Liza Daly on Stone Harbor

stoneharborcover.pngI spoke to Liza Daly about her 4th-place IF Comp 2016 entry Stone Harbor. In full disclosure, Liza is a friend, and we have worked together in the past; she commissioned me to write First Draft of the Revolution.

On this occasion, she was kind enough to talk with me about where her project came from, her ambitions for IF in general, and how she sees interactive fiction relative to the world of publishing and ebooks—including some thoughts on why interactive ebooks didn’t become the cutting edge of interactive fiction.

What were your goals for the Stone Harbor project when you got started?

I work in publishing, and I’ve long been frustrated by how little awareness there is of interactive fiction, or born-digital writing in general, in the publishing community. At best, people think it’s all Choose Your Own Adventure books, or Zork, or navel-gazing avant-garde experiments, or big-budget apps like Arcadia. The objections I’ve heard about IF range from “those are for kids” to “they’re games not stories” or “they cost thousands of dollars to make.” So on one level my goal was to write a relatively conventional genre story—something publishers could could recognize—cheaply and quickly.

Meanwhile my personal projects tend to be short or abstract: Twitter bots or computer-generated “novels” that are devoid of meaning. I wanted to see if I could do the hard work of writing believable characters and sustaining a storyline.

Both goals pulled Stone Harbor in the direction of being longer (by word-count) and less branch-y than is typical for IF Comp entries. I hoped that it would be received as “minimally interactive” rather than “slapped-on interactive,” but I think it’s a fair criticism that I could have made the interactivity deeper without compromising the story-ness. I’m inspired to do better next time.

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Those Trojan Girls (Mark Bernstein)

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Those Trojan Girls is a hypertext novel by Mark Bernstein, written in Storyspace. Storyspace is Bernstein’s project, and the blurb for Those Trojan Girls describes how the tool might add to the possibilities of the medium:

Those Trojan Girls is also the first published hypertext to use the new Storyspace 3 facilities for stretchtext and sculptural hypertext – ideas explored in the research literature for more than a decade but that remain little known outside the research community.

In practice, stretchtext and sculptural hypertext refer to ideas that already exist in interactive fiction. As discussed in an interview with Bernstein here, “sculptural hypertext” refers to having pieces of text that appear based not on links but on other variable conditions, similar to quality-based narrative. Stretchtext refers to replacing a section of text with a longer, more detailed section, which is one of several things Twine texts do fairly routinely with text replacement macros. So “little known outside the research community” might be a slight exaggeration.

But the point, I think, is that the piece is attempting to introduce some of these features and methods to a community of practice — academic/literary hypertext — that has historically not paid terribly much attention to the IF community of practice, despite very significant overlap in many of the technological affordances of their tools.

Those Trojan Girls is definitely unlike game-like hypertexts, and avoids the kinds of agency found therein. I’m not sure I’d say there’s much of what I typically think of as “readerly” agency either. It’s hard, for instance, to decide on a theme, character, plot point or other element you want to pursue and track that train through the narrative (in contrast with Arcadia, which is designed for exactly that type of reading, or if, which thematically encourages completionist rigor).

There are a few formatting challenges familiar from Twine and not exactly solved here. Some blue links expand in place, while others lead through to a new passage of text — a frequent complaint about Twine works as well — and in Storyspace (or at least in this implementation) one can’t predict which is which without either clicking through or referring to the map, which appears in the lefthand side of the screen and moves as you read:

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End of November Link Assortment

Events

December 3 is the Bay Area IF Meetup.

December 14, the People’s Republic of IF meets at MIT to look at some of the remaining IF Comp winners and discuss future project plans.

December 30 is the Scouring of Scotia, a live-via-Twitter shared gamebook/IF experience.

The Oxford/London IF Meetup takes a holiday in December.

cover-teeth-and-ice-hannah-powell-smith.pngNew Releases

Quite a lot of good stuff has come out this month, even not counting the end of IF Comp and the ECTOCOMP games I reviewed previously.

Sub-Q brings us a new story from Hannah Powell-Smith, a Raconteur piece called Teeth and Ice. It’s the story of a selkie trying to retrieve her skin; I lost several times, but it is possible to succeed, if you manage your resources right.

