IF Tool Development in general

I get a fair amount of email from people asking me to review their new IF creation tool and give feedback. Unfortunately, I’m usually not able to do extensive IF tool critiques for free. It’s work that overlaps with the type of work that I do on a paid basis; on average, most new tools people send my way are pretty buggy and under-documented and also not as powerful as existing tools, because they’re the early stages of an alpha project; and doing a thorough critique and feedback on a tool is hours, days, or even weeks of work, depending on how finished and how sophisticated the system happens to be.

However, here are some general pieces of advice I can give in this space:

— know your unique selling points relative to other IF tools. There are a lot of existing hypertext and choose your own adventure-style tools out there already, both online and to download, targeting mobile and browser.

If your tool is more off the beaten path in structure, you can get away with doing less to compete on ease of use, ease of distribution, size of existing community, and so on. Tools for quality-based narrative, for instance, aren’t all that common.

I’d recommend at a minimum looking at ink, ChoiceScript, Texture, and Twine as comparison points. These engines have been used for a significant amount of creative work and in most cases to drive commercial products on multiple platforms. They also have significant user communities. This is not to say it’s impossible to do better, especially in some specific niche area, but it’s worth being aware and not duplicate effort.

— if you are reaching out for a user base, know what those selling points are and highlight them in your pitch. If you’re asking people to use/test your tool for free, understand you’re asking them to do a lot of learning and also work in a system that doesn’t yet have proven stability; investing a game you care about in a platform that might not be up in six months is itself a bit daring. So think about the incentives and guarantees you’re able to offer.

— having several complete and sizable example stories in your tool is critical, both to prove out the tool itself and to attract users in the future. I tend to tell people that until they have at least one good story, the tool is not finished.

And by “good,” I mean it should both display the tool’s capacities and actually be a quality piece of writing that someone would enjoy playing/reading. It’s very hard to attract serious users to a tool without a few stories in that app that attract their attention and make them want to emulate it. And it’s very hard to be sure the tool is capable if the only thing written in it was written to observe the limits of the tool, rather than to be good in itself.

— some other resources include

This missing tools post on tools and what people want. This is a few years old, predates ink/Unity, and is growing outdated, but the discussion may still contain some useful hints and suggestions, particularly about what kinds of concerns authors from the IF community consider when picking a tool.

This deck is a slide deck I used for a talk at Northeastern a couple years ago about tool design for writing IF, and what the goals could/should be.

This post on narrative structures talks about some narrative structures that aren’t always well-supported by tools, if you’re looking for ideas. There are MANY hypertext and CYOA engines; there are fewer salience/QBN engines.

This Pinterest board has screenshots of a lot of interactive fiction interfaces from different systems, which may suggest interface approaches that you want to borrow, learn from, or on the other hand avoid.

The Oxford/London IF Meetup sometimes does live meetings about new tools, in which tool creators pitch to and take questions from writers; if you live in the UK, that might be an option

Cannonfire Concerto (Caleb Wilson/CoG)

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Cannonfire Concerto (Steam, IFDB) is a Choice of Games piece from Caleb Wilson (Lime Ergot, Starry Seeksorrow, Six Gray Rats Crawl Up The Pillow). Caleb is a long-time writer of IF with a distinctive style: strong, personality-rich prose; a good eye for setting detail; a taste for writing about decadent societies now at the verge of ruin; some unusual mechanical and quirky experiments, like Lime Ergot‘s telescopic use of EXAMINE to reveal more and more content. (If you haven’t played Lime Ergot, you really should: it will take you five minutes and it’s become one of the canonical parser-IF pieces of the last few years.) Besides all this, Caleb’s work often has a very definite narrative voice.

I mention all this because those strengths are not the same ones I tend to associate with the Choice of Games brand, where I tend to expect a dynamic protagonist very much defined by the player; stats that work in a very consistent CoG way; lots of replayability; and a tendency in most works towards a brightly-colored, major key kind of storytelling.

