At GDC 2013 I was onstage three times — twice to speak about Versu, but once also at the Indie Soapbox, which is a session in which ten indie game developers get five minutes each to talk about whatever they want. The soapbox topics were extremely varied and covered everything from the pleasures of writing indie games while traveling the world to publicity challenges to how to make interactive music that changes as the gameplay changes.
I talked about interactive text. Actually, I kind of ranted about interactive text.
The gist of my rant was: text is not just cheap. It’s not just the medium you use when you have no resources and no high-end software. It’s a very powerful medium for communicating nuance, viewpoint, interiority, motivation, the experience of the outsider. It’s an artistic medium with its own beauties. And because language is all around us, embodying cultural norms and politics, word-mechanics can address big issues.
Sometimes in the game industry you encounter people who don’t respect text, or don’t respect the craft of writing, as though creating good text were less expressive than creating good art, or less challenging than creating good code. That’s their error.
Sometimes people assume text games must be ugly and have low production values. That isn’t true either. It is possible for text games to be visual feasts.
Here are some of the pieces I talked about or didn’t get time to talk about, and one or two more that I might have talked about if they’d been out at the time.
I talked about:
howling dogs by Porpentine. Twine interactive fiction appearing in the IF Comp. I talked about how individual sentences stayed with me, about the flexibility of text, about its capacity to hint at ideas that you can dwell on for weeks. Twine has become a significant creative tool for a community of queer authors writing about their experiences and topics rarely covered in games.
The Baron by Victor Gijsbers. I talked about how this piece asks you not just what you want to do but why you’ve chosen to do that, and how motivation and purpose are expressible in text choices in a way that’s very hard to arrange elsewhere.
maybe make some change, Aaron Reed. I talked about how the narrative is retold in different words to reveal different perspectives, and how the verbs you have available shift to represent your different options, your training and attitude towards your situation.
I wish I could also have covered:
Zero Summer, Gordon Levine et al for StoryNexus. Zero Summer is joyously verbose, playing with the idioms of the western. It’s also an excellent example of the StoryNexus engine at work. (My review, followup.) And, of course, it’s worth a look at the original game that gave rise to StoryNexus, Fallen London.
inklewriter fiction — in this case, an adapted Sherlock Holmes story. inklewriter combines easy creation tools with a classy presentation. (My tool discussion.) inklewriter is seductively easy to get into and use, and permits export of the resulting work to Kindle formats as well.
The Girl and the Wolf, Nick Montfort: a variable fairy tale where you can choose how much violence and how much sex you want in your retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, from a 3-by-3 grid. There is a Spanish translation as well.
Silent Conversation by Gregory Weir, a platformer of sorts in which you traverse concrete poetry. In one level the words “the moon” hover faded and pale grey above the rest of the line of text. The challenge is to make contact with each bit of text on the way, but some words are dangerous and sinister, sending off ghostly red forms that endanger the player figure.
ChoiceScript games from Choice of Games, stats-heavy choice-based fiction, often with a heavy emphasis on creating your own character and developing your preferred persona, sexuality, and preferences.
iOS gamebooks from Gamebook Adventures, which reproduce the sensation of book-and-dice experiences from past decades.
18 Cadence, Aaron Reed’s brand-new iOS and web-based work of “fridge narrative”, allowing the reader to explore the history of a particular house, the uses of its space, the objects and people found there; and then to take snippets of prose and reassemble them, presenting particular narratives or themes. (My review.)
Bee (mine), in Varytale, a system designed to emphasize the literary aspects of interactive narrative. It uses principles of quality-based narrative — that is, tracking a number of behind the scenes variables in order to decide what scenes and options should be presented to the player — similar to Fallen London and StoryNexus games.
First Draft of the Revolution, me, Liza Daly, and inkle. Interactive epistolary in which the mechanic is rewriting letters, deciding what to reveal and what to hide.
Desiring Flights, Barry Moon in Unity. Desiring Flights treats words as bulky 3D objects, precariously placed in space. (My coverage from the IF Demo Fair, including coverage of several other pieces of interactive poetry.)
Ex Nihilo, Juhana Leinonen, Vorple; an experience that stores input from other players, creating a sort-of-multiplayer experience.
This is, of course, a very short and very incomplete list. There’s lots more classic parser IF I could have included, but part of my aim with this collection of screenshots was to demonstrate the very wide range of styles and looks and show that a number of text-based games are attractive, polished, aesthetically appealing.
And then there are all the letter-based games — Scrabble and Boggle, Words with Friends, IF games with a wordplay concept, Apples to Apples, Scattergories, Cards Against Humanity. Family games, casual games, mobile and desktop games. Not all of these are remotely the same kind of game, of course, but that’s kind of my point.