[Top Secret] (James Long) and a play-by-email IF tool

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James Long is Kickstarting an interactive story game called [Top Secret], played via email, which explores the Snowden story:

A fresh recruit to the National Security Agency (NSA), you have a new mission: find out who’s leaking TOP SECRET documents to the press. Stop them by whatever means necessary.

A single selector (phone number, email address, name) is all it takes for your team to surveil a target. It’s your job to decipher the intel, and follow the trail to its source.

But surveillance has a price…

In the paranoid world of the NSA, anyone can become a target, and soon your friends are in the firing line.

Part of his project is also to finish and release the play-by-email storytelling tool for general use, so I invited him to talk a little more about what that is and how it will work.

ES: Aside from (obviously) the Snowden concept, what sorts of stories do you think would lend themselves to this presentation?

JL: One of the great things is that it is truly “real time”. So with the Snowden story, I want to roughly match the 2 weeks in the run up to the leaks as they happened. It allows the author to pace the story and give time to the player to make choices and reflect on what’s happening. You can also inject meaning into the time between messages as well as content. e.g. if someone is excited, or angry about a conversation they may reply quickly, whereas disinterest, low spirits, or just being busy may result in delayed responses.

So I think there are rich mechanical opportunities to explore, but to be honest, I’m not sure what’s best for it – I’m discovering as I go!

I know there is a game called Lifeline on iOS which was app-based but also real-time. I haven’t played it (don’t own an iPhone), but I know that used time to give a sense of progression. e.g. the player would decide where the character should go, and several hours later, the character would ping to say they’ve arrived. (I’m sure they did more interesting stuff than this).

ES: How is your system deciding what to send back to players? Is it doing a simple keyword search on their email response, or is something more going on here?

JL: Yes, I can specifiy multiple keywords (or keyphrases) and trigger events when the keyword/keyphrase is detected. Such events include:

– sending a new message in the current email thread
– sending a new message in a new thread
– spawning concurrent email threads
– emails which are sent if none of the keywords are matched
– emails which match against any response

All the data is generated by a client-side web application I have created.

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A House of Many Doors (PixelTrickery)

City of knives screenshot

In A House of Many Doors you are an explorer, poet and spy. Mount an expedition to explore a vast dimension of procedurally-generated nightmare architecture. Assemble a dysfunctional crew, build their morale, uncover their secrets, and try desperately to keep them alive. Travel in a train that walks on mechanical legs, and write procedurally-generated poetry about the things you encounter.

The House is a parasite dimension. It steals from other worlds, and can contain almost anything within its endless walls. The player’s journey is a process of constant discovery – there’s always something strange around the next corner.

Kinetopede screenshot

Harry Tuffs is a member of the Oxford/London IF Meetup, and currently using incubation space at Failbetter Games. He’s just launched a Kickstarter for House of Many Doors, an IF + exploration game. The screenshots are a bit (or, in some places, strongly) reminiscent of Sunless Sea, but this is not a roguelike. I asked him for a bit more detail about the game, and he was kind enough to fill me in.

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The Century Beast (The Mysterious Package Company)


The Mysterious Package Company sends story experiences through the mail. Sign up, and you or your chosen recipient gets a sequence of unexplained mailings. Inside: objects that tell a story, from documents and newspaper clippings through medium-sized statuary and significant physical props. There’s a little of a sense of the magic trick about all this, too — they even describe the stages of their presentation in terms of “The Pledge”, “The Turn”, and “The Prestige”.

Having occasionally made much less ambitious, much less polished physical props to go with my games, I’m both jealous and a bit in awe of the talent going into their work. (I’ve seen a few props that they sent to a friend, but I’ve not signed up or tried a full experience myself.)

The Mysterious Package Company are now kickstarting a larger-than-usual experience called The Century Beast, a Lovecraft-meets-Vikings story about which the pitch is alluring but vague. The Kickstarter has been funded, and is meeting further stretch goals by the day. For anyone who likes narrative of objects pieces, single-player ARG-like experiences, or feelies — especially feelies — this is likely to awaken covetous impulses.

The Company is mysterious even in its correspondence, so I don’t actually know who runs the business, but someone called the Curator was kind enough to answer my questions about storytelling in their particular format.


Tell me about the kinds of storytelling that are possible with objects that would be harder to do any other way. What are the strengths of your particular medium?

Storytelling is universal, whether it be oral, written, or performance. However, with some notable exceptions, becoming truly immersed in a story is difficult. You may relate to the characters, or be taken by the narrative, but you are observing what is happening to others, not participating yourself. The advent of video games has provided new and wonderful ways to tell stories, whilst placing the player in the role of the protaganist, and that is a large step toward creating immersion, but there is a significant missing element: physicality.

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Interview with Porpentine, author of howling dogs

Throughout the competition season, I’ve been talking with Porpentine, the author of howling dogs — about Twine, about participating in the IF Comp, and about the meaning of various passages. After a little while it seemed like a good idea to ask for a straight-up interview, which Porpentine was kind enough to agree to.


ES: You and I have spoken a lot lately about how you feel Twine makes authoring interactive stories possible for people who hadn’t been in a position to do that before. What about Twine makes it especially awesome at that? Do you think it’s more effective in that respect than other hypertext or CYOA tools?

Porpentine: I’ve agonized over which tools to use, lately there have been so many, and despite everything that’s come out this year, I keep coming back to Twine’s ultra-minimal elegance.

1) Twine isn’t owned by a company. It isn’t going to restrict part of its functionality behind overly specific social networking sites that not everyone has access to (ahem), start charging to modify the HTML (ahem), or dramatically change in any way. I like that Twine simply exists and doesn’t belong to anyone except everyone.

2) Twine is the simplest game maker on the planet while scaling with the whole legacy of HTML, CSS, and Javascript, stuff that’s super well documented and easy to learn.

3) Instant feedback from the node map showing you the shape of your story as it forms, beautiful, spatial. Stories written in Twine have their own unique structure, like creatures under a microscope or root networks carrying information. I feel most in my aesthetic element when I’m working with Twine.

4) I can work with Twine when I’m too tired to deal with anything else. You don’t have to wrestle with anything between the emotion and the page, your fragile thoughts survive.

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Alfe Clemencio on interactive narrative in Don’t Save The World

Alfe Clemencio of Sakura River Interactive is the author of highly branching visual novels in Ren’Py. His previous work Fading Hearts features a wide range of possible player paths and outcomes; now he is working on an ambitious RPG project called Don’t Save the World. His Indiegogo page describes Don’t Save the World thus:

Don’t save the World: An RPG is a game where the effect of player’s choices are so strong they can change the genre of story and game. Live a life of adventure (RPG gamplay) or a normal life of running a shop (management-sim). Say “No” to saving the world!

…Near the end of the game gamers might be given the chance to slow down or stop the hero from defeating the dark lord.

I will guarantee that some players trying to be “good” will try to stop or slow down the hero.

In this scenario you are not the hero and won’t be defeating the dark lord. If the dark lord isn’t stopped then all the lands will be flooded with monsters that will bring the cities and towns to ruin. The hero is definitely a good person and is trying to do good.

It’s because moral choices like this that morality meters won’t work for this kind of game. Can you figure out why gamers trying to do good would do something like stop the hero?

Here he talks about that project, about the challenges of managing highly-branching narrative, and about the moral elements he is hoping to explore in his new work.

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Edge article on video game AI

This has been out in print form for a while, I believe, but the content is now available online: I was interviewed for an article on video game AI for Edge. The article draws extensively from the talk I did at the AI Summit at GDC 2012, with subsequent followup. I talk about social behavior AI and its potential in gaming, and there are also comments from Ben Sunshine-Hill (whose GDC talks always leave me in gobsmacked awe) and Mike Treanor (talking about Prom Week and Facade).