Interactive Narrative GDC Talks (Part 3)

Previously 1 and 2. Here are a few more — the last set, for now, though I note that the GDC Vault has made a lot of past years’ material free, so I may go back and dig out some recommendations from those as well.


Microtalks 2015, Richard Lemarchand, Emily Short, Lisa Brown, Matt Boch, Naomi Clark, Tim Rogers, Holly Gramazio, Celia Pearce, Cara Ellison, Rami Ismail. (Recorded talk.) This includes me talking about why everyone should play tabletop storygames. It also contains hilarious microgame concepts, some beautiful reflections on intimacy in play, art in games, recommendations about workflow, and reflections about how badly games reach out to non-English speakers. This was an enormously fun session to be part of.

The Design in Narrative Design, Jurie Horneman. (Slideshow only.) Jurie makes the case for how systems design and narrative design must be integrated, which is something of a hobby-horse of mine as well.

Computers Are Terrible Storytellers — Let’s Give Humans a Shot, Stephen Hood. (Slideshow with notes.) Addresses limitations in computer-based story-telling, and looks at card-based storytelling games, tabletop RPGS and (yay) storygames again. Gets into more detail about Fiasco than I had time to in my microtalk, and talks about how these relate to their game project Storium.

Games of Comfort and Consolation


By Naomi Alderman with Holly Gramazio and others, The Sun Stands Still is a piece about depression and, in particular, the connection with other people that is sometimes the surprising consequence of our own sadness. Gameplay consists of navigating home, store, and work environments, where you can turn on lights (or accidentally trip over junk on the ground) and find objects that you need in order to perform basic self-care tasks. As the game goes on, your home environment gets more and more oppressively messy, and it gets increasingly hard to play without frustrating slips. Nonetheless, you are not entirely alone, as the final scene shows.

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Thieves’ Gambit, Psy High (Choice of Games)


Thieves’ Gambit: Curse of the Black Cat is a Choice of Games title in which you, as a great cat burglar, have to pull together a team of co-adventurers to attempt to steal a particular cursed gem. As usually for CoG, you can pick your sexuality and gender, as well as specialize in one of several types of theft-related skill. You can also decide which other characters to pursue romantically, which turns out to be one of the more significant aspects of the game, affecting not only how you feel about other characters but how your team forms up and how you approach the heist.

There’s enough bushy branching in the structure that you can experience significantly different scenes during both the break-in and the preparation, and overall the story felt quite responsive to my decisions. I might have liked to see more development of the romantic leads before I was forced to choose which options to pursue, but once I had made a choice, I noticed a number of subsequent points that had been unobtrusively tailored to reflect those decisions.

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Three Fourths Home ([bracket]games)

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Three Fourths Home is a choice-based interactive story about a young adult named Kelly driving home through the Nebraska rain while carrying on a telephone conversation with her mother (and, as Mom passes the phone around, other members of the family). With music, sound effects, and illustration, it’s more lushly constructed than the average Twine game, but offers the same general style of play.

The conversation is simple menu-based stuff, usually with two or three available options, but — a little like Coming Out Simulator 2014 — Three Fourths Home also uses animation and location imagery to remind you constantly of where you are, as your car slides down the road between corn fields and past water tanks and into gathering darkness. While you play, you have to actively keep driving your car, or the whole story slides to a stop. Driving only consists of holding down a single button, but I found this was a good physical representation of being slightly distracted by an ongoing task. Sound effects also present some environmental distractions.

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Detective Grimoire (SFB Games)

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Detective Grimoire is a short (90-180 minutes, probably, depending how much you rush through the voiceover parts) point-and-click mystery adventure. It’s pretty easy — strong hints about what to do next and what you might have missed thus far, as well as a “sparkle” mode to draw attention to environmental object that you should really look at. (If you want a more classic pixel-hunting experience, you can turn the sparkles off.) The content is also reasonably kid-friendly; though you’re investigating a murder, the actual and hypothesized reasons for that murder are all kept fairly PG. Some other reviewers refer to these as “grisly” or “dark”, but I didn’t find them so; it seemed to me that the character motivations are either quite gentle or cartoonish or both. If you squint, there’s maybe a bit of an argument for preserving the wilderness, but even that is softly handled enough that it avoids any political bite.

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Reading and Hypothesis

I see more and more games with no story, only “backstory”. The game consists of piecing together what has gone before, and possibly performing a few anticlimactic actions to round it all off. Reviewers even speak of “the backstory” as if it’s the most important aspect of any game, right up there with mazes and hunger puzzles. It’s an outrage.

Backstory, Stephen Bond

For authors of interactive stories, presenting most of your story as backstory is often convenient because you can tell what did happen in a place without having to code any NPCs or allow for any branching in the backstory narrative: the past is a part of the story your interactive reader can’t touch. It places those events beyond the reach of player agency. At its worst a backstory driven piece can seem soulless and lonely, as the player wanders desolate locations from which all the other humans have already fled.

But there’s also an argument to be made that the backstory mystery is one of the most natural possible shapes for interactive literature. When it sets up questions and allows the player to look for answers, it engages the reader directly with the substance of the story rather than with extraneous tasks and challenges. It encourages reading hypothetically, making guesses about what really happened that are then affirmed or disproven as one goes.

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For anyone who isn’t familiar with The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home, it’s an indie game about a girl who has just come back from a year-long trip in Europe, to a house that her family moved into after she left and that is unfamiliar to her. No one is there, so she needs to wander the house and try to work out what happened to them. The house is also big and dark and suffering occasional electrical faults, while a storm rages outside, so for a while the game plays genre tricks with whether it’s really going to be a horror story.

Many people have responded with strong approbation, or at least strong feelings of some sort: first because it’s a game that allows itself to be not-very-gamelike, to indulge purely in its fiction; second, because it’s a queer coming of age story and those aren’t exactly well represented in mainstream games.

It is also pure backstory. But before we get into how I read that, some backstory of my own. There will also be some spoilers for Gone Home.

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