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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Getting Hired to Write IF

Over the past eighteen months or so, a couple of interesting things have happened.

One: there are way more opportunities than there used to be to write interactive text and receive payment in return. I hear about a lot of these because they tend to be documented on the intfiction forum or the euphoria &if channel, because people email me about them directly, or because author requests are pitched at the Oxford/London IF Meetup group. I also have a certain number of email exchanges where I’m offered a contract I don’t have the bandwidth to take, so the asker follows up with a request for a recommendation. I’ve started keeping a list of freelancers I know in this space.

(If you freelance and you want me to know that, feel free to send me a portfolio link. I do not guarantee any particular result, and I do exercise my own judgment about whom to recommend in any given circumstance. I do not ever make the full list available to prospective clients or employers. If I pass your name along, it will be because I think you’re a viable fit for what I know of the project.)

Two: there are lots of people interested in writing IF for money who are unsure about some aspect of how to get into it. Sometimes they message me in one form or another and ask for advice. I’ve written some advice about setting rates before, and also a bit about how my own situation works, though it’s not typical (see below).

Lately I’m getting questions about how to establish your skills in this space and make yourself appealing to employers, so I will write what I know about that as well.

Note that this is mostly about work-for-hire situations rather than working for specific IF studios and publishers such as Choice of Games, Failbetter/Fundbetter, Sub-Q, Tin Man Games, etc. Where you already have a target in mind, you’re best off looking closely at their own websites for their submission requirements or job postings, and familiarizing yourself with the work they’ve already published to see if you’re a good fit.

Ready? Let’s go.

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Worldsmith (Ade McT/interactive fables)

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Worldsmith belongs to a category that is still pretty rare, even in this age of growing opportunities for commercial IF: it’s for-sale parser IF. A demo is available for free, but the full version is $5.99. Not only that, but the author has collaborated with furkle (of SPY INTRIGUE fame) to skin an Inform 7 game with images, video, hyperlinks and custom menus. The surrounding images help communicate status information, with images of the NPCs you’re conversing with, and/or the planet you’re currently constructing.

Then there’s the gameplay. Worldsmith is heavy on both simulation and procedural text; I’ve seen a lot of authors start work that made ambitious use of those, but very few actually finish something of that scope and complexity.

The essential premise is that you are a world-builder in competition with several other world-builders (a very high-powered version of the Great British Bake-Off, perhaps). In order to do this, you must combine fundamental elements such as Air and Fire to make planets; set the planets in chosen orbits in your pet solar system; seed those planets with life; and then nurture the life to a degree of sentience that will survive in the wider universe and be able to leave its home planet before said planet becomes uninhabitable.

So far as I’ve seen, this is very much a systems game rather than a puzzle game. There is loads of information to learn about how various elements combine and what sorts of creatures they are likely to produce. Though you get a tutorial (a rather exasperated encounter with your teacher, who evidently feels that you really should have mastered the elements of world-construction by now), there’s a dizzying amount to retain, and you’ll likely find yourself reviewing your instruction manual quite a lot.

I haven’t managed to win. On the contrary, I’ve made a series of half-baked planets and seeded unsuccessful life on them, and needed to restart several times. (It turns out that if you teach your lifeforms too much too quickly, they’ll probably just destroy themselves, so slow up, Prometheus.) But I feel like I’m learning, so this is good restarting, rather than the bad frustrating restarting when a puzzle game has gone unwinnable.

In response to the decisions you make, your world is formed with differently described land forms, creatures, and technologies. It’s probably the closest thing to Spore-in-text-form that I’ve seen.

Still, eventually I realized that if I wanted to blog about this piece, I was going to have to go against my usual preference and write it up without having played the whole thing. So that’s a big caveat. I have some things to point out about Worldsmith but I have not seen anything near all of it, and certainly not most of its storyline.

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Lifeline: Silent Night (3 Minute Games)

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 10.55.29 AMLifeline: Silent Night is a (very lightly) Christmas-themed sequel to the original Lifeline (though, mercifully, it has no important connection with the disappointing Lifeline 2). In it, Taylor, the gender-nonspecific protagonist of the original game, has gotten into trouble aboard the ship home after the events of Lifeline. (I have always thought of Taylor as female, so I refer to Taylor as she below, but your version of Taylor could well be “he” or “they” if you prefer.) There’s less mystery this time around, because we basically know the parameters of the kind of universe we’re inhabiting. Taylor still spouts pop culture references from Futurama and The Simpsons (and the conversation even lampshades this overtly). There are still long pauses where Taylor is “traveling” or “resting” – perhaps somewhat less plausibly now that she is not on a vast moon but are instead poking around what is described as a small spaceship, and during an emergency.

But Silent Night offers a couple of other tweaks on the formula of the original. There are fairly long stretches of non-interactive text in between choice points – sometimes a page or two of text messages on my iPad, more than I remember from the original Lifeline. This text-to-choice ratio wouldn’t seem that odd in, say, a Choice of Games piece, but it’s more noticeable when the text is formatted as text messages (where we’re used to a rapid back-and-forth) and when it’s printing on a delay.

There are structural changes, too. Taylor is no longer completely on her own. The ship is crewed, and Taylor’s connection renders their dialogue in contrasting colors so that you can see the conversation when we’re around them (which is not very often). These other characters are still out of the way for most of the duration of the game, perhaps because otherwise it’s hard to explain why Taylor would be taking our advice to the exclusion of theirs, and it’s also not quite obvious why we can hear them but they can’t hear or see the advice we’re giving back to Taylor. But we just have to accept that that’s how the communication link works.

Second, Silent Night comes with a schematic map of the ship, allowing you to pause during conversation and check out where Taylor is and what she’s doing. This is kind of cool, from a feelie perspective, and helps sell the idea of the ship as a particular place. I wouldn’t ever say that the map becomes necessary, though, and in fact it frequently felt to me as though it had been awkwardly appended to the game after the script was already complete.

For one thing, the game frequently has Taylor making long trips through solitary corridors. Empty corridors are a staple of television and movie spaceships, certainly; but they don’t appear anywhere on the schematic. On the schematic map, all the rooms are directly connected to one another, wasting no time with intervening space. (I couldn’t help thinking of Coloratura here, which also included feelies but felt like the ship had been rigorously researched and planned.)

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