So it might seem that these two influences might work strangely together, but in fact they compliment each other extremely well. Cannonfire Concerto is one of the funnier and more deftly written CoG pieces I’ve seen. The protagonist customization still does exist — you can pick your gender and what sorts of characters you’re interested in romancing, give yourself a personal history, etc — but all of the options for your past are within a particular range, and the gentle snark of the narrative voice is part of what enlivens the narration.

Caleb has taken the mandatory CoG opening, consisting of a high stakes medias res choice to hook the player followed by a bunch of character creation choices, and managed it as smoothly as I think I’ve ever seen: you begin in the middle of running away from pursuers, and choose what to do next; each choice, Memento-style, actually shows you a little more of what led up to this point.

Meanwhile, the context of a CoG game gives enough structure and scope for a bigger story than most of Caleb’s earlier IF.

screen-shot-2017-02-11-at-10-19-03-amThen, the premise. Cannonfire Concerto takes place in an alternate Europe (Meropa) threatened by a conquering general called Bonaventure. You are a Genius performer (and genius is or appears to be a form of magic, though this is a matter of debate) who also becomes entangled in politics and spying. As in Hollywood Visionary, you get a fair amount of choice around what kind of a creator you want to be; and because your music is a major way you connect with other people and groups, that affects which audiences you are best able to reach. I went for a rapid-fire, mathematical sort of Genius, which impressed intellectuals but meant I was terrible at playing pagan tunes by the campfire. It’s important to know your limits.

In practice, this means wearing wigs and dressing up in fancy clothes, giving performances and facing off with your musical rivals, and practicing new pieces for your instrument (I chose a zither of unique design): good costume-drama, adventure narrative stuff.

So far I’ve only had a chance to play once, as someone more concerned about my musical career than about trying to change the face of Meropa (though I probably did a bit anyway). Of the two people I romanced in the course of the game, I only managed to stay with one of them permanently, though the game did give me a bittersweet last encounter with the other, late in my life. And it feels like there’s quite a lot of variation in the outcome — I’ll have to give it another try later.

At any rate, I definitely recommend it. Games released right at the end of a year sometimes get missed for XYZZYs, but I think this might be a plausible contender for a Best Writing nomination.

Disclosures: I have a contract for work of my own with Choice of Games, but discovered and played this piece independently. I played a copy of the game that I bought with my own money.

Mid-February Link Assortment

Events:

February 16th, Boston’s People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction group meets up. Which is to say, tomorrow.

March 4th is San Francisco’s IF Meetup.

March 9, Nottingham’s Hello Words group is having a meetup.

Also March 9 is the deadline to register intents if you’re planning to enter the Spring Thing IF competition this year.

I am not doing an Oxford/London Meetup this month because GDC is taking most of my attention and preparation time.

Utopia Jam is currently open through the end of February.

New Releases:

Cannonfire Concerto by Caleb Wilson: Interview and Steam link. I haven’t had a chance to fully play this yet, but I love Caleb’s work, and the premise appears to entail being a genius 18th century musician-spy, which is a pretty good start.

The House Abandon; unfortunately PC-only so I haven’t tried it, but there is interesting coverage of it various places including GameInformer.

Minor Fall, Major Lift is a short story about a romantic connection between two people. The arc of the story itself is relatively simple; the major NPC, affected in a way that I tend to associate with being young and nervous about being wounded. This turns out to be entirely fair enough as a read of their character. Meanwhile, there’s a lot to notice about the worldbuilding. The story takes place in a Slavic-influenced society with newly invented religions and perhaps supernatural genetics, hinting at a deeper universe yet to be unfolded. (The author mentions this is part of a potentially longer work or series.)

Meanwhile, from a narrative structure perspective, the story has a conceit of letting you examine characters multiple times in a row, getting deeper information about them each time. This could be grinding or irritating in some cases, but here I found it worked for me, and made it feel as though each examination of the other person was upping the stakes further… which considering that this is a tale about self-revelation and visibility makes plenty of sense.

