Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames (ed. Chris Bateman)

Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames is an anthology collection from 2007.

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The list of contributors and subeditors includes a lot of familiar names: Richard Dansky, one of the major organizing forces at GDC Narrative summits; Rhianna Pratchett writing on the topic of video game player demographics and representation; Wendy Despain, who has edited at least two other game writing texts I’m aware of… actually, I’m going to stop listing, because almost everyone associated with this book is someone I’ve heard of before in some capacity, and it would just get awkward to go through the whole list. It’s pedigreed, is what I’m saying; and the group in question is professional game writers with a lot of cumulative experience in writing for AAA and AA games, industry contributors rather than primarily indies.

I’m actually on my second copy of this book: I bought it once before and then lost it, I think possibly in the process of a transatlantic move, and then got another copy of it for the purposes of this review survey. I remembered it being one of the more effective of its kind, even if it dates from a decade ago.

Several of the other books I’m looking at in this overview spend most or all of their time on basics of narrative in general, serving up standard Hollywood screenwriting instructions with a side of game examples, or else talking about the process of working as a game writer in a studio. Both of those topics are covered here, but rather more briefly. Stephen Jacobs covers The Basics of Narrative, dutifully running through the Hero’s Journey, the screenwriting advice of Syd Field, and the example of Star Wars and a few other hints from Aristotle’s Poetics. Refreshingly, Jacobs doesn’t treat either Joseph Campbell or Field with undue reverence, but points out that these are useful tools at most.

On the business of studio-based writing, there are some notes on that general topic in Richard Dansky’s introductory chapter; Ed Kuehnel and Matt Entin discuss approaches for getting team signoff and collecting appropriate phased feedback in their chapter, Writing Comedy for Videogames.

But the majority of the book is about topics unique to the confluence of story and game, not introducing the industry. In chapter 3, Writing for Games, Richard Boon introduces concepts like progress structure (how the game controls access to story beats), pacing, agency, and funneling (how the game guides the player back towards elements of the critical path). Though the terminology doesn’t always precisely line up with the terminology used in the IF community, these are all familiar concepts; and they lay the groundwork for a lot of the craft advice that comes later in the book.

In chapter 4, Mary DeMarle talks about Nonlinear Game Narrative and the inherent challenges of giving the player significant freedom; a basic coverage of linear, branching, and branch-and-bottleneck structures; and the difference between high-level plot and moment-to-moment experience of a story. She doesn’t hold out a lot of hope for significant plot variety, remarking

When attempting to construct stories for nonlinear games, the general goal is to integrate linear stories into nonlinear gameplay (accepting for the time being that nonlinear stories are expensive propositions…) (79)

Much of her other advice is likely to feel familiar, though: guidance about layering detail into different aspects of a gameplay experience; the focus on bringing critical details into unavoidable moments (like cinematics and unavoidable choice moments), while relegating less important details to environmental storytelling; methods of identifying which bits of your story could possibly be told in any sequence.

Chapter 5 sees Chris Bateman on directing the player:

In a game world, freedom can be seen as the capacity players possess to step away from the set path and define their own play and their own implicit story. At the furthest extreme of freedom, the player may be afforded so much autonomy that a conventional narrative can no longer be supported, and the role of the game writer ceases to be involved in story construction, but in a more complicated game design exercise beyond the scope of this chapter. (86)

In other words, Bateman breaks this chapter off right about where Chris Crawford would want to get started — on the construction of complex storytelling worlds in which authorial intention is abstracted into rules rather than presented through specific guaranteed plot beats.

Andrew Walsh’s chapter 6, on game characters, strikes a good balance between conventional narrative advice and acknowledging the special role of characters in games; Richard Dansky’s chapter (7) on cut scenes contains a range of observations that would apply to cut sequences in textual IF as well as in conventional video games.

Chapter 9 covers Writing for Licenses, looking a little bit at the business considerations that come into such a project, but also delving into how to be true to an intellectual property’s world, tone, and characters — a set of observations equally applicable to interactive fanfiction.

Some of the later chapters get into comparatively technical topics, such as preparing for localization, or Ernest Adams’ chapter on Interchangeable Dialogue Content. This chapter looks at how to write for voiceover that’s meant to be stitched together, for instance to produce dynamic audio of a sports commentary where different players’ names and score numbers might need to be swapped in.

