Links and Structures from Michael Joyce to Twine

A look at some articles from the scholarship of literary hypertext, and thoughts about how their concerns and terms relate to current work in Twine and other procedural literature.

Recently I’ve been including some coverage here of academic materials that might be of interest to industry or hobbyist readers. Some of that’s been focused on recent work in story generation or interactive narrative in some way.

Today’s example, by contrast, begins with a reading from a rather older paper: A Nonce Upon Some Times, by Michael Joyce in 1997. (If you want a proper citation: Modern Fiction Studies 43.3 (1997) 579-597.)

This article came to my attention because when I was responding to Mark Bernstein’s piece The Fellow Who Caught Fire, he called out that I was unfamiliar with something he considers to be essential reading in the field of literary hypertext.

“A Nonce Upon Some Times” raises questions about how we categorize hypertext structures, and what we understand from the meaning of these structures. Occasionally this is reminiscent of Sam Kabo Ashwell’s work or perhaps my own on small-scale structures in CYOA: what does it communicate when the author chooses a particular relationship between the available lexia?

Joyce, however, is overtly contemptuous of branching narrative:

The workshop exercise with which I began this essay seeks to isolate a set of primitive choices that both prompt the visual kinetic of rereading in hypertext and, at the same time, isolate the elements of what Douglas calls “a narrative of possibilities.”… It engages working writers with aesthetic and readerly questions about linking rather than encouraging a choose-your-own-adventure sort of drearily branching fiction.

…and what interests him is not the question of how one might project oneself into the role of a protagonist; not how one might experience agency, constraint, or non-agency through this pattern of links.

Joyce’s taxonomy is easier to diagram than to explain in words. He proposes that one start with a four part structure, linked linearly, which ends by going back to one of the earlier texts. I would diagram it like this:

Now: what happens next, after we have re-entered the second of the four texts? Where do we go from there, and is it different from where we might have gone the first time around, and what do these different arrangements mean?

Continue reading “Links and Structures from Michael Joyce to Twine”

Heaven’s Vault (inkle)

Heaven’s Vault is a game about piecing together meaning from atom-sized pieces.

The game’s chief mechanic involves translating inscriptions from Ancient, building a larger and larger personal dictionary until you’re able to interpret entire passages of scripture and significant warnings.

This mechanic is highly satisfying, especially during the early phases of the game. Words in Ancient are made up of a small number of primitives joined together, so as you guess at the meanings of words and sentences, you’re also developing an understanding of what the primitives stand for, what marks stand for nouns or verbs or changes of tense. The more inscriptions you find (and pretty much everything in the Heaven’s Vault universe seems to have a phrase or two of Ancient scratched onto or sewn into it) the more you’re able to decode. Like a crossword, it lets you use leaps of insight in any one area to shed light on others. And because you’re uncovering text, new inscriptions frequently offer new narrative insights.

I really, really enjoyed doing this. While the language of Heaven’s Vault is pretty much encoded English and doesn’t feature the ambiguities and alternative world views embedded in real foreign languages, the process of learning to read Ancient lit up the same parts of my brain as other forms of translation; so much so that I found myself identifying a sequence that meant “voice” and thinking, φωνή.

The game has some pacing issues, noted by other reviewers, and those pacing issues did affect my experience. And by the end of the first play-through, I wished the decoding mechanic would change up and let me make more extensive types of guess on my own, because frequently I “officially” was unable to read something whose meaning was perfectly obvious to me in reality.

Even so, decoding this game kept me onboard for more than 15 hours, at a period in my life where I have relatively little available time for playing anything and have to be extremely picky. And if you replay, you have a new game+ option that starts you over with your existing language learning intact, an accretive PC trick that allows the protagonist at last to feel like she actually is an expert in her chosen field. So if you feel you might also enjoy a translation adventure game, do try it out.

I wish to emphasize this point because I am now going to go into a mass of detail about what I think might have worked better if it had been done differently.

But that’s because this is a really interesting piece of work pioneering comparatively unexplored areas of puzzle design and narrative structure, and it’s at its most instructive when we look at what doesn’t quite work.

Continue reading “Heaven’s Vault (inkle)”

The Twentieth Entry: SPY INTRIGUE (furkle)

In my top 20 list earlier this week, I left a spot blank at the end of my list, because I was pretty sure that I needed to replay this game: furkle’s SPY INTRIGUE, from IF Comp 2015.

2015 is the year the comp broke me. There were 50-odd games to cover in a six week period, and I’d committed to cover on my blog every one I considered recommendation-worthy: a time investment of several hours apiece, though some took longer. I also tried to find ways to send some positive responses back even about the things I couldn’t completely recommend. But I handled that maladroitly and hurt some feelings; and it’s not exactly a challenging feat of empathy to guess that my approach was going to land wrong, so I felt pretty bad about that.

