Strayed (Adventure Cow)

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Out today for Android is Strayed, an interactive fiction game by Adventure Cow. It includes writing by Gavin Inglis (known around here for Hana Feels, Eerie Estate Agent, several Fallen London stories):

You’re only fifteen miles from home; but those fifteen miles are a lonely road through woods drenched in mystery, that many locals dare not enter. Rain batters your windscreen; your radio reports an aggressive beast, lashing out against passers-by; and there is something — something — waiting on the road ahead. Your decisions will matter in this game; perhaps more than you think.

As this is currently an Android release, I haven’t had a chance to play it myself.

The Frankenstein Wars Released

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Back in 2015, Cubus Games kickstarted a new gamebook app called The Frankenstein Wars, described as follows:

Tom and Anton Clerval have long guarded the secret to Victor Frankenstein’s resurrection technology. In revolutionary France, in 1827, that secret at last comes to light. The radical Zeroiste movement creates an army of the reanimated dead to seize control of the country, and then to cross the Channel to strike at the heart of the British Empire.

Only Tom and Anton have the power to halt the Zeroistes – or to stoke the flames of all-out war.

The game is out today for iOS and for Android next week (June 8). Please note that this is not a zombie story, technically. And I do enjoy an epic piece of historical-fantasy IF. And I have to say that the app looks pretty handsome in the screenshots:

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End of April Link Assortment

Events

May 1 in Cambridge, MA, Salon 256 shows off creative computer programs in 256 bytes or less; Nick Montfort presents some of his work there.

The Spring Thing Festival of Interactive Fiction is live through May 5; if you want to judge the games, you have a few more days to play and submit votes, and of course publishing reviews is also encouraged.

May 6 is the San Francisco Bay Area IF Meetup.

Edgelands launches May 9: it’s a graphical Fundbetter-funded game that draws inspiration from Infocom and perhaps Kentucky Route Zero. (I have not tried it myself, so I’m relying on the coverage here.)

May 11 is Hello Words in Nottingham, a text game writing group.

Also May 11 in London, Strange Tales presents an evening about Kickstarter and story/game projects. James Wallis is speaking.

May 15-16 I will be at the Creative Coast festival in Karlshamn, Sweden, where I will speak about interactive narrative structures beyond branching narrative.

The Machine Learning for Creativity workshop is accepting papers until May 16 and will be held on August 14; the speaker lineup has people who are interested in computer-aided storytelling or various forms of generative narrative.

May 17 in the Boston area, PR-IF is meeting and will be looking at some new interactive narrative projects created by Nick Montfort’s students, among other things.

AdventureJam runs May 5-19.

If you would like to submit a game to the indie showcase at Develop Brighton, you have until May 19 to do so.

PCG Workshop 2017 has a call for papers out. The theme is “PCG in context,” with the tagline “Exploring the biases, and potential to subvert bias, in procedural systems. Proposals are due May 22.

May 31 is the IF Tools Meetup in London, where we will talk about innovations in interactive fiction tools, presenting several different systems. I know in a previous link post I had guessed this would not happen until June, but the 31st turned out to be the most workable date for us.

I’ve also moved us to a new location with a bit more room; our old location was imposing a limit of 25 people, which was proving inconvenient or crowded when we had a popular topic. The new room is larger; we’ll see how we like it and whether we want to continue with that solution.

Ruber Eaglenest is running a Spanish-language jam with these rules: 1) choose a favourite song of yours about adventures of the frontier, 2) Join the jam, 3) Make a game inspired by the song. https://itch.io/jam/canciones-del-desierto-la-tormenta-y-el-mar

June 1-3 is Feral Vector, a delightful indie games festival in a really beautiful setting in Yorkshire, which usually includes talks, workshops, and hanging around on the grass eating and drinking with fellow devs. Last year there was also a LARP in the woods. I can’t go this year, but I’ve really enjoyed it both times I went. Not specifically IF-focused, but a good time.