At the high end, audio techniques have come along somewhat since this book was written. But not everyone has access to the latest cutting-edge technology in this space, and for others, the recommendations are instructive. Moreover, Adams’ description of how to prepare to write this kind of dialogue is also arguably relevant to the domain of procedural text generation in general:

To study the speech space of a sports game, you should do two things: listen to real sports matches and read the game’s rule book for events that the commentators should talk about… You will soon spot general categories of commentary that include interchangeable content… Try to find, or create, a category for every sentence spoken. If your word processor offers a highlight feature, assign a different color to each category, and then highlight every sentence that belongs in that category with the appropriate color. This will enable you to go back through the transcript quickly to find all the sentences that discuss related material and see how they vary from one another.

Finally, chapter 14, again by Chris Bateman, covers Dialogue Engines, a topic especially close to my heart. He divides these up into three categories: event-driven, where lines of dialogue are served in response to events in the game world; topic-driven, where the player has some ability to select areas of interest, e.g. by showing off topical items in an adventure game; and dialogue trees.

In parser IF terms, Bateman’s categories would break down like this:

  • NPC who randomly comments on your actions, as in A Day for Fresh Sushi: Event-driven
  • >TALK TO FRED: character-based topic-driven system, where the situation determines how Fred will respond
  • ASK/TELL dialogue such as >ASK BOB ABOUT THE PINEAPPLE: token-based topic-driven system
  • Menu-driven dialogue 1) “Bob, where is the pineapple? What did you do with the pineapple, Bob?” : dialogue trees

There’s no real equivalent in his categories for some of the hybrid topic/choice systems in play in parser IF — for instance the methods used in Threaded Conversation or in Eric Eve’s TADS 3 libraries, where the system can prompt the player with possible questions to ask but there is a model of topical relation between subject matter. Which is reasonable enough, as that kind of dialogue is not common in industry games and was not even all that well worked out in IF at the time the book was published.

Bateman concludes by talking a bit about attaching conditions and cases to dialogue lines, touching a bit on text substitution and branching options, but not particularly getting into salience models for dialogue selection, for instance. (Though, again, this book came out well before Elan Ruskin’s dynamic dialogue speech at GDC 2012: please note that I’m not criticizing the absence here, just pointing out an area where the book might not go as far as readers in 2017 might want.)

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Of the books on professional games writing I’ve encountered, this is possibly the best, and definitely in the top three. Most of my specific nitpicks about its content boil down to “in 2007, the authors did not talk about developments that occurred in 2012 or later,” which is fair enough. It won’t teach unusual narrative models or cutting-edge approaches to AI-driven dialogue, and it’s not mostly that invested in talking about what makes for a powerful choice (something of an obsession point for IF craft writing).

But the book does go into the known-and-proven aspects of video game writing in a lot of detail, while keeping an open mind towards more experimental or future-facing possibilities. It’s also been very well edited, so that it feels coherent and joined-up despite pulling together the work of many contributors; and the tone is consistently helpful and informative but not condescending.

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Finally, a few other books of possible interest that I’m not covering here in full.

Professional Techniques for Video Game Writing (ed. Wendy Despain) and Writing for Video Game Genres: From FPS to RPG (ed. Wendy Despain) are both collections of chapters from a range of experienced game writers, and I found some chapters more interesting or useful than others. The book on genres is arranged around the specific challenges of writing for particular game styles. Uniquely among the volumes in this list, it specifically acknowledges writing for interactive fiction as a relevant topic, with a chapter on parser IF contributed by J. Robinson Wheeler. It is, admittedly, from a somewhat earlier era of IF, and it doesn’t really speak to the current commercial landscape; it’s more likely to be interesting to you if you’re also in the market for, say, the IF Theory Reader.

Again: if you’re interested in paid work in IF writing, or hiring IF writers, that will be the subject of the July 19 London IF meetup.

High XP Women, Continued

CarrieI don’t follow movie marketing closely, and I’d describe myself as a less-than-avid Star Wars fan. Liked it as a child; had a Darth Vader lunch box; was disappointed by episodes 1-3; didn’t expect much from The Force Awakens.

