Book is a Dungeon (Nathan Meunier)

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As indicated in this screenshot, This Book is a Dungeon is a) a Kindle book about game development with Twine and b) the Twine-based dungeon developed as described in the book. The word “Bookumentary” makes my teeth itch a little, so I will pretend I didn’t see that. And I can’t comment on the success of this piece as a self-publishing experiment, so I’ll just talk about the first two aspects.

The book is 81 pages long, which means that the book and game together are definitely far outside the usual “I will play this in 20 minutes in my lunch break” realm occupied by most Twine pieces — though it’s written in a breezy, confident, slightly repetitive style that makes it a pretty fast read:

It’s truly rare to find me doing only ONE thing at a time. Ever. I’ll admit that my rampant ADD is partly to blame. I try to work this incessant need for chaos and spinning plate juggling to my advantage, though it sometimes bites me in the ass. I can’t ignore this one, though. The drive is too great. Plus it’s new and shiny, so off we go!

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Witch’s Brew: The Spellspinners of Melas County (Heidi Kling)

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What’s Cool from Coliloquy: In Witch’s Brew, Lily and Logan’s fate is already decided, but Heidi explores several different possible pathways for how they get there. She shares scenes that wouldn’t normally fit in a book format and gives readers more precious moments between the two young lovers. As the series progresses, you’ll see some normal narrative forms, interspersed with smaller scenes, alternate points of view, and a lot of “what if” scenarios. (Source.)

Coliloquy was a company creating interactive ebooks for the Kindle, which was semi-recently sold to digital publishing platform Vook. Witch’s Brew is the first book of a YA fantasy line of theirs. I’d encountered some articles about Coliloquy in the past, which made it sound as though the main selling point of the platform was that it was able to deliver reader metrics, not that it supported a significantly richer or different reading experience than other interactive fiction platforms out there.

The premise of Witch’s Brew is that the teenage witch Lily is preparing for the Gleaning, a mystical contest/battle against an evil warlock. Long ago light magic was apportioned to witches and dark magic to warlocks, and the Gleaning makes possible a redistribution of powers, which everyone apparently accepts is necessary even though the witches and warlocks who lose are Never Seen Again. But when Lily meets a breath-takingly sexy teen warlock who is able to speak to her telepathically, she begins to question whether she has been told the whole truth, and whether she and her hunky counterpart might not be the key to saving the future of magic. There are enchanted tattoos.

Side-characters include the beautiful, wise, shape-shifting mother figures of the coven (though there are some hints that all may not be completely as it seems there); Logan’s voodoo-using warlock buddy Chance (seemingly sort of a nice guy, though he doesn’t get a lot of character development); Lily’s angelic little sister Daisy, whom I could not stop picturing as Dawn Summers; and Jacob, the lead warlock, who has red-rimmed eyes, exhales toxic dust, and eats eggs whole, like a snake. He runs a pharmaceutical company, in case you weren’t sure of his moral alignment.

Here are some representative quotes:

“Girls,” she addressed us with flashing Indigo eyes, “join me, please.”

After the long hike, the magic eucalyptus smacked my system like a jolt of espresso.

The smell of beer mixed with the jubilant sounds of teenage revelry…

It’s a genre exercise, and it’s directed at people who fantasize about moody 16-year-old boys with chiseled abs and about being able to speak magical Gaelic. I wouldn’t say that it’s quite as far out of my preference zone as zombie horror, but this is not a genre where I tend to hang out just to enjoy the scenery, and this book is very much for people who do want to linger there. The marketing quote above is actually a pretty clear explanation of what interactivity is for in this book: giving you more “precious moments” between Lily and Logan.

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Loose Strands (Darned Sock Productions) and Mapped CYOA

coverphotoLoose 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:

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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.

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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.

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CIA: Operation Ajax

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, Coliloquy

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 Released

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.