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June 20 — this is a bit in advance, but I want to give people plenty of time if they’re interested — the London IF Meetup is gathering at the Eaton Square Bar to play In Case of Emergency, a mystery storytelling game assembled and run by A Door in a Wall. Atypically for our events, there is a small fee of £5 to participate.

June 28-30, I will be speaking at Gamelab XIII GAMES & INTERACTIVE ENTERTAINMENT CONFERENCE in Barcelona, about artificial intelligence and games.

The British Library is running an Interactive Fiction Summer School as a weeklong course in July, with multiple instructors from a variety of different interactive narrative backgrounds. More information can be found at the British Library’s website.

Mysteries of the Polar Wastelands is an interactive fiction jam focusing on that particular setting, and open through July 15.

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Choices: And the Sun Went Out (Tin Man Games)

IMG_0330Tin Man Games has an app called Choices — rather confusingly, since there is another well-known mobile IF platform called Choices that I wrote about recently. Tin Man’s Choices app contains two episodic stories: And the Sun Went Out and And Their Souls Were Eaten. [As always, I should frame the rest of this by saying that I have done some work with companies that compete in this space. Be warned, if that is a concern to you.]

Like the other Choices and Episode, Tin Man’s content is initially free to play, but handles monetization differently: after a certain point, you’re invited to subscribe to the app to receive additional chapters, rather than paying to unlock specific choices in the body of the story. You can buy a monthly, quarterly, or half-yearly subscription, but they all are subscriptions, with recurring payments — something that generally puts me off unless I’ve decided I definitely want to commit. I tend to forget to cancel subscriptions I no longer want and then six months later remember to go clean up, having accidentally spent $40 on an eFax service I only wanted to use once. On the other hand, it’s a clear pay-for-content model rather than pay-to-win or pay-to-seduce-Chris. So I approve in theory while still being a little hesitant about committing money to it in practice.

IMG_0329Tin Man’s Choices also borrows some Lifeline-esque features: in And the Sun Went Out you have an assistant AI called Moti who tells you what to do, forming a conversational interaction; apparently if you have an Apple Watch, Moti’s messages can appear there as well. (I don’t.) There’s a conversation partner in And Their Souls Were Eaten, too — one I found considerably more surprising and entertaining. But I won’t spoil that.

Tin Man has polished their interface a bit less than any of the competitors I just listed: one of the major challenges for me was simply the font size: tiny white writing on a black ground meant that I had to hold the phone pretty close to my face. There is a settings option to turn up the font size, but I only discovered this after quite a lot of squinting — I mention this now so that other readers have the opportunity to make that change early on. And in contrast with the other Choices and Episode, there are occasional facial animations for Moti, but otherwise, you don’t see the characters you’re interacting with, let alone get full-color background images.

And what of the content? It’s comparatively branchy and plot-heavy, focused more on how you navigate various dangers than on either role-play or relationships. And the Sun Went Out branches hard right at the beginning — do you visit this character or that one? — and you don’t have time to reach both of them before the story starts to move along.

It is also huge. Felicity Banks was one of the several writers on this project, and wrote to me:

It’s a near-future sci-fi story with literally thousands of choices for the reader to make including where to travel around the world (featuring, among other nations, the US, Peru, Canada, Kenya, Italy, China, Russia, Indonesia, Australia, Japan, and Egypt) and who to fall in love with (or not). It is just over 600,000 words, and each read-through is about 150,000 words. It’s a branch and bottleneck structure, with around 2-6 branches happening simultaneously between bottleneck choices.

For comparison, even large Choice of Games pieces like Choice of Robots are typically in the 200-300K word range, while Choices and Episode pieces are generally much shorter than this.

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Choices, Episode

There are several thriving brands of inteThe_Freshman,_Book_1ractive fiction on mobile that tend not to get a huge amount of coverage in the traditional IF community, despite their large player base. They’re placing well on the app store, though, and GDC talks increasingly cover them — so I went and had a look at a couple of the main contenders.