But I love this poster from a character series for The Last Jedi. Some of that’s for superficial reasons — the classy design, the beauty and menace of that vibrant red, the lush high-collared cloak. I would love a cloak like that.

Some is sentiment; I was more sad about Carrie Fisher’s passing than I would have expected, and learned things about her that I hadn’t previously known. I am glad to have one more movie of hers to see.

But I love other things too. The poster doesn’t downplay, conceal, or apologize for the fact that Leia is an older woman in this shot. Her hand, her throat and mouth, are graceful without being fake-young. She wears bold jewelry. She doesn’t discard her femininity here in order to assume a role of power, but the adornment that she wears is also not sexualized. It reads to me not as “I have dressed like this to attract men,” but “I have dressed like this because it pleases me, and because I have in the course of my life earned a certain status.”

And her pose itself: chin up, looking outward. We can’t see her eyes — all of the posters in this series cut off the face before the eyes — but where many of the other characters have some kind of physical action pose, General Leia surveys and assesses. The mental action is hers, not the viewer’s alone.

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The red Leia poster says all those things on its own, I think, but it pulls those meanings in even more strongly if you compare where we came from.

I could write about the differences here but I feel like the contrast of those two posters is fully eloquent without my help.

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A lot of women I know, including myself, have to make a journey from object to subject. Indeed, for me it’s not so much a journey as a daily commute. I’m aware that there are consequences to how I present myself, and I have chosen to think about that rather than pay the price for ignoring it. But it takes work and judgment to balance that with one’s own perspective and preferences. It helps to have reminders to look outward.

Most of all, I feel like the red-cloak Leia poster and the behind-the-scenes trailer are hinting at things that I really want from this movie. Maybe I’m reading in too much. Maybe I’m not going to receive what I’m hoping for. But I deeply want to see more stories and art about older women of authority and power. I need those stories, not out of some kind of abstract accounting of representation numbers, but because I’m looking for teaching and inspiration about what I can become as I grow older, and pop culture is not offering much. I am not a mother, and I don’t plan to be. Portrayals of authoritative matriarchs are sometimes extremely cool, but they don’t help me with my future.

Instead I’m drawn to media about women at the top of their profession, in positions of management or authority. I watched The Good Fight with interest partly because of this: it’s a spin-off of the hugely popular The Good Wife, but focuses on the nearly retirement-age Diane Lockhart, a founding partner in her firm. There were a few things about The Good Fight where I thought its messaging a bit heavy-handed. But still, it hits some notes that resonated with me. Vulture writes up one of the key scenes thus:

There’s a lovely moment in all of this where Barbara asks Diane if she’s ever regretted not having children. I’m positive Diane must have had a similar conversation on The Good Wife that I’m not remembering, but it’s fascinating regardless, especially when she says she most regrets it when she thinks of Kurt. She wonders what a son of his would be like, and later, she calls him, but then quickly hangs up. My imagining of Diane has always been “childfree by choice, no regrets,” and it’s fun to be surprised by her after all these years, even if the moment is bittersweet. — Lauren Hoffman for Vulture

…but this doesn’t describe why I connected with this scene. What Diane says is that the work has always been both central and sufficient for her. She can imagine a road not taken, and feel a little curiosity or a little wistfulness about that. But the dialogue does not, to my mind, suggest she’s made a mistake. In contrast with a lot of common tropes, it acknowledges that a woman can have a vocation, can rise to the top of her field, can be her best and happiest self, can give the most that she has to give to the world, through her career. That can all be true even if you have a vague tug of feeling about the other possibilities if your life had turned out differently.

And I’m drawn to things about empathetic styles of authority, whether the role models in question are male or female. I feel like General Leia is a particularly interesting case to look at here. She chose not to train as a Jedi even though she has the potential. Instead, rather than depart for solitary training in an often-coercive ability, she has remained at the head of her community and applied her “Force strength” more in the form of increased intuition. Now, to some degree that plays into feminine intuition tropes, but still, I feel like there could be a great story here, not only about what she did but about why she did it.

I have no idea how much The Last Jedi is going to tell that story. But I can hope.

Mid-July Link Assortment

IF Comp intents to enter are now open, so if you’d like to write for the comp this year, you can sign up.

