Beneath Floes (Bravemule, Pinnguaq)

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Beneath Floes is a folk tale of Inuit culture, created in collaboration with Inuit contributors; recently a Kickstarter raised the funds to have it translated into Inuktitut (an indigenous language of the eastern Arctic) and Anishinaabemowin.

It is both a story and a meditation on story-telling, one which starts by explaining to the reader how much is going to be under the reader’s control. Not a lot, as it turns out: you mostly get to change small details, details that explicitly don’t branch the plot, while the horrible core story is beyond the player’s capacity to change. But the effect is very different from, say, the also very linear interaction in My Father’s Long, Long Legs, or the fact-mingled-with-fiction of Coming Out Simulator 2014.

Nonetheless the small details that you’re allowed to affect are not selected arbitrarily. Does evil, in your mind, have a hooked nose or a button nose? Do you associate yourself with an indigenous hero or with Superman? Perhaps we’re allowed to make these choices because we inevitably see reflections of ourselves in the stories we’re told, no matter who the teller is. Elsewhere — a dark sort of joke — you can pick which of two strings of gibberish numbers and letters the qallunaat, the white people, have assigned you as your identifying marker; or, in another place, you can change (by one year) the date associated with an anthropological recording. History is slippery, but the fundamentals hold.

I appreciated, too, the passages where material that relies on cultural context is presented just clearly enough for someone not native to the Arctic to understand, but yet not overly explained. A favorite passage:

It’s said that your father shot a caribou and failed to kill it, but that’s one person’s belief—not a well-liked individual, either.

From context, it’s clearly a scandalous thing to fail to kill a caribou. A whole ethos is implied but not explained.

Beneath Floes is not completely linear, however. There are at least two endings that I found, and as far as I can tell, what makes the difference is what you decide about the protagonist’s willingness to do violence.

Interactive Narrative GDC Talks (Part 3)

Previously 1 and 2. Here are a few more — the last set, for now, though I note that the GDC Vault has made a lot of past years’ material free, so I may go back and dig out some recommendations from those as well.

Anyway!

Microtalks 2015, Richard Lemarchand, Emily Short, Lisa Brown, Matt Boch, Naomi Clark, Tim Rogers, Holly Gramazio, Celia Pearce, Cara Ellison, Rami Ismail. (Recorded talk.) This includes me talking about why everyone should play tabletop storygames. It also contains hilarious microgame concepts, some beautiful reflections on intimacy in play, art in games, recommendations about workflow, and reflections about how badly games reach out to non-English speakers. This was an enormously fun session to be part of.

The Design in Narrative Design, Jurie Horneman. (Slideshow only.) Jurie makes the case for how systems design and narrative design must be integrated, which is something of a hobby-horse of mine as well.

Computers Are Terrible Storytellers — Let’s Give Humans a Shot, Stephen Hood. (Slideshow with notes.) Addresses limitations in computer-based story-telling, and looks at card-based storytelling games, tabletop RPGS and (yay) storygames again. Gets into more detail about Fiasco than I had time to in my microtalk, and talks about how these relate to their game project Storium.

Below (Chris Gardiner)

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Below is a StoryNexus world by Chris Gardiner. Chris is part of the Failbetter team, but Below is released (as I understand it) as his own personal project. He describes it thus:

…it’s a story-driven, dungeon-delving online card game you play in your browser. You play Below cards to explore the dungeon and Above cards to renew your spirit. But the more you draw on the Above deck, the more dire the plight that drove you into the dungeon.

Its inspirations are Beowulf, Moria, the Tombs of Atuan, and a whole pile of folklore. You can learn the Giant-Tongue, speak at the Althing, bargain with the White-Handed Lady who is sometimes called death, forge a Lion-Helm, hunt outlaws in a haunted barrow, outwit a Troll-Wife, and leave legacies for those who follow you (like a Streak of White Hair, Words of Caution, or Family Secrets).

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Interactive Narrative GDC Talks (Part 2)

As I noted here, there is a bunch of GDC content that might be of interest to interactive story folks. Last time I looked at talks that were really focused specifically on interactive fiction, especially work by inkle and by Choice of Games.

This time, two related subjects: social simulation and character modeling of various types, and complex morality. (And character with complex morality, as a bonus.)