I should preface further discussion by saying that I have occasionally worked with mobile IF companies that might be considered to be competitors in this space. I did not spend any money on either of these games, though this does not mean I had review copies: they’re free to play with pay-to-unlock options in some places (and I’ll come back to that later).

Choices, from Pixelberry Studios, is a library app containing a bunch of different stories aimed at teenage girls. The top promoted story is The Freshman, and details the main character’s dating options in college.

IMG_0308It’s immensely trope-y stuff, especially if you got your tropes from 1955: running into a boy and having your luggage pop open, revealing (gasp) a bra! Exploring your suite, meeting suite-mates, and deciding whether to wear a bikini in your first encounter with your classmates. Playing getting-to-know-you games, deciding whether to drink or not. At least in the first few chapters, it’s an entirely social and low-friction vision of what college might be like, without the intellectual challenge, the self-discovery of being away from home and family, or the stickier kinds of interpersonal conflict.  (Perhaps it gets more complex later — I only played the first few chapters.)

Gender roles are stereotypical, and although I was able to choose a black protagonist, it looked as though the character art still featured her mom as a middle-class white lady at one point — which is of course possible, but it didn’t feel like an intentional storytelling choice at the time.

crownflameVanilla college is not the only option. Choices also offers several other books. There’s Rules of Engagement, in which the protagonists are aboard a cruise ship and forced to try to find love there thanks to the terms of a wealthy grandmother’s will. While that sounds pretty silly, I’m not sure it’s really a lot more ridiculous than many a romance novel I’ve encountered.

The Crown and the Flame is a fantasy story of a dispossessed princess and the male sidekick who remains loyal to her: there are still some romance choices, but also strands of combat, espionage, and political alliance. I managed to get myself killed a couple of times, but the game allows you to rewind instantly to the last choice point and pick another direction, so my political bumbling didn’t cost me too dearly.

The gameplay is reminiscent of a visual novel. Each area has its own background illustration; in-game text mostly takes the form of short pieces of dialogue from the various characters, shown in a box with the character’s face and expression visible as well. And, as in a dating-focused VN, the games take a lot of their initial startup time on introducing the cast of characters. On the other hand, the Choices stories felt comparatively linear, and they’re broken up into short chapters — targeted to the kind of constrained attention span one often has when interacting with a mobile device. And, unsurprisingly, the gameplay in The Crown and the Flame is nowhere near as complicated as in something like Long Live the Queen: the player isn’t necessarily expected to replay, let alone replay multiple times to find a survival strategy.

Then there’s the monetization.

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Congresswolf (Ellen Cooper, Choice of Games)

congresswolfCongresswolf is a Choice of Games story that debuted just before election. You play the campaign manager for a congressman or woman and make the sorts of choices one makes on political campaigns: go for grassroots donations or woo high-value donors? Allow yourself to be bribed, or keep your nose clean? Say what people want to hear, or try for some idealism? The complication: werewolves exist and are a marginalized class of people in both social aspects and under the law. The campaign manager before you was killed by a werewolf, and the killer is still at large. And there are reasons to think your candidate might be secretly lycanthropic themselves.

The game does a different take on some of CoG’s standard self-definition approaches. You can name yourself or pick a genderless name from a list; one of your main romantic interests also has a name that could be male or female, and the story rigorously avoids using any pronouns for that person. So instead of explicitly defining sexualities, Congresswolf takes a Jigsaw-style approach and lets you imagine what you like here.

The campaign structure is a natural fit for a Choice of Games piece: there are several different goals you could reasonably have when running a campaign, especially a campaign overshadowed by a murder investigation. There’s enough predictability to let the player attempt a strategy, but enough variation not to get boring. Your campaign includes some cyclical, predictable tasks like setting a budget for the next month and picking ad strategies, together with increasingly high stakes events, such as meetings with the press and debates with the other candidate.

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