Brief Reviews from December

I didn’t post many reviews in December, partly because I was a bit burned out (thanks, IF Comp), partly because of paid workload, and partly because I was playing so many things, between IGF judging and working on the Kitschies list, that there wasn’t time to review all of it. But here are quick thoughts on a few December releases.

Screen Shot 2016-01-01 at 11.54.09 AMLyreless, a Bruno Dias retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice story for Sub-Q magazine. This version tells of a journey to the underworld in which we must shed one aspect of ourselves after another in order to pass through the gates of Hell and find our beloved again.

It is not a love story. Eurydice is essentially uncharacterized: who she is, or was, doesn’t matter as much as the quest, and specifically the question of how a quest changes us and our motivation for starting out on that quest in the first place. What happens when you are motivated by strong passions – pity, anger, a sense of justice – but those passions get in the way of what you are trying to accomplish? What if you have to give up some of your identity in order to become the sort of person who can do what a person-like-you would want to achieve?

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Recent IF for iOS

monstrMonstr (Laura Michet, Kent Sutherland, Meagan Trott, Emily So, Travis Ford DeCastro, Rachel Sala, and Rosstin Murphy) is a game in which you’re searching for the dating profile of a monster you saw at a bus stop. It’s made up primarily of spoof profiles and then short “chat” scripts that go horribly badly until you find the one monster who is right for you.

As far as I can tell, it’s largely a matter of luck when you will stumble on the correct monster, and the chats with wrong monsters usually go wrong because the protagonist is scripted to say something foolish or horrible. So it’s easy to build up a sense of the PC as a somewhat-awful being before you get through to a win condition.

On the other hand, the dating site satire is fun and some of the monsters seem rather sweet.

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Wonderland is a new audio IF game by veteran IF developer Jim Munroe. It’s a mystery puzzle centered on Munroe’s own neighborhood in Toronto, and it has a hangman-like mechanic of puzzles where you can unlock additional letters by walking around with your phone.

I’ve been enjoying it, as far as I’ve gotten — though I haven’t finished yet. I think this game would be ideal for someone who spent a lot of time on rambling strolls. Right now, that’s not really me: Oxford is pretty drippy and forbidding this time of year, so most of my exercise happens indoors. But the game has a pleasant radio drama quality and the voice acting is well done.

(Disclosure: I received a free copy of this game.)

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IMG_0210One Button Travel (The Coding Monkeys) is a Lifeline-genre game: you’re engaged in CYOA chat with one other character, and there are real-time delays spacing out your conversation. The app is skinned with a somewhat retro, Device 6-esque design.

Unlike Lifeline, its rather less successful sequel Lifeline 2, and its free-to-play imitator TimecrestOne Button Travel invents a premise in which, instead of aiding a mysterious stranger, you’re the person in danger (at least initially). Your correspondent is trying to assist you, though assisting you quickly involves them getting into trouble as well. They’re also able just occasionally to send you messages with photographs inside, which the Lifelines did not attempt.

So I was well-disposed when I started the game. However, the timing elements are really frustrating. There are a lot of pauses that run for 30-120 seconds, as far as I could tell. (I’m estimating: I didn’t keep a stopwatch on these.) Maybe the delays are meant to add to the realism of the situation, but they really annoyed me. They broke up the narrative just long enough that I put my iPad down and went to do something else, only to be interrupted with a notification just as I was settling into a different task — meaning that to make any significant progress on the game, I had to let this game fragment my attention and keep me from getting anything else done, even though it itself wasn’t keeping me continuously engaged. And it wasn’t necessarily signaled when my interlocutor was going to be gone for two minutes and when they were going to be gone for hours. Sometimes when I did respond to the notification, the result was another page of texts without any further choices for me to make at the end of it, so there was functionally no reason (other than perhaps a long-ago eroded sense of suspense?) not to have given me those additional messages right away.

