The Mermaid’s Tears (BBC R&D)

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The Mermaid’s Tears is a short radio play (really, just a few minutes long) that allows the listener to switch audio positions and hear the story from any of three perspectives: as Dee or Bill, police officers, or as Lesley, the mother of a sick child.

Dee and Bill have questions about how the child got sick, and the chief question of the piece is whether Lesley is responsible in some kind of Munchausen-by-proxy scenario, or whether the whole thing is just an accident.

As the listener is just choosing what to listen to, there’s no narrative agency here. The structure is reminiscent of Sam Barlow’s WarGames (interactive film with a choice of strands to follow) or Iain Pears’ Arcadia (interactive novel with multiple viewpoint characters and locations) or perhaps a Punchdrunk production. All of these works belong to the category Hannah Wood would call Story Exploration Games, or games of dynamic syuzhet. But in all but Arcadia, there is an extra component: film, theatre, and radio are temporal media that have to be moving forward in order to convey meaning. A player/viewer/participant who chooses to pay attention to one stream is choosing to give up attention to another.

So player decision-making in The Mermaid’s Tears is about choosing what we want to know at the moment — do we keep listening to the conversation of two characters in the living room, or do we eavesdrop on a third who has stepped away for a moment? What do we feel we can step away from without missing anything important? Continue reading

Game Over

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Game Over is a radio play I wrote for BBC radio 4, commissioned and script-edited by Judith Kampfner and starring the phenomenal Sarah Elmaleh. It’s a story about trying to write a game about a particular topic, and the tug of different impulses that go into that process, and the ways it’s possible to screw up.

The play is available to listen to online at the moment, though in a few weeks it will become unavailable again.

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Recent IF for iOS

monstrMonstr (Laura Michet, Kent Sutherland, Meagan Trott, Emily So, Travis Ford DeCastro, Rachel Sala, and Rosstin Murphy) is a game in which you’re searching for the dating profile of a monster you saw at a bus stop. It’s made up primarily of spoof profiles and then short “chat” scripts that go horribly badly until you find the one monster who is right for you.

As far as I can tell, it’s largely a matter of luck when you will stumble on the correct monster, and the chats with wrong monsters usually go wrong because the protagonist is scripted to say something foolish or horrible. So it’s easy to build up a sense of the PC as a somewhat-awful being before you get through to a win condition.

On the other hand, the dating site satire is fun and some of the monsters seem rather sweet.

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Wonderland is a new audio IF game by veteran IF developer Jim Munroe. It’s a mystery puzzle centered on Munroe’s own neighborhood in Toronto, and it has a hangman-like mechanic of puzzles where you can unlock additional letters by walking around with your phone.

I’ve been enjoying it, as far as I’ve gotten — though I haven’t finished yet. I think this game would be ideal for someone who spent a lot of time on rambling strolls. Right now, that’s not really me: Oxford is pretty drippy and forbidding this time of year, so most of my exercise happens indoors. But the game has a pleasant radio drama quality and the voice acting is well done.

(Disclosure: I received a free copy of this game.)

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IMG_0210One Button Travel (The Coding Monkeys) is a Lifeline-genre game: you’re engaged in CYOA chat with one other character, and there are real-time delays spacing out your conversation. The app is skinned with a somewhat retro, Device 6-esque design.

Unlike Lifeline, its rather less successful sequel Lifeline 2, and its free-to-play imitator TimecrestOne Button Travel invents a premise in which, instead of aiding a mysterious stranger, you’re the person in danger (at least initially). Your correspondent is trying to assist you, though assisting you quickly involves them getting into trouble as well. They’re also able just occasionally to send you messages with photographs inside, which the Lifelines did not attempt.