Fitting the equivalent of a new full-time job into my life alongside my other commitments was hard, and it was also an emotionally demanding position to be in. I got email and DMs from authors who wanted me to hurry up and get to their work; to give further information about the contents of my reviews; to reconsider what I’d already written. In one case someone wrote to chew me out for setting the wrong standards for how comp games should be handled by the community at large because I wasn’t giving each game enough attention.

This was the point where (belatedly, you may think) I decided this was an unhealthy situation and I was done reviewing the Comp. I would finish 2015 and then bow out.

But around the same time all this was going on, someone — not the author — pinged me and said could you please post a review of SPY INTRIGUE, it’s gotten so little coverage, hurry it up please. So I assembled and posted what I had to say about it, but that wasn’t very much, relative to what the piece actually is.

What I primarily experienced, trying it out in 2015, were all the ways the game resists the player: the hard to read all-caps text, the staticky backgrounds, the text-shakes and screen-flashes. (I believe the accessibility features at the start of the game do let you turn those off if they’re likely to be bad for you.) Then there’s the way the UI gets a facelift every time you’ve gotten the hang of it, so you have to sort of relearn it; the very long instruction text that only makes things more confusing if you aren’t already acquainted with the game; the absence of markers to help you understand how the story relates to our world.

At the very beginning, it seems like maybe the author just has tremendously bad design sense about what’s going to be comfortable for the average IF reader. Later it becomes clear that the aesthetics are very intentional, but that “maybe it’s incompetence?” look is a really challenging thing to try in the beginning of a comp game, unless that game happens to be attached to the name of someone already well-known. There is, after all, quite a lot of genuinely mishandled work submitted to competitions.

Then, too, it doesn’t align itself to many recognizable tropes of IF. If I think about what might be closest to it, I think of maybe ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III for the layering of fantasy and real life; maybe Zest for the inspection of how worldview makes life livable, and the function of supposedly-recreational substances. But even so neither of those is very similar to SPY INTRIGUE. There just isn’t anything very similar to SPY INTRIGUE. This is part of what’s amazing about it, but it’s another challenge to entry.

And in the context in which I originally played, even SPY INTRIGUE’s length was a thing that made it resistant. In a literal sense, I read fast enough — that is, I can get the basic sense of words quickly enough — that I could get to an ending in two hours. But that was nowhere near enough time to understand it, apprehend its themes and structure, and play it sympathetically.

In the intervening years, a couple of things have happened. One, despite a general lack of community discussion about this game, a handful of people whose tastes I trust have told me it was great. Two, I’ve gotten to know furkle personally.

I decided I wanted to replay it; and, at the same time, that I needed to do that at a time when I could approach it completely differently than I did the first time — without the sense of obligation, without the idea that my role vis a vis this work was to be its Designated Reader.

This weekend I replayed. I took a lot more time over it — probably something like eight hours elapsed between start and finish. I wasn’t reading continuously that whole time; on the contrary, I put it aside several times. That’s not because I was bored with it, but there was a sufficient richness that I found I needed a bit of a break at times, to process, before deciding how to re-engage.

I found it hugely easier to get into this time. That’s partly the different reading approach; partly that I’d played it once before, so the UI features were known to me; and partly that knowing more about the author gave me more context for interpreting the game’s ambiguities. This is one of those pieces where knowing the rough plot outline in advance is a significant help in grasping the overall meaning of the work. So I’m going to go into more specifics here than I usually do in a review.

And I really hope more people will play it. Here is a game that placed 29th in its competition, for reasons that I understand completely — but the fact that it was under-played and under-discussed represents a major missed opportunity, especially for people in the community who are interested in the more narrative and writerly possibilities of IF.

SPY INTRIGUE is one of the finest and bravest things ever produced in this medium: personal and true, technically masterful in both code and design, literary in the best sense.

Some people, I’ve seen, refer to it as raw. I wouldn’t call it so; I’d say it has a quality I prefer to rawness, an ability to present the most intense and traumatic experiences with such understanding that it offers others a tool to dismantle their own pain.

Yes, I am still talking about a game in which you can shove banana bread down the front of your spy pants. That game. Yes.

Continue reading “The Twentieth Entry: SPY INTRIGUE (furkle)”

A Top 20 List of IF

In which I list some nominees for Victor Gijsbers’ Top 50 IF list. And, because I’m me, I explain why those and not others. A lot.

Every four years, Victor Gijsbers puts together a list of the top 50 IF games of all time. To vote for this, one sends Victor a list of the 20 best games; those games that fall on the most “best” lists wind up on the Top 50 list. (You can participate, or see the spreadsheet that contains the current state of play, at the intfiction forum.)

I find this interesting, and also extremely hard to vote for, because I can think of many more than twenty games that have a reasonable claim to be “best” in some regard. So I have to pick some additional criteria in order to filter the thing down.

This year, I’ve deliberately skewed my list towards the criterion of maturity: games that represent what IF has become as a medium, that benefit from thought and careful play, and that communicate something about the human condition that is truthful, important, and hard to convey.

