The Twentieth Entry: SPY INTRIGUE (furkle)

In my top 20 list earlier this week, I left a spot blank at the end of my list, because I was pretty sure that I needed to replay this game: furkle’s SPY INTRIGUE, from IF Comp 2015.

2015 is the year the comp broke me. There were 50-odd games to cover in a six week period, and I’d committed to cover on my blog every one I considered recommendation-worthy: a time investment of several hours apiece, though some took longer. I also tried to find ways to send some positive responses back even about the things I couldn’t completely recommend. But I handled that maladroitly and hurt some feelings; and it’s not exactly a challenging feat of empathy to guess that my approach was going to land wrong, so I felt pretty bad about that.

Fitting the equivalent of a new full-time job into my life alongside my other commitments was hard, and it was also an emotionally demanding position to be in. I got email and DMs from authors who wanted me to hurry up and get to their work; to give further information about the contents of my reviews; to reconsider what I’d already written. In one case someone wrote to chew me out for setting the wrong standards for how comp games should be handled by the community at large because I wasn’t giving each game enough attention.

This was the point where (belatedly, you may think) I decided this was an unhealthy situation and I was done reviewing the Comp. I would finish 2015 and then bow out.

But around the same time all this was going on, someone — not the author — pinged me and said could you please post a review of SPY INTRIGUE, it’s gotten so little coverage, hurry it up please. So I assembled and posted what I had to say about it, but that wasn’t very much, relative to what the piece actually is.

What I primarily experienced, trying it out in 2015, were all the ways the game resists the player: the hard to read all-caps text, the staticky backgrounds, the text-shakes and screen-flashes. (I believe the accessibility features at the start of the game do let you turn those off if they’re likely to be bad for you.) Then there’s the way the UI gets a facelift every time you’ve gotten the hang of it, so you have to sort of relearn it; the very long instruction text that only makes things more confusing if you aren’t already acquainted with the game; the absence of markers to help you understand how the story relates to our world.

At the very beginning, it seems like maybe the author just has tremendously bad design sense about what’s going to be comfortable for the average IF reader. Later it becomes clear that the aesthetics are very intentional, but that “maybe it’s incompetence?” look is a really challenging thing to try in the beginning of a comp game, unless that game happens to be attached to the name of someone already well-known. There is, after all, quite a lot of genuinely mishandled work submitted to competitions.

Then, too, it doesn’t align itself to many recognizable tropes of IF. If I think about what might be closest to it, I think of maybe ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III for the layering of fantasy and real life; maybe Zest for the inspection of how worldview makes life livable, and the function of supposedly-recreational substances. But even so neither of those is very similar to SPY INTRIGUE. There just isn’t anything very similar to SPY INTRIGUE. This is part of what’s amazing about it, but it’s another challenge to entry.

And in the context in which I originally played, even SPY INTRIGUE’s length was a thing that made it resistant. In a literal sense, I read fast enough — that is, I can get the basic sense of words quickly enough — that I could get to an ending in two hours. But that was nowhere near enough time to understand it, apprehend its themes and structure, and play it sympathetically.

In the intervening years, a couple of things have happened. One, despite a general lack of community discussion about this game, a handful of people whose tastes I trust have told me it was great. Two, I’ve gotten to know furkle personally.

I decided I wanted to replay it; and, at the same time, that I needed to do that at a time when I could approach it completely differently than I did the first time — without the sense of obligation, without the idea that my role vis a vis this work was to be its Designated Reader.

This weekend I replayed. I took a lot more time over it — probably something like eight hours elapsed between start and finish. I wasn’t reading continuously that whole time; on the contrary, I put it aside several times. That’s not because I was bored with it, but there was a sufficient richness that I found I needed a bit of a break at times, to process, before deciding how to re-engage.

I found it hugely easier to get into this time. That’s partly the different reading approach; partly that I’d played it once before, so the UI features were known to me; and partly that knowing more about the author gave me more context for interpreting the game’s ambiguities. This is one of those pieces where knowing the rough plot outline in advance is a significant help in grasping the overall meaning of the work. So I’m going to go into more specifics here than I usually do in a review.

And I really hope more people will play it. Here is a game that placed 29th in its competition, for reasons that I understand completely — but the fact that it was under-played and under-discussed represents a major missed opportunity, especially for people in the community who are interested in the more narrative and writerly possibilities of IF.

SPY INTRIGUE is one of the finest and bravest things ever produced in this medium: personal and true, technically masterful in both code and design, literary in the best sense.

