Nothing for Dinner (Nicolas Szilas et al, IDtension)


“Nothing for Dinner” is an interactive drama released last fall by Nicolas Szilas and collaborators, using a tool called IDtension. Szilas works out of the TECFA Lab at the University of Geneva. If you read my writeup on the book Interactive Digital Narrative, you’ll have seen a mention of Szilas’ article there. Though it would have been out of place in the book overview, I wanted to come back and look more closely at what “Nothing for Dinner” accomplishes.

The premise of the story is that you’re a young man whose father has suffered a stroke that affects his behavior and memory. You need to get something ready for dinner, but your father keeps getting in the way, and other events spontaneously happen — a school friend coming over to get back a textbook she left at your house, your sister’s DVD player breaking, a phone call from your mother with extra chores — to add blocks to your progress.

The system is clearly quite dynamic: I played three times, and the sequence of events was very different each time, with some blockers appearing only in one of the playthroughs. Also, the conversation menus are dynamically generated to let you try various approaches to any of the currently-active problems, or to give emotional feedback to the other characters about what they’ve just done.


If you try to cook dinner alone, your father resentfully complains that you never want to do anything with him; if you try to involve him, he may get annoyed and refuse to help you; if you let him cook by himself, he’ll break things and make a mess. And whenever your father gets upset, your grandmother comes over to chide you for not looking after him.

It’s a very effective mechanism for making me rapidly resent my entire family for offloading all the emotional and practical labor onto me: like a time management game, but with more passive-aggressive commentary, and less opportunity to get anything done.

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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.

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18 Rooms to Home (Carolyn VanEseltine): rooms 18, 17, 16

Carolyn VanEseltine is releasing a serial parser IF project called 18 Rooms to Home. The serial is working backwards in time: Room 18 was released first, than Room 17, then Room 16. So Room 18 represents the ending of the story, the point where the protagonist has arrived at home. Room 17 starts you in the room just before you get home, but includes the 18th room. Room 16 is a three-room game that, again, starts a bit earlier than Room 17.

This backwards, Memento-esque story structure might seem counterintuitive in IF, especially since it makes the player replay the story’s ending over and over. But Carolyn is doing something very ingenious with it. In Room 18, there is, as far as I can tell, only one way that the story can end. Room 17 introduces new information, skills, and possibilities, which in turn means a new possible outcome. Room 16 layers on yet a third (at least — it’s conceivable, I suppose, that there are even more variations I’m not aware of). Even when the player gets back to a room or prop she’s already seen in a previous episode, there are new possibilities.

This in turn does a great job of building up the player’s sense of consequence. Even when there are a lot of branches in a traditional-format story game, there’s no guarantee that the player will see all the variant endings, or that she’ll realize all the points at which branching could occur. But playing through 18 Rooms an episode at a time means learning exactly what is allowed to go differently, and why, as more and more past branch points are introduced.

As for the story itself, much remains shrouded in mystery at this point, but it seems to involve competing powers — whether superhero-style powers, or something more Nobilis-like and mystical, I am not yet entirely sure. I’m enjoying guessing, though, and staring at props in certain rooms that aren’t useful currently but that might become useful at some future date…

If you decide to play and speculate along with others, there’re a couple of related threads (hints, general discussion) on the intfiction forum. Selfishly, I am hoping that others will help encourage Carolyn to finish the project — I really want to see where it goes…

Tightening the World-Plot Interface: or, Why I Am Obsessed With Conversation Models


Framed is an interactive comic game in which you move around the panels of the story, reordering events in order to change what happens in the story. It looks really attractive, too.

Forgetting is a graphic novel with CYOA-style branching when you click on certain panels.

Forgetting is a graphic novel with CYOA-style branching when you click on certain panels.

When I first heard of this game, I was hugely excited about it. There aren’t that many entries in the interactive comic space, and this seemed to offer a slightly different set of mechanics to go alongside Dan Benmergui’s (unfinished but, to judge by the demos, awesome) Storyteller or Troy Chin’s Forgetting or the somewhat over-difficult Strip ‘Em All.

When I actually played Framed, though, I had essentially the same reaction described at The Digital Reader:

While Framed is based on a clever dynamic, the actual game is repetitive to the point that I am bored… Rather than have the user solve puzzles with different goals and different solutions, the vast majority of the levels I played all had the same goal: avoid the cops. Other than setting things up so the protagonist can either bypass cops or sneak up behind cops and hit them over the head, there’s not much to this game.

I’m maybe a little less harsh than this — I did feel that Framed was worth playing, and I know that some people did enjoy the puzzles — but nonetheless, I was hoping for something that did new work in telling an interactive story, rather than just setting up a bunch of puzzle levels. In that area it fell short. All of the puzzles are about a similar problem — one set of characters escaping another — and the stakes don’t alter much either. This makes for boring story.

The problem occurs at the world model-to-plot interface. That’s a challenging area for parser IF, too — and indeed for any game in which the player cannot influence the plot directly, but has to change the world model in order to move forward. Choice-based games vary in this regard, but probably more of them are of the directly-influence-plot variety than of the indirect-influence variety.

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Frankenstein, by Dave Morris with inkle studios

Frankenstein, written by Dave Morris and implemented by inkle studios, is an iPad app retelling Mary Shelley’s original tale in a new interactive format.

Morris’ Frankenstein follows the essential plot of Shelley’s, with a couple of key deviations. Victor Frankenstein’s experiments take place in revolutionary Paris rather than at the university of Ingolstadt; the narrative frame of the original story is peeled off, so that it no longer begins with Frankenstein meeting a shipful of adventurers in the north Atlantic, and the meeting on the ice occurs only at the end.

Removing the frame gives the story a certain immediacy. Victor’s experiments are told in the present and the horror of them is more directly present than they would have been via flashback; and flashback is notoriously tricky in interactive narrative because it often makes the reader question how she can possibly be affecting events that are, from the point of view of the frame narrative, already in the past.

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Tabletop Storygaming: A Penny For My Thoughts

A Penny For My Thoughts is a short storytelling game about trauma and lost memory. The premise is that the three players are all victims of some disastrous experience that caused them to lose their memories. Thanks to a special mind-enhancing drug, they are able to access fragments of those past events — both their own and one another’s.

To begin, each player writes down on a card three visceral experiences or sense impressions: in ours, these were things like “the smell of rotting lemons” or “vertigo.” Then the players take turns rebuilding past memories for their characters. Each draws a card from the shuffled stack and says, for instance, “I remember the smell of rotting lemons.” The other two players take turns asking establishing questions, such as “Were the lemons from a lemonade stand?” and the player who is doing the recollection must — in good improv style — reply, “yes, and…”, accepting the offer and providing an additional detail of his or her own.

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