Meanwhile, after the initial hook, I found myself increasingly detached from the story itself. Some of this is because that bitty, occasional level of interaction made it hard for me to connect. Some is because the world-building is so implausible — you are “helping” someone escape through, among other things, a really bizarre system of automated laundry handling that sounds like it was designed to be an amusement park ride. Some is down to lack of agency: it wasn’t until I’d been playing for something like a week of real time that I encountered a choice where it felt like that choice might have caused a significantly different outcome than if I’d picked the other option.

Anyway, I’m declaring bankruptcy on this one. I haven’t finished it, and I don’t plan to: it’s not giving me enough in exchange for my time.

(Disclosure: I played a copy of this game that I bought with my own money.)

A Conversation with Ruber Eaglenest about ZFiles

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Z Files: Infection is a project currently being Kickstarted, an interactive comic book set in a zombie universe. I talked with Ruber Eaglenest, aka El Clerigo Urbatain, about the project, and how it works as an interactive comic, as interactive fiction, and in terms of how it portrays its protagonist.

Interactive comic

RUBER: There have been other games that have tried to this fusion, but they are most experiments, or resort to the “infinite canvas”.

EMILY: I think that is an interesting direction. I’ve seen a handful of pieces that do similar things, but I think there is probably a lot of additional room to explore it. IIRC, some of the Tin Man Games pieces do include some comic illustration elements; also a few other things I’ve covered.

RUBER: To be honest, sometimes I’m not at all satisfied about how I try to communicate how interesting is our project compared to other attempts to make interactive comic. I do not want to look as I disregard other attempts, especially when I can climb on his shoulders and improve from there.

We are going to stay inside the pages of a comic, and so, the challenge is to apply the tree structure of CYOA to the finite space of a comic book.

EMILY: What actual constraints do you have in mind here? For instance, are you trying to make all the pages be the same size, or have the same amount of visual space assigned to each node?

RUBER: You see, people and the press likes to praise the infinite canvas because we simply love to see common things applied to new technologies. But when one uses the infinite canvas in a digital or interactive comic, you lose some of the features and inherent properties of the comic format. For example, the ability to close a page narrative, or leave it open with a cliffhanger so that an important revelation occurs at the turn of the page. To play with the structure, with graphic symmetry, among other wonders you can do within the pages of a comic book. For example, in the following conference praising Watchmen, Kieron Gillen explained very well the capacity of traditional structures of comics raised to its maximum capacity of artistic expression.

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Wunderverse

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Wunderverse is not a game but an iPad adventure editor that lets you build your own stories. It comes with a few starter adventure chapters already written, though as far as I saw it didn’t look like any of them were finished stories. Of these, I completed the sample set in the paranormal world: a vaguely Sixth-Sense-y story that could have been more strongly written and that still had a couple of typos. But I have the feeling that the actual content is not what the app’s creators most care about; they’re looking at this primarily as a tool.

IMG_0208The good: the app looks pretty slick, and it features the ability to theme your stories and include sound effects and other elements.

Though it has a tap-only interface, the underlying world model feels more like parser IF than the models in most competing systems. You can create nodes and objects, and certain verbs remain available to the player at all times. The system also provides for player character stats and abilities, and for conversation. Nodes function sort of like rooms and sort of like narrative nodes, so you could take this either in a very map-based direction or in the direction of a more CYOA-style narrative. (Personally I feel a little bit itchy about conflating space and narrative state into the same thing, but I accept that it’s sometimes useful to do so.)

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Regency Games: Regency Love, Marrying Mr Darcy, Regency Solitaire, Fitzwilliam Darcy’s Dance Challenge

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Regency Love is an iOS game set in a pseudo-Austen town; it is in the same general territory as a dating sim or visual novel, but with a structure that also owes something to roleplaying games.

