Bandersnatch (Netflix)

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If you work in interactive narrative at all, there was a period recently where you could not go anywhere without people asking your opinion of Bandersnatch, Netflix’s branching-narrative episode of Black Mirror.

Because I am ornery and/or busy and/or was sick part of the relevant time, I didn’t watch it then. Still, I was aware that IF folks felt

  • annoyed that people were treating this as massively innovative when there are tens of thousands of works, produced over the past fifty plus years, exploring the possibilities of interactive story, including quite a lot specifically of interactive film if we’re narrowing the gaze to just that
  • disappointed that a lot of the choices were kind of basic
  • weary at the prospect of yet another Author’s First Interactive Work about free will vs chance, fate, and external control — this theme being (for obvious reasons) not exactly new in the interactive narrative canon
  • excited by the hope that this meant big commercial possibilities for interactive story
  • like ignoring Bandersnatch and playing more Cragne Manor

I have now watched, and here is my opinion, now that no one is asking.

The short version: I found Bandersnatch slightly more satisfying than a lot of my friends did, perhaps because I happen to have landed on an ending that is, I gather, rare.

At the same time, I had various criticisms of it. Some amount to “this is a first interactive work by someone new to the possibilities, and it’s designed for an audience that is also not particularly literate in interactive fiction, and I guess that’s to be expected.” Others are more serious issues with the messages and themes.

Long version below the fold.

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Mailbag: Adapting IF Skills to Adjacent Media

This is a follow-on answer to a previous mailbag post, specifically the part in which the questioner asks,

Would you have any thoughts on how to… improve the adaptive skills needed for bringing IF to newer formats and into audio?

I take this to mean not “how do I port an existing work to an interactive format” (which is also an interesting question), but “how do I do IF-like interactivity in formats other than text, especially audio?”

Key challenges for this, in my experience, center on these areas:

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Sunless Skies: Carillon, Sky Barnet, et al

Failbetter Games’ Sunless Skies is out, as of January 31, and I contributed: Carillon, a port in which Devils work to refine the souls that come their way; Sky Barnet, the gateway to the Blue Kingdom; and the Repentant Devil’s officer quest. There was also some nightmare content, a story that you can fall into if your terror grows too great.

I’m going to talk a bit more about those stories; this will be light on any actual specific spoilers, but it will touch on the general lore of Sunless Skies and the Fallen London universe.

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Story (Robert McKee) and the Expectation Gap in Interactive Story

McKeeStory is one of a handful of screenwriting books that turn up constantly in the bibliography of game writing books. McKee himself gives courses — I’ve never been, but I hear they’re very good shows, whether or not they’re good advice. It’s advised at least as often as Save the Cat, and possibly more so.

It is also, I think, more applicable to non-cinema writing than Save the Cat: McKee is interested in structure, and he has a lot of formulaic rules to suggest, but he cares about content as well. At one point he has a speech about the need for emotional truth, and how this can only come from within the author.

There are aspects of the book that aren’t entirely to my taste. In support of his points, McKee often spends quite a while reprinting classic screenplays — he’s particularly enamored of Chinatown — with his own commentary interspersed. I did not generally find his comments to be that much more instructive than the original dialogue, undisturbed. And even when he’s not giving verbatim chunks of screenplay, he spends an awful lot of time summarizing the events of various movies you’ve probably seen. He’s also a bit grandiose with his rhetoric about the great imaginative work of writing.

Then, too, quite a lot of his advice belongs to the “add an appropriate amount of salt” school of recipe writing — warning that too little or too much of something will be bad, but offering no heuristics.

All the same, there is a lot of basic vocabulary about how plots are assembled and how scenes are designed, which this book introduces as well as or better than many another. Personally, I’d be inclined to go for e.g. Wonderbook instead, if you want an introduction to basic structure vocabulary, and you’re not specifically writing screenplays. For most purposes, Wonderbook is more varied and goes deeper than Story.

There are, however, a couple of points — the ideas of expectation gap and of internal subconscious conflict — where I think it’s interesting how those concepts carry over to interactive work.

