Mark Bernstein on Hypertext Narrative

Literary hypertext has a long history that isn’t always well understood or well acknowledged by interactive fiction authors, even though with the growing popularity of Twine and other hypertext tools, the techniques are more than ever relevant to us.

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Recently Eastgate released Storyspace 3, a new version of software used to produce many canonical works of literary hypertext; and, to accompany it, their chief scientist Mark Bernstein wrote a book, Getting Started with Hypertext Narrative, in which he discusses the challenges and the craft of writing in this form.

Whether or not you are interested in using Storyspace or writing literary hypertext, the book is worth reading, not least because it offers terminology and insights from a body of work IF authors seldom study.

In the exchange below, Mark and I discuss various sections of his book, together with other relevant tools in the space. We find some common structures and implementation strategies that cross over from one tradition to the other, and notice that Storyspace 3 might be a viable alternative to StoryNexus for people who want to experiment with quality-based narrative structures but don’t want StoryNexus’ art requirements or styling: what Mark describes as “sculptural hypertext” shares a lot in common with QBN.

All blockquotes are from the text of Getting Started with Hypertext Narrative: I sent these to Mark with my comments, and in some cases he had thoughts in response, so this is actually sort of a three-cornered conversation between the book, the author, and me. Thanks to Mark for supplying the text and taking the time to answer, and also for his patience with how long it took me to bring this together.

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Beyond Branching: Quality-Based, Salience-Based, and Waypoint Narrative Structures

This blog post has a more than usually technical title, for which I apologize. It’s inspired by some recent conversations in which I hear people saying “branching narrative” to mean “narrative that is not linear and in which the player has some control over story outcome,” apparently without realizing that there are many other ways of organizing and presenting such stories.

There is a fair amount of craft writing about how to make branching narrative thematically powerful, incorporate stats, and avoid combinatorial explosions, as well as just minimizing the amount of branching relative to the number of choices offered. Jay Taylor-Laird did a talk on branching structures at GDC 2016, which includes among other things a map of Heavy Rain. And whenever I mention this topic, I am obligated to link Sam Kabo Ashwell’s famous post on CYOA structures.

This post is not about those methods of refining branching narrative; instead it’s describing three of the (many!) other options for managing the following very basic problem:

My story is made of pieces of content. How do I choose which piece to show the player next?

In this selection I’ve aimed to include solutions that can offer the player a moderate to high degree of control over how the story turns out, as opposed to affect or control over how the story is told.

I’ve also picked approaches that are not primarily based on a complex simulation, since those — from Dwarf Fortress to Façade — tend to have a lot of specialist considerations depending on what is being simulated, and often they’re not conceived of the same way in the first place. So with those caveats in place…

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New Release: The Frequently Deceased

deceased_promoI have written a new Exceptional Friends story for Fallen London!

A family of promising youngsters have killed their Governess again. This time, she hasn’t come back.

Question servants across London. The chief glass-cleaner at the House of Mirrors. The attendants at a honey-den. Your own staff. Keep the children distracted with Enthralling Tales and your least lethal pets.

Find the Unsinkable Governess.

The Frequently Deceased is a big, chunky piece of content, available to Fallen London players with an Exceptional Friendship subscription. In some months, it will probably also become available for individual purchase. (Here’s its forum announcement, which gives more hints about how to get started if you would like to play.)

 

New Release: Discernment

Discernment_promoI have a new story out!

Subscribers to Fallen London — that is to say, Exceptional Friends — can now play Discernment. Look for Salome’s soul, meet a Salon of devils and devilesses concerned with building the very best soul collections. You may also encounter some information on the moral perspective of mushrooms.

One of the things I enjoy about writing for Fallen London is being able to riff on assorted lore, connections, and player history from other stories. Without spoilers, I am especially pleased about how that worked out in this piece.

If you’re looking to get started, seek out the Burglary of a Cartographer’s Estate storylet.

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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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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