The next London IF meetup is coming soon, July 19, and will focus on writing IF for money — or hiring those who do.

August 14-17, Cape Cod, MA is the Foundation of Digital Games conference, including a workshop in procedural content generation. The PCG workshop has a theme this year:

What do our generators say about the underlying systems we have designed and the designers who create them?  Our theme aims to explore the biases inherent in PCG and the potential with which to subvert it.

Articles and Research

This week James Ryan’s Twitter feed has been a treasure trove of interesting links and images: he’s researching the history of procedurally generated text and has found a wealth of material going back decades.

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Sergei Mozhaisky has translated a couple of my articles into Russian. As I don’t read Russian at all, I can’t comment on the details, but they can be found here:

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Lyle Skains has a presentation on how readers respond to different types of links in hypertext narratives, which is likely relevant to Twine; though one of the things that struck me about the example is that it wasn’t immediately easy to see (as a reader) which types of links were which. I found myself wondering how much the effects observed in this study were due to the absence of conventions around hyperlink labelling in the literary hypertext community, as opposed to using different colors and a clear schema to distinguish between links that explore and links that move forward as in some of Porpentine’s work. Also worth looking at in this regard: Alice Maz’ Colorado Red, which distinguishes forward-moving links from tooltips for showing the narrator’s feelings about things in the text.

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Gillian Smith et al have published a report from the ICCC’s workshop on social justice and computational creativity, which looks at questions from implicit bias in machine learning to AI-assisted ways of interpreting the world around us to questions of access in related academic and technical fields. Her own paper for the workshop outlines some subjects for further thought in this area, including ethical deployment of machine learning in situations where the general public may not be aware they’re seeing the artifacts of AI. (And if you’re interested in this, see also Liza Daly’s essay Ethical Imperatives in AI and Generated Art.)

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ZedKraze reviews Will O’Neill’s Little Red Lie. The game is not a new release, but I only ran across it recently. 

Edit: I think I got the wrong end of the stick about the release date on this, possibly. Sorry about that! It seems like perhaps it is in fact reasonably new.

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IF Comp Prize Fund, and retrospectives

One of the new features of IF Comp this year is a cash prize fund. It’s still possible to donate other prizes, including books, games, toys, food, services in kind, and probably even (if you really want) separate prizes of money; but the intent of the fund is to make sure there are financial rewards distributed a bit more evenly than in the past and to more places.

Meanwhile, Chris Klimas has written an article looking back at the first ever edition of IF Comp, and Craig Locke is covering some games of IF Comp past as well.

AdventureX

AdventureX 2017 is currently on Kickstarter, raising funds to run November 11-12. It’s a two-day conference and demo floor that focuses on narrative games, including graphical adventures and various forms of IF. Last year I spoke; this year features a bunch of cool people including Jon Ingold. If you would like to speak or present, you can also find a presenter application here.

New Toys and Games

New on iOS is Silent Streets, which describes itself as “an augmented reality detective adventure,” with choose your own adventure elements, but also the opportunity to find important clues in your real-world environment, and unlock new events by walking using your GPS tracker. The game also provides voice acting, and writing from Richard Cobbett (of games journalism and Fallen London/Sunless Seas fame). About the design, Cobbett writes:

The nature of the game made for an interesting structural challenge, due to having to carefully balance the player’s likely mental bandwidth as they dipped in and out of the story, coming up with mysteries that allowed for lots of movement and interesting reveals that didn’t waste their valuable time, while still keeping the interactive element of being the one to solve the cases and complete bonus challenges to discover more than just the raw solution. Contacts for instance both allow the player to ask about the various things they’ve found, and act as touchpoints led by representatives of the different factions – the press, the police, the underworld.

Of things previously mentioned on this blog, this is probably closest to Jim Munroe’s Wonderland, which also features puzzles unlocked by walking. (And for the same reasons, I may not get around to playing, let alone finishing, this any time soon: while I walk around a fair amount, it’s often in contexts where I need a bit too much attention for my immediate surroundings to be immersed in a game. But your experience may be different, especially if your main walking context is not rush-hour London.) And of course there’s the well-established Zombies, Run!

Engadget also has a write-up of the experience.

