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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Windhammer Prize: ‘Normal Club (Philip Armstrong)

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The Windhammer Prize is a yearly competition for gamebooks, specifically the on-paper, distributed-by-PDF variety. Last year I covered a few of the games, and this year the competition is about to open again, so I thought I would honor the occasion by looking at Philip Armstrong’s ‘Normal Club, the winner of the top prize in 2013. (Past entrants are archived on the competitions site.)

The image I’ve used as the header illustration for this post is a map of the town you’re exploring, and it contains some information (besides the numbers themselves) that you may need to use to solve the adventure. Its cartoony but confident feel is a pretty good introduction to the experience as a whole: lighthearted, accessible, soundly constructed, with the game/puzzle side more prominent than the story side.

‘Normal Club here refers to paranormal research, which in this world is an after-school competitive activity like chess team or debate club. The protagonists are a Buffy-style Scooby gang, and you get to pick three of six prefab characters to include. This choice determines your gang stats and opens up a number of character-specific extra paragraphs throughout the story. For any given situation, one or two of the gang members might have a personal response.

As one might expect, the resulting narrative uses characterization mostly as a spice, and none of the protagonists can afford to have unique motivations that might cause a surprise swerve in the MacGuffin Quest. Likewise, most of the choices you encounter, up until the very end, are tactical rather than moral decisions.

Like many gamebooks, ‘Normal Club starts with some forms to fill out with these stats, and spaces for inventory. Initially I tried to play using the online PDF and just keeping my notes in a notebook, but that was a mistake, for reasons I’ll get into at the moment. If you want to play, you probably need to print this thing off. (It runs to 45 pages, so this isn’t insuperable, but I usually avoid printing longish documents for the sake of the planet.) You will also need a 6-sided die or a reasonable online facsimile.

The discussion below isn’t all that spoilery, but if you want an innocent first experience of this book, you may want to stop here.

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Riddles and Madlibs UI: Blackbar; Interactive Sexy Story

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Blackbar is an interactive puzzle story, for various mobile platforms, about censorship: you see one side of a correspondence, and must guess the missing words in order to move forward, as the participants try to communicate through the filter of an oppressive regime. It got a reasonable amount of enthusiasm at the time, and appeared on some top-ten lists for 2013.

screenshot-2-3.5-outlinedI have to confess that I went to a walkthrough for some of the later puzzles. One of the issues with riddle-style puzzle design is that it isn’t very explorable: you either have that flash of understanding or you don’t, and if you are thinking along the wrong lines, it can be very hard to get back on track. A few of the puzzles in Blackbar are divided up into components that you can try to solve individually, which moves it more towards crosswords territory — you can figure out some bits, get confirmation, and then use that to work out the parts you don’t understand — but others aren’t as friendly.

I also thought there wasn’t all that much to the story when it was all stitched together. Others described its storyline as Orwellian and said that it critiqued censorship, but that critique mostly boils down to: “Censorship. It’s bad.” Orwell made points about how controlling language ultimately means controlling thought, as sophisticated arguments become impossible to form. Blackbar is more about goofy ways to try to get around the censors, and casts the censors themselves as pretty incompetent. Surely a censor who really wanted to suppress information would black out more at a time, leaving us with puzzles that were harder to solve. Still, it was entertaining and competent and lots of people had fun with it.

I was reminded of Blackbar again recently because, while I was looking for a completely different thing, the iOS app store recommended Interactive Sexy Story, a free to play app with in-app purchases. I downloaded it as a piece of potential kusoge, and I was not wrong.

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The Compass Rose (Yoon Ha Lee / Peter Berman)

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The Compass Rose is a spare, impersonal science fiction story by Yoon Ha Lee with tech support by Peter Berman; it’s the third of Sub-Q’s August lineup. It is a hypertext piece, but offers some directional options most of the time as well.

The premise is that a compass rose is a deeply powerful physical object. It is able to show directions and guide you (literally and metaphorically) in your environment, but its abilities go beyond that, terraforming a new world to conform to the values of its colonizers.

The story begins with your rescue of an old compass rose from a damaged planet, and escape. Then you have the opportunity to create your own colony, filling in your own rose-diagram with markers indicating the values you’ve chosen. Is coldness one of your primary directions, or mercy? Openness or paranoia? Each of your major actions affects the type of colony that will result, and orders the constellations in your sky. Once you’ve added to your compass rose, you can click these links for further information.

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Headstart Institute, Now Play This, and other appearances

headstart_logo Aug 31-Sept 3, Antwerp: I’m going to be presenting a workshop and mentoring at the Headstart Institute. This is a week-long summer school for indie game developers, with workshops in a whole range of topics from interactive narrative (me) to sound design, marketing, production, how to quickly put together a custom controller, and lots else. The experience culminates in a game jam (which unfortunately I’m going to have to miss), and the mentors will be around all week to provide feedback. Housing and communal breakfast and lunch are provided. I don’t know of any other programs quite like this, and I’m myself excited to meet my awesome fellow mentors, many of whom I’ve heard of but not had a chance to talk to in person over the years. There are still a few spots remaining, so if that sounds good to you, come to Antwerp!

