A Conversation with Ruber Eaglenest about ZFiles


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 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


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.


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.


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:


…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.


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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Lithomobilus / NonBinary Review / The Strangely-Browne Episode

IMG_0150Lithomobilus is a free reader app that advertises itself as being for non-linear storytelling:

Lithomobilus is the first e-book platform that augments existing narrative forms and makes entirely new nonlinear narratives, without eliminating the things that make books wonderful. Our online writing software gives authors the power to expand upon their existing works, create new works with built-in expansion opportunities, and craft amazing nonlinear works.

Currently the content includes five issues of the NonBinary Review, one issue of Unbound Octavo and a few standalone stories. NonBinary Review takes existing, public domain work and sets it side by side with response material from current authors; so far these include The King in Yellow, Bulfinch’s Mythology: The Age of Fable, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Frankenstein, and Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Unbound Octavo contains three short prose pieces that, as far as I could tell, could have been presented in a standard ebook format with no loss of structure.

Meanwhile, the pitch to readers is as follows:

When you are consumed by a story, you can never get enough. You want more characters, more details, more commentary, more of what makes that book addictive. The Lithomobilus e-book platform delivers it all without taking you away from your book.

Which isn’t that far off from the pitch for the Coliloquy novel I covered last month, but Lithomobilus takes a different approach to the same challenge.

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Riddles and Madlibs UI: Blackbar; Interactive Sexy Story


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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