Winterstrike (Yoon Ha Lee)

Winterstrike is a StoryNexus world by Yoon Ha Lee, the SF/fantasy author whose previous IF work includes the art-show piece Swanglass and the evocative, elegant The Moonlit Tower.

Winterstrike takes that same gift for imagining a strange and alien world and presents it via StoryNexus mechanics: Iria is a city of etiquette and technology. It used to have spaceships and dueling clubs, architects and soldiers. Now suddenly it is oppressed by a heavy unnatural winter, the result of an act of war, though it is not clear who made such an attack, nor how. Bodies are frozen; buildings are broken; there isn’t enough hot food to go around. It’s not immediately clear how many races of creatures inhabit the city, let alone what their allegiances might be. Hints about the nature of the world accumulate slowly.

Plot grips less strongly here than in Samsara — at least during the opening stages. There are fewer of the pinned cards that represent ongoing plot threads. Some come in time, but to start with there aren’t many options of that kind. Instead, playing Winterstrike resembles exploring a foreign city when one has no special agenda of one’s own. A market, a street performance, an attempted crime, an interesting ruin capture the protagonist’s attention and then let it go again.

Meanwhile, the action bank is very generous, which means you can play more of Winterstrike at a time than you can of some SN games — a good move, I think, because it allows the player a little more scope to begin putting together clues and fragments before an enforced hiatus helps her forget them again.

As with Fallen London, the player character seems to be intentionally short on allegiances and long on self-preservation. Sometimes you have opportunities to act altruistically, take a side, help someone in trouble, but there’s also plenty of freedom to cross the lines and combine multiple strategies. It grows on me more slowly than Samsara did, I have less clear sense of what my character might in the long run wish to accomplish, but in the meantime the worldbuilding and imagery are intriguing, and there seems to be a lot of content to explore.

And a side note which is not really about Winterstrike per se:

I am not quite sure how I feel about StoryNexus’ recurrent use of a pool of iconic images. Playing Winterstrike one finds the same bridge over a river, the same sword, the same flag that make constant appearances in Samsara: now tinted a grim blue-grey rather than Samsara‘s heated gold, but with the same forms. This is a much better outcome than having no art for StoryNexus games — the concept of interchangeable cards more or less requires the player be given some visual distinction between options. And the available set is fairly evocative while at the same time not committing itself too firmly to any one genre. Nonetheless I found myself struggling with the imagery set more in Winterstrike precisely because those images already had meanings for me; it was like trying to hang a second coat on the same peg, associating this new set of story options with the same pictures.

5 thoughts on “Winterstrike (Yoon Ha Lee)”

  1. I tried out Winterstrike as my first StoryNexus game. I really, really wanted to like it. It had great writing, but…

    … at the end (at least of one ending), I discovered that I hadn’t actually enjoyed the process at all. I’d clicked on a lot of cards, read a lot of text, juggled some stats, and still felt like nothing was learned, nothing revealed, I was shown far too much of the meta-game (“this branch is locked… you need X quality… this will give you Y quality… declaring a faction will advance you to the end-game… pay Y Nex to just buy the world and a hat”) that my character shouldn’t have known, and in the end I’d been given no real choice on what events occurred.

    Then I played Cabinet Noir to the end of one sub-story (The Soldier) and again, that sense of a lot of random clickery for the sake of clicking, great writing, good story even, but very little actual player agency. I felt like I was playing a character who was playing a stat-juggling card game about another character in a world, rather than being a character in a world myself.

    Now I’m playing Fallen London itself (yes, I know I’m doing it in the wrong order) and after a bit of a false start, I’m finding I like it a LOT more than I like StoryNexus. The writing is more visible, the qualities seem more interesting, and there’s less of a sense of “go talk to five random people unrelated to the subplot you’re on before you can advance.” Or at least, because there’s no overriding master-plot to be interrupted by grind, there’s less conflict between the grind and the plot as reward; they’re both interesting and fun.

    As a story creator, I’d love the ability to present storylets with a headline and introductory text paragraph, rather than as a card, and I don’t see myself using the Opportunity deck at all. Are there any plans to allow that?

  2. Hi, a newbie in IF in general, and SN in particular. I have immersed myself in the IF worlds and mostly enjoying it. I love parser based games more than the click-through branching scenarios of SN and the like. I also personally think that the clicking on a deck of cards is not a very good way of showing character’s or player’s agency. It is afterall just a random draw! I think parser based games have more agency, even though giving parser commands can become really frustrating. But parser interaction IS exactly what makes it ‘interactive’! Anyway, this is a personal choice and I am sure many people like the SN type click-throughs more that the parser based games. Coming back to Winterstrike. Played it for a while. The narrative is interesting. The author has done a lot of work on world building. But I got bored after a while, clicking through cards. Again, perhaps I need to develop a taste for this kind of work. My experience with Samsara was comparatively better, perhaps because of my cultural background which allows me to allow stories from the subcontinent more appealing. SF has never been my cup of tea so perhaps that could be another reason that I did not enjoy Winterstrike that much!

  3. I only started playing Fallen London after they opened up the beta for StoryNexus; I’ve also played through Cabinet Noir and devoted a few hours to Winterstrike. For me, they all occupy a specific, very different niche than traditional IF: games I can play with a two-year-old asleep on my chest. Fallen London is definitely the most engaging of them all in terms of bite-sized pieces of story, but I have hopes for the SN games as people try new things with the tools.

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