So I was well-disposed when I started the game. However, the timing elements are really frustrating. There are a lot of pauses that run for 30-120 seconds, as far as I could tell. (I’m estimating: I didn’t keep a stopwatch on these.) Maybe the delays are meant to add to the realism of the situation, but they really annoyed me. They broke up the narrative just long enough that I put my iPad down and went to do something else, only to be interrupted with a notification just as I was settling into a different task — meaning that to make any significant progress on the game, I had to let this game fragment my attention and keep me from getting anything else done, even though it itself wasn’t keeping me continuously engaged. And it wasn’t necessarily signaled when my interlocutor was going to be gone for two minutes and when they were going to be gone for hours. Sometimes when I did respond to the notification, the result was another page of texts without any further choices for me to make at the end of it, so there was functionally no reason (other than perhaps a long-ago eroded sense of suspense?) not to have given me those additional messages right away.

Meanwhile, after the initial hook, I found myself increasingly detached from the story itself. Some of this is because that bitty, occasional level of interaction made it hard for me to connect. Some is because the world-building is so implausible — you are “helping” someone escape through, among other things, a really bizarre system of automated laundry handling that sounds like it was designed to be an amusement park ride. Some is down to lack of agency: it wasn’t until I’d been playing for something like a week of real time that I encountered a choice where it felt like that choice might have caused a significantly different outcome than if I’d picked the other option.

Anyway, I’m declaring bankruptcy on this one. I haven’t finished it, and I don’t plan to: it’s not giving me enough in exchange for my time.

(Disclosure: I played a copy of this game that I bought with my own money.)

Wunderverse

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Wunderverse is not a game but an iPad adventure editor that lets you build your own stories. It comes with a few starter adventure chapters already written, though as far as I saw it didn’t look like any of them were finished stories. Of these, I completed the sample set in the paranormal world: a vaguely Sixth-Sense-y story that could have been more strongly written and that still had a couple of typos. But I have the feeling that the actual content is not what the app’s creators most care about; they’re looking at this primarily as a tool.

IMG_0208The good: the app looks pretty slick, and it features the ability to theme your stories and include sound effects and other elements.

Though it has a tap-only interface, the underlying world model feels more like parser IF than the models in most competing systems. You can create nodes and objects, and certain verbs remain available to the player at all times. The system also provides for player character stats and abilities, and for conversation. Nodes function sort of like rooms and sort of like narrative nodes, so you could take this either in a very map-based direction or in the direction of a more CYOA-style narrative. (Personally I feel a little bit itchy about conflating space and narrative state into the same thing, but I accept that it’s sometimes useful to do so.)

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Dialogue: A Writer’s Story Demo (Tea Powered Games)

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Dialogue: A Writer’s Story is the tale of Lucille, a woman who is stuck on a novel, and who goes to her friends and relatives to find inspiration and work past her difficulties. The full game is not yet available, but a demo is free to download. My remarks here are therefore necessarily based just on the two scenes provided in that demo.

Dialogue has some aspects of a visual novel — in the screenshot shown above, Lucille and her brother are talking, and Lucille periodically gets timed opportunities to choose dialogue responses. All of the text is fully voice acted. There is a bar that shrinks as you run out of time to answer, as in Telltale conversation sequences, though there are also some additional dialogue powers that come into play and allow you to gain alternate dialogue lines partway through the timed session.

At the end of your conversation with Lucille’s brother, you get a little summary of how the game thinks the conversation went: were you pushy? neutral? I have to admit that its understanding of what I was doing and why didn’t really match my own.

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Delphina’s House (Alice Grove)

delphinaDelphina’s House is another of several ParserComp games that I didn’t have time to get to while the competition was actually in progress. It was widely liked by the comp judges, and came in 3rd overall and 2nd in the technical category. It’s the story of an imaginative little girl who is performing a sort of treasure hunt (mostly of the imagination) before moving out of her house for the last time. I found this premise mildly charming but not all that gripping; I was more interested in the puzzle construction, which was effective.

The core mechanic centers on shifting from one universe to another: an object that appears as tiny jinglebells in one imaginary universe might appear as a collection of marbles in another, for instance. This is strongly reminiscent of Dual Transform, but whereas Dual Transform requires you to move through and understand all its spaces, Delphina’s House uses the transformation strategy to make its game more forgiving. There are three major puzzles, each of which can be solved in any of the three universes: you can pick which variation you find easiest and solve it there.

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