Finally, the protagonist in this story has a disability, a point that is introduced unmistakably but without special fanfare about halfway into the story. For all that the characters (both PC and NPC) focus on self-presentation, on how they will look and what they will show and what they will hide, the protagonist’s cane is not one of those points of self-consciousness. It just is, a fact of the protagonist’s identity but one they treat as much less critical and visible than other things.

Links:

Reminder that sub-Q is looking for submissions! Guidelines are on their website.

My Rock Paper Shotgun column IF Only continues, most recently with a look at Plundered HeartsMasqueradeMagical Makeover, Secret Agent Cinder and other games about dressing up and going to parties.

There’s a piece on Gamasutra about Bob Bates’ Thaumistry here. Both Thaumistry and Southern Monsters have made their Kickstarter goals (yay!) but there’s still time to support either, and stretch goals associated with each, of course. If you’re curious for a longer take on these, I’ve written more about them at Rock Paper Shotgun as well, including a preview look at Thaumistry.

Speaking of crowdfunding, Sunless Skies, the Sunless Sea sequel, is currently over £250K against a £100K goal, which is pretty exciting as well.

Textualiza is a new Spanish-language channel for discussing, promoting, and playing interactive fiction; discussion is conducted in Spanish, but isn’t limited to Spanish-language IF. There’s a Facebook page and a Twitter, as well as a chat room on euphoria.io.

A House of Many Doors

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A House of Many Doors is a newly launched Mac and Linux game on Steam that bears a very strong resemblance in many respects to Sunless Sea, and was developed with funding help from Failbetter. (It wasn’t actually part of the same Fundbetter program as Voyageur, as it happens, but rather predated that.) You pilot your kinetopede, a train with too many legs, through a huge dark space. Your stats — remember these? — are Hull, Sanity, Fuel. Your crew members, and locations you visit, all have stories attached. If you’ve played Sunless Sea you already halfway know how to play A House of Many Doors.

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Voyageur: Impressions

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First, a massive disclaimer: Voyageur’s author Bruno Dias is a friend. Also, I often do work for Failbetter, which provided support for Voyageur via Fundbetter. In addition, Voyageur uses procedural text generation features that draw on things I did for Annals of the Parrigues, and I had a number of conversations with Bruno about the game while it was in development. That said, I will try to be as useful as I can, since I’ve been asked for more of an assessment than the simple announcements I’ve been posting.

What is Voyageur? This is a systematic quality-based narrative with procedurally generated textual descriptions, trading, and perma-death — though in the right circumstances you can leave a substantial legacy to a future captain.

To unpack that a bit: you start out on a planet with a little money and a few supplies and something called a Descent Drive. A Descent Drive is alien technology that moves faster than anything made by humans — but only in one direction, towards the center of the galaxy. If you want to take a trip on one, you are never coming home.

So you set out, and each time you do, you have the ability to steer a little. You can typically pick which of 2-5 available planets you want to see next. You know one or two facts about them. Sometimes those facts are enough to tell you which planet is going to be the best place to sell off your current cargo or drop a passenger; sometimes you’re pretty much taking your chances. The descriptions of the planets, as well as the crew you pick up and the trade goods you acquire, are all procedurally generated. Planets have governments, cultures, climates. Trade goods have different levels of quality and other features that make them appealing on different worlds. I particularly enjoyed some of the trade good descriptions that hinted at the surrounding culture: Sea urchin substitute. Generic locust steaks. An artwork consisting of AR decorations overlaid on electronic components.

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Voyageur Launched

The Descent Device: faster-than-light travel at speeds no human should go; an alien mystery. But it only goes one way, falling from star to star towards the centre of the galaxy. Voyageur is a literary RPG where you take the helm of a trader-vagabond vessel, looking for adventure, wealth, and answers in an infinite galaxy full of procedural cultures and civilizations.

I’ve occasionally mentioned here Bruno Dias’ development work on Voyageur, a text exploration and trading game through procedurally generated worlds and spaces. It launches today for iOS and Android! Here’s the launch video: