Z Files: Infection is a project currently being Kickstarted, an interactive comic book set in a zombie universe. I talked with Ruber Eaglenest, aka El Clerigo Urbatain, about the project, and how it works as an interactive comic, as interactive fiction, and in terms of how it portrays its protagonist.
RUBER: There have been other games that have tried to this fusion, but they are most experiments, or resort to the “infinite canvas”.
EMILY: I think that is an interesting direction. I’ve seen a handful of pieces that do similar things, but I think there is probably a lot of additional room to explore it. IIRC, some of the Tin Man Games pieces do include some comic illustration elements; also a few other things I’ve covered.
RUBER: To be honest, sometimes I’m not at all satisfied about how I try to communicate how interesting is our project compared to other attempts to make interactive comic. I do not want to look as I disregard other attempts, especially when I can climb on his shoulders and improve from there.
We are going to stay inside the pages of a comic, and so, the challenge is to apply the tree structure of CYOA to the finite space of a comic book.
EMILY: What actual constraints do you have in mind here? For instance, are you trying to make all the pages be the same size, or have the same amount of visual space assigned to each node?
RUBER: You see, people and the press likes to praise the infinite canvas because we simply love to see common things applied to new technologies. But when one uses the infinite canvas in a digital or interactive comic, you lose some of the features and inherent properties of the comic format. For example, the ability to close a page narrative, or leave it open with a cliffhanger so that an important revelation occurs at the turn of the page. To play with the structure, with graphic symmetry, among other wonders you can do within the pages of a comic book. For example, in the following conference praising Watchmen, Kieron Gillen explained very well the capacity of traditional structures of comics raised to its maximum capacity of artistic expression.
So in a way, the infinite canvas is but a simple way to make interactive comic, to easy our lives as designers. Each comic strip just adds to the buffer and if you need more space, you just create a new line as the story progresses. But we do not want to lose the expressive power of traditional comic pages for this project, so we have stayed inside.
Then, the constraints we face are the same as when a comic author raises the structure of a page, but with the complication that if we have a branch point, then we must plan the page, or the rest of the structure page for each of the future branches.
For example, the structure of the game begins with a decision point for three branches. The hero must go from the house to the mall where his brother is trapped. There are three possible ways, by motorbike, on foot or by subway. The three paths converge at one point when it reaches the goal, and then inside the mall exploration opens up with a map, with free roaming.
Therefore we can think of the structures of the pages as a hierarchical structure inherited. We have a main structure of comic strip canvas for the trip from the house to the mall. Then for each of the possible routes, we must raise another structure, and then within each route, for each branch, etc. Always within the limits of each page.
So returning to your questions. Yes and yes. We are limited to the size of the page. And for a certain branch we have a predefined structure of canvases for the illustrations, each one must fit perfectly within all boundaries.
As for nodes … things get complicated. Sometimes a comic strip belong to a single node, but others act more as the location on a map, as Sorcery! for example. So, in our case a comic strip or cell could represent an entire scene that contains a series of nodes. Thus the digital comic can act as an UNDO: you check the past pages of the digital comic, and select one cell clicking on it and this functions as an option for rewinding time.
EMILY: That’s very cool.
Are you doing any effects where stats or minor gamestates might alter an illustration in small ways? Or is it all a matter of showing one image vs. the other, with no internal changes?
RUBER: Yes and no. Each illustration is attached to a concrete scene or node. We could implement a comic strip cell with layers, and for example, to show different things or add up a layer, depending of certain variables… however, the structure of the original gamebook doesn’t required this, that I can remember. But, for example we have rewards where we change the hero with the persona of a backer, so, definitively this is something we can do, just for convenience of the kickstarter, or for convenience of the adaptation. But right now I don’t have an example to give you.
EMILY: And are you building a general engine for this kind of project?
RUBER: Yes and no. Internally we use a script similar to the first scripts of Inkle or similar to ChoiceScript. Then the script will be fed to an Unity engine that is responsible for assembling the digital comic, throwing battles, build the interface, etc. The script will be open source, but for the unity engine we have not yet decided.
But yes, I think the whole framework could work for projects of similar conception and scope.
RUBER: I will try to apply the things we have learned with world model based IF, that is, the same conclusion as Inkle Studios: short text, and early interaction..
The examples of interaction that I saw looked like they were mostly adding gamebook elements to the combat. How much new story content are you adding?