Thinking About People: Designing Games for Social Simulation, Mitu Khandaker-Kokoris, The Tiniest Shark. (Recorded talk.) I’ve linked already to the Gamasutra presentation of Mitu’s slides, so you may have seen me mention this talk before. Gets into a number of types of games and also a series of criteria for thinking about social simulation games. Some of those criteria are pretty-much-always-desirable things such as “communicating to the player”; some describe a spectrum with many possible spots for productive work (“autonomous vs authored”).

Designing Morally Difficult Characters, Dan Nagler, Gigantic Mechanic. (Slideshow only.) This talk calls out the idea of giving characters complex, non-binary ideologies, and also shouts out to some of the very same tabletop storygames that I mentioned in my microtalk. If you follow the links, you’ll also find that this talk relates to a partially live action educational simulation that is sort of Senate LARP.

Beyond Binary Choices: How Players Engage With Morality, Amanda Lange. (Slideshow only.) This one gets at the issues with simplistic good and evil choices, offers some statistics about how people tend in practice to play simplistic-choice games, and then pulls out a couple of interesting exceptions to the general rules (like: Spec Ops: The Line manages to get a lot of players to do the pure-evil choice by laying enough emotional groundwork to make them feel their protagonist might be quite angry at that point).

Desire is Not A Dirty Word: Writing Healthy Fanservice for Games, Michelle Clough. (Slideshow only.) As with several of the other slideshows, there’s definitely some information being missed if you can’t see the full recorded talk, but there’s still enough here to give the gist: it’s about writing characters who are meant to be sexy and perhaps romantically active without falling into creepy objectification.

Measuring and Manipulating Player Trust, Chris Hazard, Hazardous Software. (Slideshow only.) This is the kind of talk I love to go to because it expands the boundaries of what I think I should bear in mind when working on a game. It’s an AI summit talk, it’s fairly math-heavy, and it’s about mathematical models for a) describing how likely NPCs are to make barters and do favors given various levels of trust in the player and b) conversely, assessing what the player feels about the risks and rewards in the game using similar trust modeling. It’s sufficiently abstract that I think one would have to put in a good amount of work to get from “these are some really interesting concepts” to “here is what gameplay based on this would feel like.” But I find this kind of thing fascinating.

And a bonus link not from GDC: this now-in-progress orc dating sim looks like it takes on a lot of the issues in Mitu’s and Michelle’s talks.

Spring Thing 2015, and Aspel

Spring Thing is now open, with nine new games: six in the main category, three in the “Back Garden” area for games that aren’t in competition for prizes and have somewhat looser entry requirements. There’s a mix of systems, too — Twine, Undum, Seltani, Glulx and z-machine, and Ren’Py.

My contribution is a Back Garden game called Aspel, which is a realm in the choice-based multiplayer Seltani platform. As my entry blurb says:

Aspel is an experimental interactive experience designed for multiple players, featuring asymmetric information and collective decision-making. The text you see on the screen won’t necessarily be the same as what everyone else sees, so you’ll need to communicate with your fellow players in order to experience it most fully. To make that easier, I’ll be around to participate/host at the following times:

Tuesday April 7 at 8 PM British/3 Eastern/noon Pacific
Sunday April 19 at 8 PM British/3 Eastern/noon Pacific
Friday May 1 at 8 PM British/3 Eastern/noon Pacific

…but of course people are more than welcome to arrange their own visiting hours.

At some point I’ll likely write something about the experience of writing for Seltani.

March Link Assortment

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The movie Interstellar now has an official text adventure tie-in. It looks like this was hand-rolled in javascript. I haven’t had a chance to play it through (and I didn’t see the movie, which may be important), but here’s Wade Clarke’s take.

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The Shadow in the Cathedral is a parser-based, puzzly, adventure-rich game in a steampunk setting, developed commercially by Textfyre. For a long time it was available only for sale, but you can now get it from itch.io for free. (Back in the day, I put up an IFDB review, if you’re curious what I thought then.)

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The McFarlane Job is a new game by Jason McIntosh (Barbetween, The Warbler’s Nest).

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Bus Station Unbound is perhaps the biggest inklewriter story to date.

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The Oxford/London Meetup group is meeting Sunday April 12 in Oxford (leisurely lunch or drinks or whatever you feel like ordering) and Wednesday May 13 in London (conversation in a meeting space and then drinks at the pub). Please join us if you are in town and are so inclined.

If you’re elsewhere, here are some other upcoming meetups:

April 4 – San Francisco.
April 4 – Seattle.
April 10 – New York. ITP at the NYU Tisch school, off the 8th St. N/R stop.
April 13 – Boston. 6:30pm in the Trope Tank (MIT room 14N-233).