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StoryNexus and quality-based narrative fans who recall Rob Sherman’s highly creepy Black Crown Project may be interested in this message from the author:

[The Black Crown Project has] been offline for over two years now, but last year the copyright reverted to me from Random House… I’ve compiled all of the material I have (including the game assets, notes, sketches and prototypes) and placed it into a Github repository for anybody, anywhere to do anything they like with, as long as they don’t try and commercialise it.

The archive is found here: https://github.com/bonfiredog/blackcrownproject

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Morro and Jasp is a two-player conversation game where both players are selecting what to say next (so none of the conversation responses are selected by the system). Or, as they put it:

Morro & Jasp: Unscripted is a 2 player conversation/performance simulator, where (practically) every line is chosen by a player. There are 28k words of dialogue (and about 100 different endings) for playthroughs that last only a few minutes — the idea is that every session is radically different. It’s also a collaboration with theatre artists (the titular clowns), so there are really unique influences in the writing of it (including clown theory!)

The concept distantly reminds me of Dietrich Squinkifer’s masterpiece of awkwardness, Coffee: A Misunderstanding. This doesn’t have the players actually speak the lines that they’ve chosen, though, and presumably the effect is rather different. I am curious about clown theory, too.

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17776 Football is not exactly traditional IF, at least as far as I’ve played; it’s closer to dynamic fiction, with embedded images and video to help tell its story, and a few link-based elements.

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Caleb Wilson’s excellent and influential Lime Ergot now has a Spanish translation, thanks to Ruber Eaglenest.

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Wikitext: The Text Adventure is a parser style text adventure space that allows you to traverse locations defined by Wikipedia. I was able to make it start in Oxford and then wander the described space until I got to the street I live on, which was surreal. I doubt this works for every street — Oxford locations are probably a bit over-represented in Wikipedia — but still, a good time.

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Ili is a narrative game now being kickstarted, mostly focusing on dialogue and negotiation rather than combat. The demo only works on Windows, so I haven’t had a chance to give it a shot, but the author writes:

Ili is an immortal being haunted by regret. Your aim is to guide Ili through her past and meet the ghosts from her past. While Ili is the game’s protagonist, you control most of her actions and act more like her spiritual guide. You are to help her say or do things that she would be too afraid to do by herself. The problems put in front of both you and Ili can be solved in different ways through talking. Do you intend to change the past? Or is it better to make peace with the past and to move on?

Ultimate Ending Books is a CYOA line I hadn’t heard of until just recently; don’t really know more about them than the website.

AlcoholIf you’re interested in procedural toys, you’ve probably already seen Inspirobot. If not, enjoy. I think it’s saying that I could live in a volcano if I had a couple cocktails first.

Hatred (Richard Goodness)

Screen Shot 2017-06-19 at 8.42.34 PM.pngHatred begins as a piece about hate crimes, and about attitudes towards our current president. The story (rated R, it helpfully informs us) casts the 45th president of the United States in the role of both victim and presidential commentator in the death of Matthew Shepard, and in the Columbine Massacre. At one point it ascribes to our current president some words spoken by William Jefferson Clinton; the complexity of the sentence structure alone suffices as evidence for the misattribution.

All of this is framed as evidence in a trial of God.

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The Ultimate Guide to Video Game Writing and Design (Dille/Platten)

Screen Shot 2017-06-04 at 1.02.03 PM.pngThe Ultimate Guide to Video Game Writing and Design (Flint Dille and John Zuur Platten). This one is a few years old — first printing 2007, it looks like — but it’s still selling healthily on Amazon. Dille and Platten are pragmatic about what they do: commercial work for which they’re hired and which require a number of soft skills beyond simply being able to write. In the introduction, they describe themselves as craftsmen rather than artists — a point about which I actually have some sympathy — and a good bit of the book consists of introducing the essential facts about how video games are made. (Or were made in 2007, at any rate. But there’s a lot here that’s still true.)

In contrast with Skolnick’s book, Dille and Platten dive right in to narrative structure questions in an early chapter: they talk about “limited branching” and “critical path” structures that would correspond with gauntlet or friendly-gauntlet structures; “funneling narrative” which is essentially branch-and-bottleneck; and “open-ended,” which seems to mean “a story in which the designer hasn’t really planned for CYOA structure at all and the result is a time cave or an unfinishable mess.” They also include “nodal” stories where short stories or quests are organized around in-game locations.