Sept 4, London (and this is the reason I have to leave Antwerp a bit early): I’m presenting on intimacy in games at Now Play This, alongside Meg Jayanth and Merritt Kopas. This is a ticketed event.

October 7, London Literature Festival: I’m on a panel with Cara Ellison and Naomi Alderman about stories and games.

Later in the year: I will be on the east coast of the US and Canada in the first couple of weeks of November, including doing a couple of talks at WordPlay in Toronto. I know a number of other IF people expect to be at that session as well. After that, I’m spending a few days in Boston and then going to PRACTICE in New York City. My schedule is filling in, but if you want to talk while I’m in town, let me know and I’ll see what I can do.

March 2016: I’m part of a proposed panel for SXSW Interactive on interactive fiction, esolangs, and other juxtapositions of language and code. I don’t know whether this will be approved, but if you would like it to be, you can vote or comment on the proposal.

There are a couple of other items on the calendar that haven’t been announced yet, but when they are I’ll mention them here. And I’m trying to be good about keeping my Contact page updated with information about upcoming events that are announced and open to the public.

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More generally: I routinely give

— introductions to interactive storytelling
— workshops on choice writing and other IF design skills
— classes in specific IF tools
— in-depth talks on past projects and technical subjects

…and I’ve worked with a range of target audiences, from members of the general public interested in stories to game developers to graduate students working in procedural narrative. If you’d like me to present to your conference, classroom, or studio, please do get in touch and I’ll see whether it’s feasible.

(But if you’re considering coming to Antwerp, you should definitely do that. It will be much cooler than just me talking.)

Scroll Thief (Daniel Stelzer)

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Scroll Thief is a game by Daniel Stelzer, set in the Zork/Enchanter universe, though with significant nods to Colossal Cave as well. It’s a puzzlefest built around the same magical spells that appear in the Enchanter series — gnusto to copy things into your spellbook, frotz to make them glow with magical light, blorb to enclose them safely in a strong box, rezrov to open and untie things — to which Stelzer has added a couple of “metamagic” spells, including the lleps reversal-spell from Balances and another spell that strengthens the effect of a given casting. Stelzer released Act One of the game in IntroComp 2014. (My review at the time.)

Meanwhile, though the spells may be ones we’ve mostly seen before, they’re generally being used on situations that we haven’t. The resulting puzzles do well (or at least, did for me) on the originality and explorability axes. Some take longer than others to work out, and for one or two I needed the hints; on the other hand, others are made easier because they have multiple solutions involving different spell combinations.

To make the exploration more fun, Stelzer provides a number of good easter egg responses for using the spells in unusual places or unexpected ways. There are also a lot of nods to IF community figures and institutions, including what I take to be a reference to ClubFloyd and NightFloyd. In keeping with the Infocom originals, the author has provided invisiclues-style hints which you can highlight to view solutions; these are of course themselves full of misdirections and red herrings.

At the same time, Scroll Thief sets itself apart from its predecessors and inspirations with an expanded role for NPCs, especially the Adventurer from Colossal Cave whom you can summon into your world. Your initial interactions with him are quite manipulative (and you really have no opportunity to make them otherwise), but later in the game it becomes possible to treat him more as an equal, someone you can talk to and do favors for. The bird and the snake from Colossal Cave get cameo appearances, and with judicious use of spells, you can get the bird’s insights into its situation. Then, too, the game’s setting gives more time and attention to the training of novices and the organization of the community of spellcasters, making it less a world of lone heroes and more a world of collaborative effort — a point that becomes particularly clear at the transition to Act II.

The result is less lonely and more focused on interpersonal (or inter-creature) connection than the original games — in a lightweight way reminding me of the transition in Endless, Nameless from a puzzle-oriented model to one where NPC conversation is possible.

The game’s story is not complete in itself. Scroll Thief contains two acts of a longer story, which promises to be a trilogy. The end of Act II introduces a mechanic from Spellbreaker which I would enjoy seeing explored further, so I look forward to the next chapter.

Scroll Thief is certainly possible to play with only moderate knowledge of the source material, but I wouldn’t give it to someone as one of their first encounters with parser IF. Technically, this piece is doing some very challenging things — viewing from one room into another via magical scrying glasses, tying ropes to objects, ordering NPCs around from a distance, and other tasks that justly give parser IF authors pause.

A huge amount of work has gone into making this complicated world model easy for the player to manipulate, and providing hints when some unusual bit of syntax is required. The world model works smoothly most of the time despite the difficulty of what it’s trying to accomplish. But the parsing involved in issuing commands and viewing things from a distance is still sometimes tricky to deal with. When scrying, for instance, LOOK IN SPHERE produces a disambiguation about what you want to look at while LOOK INTO SPHERE actually gives the desired room description of the thing on the other side. In other places, it can be necessary to run through several variant phrasings (ASK ADVENTURER ABOUT HELP vs ASK ADVENTURER FOR HELP, e.g.) in order to land on the one that will work. I ran into a few snags that meant I had to look for hints on puzzles I would otherwise have been able to solve on my own. However, Stelzer is releasing new updates rapidly, so it may be that these issues will be less of a concern in a couple of weeks.

And one more thought on the puzzles, post-spoiler space:

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