This is not the same thing as recency, but in the nature of things it does mean that the list skews a bit towards games that have come out in the past decade, and often towards works by authors who had already worked in the medium for a long time.

The list therefore omits a lot of games that I find delightful for their playfulness and polish: Lost Pig, Treasures of a Slaver’s Kingdom, Secret Agent Cinder, Brain Guzzlers from Beyond!, Magical Makeover, Midnight. Swordfight, several games by CEJ Pacian, and quite a lot of Ryan Veeder’s catalog.

It leaves out works that do a single thing perfectly — the telescopic narration of Lime Ergot, the linguistic mindbending of The Gostak, the jewel-beauty of The Moonlit Tower, the unfolding horror of My Father’s Long, Long Legs or the puzzle discipline of Suveh Nux. It skips others that impress through their extraordinary ambition and scope, from Tin Star or Blue Lacuna to 1893, Delusions and First Things First. It omits anything where I found myself writing too much extenuating text, any games I thought were great in one respect but got seriously in their own way in some other regard.

The list also skips many canonical works that helped define IF for the community: Zork, Deadline, Curses, Anchorhead, Spider and Web, Photopia, Shade, Rameses, Slouching Towards Bedlam. Even Jigsaw, which wrestles seriously with the weight and meaning of history, is also hampered by too-difficult puzzles and by limiting tropes of text adventures as they existed at the time. Influential and original, many of these games established what was possible in interactive fiction, and many of them are still very entertaining to play; others feel a little faded, documents of a different culture, as awkward to watch as a 90s sitcom. But if you want a list of this kind of canon, IFDB will supply several. I didn’t set out to omit anything because it was canonical, but I found that the criteria I set for this particular list tended to land on other nominees.

Several pieces, from Bloom to Shadow in the Cathedral, I left off the list because the narrative is not yet concluded. (I have hopes Bloom will be completed; I think we’re unlikely ever to get the end of the story of Shadow.)

Also not shown: works that meant a lot to me on a personal level for some reason, but that might not bear that same freight for someone else: Necrotic Drift, with its gut-punch ending about personal responsibility; Plundered Hearts, whose plottiness and NPC focus gave me the first ideas towards the type of IF I would one day want to write.

At the same time, there’s a lot of subjectivity here, and I did leave out some works, like Cape, or The Life (and Deaths) of Dr M, where excellent interaction design and writing served to explore some very significant theme, but where I just couldn’t quite agree with the conclusions; or the excellent Mama Possum, which is poignant and observant but didn’t leave me turning over the significance as much in my own mind, afterward.

Games that I contributed to myself, from Fallen London and Where the Water Tastes Like Wine to Cragne Manor, are also omitted, though I think the trend of anthology fiction with multiple authorial voices is an intensely interesting one and I should definitely write more about that. Later. Not in this list.

So. The list:

Continue reading “A Top 20 List of IF”

Mailbag: Environmental Storytelling

This is actually a reprint of a comment exchange that appeared earlier on this blog, but it’s the kind of question that I typically mailbag, so I’m reproducing it here for visibility.

A question, if I may: I’m not much of a story-writer (as in coming up with the ‘adventure’ part of the equation), but I’m working on a densely interactive VR diorama ( and a story/plot is starting to emerge from all the incidental detail popping up everywhere, taking shape in my head. It’s more of a situation/slice-of-life thing than a story per se. What would you (or any other reader!) say is a good way to come up with narrative cues to divulge this to the visitor?

I guess I’m mainly struggling with process – how to come up with just the right bits of information to relate to the listener, and how to make that matter.

Start by identifying the bare minimum. What are the 3-7 most important events or beats the player must know about in order to understand your story? What traces might those events have left on the world?

Continue reading “Mailbag: Environmental Storytelling”

The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (H. Porter Abbott) – Chapters 1-6


The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative approaches stories from a very different perspective than most of the game writing, novel writing, and screenplay writing books I’ve covered here before; instead, it’s an academic approach to describing what narrative is, based in the field of narratology.

I’m covering this one in some depth, because I think it’s interesting to compare the terminology it uses with the terms common in other types of writing and game writing and interactive fiction guidance. So this post will cover the first portion of the book, and I’ll cover (roughly) the second half next month.

Chapter 1, Narrative and Life, speaks to the idea that narrative is a fundamental human function, that we possibly can’t even form memories without making stories about the events that happened to us, and that we have an instinct to try to work out the history or past narrative of things when we encounter them. Abbott ends this section with a few paintings that challenge us to understand them narratively but also resist casual interpretation.

Among other things, the chapter rather inverts the idea of environmental storytelling as a technique by suggesting that we are constantly making up stories about our environments, and that any space we might enter in a game would be read in this way by players, whether we wanted that or not.

Continue reading “The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (H. Porter Abbott) – Chapters 1-6”