Some people, I’ve seen, refer to it as raw. I wouldn’t call it so; I’d say it has a quality I prefer to rawness, an ability to present the most intense and traumatic experiences with such understanding that it offers others a tool to dismantle their own pain.

Yes, I am still talking about a game in which you can shove banana bread down the front of your spy pants. That game. Yes.

Continue reading

Mid-July Link Assortment

Events

In Cork, the meeting of the Electronic Literature Organization is currently in progress through July 17. The program includes several artist forum sessions in which authors will be talking about their own projects; for instance, Katherine Morayati on Human Errors the 17th.

July 21 is the next Seattle Area IF Meetup, focusing on works in progress.

download-6The SIGIR Conference is taking place in Paris from July 21-25.

July 25 is the next Boston Area IF Meetup.

The 57th Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics (ACL) will take place in Florence (Italy) at the ‘Fortezza da Basso‘ from July 28-August 2.

DiGRA 2019 is being held August 6-10 in Kyoto.

Nh4sqhAugust 10 the Oxford/London IF Meetup is doing a workshop on Bitsy, a tool for creating small easy games with some narrative content and also some spatial navigation.

The IEEE Conference on Games (CoG) will be August 20-23 in London; I will be giving a keynote here, looking at some of Spirit’s recent work.

The Foundations of Digital Games Conference (FDG) is happening August 26-30 in San Luis Obispo; I’ll also be speaking here, but only by Skype, so I’ll miss those of you in California. (Sorry! But I’ve been doing too much flying lately.)

September 25, the London IF meetup will be doing a session on immersive theater, LARP, and live-action interactive experiences. The details aren’t yet live on the website, but we’ve got some excellent speakers lined up, so if that’s a topic that interests you, join the group if you haven’t already, and we’ll announce when the venue details are final.

Screen Shot 2019-07-13 at 9.11.44 AMAdditionally: Narrascope 2019 is already in the rear-view mirror, but the folks at Articy are sharing recordings from some of the event’s presentations.

logo-512Starting it off is Natalia Martinsson’s keynote address, with more videos planned. If you weren’t able to attend, this can give you a sense of the event and some of the individual speakers and topics.

And finally: tickets have gone on sale for AdventureX, which is November 2-3 at the British Library. The Narrative Games Convention has also released its lineup with some of the included speakers. As of this post (July 2019) the event seems to be sold out, unless/until they release another block of tickets, which their Twitter account suggests they will.

So: if you were disappointed not to have gotten in on that first round, don’t despair! But do follow the AdventureX Twitter account and/or sign up for the mailing list, if you want to maximize your chances of snagging a ticket for yourself.

Tools & Authoring Systems

Villanelle is an experimental authoring system to let creators build complex character behaviors for interactive fiction. The project is put together by Chris Martens and her team at NCSU. They are actively seeking outside opinions, so if you’re interested, you can first try out the prototype, and then fill out a feedback form to help the team evaluate and refine the project.

Twine-Monogatari is a project to let authors write content in Twine and present it in the Monogatari visual novel system. Monogatari is an open-source tool designed to let authors (among other things) present visual novels in a web browser, and has some other neat features even when used without Twine.

Jams & Contests

ifcomp

The 2019 IF Comp is open for authors to submit intents, now through September 1, if you’d like to contribute a game to the competition.

XYZZY Award voting is currently open, and you’re welcome to participate by nominating up to two games per category.

Articles

In Wing and a Prayer — Stress and Structure, Ian Thomas explores the potential emotional impact of LARP / simulations, via Allied Games’ recreation of a British Ops room in World War II. (More info about the game itself can also be found here.)

This integration allows users to play the original Zork Trilogy through Slack.

Chris Klimas shares his Narrascope presentation on the history of Twine (and its current state).

Forthcoming Releases

headerElsinore, a time-looping adventure from Golden Glitch that explores the story of Hamlet from the point of view of Ophelia, as she relives the same four days and tries to avert the tragic endings of the play.

The game is slated for release on Steam on July 22.

Also coming soon is the rerelease of Nocked!, which originally came out in 2017 for iOS and which I reviewed on this blog at the time. This time around, the game is getting a new-and-improved desktop version, available on July 17.

The Twine-based historical adventure drops players into Medieval England at the start of Robin Hood’s outlaw adventures, and with dozens of potential endings, the choices made will lead to wildly different conclusions.

