Card-Deck Narratives

In a previous post about narrative structuring, I promised a followup about stories based on card decks — not simply the card metaphor that Failbetter uses in StoryNexus, but actual physical decks, sometimes accompanied by rules.

I’ve covered a few narrative card games here before. Gloom is a popular card game about Gorey-esque horrible events, in which you accumulate misfortunes for your characters until at last they die; each event is named briefly on its card, like “attacked by ducks,” and it’s up to the player to describe how this fits into a larger sequence, if at all. Some players work harder on their narration than others.

Gloom has a number of expansions and spin-offs at this point, including a Cthulhu version and a fairytale recasting. There are also a few features in Gloom designed to encourage continuity, symbols on some event cards that determine whether later events can be played, but in general any chains of causality are invented by the players at game time, rather than baked into the rules or the behavior of the deck. And because Gloom is emulating a type of story in which one bad thing arbitrarily happens after another, there also is not much attempt to guarantee a well-paced story arc.

Once Upon a Time is light in both writing and mechanics: it’s a sort of trope toolkit that the players can use to stick together stories, so that your card might just say “Brave” and leave it up to you how the concept of bravery applied to a character in the story will enhance what is already going on. Or there are Story Cubes, which are dice with trope-y images on them. The line between game and brainstorming device is pretty thin here, though, and I wouldn’t accuse either Once Upon a Time or Story Cubes of actually being or having a story already in any meaningful sense.

Then there’s Dixit, which provides image prompts and it’s up to the player to find some way to describe what is happening in the image. The narrative content is pretty light here, though, and I’ve found that usually we become more engaged with the wordplay of it — what is an interesting, slightly misleading way of characterizing this picture? — than with anything of narrative merit. Perhaps a more successful and storyful version of the Dixit idea exists in Mysterium, which game reviewers Shut Up and Sit Down really liked, but I haven’t had a chance to play that yet. (It was available at Shut Up and Sit Down’s curated board game area at GDC, which was awesome, but I was there at the wrong time to get a try at it.)

Meanwhile, there are also aleatory traditions of literature to consider here: Marc Saporta’s Composition No. 1, a book in a box with unbound pages, to be read in any order; BS Johnson’s The Unfortunates, with chapters the reader may reorder. Nick Montfort and Zuzana Husárová have written about shuffle literature in more depth, including those works and several others.

So it is in light of those various traditions that I’m going to have a deeper look at two particular card narrative games that recently came my way: Jedediah Berry’s The Family Arcana, and the USC Game Innovation Lab’s Chrono Scouts.

Continue reading

IF Comp this year

For a long time, I have covered IF Comp by reviewing many or all of the games that were available to me to play. I am not doing that this year.

I do still encourage others to review and cover the games. I’m convinced that IF Comp will be healthiest if it has a rich and assorted variety of responses and critical takes, and that sometimes it is necessary for the louder people to be quiet in order to let others be heard.

I mention this now so that no one will be surprised when the comp rolls around.

(No, I am not entering.)

April Link Assortment

Upcoming live IF Meetups and events:

May 7, 1:00 PM, the SF Bay Area IF Meetup gets together at MADE.

May 7, 2:00 PM, Baltimore/DC IF Meetup is getting together to talk about IF and then to play Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective.

May 11, 6:30 PM, Boston/Cambridge, the People’s Republic of IF gets together to talk and also to attend a presentation of student IF.

May 26, 10 AM – 1 PM, Oxford. I’m doing an Intro to IF workshop based around inklewriter. It is primarily aimed at Oxford humanities people, but I may be able to arrange for a few non-University people to attend; feel free to get in touch.

June 2-4. Feral Vector is a game design conference in Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire. It’s explicitly designed to be affordable and accessible to indie/altgame types, especially those not ordinarily in reach of London events. I went last year and had a great time. This year I will be presenting, and of course will be up for chatting about narrative games in general. (Ordinarily I list events only a month or so in advance, but you should get your tickets for this sooner rather than later if you want to participate.)

*

Worthy Things. Choice of Games is auctioning off cameos in a few of its upcoming games; proceeds benefit homeless youth. If you’ve ever wanted to appear in a Max Gladstone story, now is your chance.

*

Classic IF Institutions. This month there’s a new SPAG (the article-based IF ‘zine) including an article on Clickhole adventures. SPAG is also seeking pitches and cover artists for future editions.

The XYZZY Awards are running now, and anyone familiar with IF is welcome to vote. (We’re just at the transition between first and second round voting — if you hurry, you might be able to sneak in a first-round vote to determine nominees.) In addition, the XYZZY website is running essays on last year’s nominees in each category (the “XYZZYmposium”), starting with Gabriel Murray on Best Story. Murray’s article starts with a useful enumeration of the qualities he’s personally looking for in Best Story games, which makes it useful even beyond its careful analysis of the specific pieces he covers.

If you liked my bibliography of IF history, you might also enjoy this Blind Panels podcast with Andrew Plotkin, in which he presents his own oral history of the evolution of interactive fiction. He goes into a bit more depth than I did both about his own work and how it fits into development, and about technical innovations in different periods.

I also did a bit of an overhaul on my IF community participation page. Probably still imperfect, but it is now less stuck in 2012.

*

New Releases. These are by no means all the new releases in the past month, just things I happen to know/have heard a reasonable amount about. TinyUtopias is an accidental game jam — I mentioned the idea on Twitter and several people immediately participated; eventually I wrote a small thing for it as well. Cat Manning has a write-up collecting the entries and explaining a bit more about the backstory.

Lynnea Glasser’s new Choice of Games piece The Sea Eternal is now available, along with a sizable developer diary. (If you’re interested in design issues around ChoiceScript stat management, as I am, she has a whole post devoted just to that.)

Elixir is a Ludum Dare Twine about trans experience by way of fantasy and monstrosity — borrowing a page from Monsterhearts — and it also incorporates its own constructed language you gradually and partially learn in the course of play.

Porpentine has a miniature museum site with exhibits that you can only view at certain times of day. (At the time of writing, it appears to be open just after midnight in Pacific time.)

Reference and Representation: An Approach to First-Order Semantics is a new parser game by Ryan Veeder, even though it sounds like the PDF of a thesis. I haven’t had a chance to play yet.

The illustrated IF game Lifestream is now available, and is an attempt to do commercial IF that emulates trad parser IF but with a button/menu-driven interface and illustrations. I haven’t played, but Hanon Ondricek has written up some impressions from the demo.

And speaking of chatbot games (as we did earlier this month), Humani is a new one playable on Facebook Messenger.

Continue reading

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.

Storyspace3Map.jpg

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.

Continue reading

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.

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 12.37.02 PM

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?

Continue reading

Counterfeit Monkey Transfer

Cover art for Counterfeit MonkeyThis has been announced elsewhere, but for reference here as well: I haven’t been in a position to do the kind of upkeep I would like on Counterfeit Monkey, and consequently I’ve released the full source for community maintenance, at the kind suggestion of Dannii Willis. The source is at Github, and there is an official issue tracker, which is now where you should go with any bugs you encounter. (I will try to go through my own bug report backlog and add the rest to this list, when I have the aforementioned time.)