Xalavier Nelson Jr. (author of the comp game SCREW YOU, BEAR DAD) has a new piece out called Mazurka – A Ghost in Italy, now available on itchi.io for $0.49. It is a short, reflective story about prejudice, race, mental health, and fitting in vs. not; like some of Nelson’s other work, it uses link clicks very extensively to pace reading, and I found that more than usually effective in this particular work.

Ibis, Fly is a poetic new piece from Mary Hamilton, about being a bird who befriends other birds. Clicking the text often cycles between human and bird perspectives, turning familiar words into less recognizable descriptions of the way a bird might perceive these items. (See also Hamilton’s previous work, Detritus.)

Laura Michet’s Brigand Story is a horror piece about a tale told and retold and retold around the campfire, and what goes wrong with the telling and the tale. The words break down, repeat, stumble on themselves and change. It’s definitely its own thing, but might appeal also to people who enjoy Michael Lutz‘s horror.

Burnt Matches from Pippin Barr is concrete poetry…

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…in which each screen is a textual space to be traversed. Many of the interactions are subtly witty: long walks that head off the edge of the screen, words that ripple as your cursor passes over them. The whole doesn’t really yield to simple literal explanation (or it doesn’t for me), but it describes a journey that feels at least tonally consistent. There are echoes out of The Waste Land, lilacs and tarot cards and full fathom deep. But then also flickering screens of chess moves and alphabets I don’t read, which often must be manipulated (without understanding) in order to open the transition to the next screen: a content-free form of hacking that reminds me of 90s cyberpunk novels. And then just cold, frost and chill rooms and water, everything guttering until the world-text disintegrates into a field of simulated Twine errors. (Like, but also completely unlike, B Minus Seven’s use of Twine errors in Inward Narrow Crooked Lanes.)

Then also, new from Porpentine, Miss Clemory and the Wall of Fire:

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Its sole IFDB review at the moment describes it as good writing draped over not much story, but I disagree with that assessment. Yes, there’s a lot of metaphorical language in this piece, but the choice of metaphorical content is itself extremely revealing: the protagonist is very self-conscious about being a narrator, and the narration tells you quite a bit about who she is as a person. Meanwhile, the core of the story is about the distance between siblings, and the relationship between creative people, and the way we use language to manage and control and keep someone away. It has a short-story-shaped plot rather than a big bold adventure plot, but that suits this particular work.

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Mailbag: Mysteries in CYOA

I sometimes print letters I’ve received and what I wrote in response. This is usually for one of two reasons: I’d like to pass on what the writer had to say, or the writer asked a question that requires a long detailed answer, and I think other people might benefit from seeing that as well.

I am experimenting with doing this in a more formal way, with a regular mailbag post. Reprinted letters may be edited for length; if so, I will note that editing has occurred. I do not do this without the permission of the letter-writer, so if you write to me and would be open to seeing your email appear as a blog post, feel free to mention that fact. On the other hand, I do not guarantee to print every letter that grants permission.

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[Negotiation redacted, but this letter exchange began with the writer asking how much of a question they could ask before my response started to get into paid consulting territory. Which was considerate! In practice it didn’t seem like we needed to go there yet, so this is just a casual conversation so far.]

Briefly, then, the project is called [redacted] and is an interactive noir in the technological/interface vein of 80 DAYS, SORCERY!, and FIRST DRAFT. I’m using “ink” for the base nonlinear narrative scripting, and will be custom-implementing an interface in Unity (which I’m very experienced with, so won’t need to talk about that.) Broadly, [a previous game in the same world] is about sowing chaos in a city during a coup, and [redacted] is about the ensuing power vacuum, fallout, and human cost, in the general direction of THE THIRD MAN and CHINATOWN. 

That’s the premise, here’s the problem: I want to make something that is current in terms of IF design, and after MAKE IT GOOD, to a lesser extent AISLE/HER STORY, and recent releases (I’m behind on my IFComps), how exactly does one design an interactive mystery narrative? I don’t want to go Keyser Soze, it would be not-trivial-but-understood to just write a mystery novel with interactive stage business, but I don’t think either approach would be responsible to the player/reader. The aim is to make a solid CYOA-style mystery, and there is a very real problem with that format – any investigation is necessarily telegraphed by the options given to the player.