The core interaction loop is that the player can select a place from the map of Darlington, their town; the place may yield one or more possible activities. The activities can either be quizzes about Regency life (how long should you properly mourn a sister? how much did muslin cost?) or social interaction scenes that are primarily dialogue-driven. From time to time, there’s an opportunity to do another quiz-like activity, a game of hangman in which you’re trying to fill in a missing word from a famous quotation, mostly from Austen. Doing quizzes and hangman gains you motivation points which you can spend to raise your skill in one of six “accomplishments” — drawing, needlework, reading, dancing, riding, music (harp and pianoforte and singing are not distinguished). Some of the social activities depend on you having a certain accomplishment level in a certain area before they will unlock. Other social events depend on what has already happened.

Using a map to pick the next little story you want to participate in also reminded me a bit of StoryNexus, though whether the underlying engine relies on anything like quality-based narrative, I have no idea.

Before the game began I evidently paid NO attention to my governess.

Before the game began I evidently paid NO attention to my governess.

I was never a great enthusiast for the quizzes and stats part of this game. The questions refer to information from Austen that is not provided internally, so you either already know the answers or you have to guess. There aren’t enough hangman sentences and quizzes to last the whole game, either, so you’ll see the same things repeat over and over again before you’re done. Meanwhile, your accomplishments are necessary enough that you can’t ignore this part of the system, but there’s not enough variety to what the stats do to make it an interesting choice which one you raise next. Somewhere between halfway and three quarters of the way through play I had maxed out all my accomplishments and could now afford to ignore the whole quiz-and-hangman ecosystem, which was a relief.

Based on your behavior, the game also tracks character traits, reflecting whether you’re witty, dutiful, etc. It displays what your traits are, but I never worked out exactly what was moving the dials. What I said in conversation must come into it, but I didn’t know which dialogue did what. Nor did I ever figure out how it mattered. Some events were plainly closed to people with less than 12 Needleworking, but I never saw an explicit flag that excluded people who weren’t witty. So the character trait system may have been doing important things, but it was opaque enough that eventually I started to ignore it.

What does that leave? Talking. Lots and lots of talking. I like talking games! This one made some slightly peculiar choices, though.

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Digital Narratives of Time, Death, and Utopia: Arcadia (Iain Pears) et al

I began Arcadia – a novel conceived and written for an app – over four and a half years ago when a lot of people were musing about digital narrative. After working my way through three publishers, two designers, four sets of coders and a lot of anguish, I am no longer surprised that few others have done anything about it.

Thus Iain PearsArcadia Cover, on why his latest novel is an app and why it took so long to build. His “few others have done anything about it” is characteristically dismissive and makes me grit my teeth. There is so much going on in digital narrative and related fields that it’s challenging to keep up with the variety. What Pears apparently means is that few novelists with London literary agents have done anything with digital narrative, and possibly that he doesn’t regard anything outside that circle as worth checking out. That is his prerogative, but a little more awareness of the world outside might have brought tools to his attention that would have lightened the workload.

It is true, though, that Arcadia is different in structure, scope, and conception from a lot of other interactive literature. The piece is a series of short scenes about many different characters, together with an app whose narrative map allows the reader to follow one character at a time or leap across time to seek the answers to questions. This puts it in a category with Snake Game and The Strangely-Browne Episode in that it is primarily letting the reader choose a course through the story, not alter the plot itself: it is not linear and the reader does have important agency, but that agency affects the reading experience, not the development of events.

Further, Arcadia takes place in three separate settings — Oxford of the 1950s and early 60s, a fantasy world invented by one of the Oxonian characters, and a technocratic dystopia of the future — though over the course of the plot, the reader may come to question whether these are in fact alternate universes and whether the fictional world is less real than our own. Another reading strategy might be to read all the events in one setting first, then pursue those in another.

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The app

Pears has said that he wants reviewers to focus on the content of the work and not on its structure, and that he wanted the app to avoid being gimmicky and flashy. It does succeed in being fairly transparent, but I have a few thoughts about it nonetheless, before I go on to the content or the structure of the piece.