Author Andrew G. Schneider has added 100,000 words to the branching narrative for the Steam version, so there will be plenty of extra material for those already familiar with the game (and given that the original already had 400,000 words, that leaves plenty for those coming to it for the first time.)

A Top 20 List of IF

Every four years, Victor Gijsbers puts together a list of the top 50 IF games of all time. To vote for this, one sends Victor a list of the 20 best games; those games that fall on the most “best” lists wind up on the Top 50 list. (You can participate, or see the spreadsheet that contains the current state of play, at the intfiction forum.)

I find this interesting, and also extremely hard to vote for, because I can think of many more than twenty games that have a reasonable claim to be “best” in some regard. So I have to pick some additional criteria in order to filter the thing down.

This year, I’ve deliberately skewed my list towards the criterion of maturity: games that represent what IF has become as a medium, that benefit from thought and careful play, and that communicate something about the human condition that is truthful, important, and hard to convey.

This is not the same thing as recency, but in the nature of things it does mean that the list skews a bit towards games that have come out in the past decade, and often towards works by authors who had already worked in the medium for a long time.

The list therefore omits a lot of games that I find delightful for their playfulness and polish: Lost Pig, Treasures of a Slaver’s Kingdom, Secret Agent Cinder, Brain Guzzlers from Beyond!, Magical Makeover, Midnight. Swordfight, several games by CEJ Pacian, and quite a lot of Ryan Veeder’s catalog.

It leaves out works that do a single thing perfectly — the telescopic narration of Lime Ergot, the linguistic mindbending of The Gostak, the jewel-beauty of The Moonlit Tower, the unfolding horror of My Father’s Long, Long Legs or the puzzle discipline of Suveh Nux. It skips others that impress through their extraordinary ambition and scope, from Tin Star or Blue Lacuna to 1893, Delusions and First Things First. It omits anything where I found myself writing too much extenuating text, any games I thought were great in one respect but got seriously in their own way in some other regard.

The list also skips many canonical works that helped define IF for the community: Zork, Deadline, Curses, Anchorhead, Spider and Web, Photopia, Shade, Rameses, Slouching Towards Bedlam. Even Jigsaw, which wrestles seriously with the weight and meaning of history, is also hampered by too-difficult puzzles and by limiting tropes of text adventures as they existed at the time. Influential and original, many of these games established what was possible in interactive fiction, and many of them are still very entertaining to play; others feel a little faded, documents of a different culture, as awkward to watch as a 90s sitcom. But if you want a list of this kind of canon, IFDB will supply several. I didn’t set out to omit anything because it was canonical, but I found that the criteria I set for this particular list tended to land on other nominees.

Several pieces, from Bloom to Shadow in the Cathedral, I left off the list because the narrative is not yet concluded. (I have hopes Bloom will be completed; I think we’re unlikely ever to get the end of the story of Shadow.)

Also not shown: works that meant a lot to me on a personal level for some reason, but that might not bear that same freight for someone else: Necrotic Drift, with its gut-punch ending about personal responsibility; Plundered Hearts, whose plottiness and NPC focus gave me the first ideas towards the type of IF I would one day want to write.

At the same time, there’s a lot of subjectivity here, and I did leave out some works, like Cape, or The Life (and Deaths) of Dr M, where excellent interaction design and writing served to explore some very significant theme, but where I just couldn’t quite agree with the conclusions; or the excellent Mama Possum, which is poignant and observant but didn’t leave me turning over the significance as much in my own mind, afterward.

Games that I contributed to myself, from Fallen London and Where the Water Tastes Like Wine to Cragne Manor, are also omitted, though I think the trend of anthology fiction with multiple authorial voices is an intensely interesting one and I should definitely write more about that. Later. Not in this list.

So. The list:

Continue reading

Mailbag: Environmental Storytelling

This is actually a reprint of a comment exchange that appeared earlier on this blog, but it’s the kind of question that I typically mailbag, so I’m reproducing it here for visibility.

A question, if I may: I’m not much of a story-writer (as in coming up with the ‘adventure’ part of the equation), but I’m working on a densely interactive VR diorama (http://naam.itch.io/apotu) and a story/plot is starting to emerge from all the incidental detail popping up everywhere, taking shape in my head. It’s more of a situation/slice-of-life thing than a story per se. What would you (or any other reader!) say is a good way to come up with narrative cues to divulge this to the visitor?

I guess I’m mainly struggling with process – how to come up with just the right bits of information to relate to the listener, and how to make that matter.