I can think of several approaches, but none are particularly satisfying. Additionally, there’s the problem of presentation/retention: Jon Ingold suggests that the ‘standard’ pace of an ink story should be 1-200 words between choices. I enjoy working within constraints, but the basic problem of a mystery piece with suggested actions complicates this particular guideline.

On top of all this, although I’m an enthusiastic hobbyist and pro-am IF theorist/creator, I’ve primarily used Inform 7 to date, which is entirely different than a multiple-choice approach, so I had also hoped to glean some insight about your work and study of CYOA and hyperlink/Twine narrative in recent years.

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Mid-November Link Assortment

November 19, London, is Wordplay, held at the British Library. [Not Museum, as I stupidly mis-typed earlier.]

November 20, also London, AdventureX is running the interactive fiction-y part of its content. I’ll be talking about IF past, present, and future.

November 25, London, Parallel Worlds is a game design conference running at the V&A museum.

ICIDS is running this week, with the latest academic work on interactive digital storytelling. The papers are currently available (though at some cost); or, through December 9, if you go through the link on icids2016.ict.usc.edu, you can download the full PDF for free.

Competitions

Choice of Games is running a new competition for interactive fiction in their house style. There are very detailed descriptions of what they’re looking for. Top-placers will win up to $5000 and publication with royalties via Choice of Games; the competition runs through January of 2018 to give you plenty of time to put something together. Entrants that do not win may still be eligible for publication through CoG’s “Hosted Games” program.

New releases

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Known Unknowns is a new adventure from Brendan Patrick Hennessy, set in the same overall universe as Bell Park, Youth DetectiveBirdland and Open Up!. This time Bell and Bridget are not the main characters, though you can expect a cameo or two. Known Unknowns is being published in episodes, but episode 1 is now available.

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bringmeaheadEctoComp dropped in a whole bunch of new Halloween-themed games, which are still open for judging through November 30. I mentioned a few I tried and liked in a previous post. Since then, I’ve also checked out and enjoyed Chandler Groover’s Bring Me A Head! — a one-puzzle story with multiple solutions, and typically Grooverian in the way it smuggles its most startling content into the story under a cloak of narrative voice:

“Supreme horologist. He’s got more arms than most horologists, hence his supremacy. That shadow on the wall, looks like an arachnid, it’s his.”

four_sittingsOr you might like Bruno Dias’ Four Sittings in a Sinking House. To describe what I like most about this one requires a semi-spoiler, so I’ll rot13 and you can decide for yourself whether you want to know:

Gur tnzr vapyhqrf bar bs gur zber fngvfslvat rkbepvfz fprarf V’ir frra, orpnhfr vg’f npghnyyl nobhg fbzrguvat naq abg whfg n enaqbz zlfgvpny-jbb fprar jurer sbe fbzr ernfba n ohaqyr bs fntr naq n srj yvarf bs n qrnq ynathntr qevir bss gur tbngl uryy-ornfg.

Try it: it runs a few minutes, no more.

There are 21 games in all, most with very short play times, so there’s a lot to find beyond what I’ve previewed here.

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Those Trojan Girls is a new piece of hypertext narrative from Mark Bernstein, sold through Eastgate Systems.

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The Recombinant Armorial Roll is a procedurally generated catalog of dynasties, created for ProcJam by Bruno Dias. There are many other Procjam goodies as well, which you can find at its itch.io page.

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The Mirror is a short Twine piece augmented with a bit of imagery, about body positivity.

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Somewhere between IF and civilization simulator, Epitaph is a game about sentient life developing on planets. You’re allowed to help the civilizations along from time to time, but they’ll often die off — either because your gift of (say) fire has caused them to burn down every tree on their planet accidentally, or because some random environmental event has happened. The point is a bit different, and the interface is a streamlined choice interface, but I found myself thinking of the opening puzzle of Worldsmith.

