Today got off to an excellent start with the Narrative Innovation Showcase, which included Samantha Gorman on PRY; Aaron Reed on the Ice-Bound Concordance; Katie Chironis on Elsinore, a time-looping Hamlet game that you play as Ophelia; Nina Freeman on Cibele; and Richard Rouse on The Church in the Darkness. There’s a Polygon article about the panel, though that leaves out TCitD and may also give the impression that the discussion was mostly a tired rehash of the Authorial Intent Vs. Player Agency battle. It wasn’t.
The showcase was curated by Clara Fernández-Vara and Matthew Weise, and it made for a really great overview of some of the current experimentation in interactive narrative. There was new information even about the projects I knew a fair amount about: for instance, that Ice-Bound Concordance contains only 50K words of text, a surprisingly small total considering how richly varied the experience seems when you’re playing; that one single text passage of PRY contains about 45 minutes’ worth of video, accessible if you pull apart the text at the right places; that The Church in the Darkness randomizes the motives of the cult you’re investigating, so that in one playthrough it might prove to be sinister and in another, perhaps, well-meaning or at worst a bit misguided.
Aaron Reed talked about conceptualizing Ice-Bound’s narrative in terms of a sculptural interaction — the player working with clay to shape the story, rather than moving through it as a maze or customizing it as though it were a car with selectable colors. And he referred to Ice-Bound’s use of props as “Chekhov’s dollhouse,” in which the player gets to decide which items take on the role of the gun on the mantelpiece, guaranteed to have an effect later on in the story.
Nina’s talk about Cibele was focused more on the shape of the story: that Cibele is intentionally a vignette, capturing one moment in the emotional development of the characters, and that the abruptness of the conclusion is intentional and designed to create part of the emotional effect.
Anyway, really good talk; well-attended; and it was gratifying looking around from where I was sitting and seeing old parser hands as well as folks from inkle, Choice of Games, and Failbetter in the audience.
The failure workshop looked at several different game design processes and how they’d gone horribly wrong: the Gamasutra write-up is here, but what struck me far more than any technical issue was how much these stories hinged on psychological blocks: the creator who doesn’t want to get alpha feedback on a game that he thinks is not yet as good as his last release; the one who blanks on core lessons learned on previous projects; the tendency of designers to know that there’s a problem but ignore it because the cost of giving up is so great. Brains: they are a problem.
Meg Jayanth talked about 80 Days and the value of bringing NPCs to the fore, writing stories that weren’t about empowerment; it shared some thoughts from her talk at PRACTICE last year, but it’s still a good message compellingly delivered.
I failed to get into the procedural generation talk featuring Tanya Short and Tarn Adams: that had long, long lines and we happened not to be near enough the front to make it inside.
Instead, I and the people with me retired to the tabletop board gaming area, curated by Shut Up and Sit Down, and played a round of Billionaire Banshee. In this game, you draw cards from two decks, a “Perk” and a “Quirk”, and describe the resulting person; other players vote on whether they would date or deny such a person, and you win if you’re right about whether the majority will or will not accept them. It’s a guess-how-others-will-vote mechanic, though in the round we played, the whole group found a pretty easy consensus. Almost all of us were willing to consider dates with a transparent-skinned individual who sneezes rose petals, or a six-armed individual who had the ability to teleport when eating banana pudding. No one, on the other hand, wanted a lover with a pouch large enough to carry us (supposedly a perk), especially once we factored in this lover’s habitual infidelity.
To my mind the most satisfying thing about Billionaire Banshee is the way each of these perk and quirk cards have detailed, pedantic discussions of what exactly each perk and quirk entailed. So for instance, the “six-armed” card explains that the arms are each shaped like an ordinary human arm and that owner is willing to wear a shirt covering four of the arms on some occasions.
I did get to see Rob Morgan on VR and AR storytelling, talking about how it’s even harder to control and shape the player’s movements and experience than it would be in a traditional on-screen game. And about how the player in a VR environment doesn’t necessarily stick to understood social norms about how to behave in that kind of space, but will — just as in any other kind of video game simulation, really — start goofing around and exploring the boundaries. Give them a gallery of paintings and they won’t necessarily stand obediently contemplating the paintings; they may instead experiment with what else they can do to, with, or in spite of those paintings. So part of the point is to “think about what you can make the player feel they’re getting away with,” because getting away with something is “the best feeling.”