The app’s narrative map reveals some intriguing things if you study it carefully. One line splits in two when a character is in two places at once. (This is a story of time travel and alternate universes, after all.) Elsewhere a fresh line comes into being when a new character is introduced to the story. Crises in the story are evident because so many character threads come together and intertwine.

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In the reading interface, though, the app downplays these important moments. When you read a chapter whose characters subsequently split up, the page looks like this:

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…and you have to swipe sideways in that last quarter of the screen to check out what the alternative continuations might be. It’s understated, even possible to miss. In this particular case it is both striking and narratively important that either of your two next pages will belong to the Young Girl’s Tale, but you don’t see this at a glance. I could see aesthetic arguments for playing this subtle, but I think I myself would have preferred something that more clearly showed what was happening at this moment.

Meanwhile, once you’ve started reading a new chapter, you can’t jump sideways to any of its siblings unless you first go back to the top-level map. That’s something that I often would have liked to do. And if you swipe to go back a page when there are multiple strands leading to where you are, you also don’t get a choice of which backward step to take. At least once, I’m pretty sure I tried to back up to a vignette I’d just been reading but accidentally switched tracks and wound up confusing myself further. So the navigation here, while conforming somewhat to Pears’ declared desire for simplicity, did still miss some functionality I would have liked to have.

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Routes through the map

IMG_0155There are many, many possible ways to read this — by which I mean not just that the combinatorial numbers are large, but that there are multiple reading strategies one might pursue. Follow one character to the end first? Read about events in one of the settings, then go to a different one? Switch back and forth between strands frequently, to try to get contemporary events at the same time?

I experimented with several of the characters, but soon settled on the story of Angela Meerson, a time-traveling scientist whose experiments in the future apparently precipitate a lot of the rest of what happens — though of course, as always with a time travel story, the question of cause and effect becomes rather tangled.

Once I’d read all of Meerson’s story, I went back and started filling in what had happened to some of the other characters. Other reviews I’ve read don’t center their discussion on Meerson, but focus instead on Professor Lytten (the Oxford man who has written the fantasy story) and on a young woman named Rosie — which seems to bear out Pears’ remark

Minor characters can become major ones at will, and central characters become bystanders equally easily.

In my readthrough, Meerson took on a primacy that she might not have for other readers. I chose to start with her because I thought her understanding of events would be the most authoritative, and would then give me the structure that would let me understand the more subjective, confused, and often emotionally richer experiences of the other characters. Her scenes are also, uniquely, narrated in the first person when she is alone.

I then filled in a lot of the events set in Oxford and in Willdon (the main scene of action in the fantasy universe of Anterwold), and last of all the strands for the characters who remain in Angela’s future world. Here, again, I was chasing the bits of the text that I thought might answer whatever questions I had next.

I can also see, though, why one might start with Lytten, the 1960s don-and-spy living in North Oxford who has designed Anterwold. We first meet him telling his story to a group of Inkling-likes in a setting not obviously distinguishable from the Eagle and Child, though a few years after the historical Inklings had stopped meeting there. He is friends with Tolkien and impatient with Lewis, and his comments on both sound a lot like authorial ventriloquism. Of all the characters, he seems most likely to offer Pears’ own perspective on events.

That these diverse reading approaches work is a tribute to Pears’ meticulous construction. The storyline of each character does make sense read through by itself, though it may appear full of startling coincidences. Each character line does come to an emotional conclusion. But the book is also seeded with hints of what might be found elsewhere. Towards the end of the Willdon section, a character mentions that there is a long story to explain something she has done, and it was immediately evident where I should go look for that explanation. Elsewhere there is a mystery laid out so that you might discover either the culprit or the significance of the act, but not both at once. It remains mysterious regardless of which end is up.

The effect is also down to Pears cheating — or, at least, not quite keeping the implicit promise of the narrative design. You can follow most of the characters from one vignette to another using the narrative map, but there are a few who go uncharted, including one very significant character.

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