Start by identifying the bare minimum. What are the 3-7 most important events or beats the player must know about in order to understand your story? What traces might those events have left on the world?

Continue reading

The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (H. Porter Abbott) – Chapters 1-6

cambridgeIntroToNarrative.jpg

The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative approaches stories from a very different perspective than most of the game writing, novel writing, and screenplay writing books I’ve covered here before; instead, it’s an academic approach to describing what narrative is, based in the field of narratology.

I’m covering this one in some depth, because I think it’s interesting to compare the terminology it uses with the terms common in other types of writing and game writing and interactive fiction guidance. So this post will cover the first portion of the book, and I’ll cover (roughly) the second half next month.

Chapter 1, Narrative and Life, speaks to the idea that narrative is a fundamental human function, that we possibly can’t even form memories without making stories about the events that happened to us, and that we have an instinct to try to work out the history or past narrative of things when we encounter them. Abbott ends this section with a few paintings that challenge us to understand them narratively but also resist casual interpretation.

Among other things, the chapter rather inverts the idea of environmental storytelling as a technique by suggesting that we are constantly making up stories about our environments, and that any space we might enter in a game would be read in this way by players, whether we wanted that or not.

Continue reading

End of June Link Assortment

Events

July 2-5 will be the ACM IVA Conference, taking place in Paris.  IVA 2019’s special topic is “Social Learning with Interactive Agents”.

July 6, the SF Bay Area IF Meetup is meeting in the usual spot in the Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment.

July 13, the Oxford/London IF Meetup has a talk on Content Selection Architectures. If that title sounds a bit opaque to you, let me clarify: it’s about how we choose what pieces of content to show the player next, one of the fundamental questions of interactive literature. The talk comes to us from Michael Mateas, one of the creators of Façade and Prom Week, who through his own work and through his teaching and program development at UC Santa Cruz is one of the most prolific and influential academic thinkers on how we use procedural systems to create memorable player experiences. I am more than slightly smug that he’s agreed to speak to the group about his most recent work.

July 13, the Baltimore/DC IF Meetup is also getting together, resuming its monthly schedule to discuss The Missing Ring.

evt-655.jpgThe SIGIR Conference is taking place in Paris from July 21-25.

July 25 is the next Boston Area IF Meetup.

The 57th Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics (ACL) will take place in Florence (Italy) at the ‘Fortezza da Basso‘ from July 28-August 2.

Logo_DiGRA_Kyoto-V3-300x288.pngDiGRA 2019 is being held August 6-10 in Kyoto.

The IEEE Conference on Games (CoG) will be August 20-23 in London.

The Foundations of Digital Games Conference (FDG) is happening August 26-30 in San Luis Obispo.

Games

Time What Day is a piece about memory that includes both Twine elements and (if you pay for it) a box containing scents and other sensory cues. I am sorry to say I missed the chance to check this out when it was demonstrated at NarraScope, but I’m glad someone did make an interactive narrative with scent tie-ins.

fUPDrH.pngHeretical Geese is a tiny tabletop RPG by Yoon Ha Lee and Ursula Whitcher, available from itch.

Victor Gijsbers has made a huge archive available containing his past games with source code (in many cases the games were previously free but the source was not); some unfinished projects; and writings and posts about interactive fiction.

Articles and Talks

Polygon on the Episodes platform and the people who write content for it.

Lynda Clark offers some interesting stats on the IF on the British Library’s interactive fiction archive, and calls out a few specific games available there.

Long time readers of this blog may remember Ian Thomas’ fascinating LARP write-ups from God Rest Ye Merry, an amazing Christmas murder mystery roleplay scenario held in a historic house with all kinds of jaw-dropping special effects. He’s done another project, All for One, a LARP based on cinematic renditions of the Three Musketeers, and you can read all about it in his Medium post on the making of. (Warning: that GRYM link can eat hours of your life. Pleasurably. But wow there’s a lot there and you will not want to stop once you start. The Medium post on All for One is a much shorter but still really fun and fascinating read.)

I’ve already posted elsewhere, but once more for people who might not have caught it, Graham Nelson did a talk about where Inform is going next, at NarraScope, and the slides and notes are available.

Jon Ingold did a talk on designing a lost language for Heaven’s Vault. This is from a couple of months ago, but I don’t think I’ve posted it here before, and it’s cool:

And here’s Dragan Jerosimovic in a talk from Reboot Develop Blue about what is necessary to build compelling digital characters.