Storydeck: Steampunk and Ella

Storydeck is a system by Ian Millington and Emily Bembeneck, using the concept of Doodle God as a mechanism for storytelling. You play by accumulating story elements and combining them to unlock new storylet events, which in turn give you new elements to combine. In Doodle God those elements were things like “fire” and “water” combining to make a “steam” element; in Storydeck elements are instead characters, locations, artifacts, and so on. There are two Storydecks in current release, a Steampunk deck about a clockwork Victorian mystery and an Ella deck that appears to be a recasting of Cinderella. They’re prettily-made things, too, with evocative, mysterious illustrations for each of the story element cards.

This sounds great. I enjoyed Doodle God. I’ve enjoyed other games that were to some extent about combining narrative elements in inventive ways, often using some kind of card mechanism: Once Upon A Time, Gloom, Daniel Benmergui’s recent Storyteller game (not to be confused with his earlier game of the same name).

But the Storydeck games aren’t really clicking for me as interactive experiences, and the reason is — paradoxically — that they’re not generic enough.

This is an odd complaint for me to be making. As a rule, I’m all about specificity in storytelling. I love Echo Bazaar for its mushroom-based oenology and its Rubbery subculture; Fallout for its Nuka Cola and bottle-cap economy; the Feasts of Tre-mang for its Storm-chowder Pie. When I think about The Secret History — one of my favorite novels ever — I think of Judy Poovey’s ridiculous corset; a lone tennis shoe that is a marker of desolation in an important scene; the way one character is compared to a silk scarf in a forest of black wool. The details are so tangible and so meaningful in context that I can call them to mind a decade after last reading the book.

However. The mechanic of Doodle God is about the player thinking about two related concepts and recognizing that a those two concepts could breed to make a third; and that works only when the player knows enough about the elements to reach such a conclusion. I can imagine an enjoyable Storydeck with elements like Prince and Lost at Birth, with the Lost at Birth Prince becoming the component of a different story than the Turned Into A Frog Prince, until the player built up a particular already-known story or came up with a new one.

The two Storydecks currently on offer, though, give the player very specific items such as a “date watch” (keyed to days rather than minutes), a “street permit”, the secret passage into a castle. They’re not those items in general, ready to be slotted into a story. They are those items already endowed with a particular meaning for a particular story the author has invented, waiting for the reader to puzzle them out.

Thanks to this specificity, playing with the two Storydecks currently released reminds me of what I don’t enjoy about certain graphical adventures: the verb spectrum boils down to USE THING ON THING over and over. Sometimes that’s well-clued by the story, because you’ve got a permit and a place that you need permission to visit; sometimes it’s less clued, and you find yourself just tapping on pairs of things randomly until you have the good fortune to hit on a productive result. You’re not making a new story out of pieces, you’re finding the story already hidden there by the author. And this ergodic process is not always fun or especially revelatory about the interactive story you’re putting together.

It is also a bit unfortunate that the text is not so well proof-read as it might be. There are an assortment of typos and punctuation errors and run-on sentences, not egregious but distracting. The sentences could use a good edit to make them tighter and punchier. Then, too, the text sometimes assumes you’ve discovered something or understand something that you don’t yet know about.

I found the beginning of Ella especially confusing in this respect, because it frames the Cinderella story with fantasy content about a magic (or mechanical?) library of keys and globes and universe-hopping, and expects the player to be able to use and match up those objects without yet quite understanding what they do.

So overall, I still really like the idea of what I thought Storydeck was going to be, and in fact I think the underlying software could do something that I would find more satisfying; but I’m not crazy about the existing decks.

10 thoughts on “Storydeck: Steampunk and Ella”

  1. “you find yourself just tapping on pairs of things much randomly until you have the good fortune to hit on a productive result.” I must sadly agree.

    I gave up on Storydeck: Steampunk when I got stuck. I re-read all of the story pages I’d seen so far, tried all the reasonable combinations I could think of, and then stopped before brute-forcing the solution.

    (I might have even brute-forced the solution anyway, but I knew that I wasn’t that far into the game, and that I’d just get stuck again a few pages later.)

    I gave up on Doodle God in the same place, but in that case I followed the walkthrough to see what I should have found. If Storydeck had a hint system, it might have helped me get back on track.

    1. Doh, you caught an editing error in the bit you quoted there. Fixed it in the main text, at least.

      But yeah, it’s odd; I think I might like these stories if they were delivered with a different mechanic, and like the mechanic if it were tied to a different kind of story generation, but the two of them together are an uncomfortable marriage.

      1. I don’t think that’s precisely the problem; the problem is that these puzzles are supposed to be “hard,” so there’s a lot of wrong answers but very few right answers.

        Your “generic” example with “Prince” and “Lost at Birth” sounds great, but I’d be equally frustrated if I had two dozen cards and I tried to pair “Prince” and “Lost at Birth,” but they didn’t connect, because that’s not the right answer.

        What would help? Make the puzzles easier, either by allowing more combinations, or by guiding me toward the right answer. For example, maybe mismatched pairs could give me some information that I could use to make a “correct” match.

      2. To do the Prince/Lost at Birth thing would have to be a completely different kind of project, though, really — less about reconstructing a specific authored narrative (in which case, yes, the puzzleness would be annoying) and more about experimenting to try to construct various outcomes. For instance, perhaps there would be an achievement for constructing a story about twins separated at birth who reunite, or whatever, and you have to assemble elements until you get something that viably matches that template.

        (Of course, at this point I’m completely making up my own game, one that’s quite a lot more like Benmergui’s Storyteller than like Storydeck as it now stands.)

  2. How do Storydeck and Storyteller compare mechanically to Increprare’s Theatrics? In that you start with a few characters and you have a bunch of, well, moves with prerequisites and effects. (Examples: “Murder in the Heat of Passion” has prerequisite A, B Enemies and effect B Dead, A Criminal. “Execution” has prerequisite A Lawful, B Criminal and effect B Dead. “The Widow’s Sorrow” has prerequisite A, B Married, B dead and effect A Dead.) Your goal is to string them all together in a permissible sequence; when you do it gives you a little summary of the story.

    Storyteller sounds a lot like it to me, but it seems very much like a puzzler rather than a tool for creating stories like Once Upon A Time.

      1. Ha, it’s maybe not so clear with its affordances. (Probably because increpare did it in one weekend.)

        Here’s how it goes:
        Click on the move you want to activate in the list on the left. It’ll show the prerequisites and effects of the move, and slots for the number of actors required. (In the first season, it’s just two actors per move.)

        Hover the mouse under the letters for the slots. That’ll show a highlighted square.

        Click on one of the actors on the stage. The actor’s name, characteristics, and relationships will appear in the upper left pane.

        If you want the actor to assume the A part in the move you’re making, click on the square below the A. In this way, fill in all the slots for the move you want to make. If an actor isn’t eligible to fill a slot, the game won’t let you put them in.

        When all the slots are filled, you can click “Perform” to perform the move. You have to do the moves in the order you want them performed (and the only way to change things if you make a mistake is to hit “Restart” to reset the whole season).

        Does that make sense? I think the description makes it sound a little more complicated than it is.

        Oh, and when I said it was a puzzler, I had forgotten that season two was… well, you’ll see.

  3. Emily and everyone else in thread-

    Just wanted to say thank you so much for all this feedback. I wrote Ella and designed the systems with Ian so these criticisms are extremely helpful. The game for me is also a bit of research for my work on storytelling and narrative so again, everything here is great to read even if not always positive!


    1. Oh good — I really like to see this kind of experimentation happening, and I think the core mechanic is an intriguing one, so I would be sorry to discourage anyone.

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