Jim Munroe on Texture and “Pretty Sure”

Texture is a tool for choice-based interactive fiction, but one with explicit verbs rather than simple links in the text. Designed to feel natural on touch screen devices as well as in the browser, it lets you drag a verb from the bottom of the screen and position it over one or more hot spots in the text.

Here I’ve dragged a “remember” tag to hover the highlighted “your son” text, constructing my own command:

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 9.34.38 AM

A beta version of Texture has been around for a while – I first wrote about it in late 2014, and Jim Munroe and Juhana Leinonen have been working on it on and off since then. But that early version was still lacking a number of features. The new iteration is much more complete, both in terms of what the tool can do (better handling of variables and lasting state from page to page) and as a player-facing experience. The new version launched with a small but impressive library of titles, with new works from Jim Munroe, Robert Yang (who has often starred here before), and Jake Elliott (Kentucky Route Zero).

Jim’s big contribution is Pretty Sure, a short story about parenting: I would say a science fiction story, and there are science fictional elements, but it’s really mostly a story about human interactions and responsibilities. Jim was kind enough to talk with me about the making of Pretty Sure and the design decisions that went into it.

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 9.33.38 AM.pngAre there features of Texture that made it a particularly good fit for this story, or that changed how you decided to tell it?

Prose is really good at exploring mental processes, and the story is mostly about the player-character’s emotional struggles with raising his son. It progresses mostly through a series of choices.

Sometimes, your choices are significant. Early on you can choose a pirate hat or a cat-in-the-hat hat for your kid at your daycare’s hat day. It’s formative, and it leads him down the racist bully fork or the picked-on-kid fork.

It’s totally unfair that an arbitrary choice like that has a significant impact, especially one you have to then deal with. But deciding on a pirate hat says something about the player — a preference of aggression over goofiness — and so maybe dealing with those consequences is appropriate.

It’s interesting you say that, because I think of childhood pirate hats as pretty goofy too — and more or less totally separated from historical piracy. But maybe that still says something about me!

Sure it’s goofy, but put it on a kid and immediately they start looking for a cutlass to brandish! There’s a distinct (and more or less, I believe, harmless) role it accompanies. Not so with the cat-in-the-hat hat, which is more about freeform weirdness.

It sounds like part of your aim here is to convey a parenting experience where some of your choices do matter, yet you’re never quite sure which ones are going to be the important ones? Or am I misreading that?

No, dead on. It’s unpredictable. The name itself is a reference to that uncertainty. Another way to model this uncertainty would be to make it programmatically random, but I went with a more hand-crafted approach.

Usually, the choices are not significant, but they make you feel something. At one point you can give your child a choice, or make their choice because you’re late. (You can also give their hand a squeeze.) This flags no variables, but inside the mind of the player they have made a decision about whether offering the illusion of autonomy is a good thing.

Sometimes, there’s no good choice. If you decide to talk to the camp counsellor about your son’s racist nickname for him, it’s just awkward. But most players will decide to address racism. The one significant thing is whether you wave goodbye to the counsellor, or your son. That small act becomes a callback in the final scene.

Sometimes, choosing nothing is the best idea. There’s a scene where your son has a crush on a girl and you’re over at their house. If you don’t micromanage things and just have a beer, things unfold on their own.

Choosing how to cope is a choice. One of the great strengths of prose is the ability to draw out mental processes. In the therapy session the player can discover hidden resentments and reasons for his irritation.

One of the things I particularly like about Texture is the way tapping different verbs highlights different active spots in the text. In some of these scenes, it feels like I’m trying on different attitudes towards the content before settling on the one I want to take forward.

Thanks! We wanted the reading experience to be more book-like. When I see a bunch of choices on a screen from the beginning, I find it distracts from my reading experience. We intend for the reader to read the page, and then explore the interaction possibilities. And originally we experimented with the idea that the body words did not highlight, and you had to move the interaction word over it to see that there was a possible interaction. It felt a bit too much like pixel hunting to make it to the final mechanic, although I plan to experiment with hidden words in the future.

Talking about experimentation, I also tried other methods of engaging the player sparingly throughout the game.

Hidden Information: At one point, the player needs to suggest his kid fights a bully or talk his way out of it. By uncovering a key piece of information before making that decision (revealing that your son is small for his age) the player can make the more informed decision (to talk).

Limiting Moves: When two things occur to you to ask your son about just before the schoolbell rings, you can only ask one, and they lead you on different paths.

I feel like these two pull the reader/player in opposite directions: the hidden information method encourages playing methodically, checking out lots of options on a page and being cautious before taking an action that’s going to move you on. But having some screens limit you to just one choice (non-transparently) suggests that the reader needs to make sure their first move is the best.

That may sound like a criticism, but it’s not actually meant as one — I found the results interesting. But did you have in mind that you were training the player towards any particular approach?

Most games are about mastery, and things like training and ramping difficulty and balancing are all really important. But for a point-of-view game like this, feeling frustrated is part of the point.

I would like to make more Texture games in the future that are more traditional — it just felt like with the story I had to tell about parenting that it would have been dishonest.

While making the game fun or fair wasn’t paramount I did a fair amount of testing to see what people’s experience was like.  I discovered that most people assumed the game was completely linear — possibly due to its book-like formatting, possibly due to experience with previous games.

People do seem to make this no-real-branching assumption about a lot of Twine games as well, even when it’s completely unjustified.

It’s true. It was important to me that the player realize their impact, as it changes how much they consider their choices. In Pretty Sure, while it always comes back to the trunk, there’s a fair amount of branching. So I did the following three things to telegraph the impact. In order of subtlety:

     • Near the end, there’s a callback to a decision you made earlier and how it impacted your relationship with your son.

     • At the very end there’s a device that allows you to revisit the hat fork, putting you on the path you didn’t go on.

     • Near the beginning the game explicitly says, a la Telltale: “You had a sinking sensation that you’d made a significant choice that morning.” (Even though this is a bit of a convention, it feels a bit kludgy.)

The second big change was including the information as to whether your son is your biological child. It’s a bit of a red herring, so I decided to include this info rather than have people fixate on it. The real point is that it’s really hard to get a negative ending. You have to A) open your son’s mail, B) press him about the paternity and C) opted not to do therapy, as this stops you from pushing the issue. Even then, he’s disappointed that it means so much to you — he only cares about it if you do.

2 thoughts on “Jim Munroe on Texture and “Pretty Sure””

  1. Hey, thanks a lot! I had no idea Texture was this far advanced and had a public repository of games. That’s another place for me to check when looking for new IF, cheers!

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