My breasts were heaving, literally, like in a novel. (The Night I Wore a Mask, silkwords.com)
SilkWords is a new website for interactive romance and erotica — a commercial one, paying authors $500 and up. Unlike a lot of the other recent experiments in paid interactive fiction, it runs on a subscription model: pay for a month at a time, read as much as you’d like. It’s a model that presumably needs a steady stream of new content to keep readers engaged. There are currently nine stories available, and three more listed as coming soon; they are rated by hotness, from “mild” to “very hot” and “BDSM”.
Structurally, the pieces I tried are really straightforward CYOA: choice points typically give only two options (and occasionally only give one, a Continue choice). There’s no visible world-state tracking. My playthroughs were typically two to four choice points long, with very large amounts of text in between. When I asked about retained variables via twitter, the response was that the engine was capable of more, but that the site is initially focusing on story over gameness. This is of course a perfectly fair response, but I often felt these would have worked better as interactive stories (not, necessarily, games) if they had allowed a few more choice points, more carefully selected.
Some comments on specific stories follow.
The Night I Wore A Mask is pretty much straight erotica: get dressed up, go to a party, have sex with one or more people there. The story is told in first person, while the choices are phrased in third person (“she decides to wear the belly dancer costume”, e.g.). Depending on your choices, you can wind up with different costumes or different configurations of partners. It struck me as competent for the sort of thing it is, with a few surprise sentences, like this one:
In my breasts were bright flickering flames, and in my womb was the slow and consuming glow of a blaze burning for hours.
Which sounds more medical than sexy to me, but everyone’s mileage varies, I’m given to understand. In any case, the prose was not as extreme as in Charlotte: Prowling for Enchantment.
A brief look into the other erotica suggested it was going to be more of the same kind of thing, so I otherwise focused on the more romantic pieces.
The Very Thought of You worked better for me. The story is about a lesbian in 1955, trying to get over the memory of her dead lover. However you move through it, whatever choices you make, the story is always about the way she navigates her grief, and that gives it thematic cohesion. Other potential romantic interests show up, memories occur, she stumbles across other people’s stories — but her process is also about whether and how to let go of the past, on what terms. She also has to deal with the fear of being found out in an era when homosexuals and Communists were classed together as a great threat to American life. It’s solid, competent writing.
The rhythm of the choice points nonetheless felt a bit off to me, because when they come so far apart, interspersed with so many cases of the protagonist making her own decisions, I feel like the story occupies an awkward intermediate place between interactivity and static fiction.
Between Hedge and Manor starts strong, establishing a protagonist with a supernatural gift that seemed both interesting and mildly unusual: the ability to know the answers to other people’s questions without knowing the questions themselves. The story runs a long time before the first choice point, and the use of choices is consistently about whether or not the protagonist and her lover will give in to their mutual desire, or resist it. I liked the fact that the choices were consistently structured and that the author (at least initially) seemed to have a specific setting in mind.
Ultimately, though, the story was too short for the build-up it had been given (perhaps an outcome of the mandated word lengths for these stories?). There are hints of a mystery unfolding and of legitimate reasons why the protagonist might have trouble being with her lover — but then these issues are more or less swept aside, rather than explained or resolved. If we’ve spent hundreds or thousands of words on the topic of how society will frown on this pairing of people, it doesn’t work as a resolution to have them suddenly, and apparently arbitrarily, decide they don’t care.
Meanwhile, even with so few choice points, several of those choices seemed not to make much difference to the outcome.
Ellery’s Choice is about a woman who has been living on the farm of her dead fiancé’s family, after he died in Afghanistan and his parents needed help. Again we have the theme of grieving and getting over it (see The Very Thought of You. Again, she meets someone who threatens to jolt her out of her grief-stricken celibacy. But the choice structure here is especially confounding: very few choice nodes (in four playthroughs, I had two choices each), and the outcome of some of the choices is exactly the opposite of what I would have expected. Push someone away, and you wind up with him. Encourage someone, and your relationship ends. That sort of thing.
It didn’t really feel as though there was an artistic purpose to this. It felt more as though the author had come up with several versions of the story all of which satisfied her, and then put option points where the tracks branched — but without thinking especially about the purpose of those choices or what experience they created from the player’s perspective.
Choice-based stories are harder than they look, I think is my moral from this. The choices in SilkWords’ heavily erotic stories are just checking the reader’s appetite: would you rather read about a scene with a male partner or a female one? Bondage or threesome? Etc. It’s entirely interactivity-as-audience-catering. The romance stories tried harder, but not always successfully. They gave me the impression that the authors were practiced writers in a static fiction context, but not especially familiar with the possibilities of interactivity.