In other places, they’re (like Skolnick) providing standard writing advice you’d find in any how-to-write-a-novel guide, translated into game contexts: the need for (and types of) conflict, establishing and raising stakes; the gameplay version of “show don’t tell,” which is “play don’t show”. In fact it probably pairs pretty well with Skolnick’s book; each covers a slightly different part of this arena.

From there, much of the rest of the book is about process: processes that support concept development, processes of communication, processes of getting hired and getting paid.

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Nocked! True Tales of Robin Hood (Andrew Schneider)

title screen.jpgOut today for iOS is Nocked, a Robin Hood adventure story by Andrew Schneider, which ran a successful Kickstarter back in December. Here’s the blurb:

Rob from the rich and give to the poor, cross swords with the Sheriff of Nottingham, and above all, lead Sherwood through the turning of the seasons and into a new age.

By your actions, gain gold, renown, followers, and even a measure of grace. Then spend those resources to fortify your forest home, accomplish special missions, and change the course of Sherwood’s destiny. Will you save your plundered gold to rebuild the walls of your home, or send it to the poor and dispossessed to increase your renown and attract Merry Men to your cause? And what of the rising bounty on your head?

Consider your choices carefully, for the consequences of your actions are not always readily apparent. For better or ill, in ways both small and large, you will change the course of history.

 

In story terms, Nocked! shares some of the features of a Choice of Games piece: it starts at the beginning of Robin’s career as an outlaw and allows the player to build up his (or her) resources and personality, then play out subsequent adventures. And rather like a Choice of Games work, Nocked! advertises itself on the strength of its size and massively branching narrative: more than 400K words! Five distinct backstory options! Fifty possible endings!

iPhone Nocked Knight Screen

Note the “Remaining Daylight: Sunset” feature at the bottom of the screen.

The “true tales” subtitle or title extension might seem to suggest that this is going to be a particularly historically accurate rendition of Robin Hood. It’s… really not. Early in your adventures you may encounter a unicorn, a talking wolf, the Sheriff of Nottingham’s mystically enormous hounds, and/or a lesson in archery-related spell-casting. Likewise, the game lets you be the long-lost heir to the throne of England whether or not you’re male (and there are other male contenders; this isn’t a Queen Elizabeth kind of situation).

Gold, men, and renown accrue when you do useful or clever things (or, like, steal stuff); you can then spend these again to get out of problematic situations. Meanwhile, certain chapters of the story have their own special timing stats: for instance, you can be wandering in the woods and have an indicator at the bottom of the screen of how much daylight time you have remaining — a reminder of your current limits and constraints.

All this makes sense to a degree, though I found myself bothered by the use of Robin’s men as an expendable stat, especially given how freely the resource is given out in play. One of the very first actions I took gained me something like 55 men; another action took away 80 again. Maybe this makes sense as a representation of how frequently the player is expected to be deploying manpower, but it felt dissonant with the fiction when it happened — partly because it’s hard to imagine suddenly accruing 50-odd followers without significant effort, and partly because the protagonist’s easy-come, easy-go attitude to said followers made it hard to believe in him as a legendary leader.

The storytelling is packed with event — battles, fires, chases, magic lessons, unicorn sightings, ambushes in narrow ravines, misplaced royalty — and the writing is rather less concerned with developing a coherent personality for the protagonist. The prose style is sometimes actively clunky:

A horse with a sparkling horn that rises from its forehead grazes on a nearby hilltop.

It’s not mostly quite so awkward about its noun phrases, nor so Lisa Frank in its imagery — I’ve cherrypicked. But I did sometimes feel that the whole thing was creaking a bit under the strain of those 400,000 words, which perhaps did not have time to be thoroughly edited.

What you get in exchange is a huge amount of narrative consequence for your choices. I played a good bit, but I haven’t talked much about the plot because I can’t be sure that your plot experience will be anything like mine.

Nocked! is built in an engine that brings Twine to mobile (not, I should add, the only such engine — there are other commercial IF games that are Twine under the skin). This variant displays mostly text, but with a strip of illustration at the top to establish setting, and a menu / status bar area at the bottom. I thought this worked pretty well, while keeping the majority of the screen for the text.