The game is an adaptation of a paper gamebook with advanced rules (combat, role-playing elements, dice, and at one point in the story, free roaming). So yes, it is a digital gamebook and structurally is similar to the original. We are not going to add new branches or new text for the sake of it. Although we plan to create a certain stretch goal where a complete new route across rooftops. On the contrary, we will chop the pages of the book and expand all nodes in a logical way to build a simulation and proper world building, like we do in interactive fiction with parser and locations. The philosophy is similar to what Inkle made in Sorcery! 1, but not as they made for more ambitious philosophy like in Sorcery! 2, or 3, where they put complete free roaming. And not even whole new world for Sorcery! 3. We are not going to do that because it’s not necessary for this game. We’re staying within the branches of the original story, although maybe we could expand them when we miss some logical action that it is not in the original book.
In short, rather than add new text or new branches, we will chop it for the purposes of a better world building, and we will reduce it because we have the comic illustrations to support it, we don’t need to use all original text.
I know you love gamebook structures, so I’ve attached the structure of the original Infection gamebook. [Ed. note: it’s huge, click through for details.]
Numbers in the map doesn’t correlate with the original ones in the book, because the script that generated it wasn’t setted right. But that’s not bother to enjoy the structure.
As you can see, the game branches in three main ways to reach the center mall. Then rejoin to enter the mall. And inside the player must to choose from locations of a map to explore the place. That’s why, there’s that hell of miriad of independent trees.
Problems with exposition and person and gender
RUBER: You know, this is a “you are the hero” game, but all comics are written in third person… the hero is defined, so, we have a problem here, a big but really interesting problem. Let alone about why we don’t have a gender option for the game. The book is written for a male heterosexual and white hero, so… What we are going to do to reach the gender standards of XXI century?
EMILY: I don’t think it’s inherently a problem to have a defined hero for this kind of work. Choice of Games heroes and heroines are very open-ended because that’s part of their brand and concept; but inkle’s Passepartout is a person with a known gender, for instance.
RUBER: Yeah, you are right. But I mean, it’s a problem of form. The game talks to you in second person because You are the hero, but inside the comic strip the action is in third person. We must be careful in how we refer to the hero to avoid creating a dissonance regarding the person of the narrative at all times. It is a little more complicated than in pure text form just because the comic medium.
EMILY: So… how are you planning to approach that? :)
RUBER: Yeah, That is the big interesting problem I mean before: the gender problem. It is big design problem for us. Let me explain myself, and let me be quite frank: we will not do it. Because it is very expensive!
To make that the game allows you to select a hero or heroine, in our case, is very expensive because it means you have to duplicate all the graphics resources of the game where the hero appears. That means it is twice the development time for designing and implementing the hero. And we have not budgeted that extra money. But that does not mean that we are satisfied with it. Like you said, if you have Passepartout, it’s a no matter that you can’t choose a female version, because it is already fully characterized. But in our case we believe it would be very interesting. In fact, our illustrator, Maite, the very first concept art she made was a female version of the hero, with her boyfriend crouched in a pin up position, embracing his knees. About 45% of our patrons are women. And most women players prefer to play with a female avatar. So … we can’t do it, and that pisses us so much.
If the game was text only, that would be relatively easy to do, like Choice of Games does (it would be easy for this game, not for any of the complex works of them.) But, when you have graphics that are vital part of the experience, things get complicated.
But we can dream, and we can dream that our crowdfunding campaign goes so well that we could reach a potential stretch goal to make it happen. To cover the expenses of design a heroine: a young but resolute girl, riding her motorbike katana in hand; and adapt every situation to give a proper feminine vision of the world.
EMILY: You could also have started with a female protagonist and added the male one as a stretch goal. Is the reason not to do that because of the gamebook you’re working from, or because male felt like a better initial fit for your audience, or…?
RUBER: Probably because I’m not yet proper sensibilized with egalitarian tendencies? I’m joking… of course it was because of the gamebook I’m working from. It is a gamebook designed by men with a male hero in it, with men jokes and hero points awarded by heroes acts. But as I said, just from the beginning we were eager to do a female version, but simply, could not afford it to include in the budget.
Cast an eye to that first concept art our artist made (we have two artists working, a creative director, Francis Porcel, awarded comic of european comics working for Dargaud, and Maite Hernández who read my mind when she came with that picture).
The ambiance for the universe isn’t even right, the game takes place in 1999, and not in the 80s, but this was from a first batch of concepts before we decided the decade.
However, let me be clear: about this female character, we are just speculating. First the crowdfunding goal must be met, and then a stretch goal. As I said, one man can dream. And come what may we should treat this with the most tactfulness. If this happens we would do a proper female hero, not simply a replacement of an avatar for another.