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Dialogue from Tea-Powered Games is available on itch.io. The piece focuses on conversation and correspondence with other characters: there are passages where you’re revising what you want to write to other people, and then two different dialogue mechanics for conversation. Some conversations are timed choice-making dialogues as in Telltale games, where you have a certain number of seconds to take action before the choice times out. Others use a more overtly puzzle-like maze metaphor, where you’re looking for leads in the conversation to open new conversation topics. For instance, here’s a moment where the player has two leads to follow up that might connect to new conversation nodes:

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Podcasts and Other Coverage

FLOSS Weekly talks with representatives of the IF Technology Foundation about their work, particularly around making interactive fiction more accessible.

Clash of the Type-ins is up to episode 39 at this point, with Chandler Groover and Buster Hudson as recent guests.

Related games and diversions

I enjoyed this gorgeous article with photographs of real-world mazes and labyrinths, executed in everything from stone and hedge to mirrored glass.

Sam Ashwell writes about Dogs in the Vineyard, a tabletop RPG with some intriguing narrative mechanics.

I’m hearing good things about the combination of board game worker-placement play and storytelling play in Above and Below.

Other resources some of us may need right now

Grieving and self-care

Here and here are some past lists of IF games I’ve recommended as mood-lifters or sources of comfort.

Protection and planning

This is a quick set of suggestions about how to intervene safely and effectively if you witness Islamophobic street harassment; the same methods would apply for any kind of racist or sexist harassment.

Lambda Legal fights for queer and trans rights. They have a page about what to expect after the election and how to deal with it.

The ACLU fights civil rights violations of all sorts in the United States. They will sue to fight unconstitutional actions on the part of the government.

The Southern Poverty Law Center tracks extremism and hate groups. Personally I am not sure this is quite as effective as the ACLU’s direct legal action, but YMMV. They do provide some tracking on what is currently going on.

CAIR tracks and reports on factors that affect Muslims in America.

This document collects many resources and pieces of advice for different groups likely to be affected by the change of administration.

DonorsChoose provides teacher-requested supplies for classrooms in the United States — including classrooms of students of color and immigrant students. Classrooms are a front line right now as children look for reassurance about their place in the US, and/or replicate the bullying attitudes they see in the surrounding culture. Teachers need to be supported and well-equipped. You can search specifically for ESL classrooms/projects if you want to send particular support to immigrant populations. (More on why this specific issue resonates with me.)

Activism and resistance

Cassandra Khaw curates a list of opportunities for writers from marginalized backgrounds.

Masha Gessen writes on living in an autocracy; Harold Pollack, less extremely, on what is likely to be necessary in the short term. Or there’s this from Jon Schwarz, or these reflections in the New Yorker.

Three Kickstartable RPGs

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Bluebeard’s Bride is a game about the wife, left at home, exploring the strange house of her monstrous husband, gradually uncovering the secrets of the place. The players portray different aspects of her psyche, pushing her towards different actions and interpretations. When a particular part of her mind becomes too traumatized, it shatters, and that player becomes part of narrating the game’s horrors rather than navigating them.

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I really like the idea of the psyche mechanic, as a way to play out a story entirely about interior struggle.

Meanwhile, the premise speaks to one of the most horrific things I’ve ever experienced in real life: the discovery that someone you had liked, trusted, or cared about is not what they seem. That they’ve been lying and hiding things from you. That they are predatory, abusive, perhaps violent. That they routinely use people, for sex or for money or to prop their ego. That the past lovers they described as “unhinged” or “unreasonable” were in fact the previous victims of their cruelty.

That whatever empathetic gestures they’ve made in the past were quite possibly an act, because some of their other actions suggest a total lack of human compassion; or that they are so deep in an addiction or their own headspace that they are no longer capable of considering the wellbeing of anyone else.

That all the evidence is there, but that you haven’t let yourself see it before, or you didn’t have the experience or the wit to understand what it meant. That the connection you felt with them was just a sign of your own appallingly poor judgment. That the times you “understood” and “forgave” them were just you being played. Possibly that they see you as a dupe, or are using you intentionally.

And: that you are still (metaphorically or literally) living in their house. That their life is entangled with yours, and just because you’ve now seen, that doesn’t mean you’re free of them.

So yeah, this one seems like it might prove emotionally challenging to play. But I’m interested.

(Side note: see also Honeysuckle, Cat Manning’s Ectocomp retelling of this same tale.)

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