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Those who want to use IF educationally may like to know about Brendan Desilets’ book on the topic, now available in PDF form, based on years of using parser interactive fiction with middle-school students; and also Creative Writing in the Digital Age: Theory, Practice, and Pedagogy, which includes a chapter by Aaron Reed on using Inform 7 in a creative writing workshop.

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IF Answers is a new Stack-Exchange-like site for collecting answers to IF-related questions, especially technical ones. The aim of the project is to provide a more searchable and consistent collection of help than is currently available from the intfiction forum, where the same basic issues often get raised repeatedly. IF Answers is currently in a kind of seeding phase in which people are asking and answering some expected FAQ, but it is only likely to get off the ground with the help of contributors; so if you feel like asking or answering some IF tech-related questions, have a look.

Alex Warren goes into more detail about the project.

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Javy Gwaltney, who has written several Twine games and now organizes the Interactive Fiction Fund for commissioned interactive fiction, wrote for Paste Magazine about representation of disabled people in video games: why we need it and what it means to him. He also covered Antholojam, which includes several IF pieces.

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Liz England provides a blog overview of what Twine is, how it fits into the interactive fiction tradition, why people might want to use it and which Twine pieces she recommends. It’s intended for a game developer who is not already familiar with Twine; so if you read this blog, it might not be something you need, but possibly you know someone else who would find it a useful entry point. The categorization of Twine games and recommendations within categories may be particularly helpful as a counterargument to the assumption that all Twine authors are writing the same kind of thing.

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GDC was excellent. Not all of the content is publicly available, but here’s a blog-format version of Mitu Khandaker-Kokoris’ GDC talk on social simulation games. Well worth checking out, and I’m not just saying this because of the discussion of Blood & Laurels.

Brandon Dillon did a talk on the design of Hack ‘N’ Slash, which is free on GDC Vault. Though it’s not IF per se, there’s lots of fun stuff here about systematic challenge design and coming up with a series of levels that will challenge and instruct the player.

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Here’s Tronmaximum talking about alt games — games beyond the typical indie sphere — and the role of friendships and ideological similarities in creating communities that can then become productive spaces.

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Squinky writes about community and family and loneliness, which is kind of an interesting pairing with Tronmaximum’s piece above.

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Max Gladstone writes about narratives of friendship, and how they often get lost because romance and sex are so often treated as primary, the things of greatest importance. It goes into a lot of detail about Agent Carter, a show I don’t watch, but I found it accessible and moving anyway.

I also filed it among my arguments (though I don’t think Gladstone intended it this way exactly) for more moments of intimacy in games, including those that are not romantically coded. I’ve argued for a while that we need better game romance, but I think what I’m really looking for is better character connection.

One of my favorite moments in movies is the scene in the middle of Heat where a cop and the hardened criminal he’s been chasing sit down for a cup of coffee. And although they are in one sense enemies and recognize that one may end by killing the other, in another sense they understand one another better than anyone else. Another is the moment at the end of The Fugitive where the federal marshall who has just recognized Harrison Ford’s innocence takes the cuffs off him.

Neither of these are moments within the kind of friendship that Gladstone is arguing for, but they are about connection, mutual understanding and affection even under adverse circumstances.

These are rare in games — perhaps because real intimacy is challenging to portray in a game context. One of the reasons I liked 80 Days so much is that it offered several of these types of connection with characters you meet only in passing. (I have a special fondness for the man dressed as Death, in New Orleans.)

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Katherine Cross has a detailed review of the world-building tabletop RPG Microscope up at Offworld. I’m fond of this game and have written it up before; it’s great to see more attention for it. I’ve recently been playing the related game Microscope Union, which explores a specific family tree; I’ll probably write that up here soon.

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Folks interested in indie sales numbers for narrative-driven games may like the deep dive into Sunless Sea’s numbers, provided in multiple parts on the Failbetter blog. [1: Kickstarter], [2: Steam Greenlight], [3: Early Access and Release].

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Tim Fowers (creator of Paperback, a wordplay card game) is Kickstarting a new heist-themed board game, Burgle Bros. It’s already successful, but there are a few more days to get in on the action if it looks like something you’d like.

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From earlier: Shift Escape is an iOS puzzle game by Toby Nelson, who is the Mac IDE maintainer for Inform (and my brother-in-law, not entirely coincidentally).