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Iterating San Tilapian Studies

Over the years since I first ran it, I’ve made a few iterations of my narrative (large-)party game San Tilapian Studies. It’s also been run by other people with their own versions of the stickers and text, and even been made available to the public at the Wellcome Play Spectacular.

In 2015, I offered a version of it as an IF Comp prize, and the winner requested that I adapt it to a particular fantasy world idea he had in mind. That version was mechanically pretty similar to the original — partygoers are given stickers with nouns or descriptive phrases on them, and must find other participants that are a good match for them in order to make a three-segment-long description of an object. Then they make up some backstory about that object and write it in the book.

The main tweaks I made were:

  • the game package also included a fantasy outline map that players could use to locate places in their game world
  • the sticker collection included a few wild-card words, words that could be played as either a noun or an adjective (like “bone” or “mirror”). The intent there was to help keep things moving smoothly if people felt they were running out of plausible matches

This year I offered the San Tilapian Studies kit again. One of the winners requested the original version, which is cool — it’s fairly easy for me to do that, and I think the Ruritanian romance setting provides a lot of room to imagine different miniature plot lines: love stories, politics, military affairs, interpersonal intrigue, etc., all fit into that world.

The other winner asked for a Lovecraftian re-skin of the set, and that was a bigger revision.

The rest of this post is about the design work I did to adapt San Tilapian Studies, first for a minor upgrade and second for a larger re-skin. While the result isn’t played on a computer, this is an exercise in developing a corpus for procedural use.

Designing, testing, and editing a corpus is in fact a significant part of the work in any procedural text project — so while this is a bit different from, say, Annals of the Parrigues in that it doesn’t result in a finished single text, a lot of related issues come into the corpus design.

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Conversation as Gameplay (Talk)

[Yesterday I gave a talk at the Oxford/London IF Meetup. The session was about conversation as gameplay, and also featured Flo Minuzzi of Tea-Powered Games, speaking about their released game Dialogue and their upcoming Elemental Flow. There’s a nice livetweeted thread version of my talk available on Twitter thanks to Florence Smith Nicholls, but I promised also to make a blog post about what I said.

Because the talk was written for an audience that included students, game designers from other parts of the industry, and newcomers to interactive fiction, I included some history of my own work that may be redundant for readers of this blog; there’s also some overlap with a talk I gave in Warsaw last September. However, the material towards the end of this talk is largely new.]

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The Problem Statement

I want more games to be about human interaction, about the nuances of how people deal with one another, about the kinds of topics that appear in dramatic movies. That’s partly because I’d like to play more games about conversation and social interaction. I’m not as interested in action as a topic, and to be honest I often fall asleep during superhero movies these days.

Meanwhile, as an artist, part of the reason I write games is to explore and interrogate things I don’t yet fully understand. Building procedural systems and seeing how they perform is a great way to explore whether our mental models are correct. How people understand each other (or don’t), how they connect and why, are topics of enduring fascination for me.

So I want more conversation-rich games. For that to work as I’d like, the conversation needs to be rewarding as gameplay — not just bolted on around gameplay, as it so often is.

When it comes to my own work, I have a few more ambitions and requirements as well:

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First, I want it to allow the player to act with intentionality: to lay plans and carry them out. That means that we need some systematic mechanics that the player can learn and manipulate.

For the purposes of this talk, I’m not spending much time on things that are pure branching dialogue trees without ongoing state or clear mechanics. I’ve sometimes written work in that space, and if you’re interested in how to get the most out of a relatively state-light dialogue presentation, I recommend having a look at Jon Ingold’s AdventureX talk about writing sparkling interactive dialogue. But that’s not what we’re looking at today.

[I’ve written more about world model and systematic mechanics for conversation elsewhere.]

Second, I want the resulting mechanic to have good pacing and dramatic qualities — so a mechanic that systematizes conversation but makes it feel very slow, stilted, metaphorical, or hard to manipulate is not what I’m looking for. Some of these can be cool to play, but I myself tend to be looking to write something that has a bit more fluidity.

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