The Red Strings Club (Deconstructeam) and Minigame Conversation

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The Red Strings Club is a cyberpunk narrative experience about fate and happiness featuring the extensive use of pottery, bartending and impersonating people on the phone to take down a corporate conspiracy.

The Red Strings Club was recommended to me by a reader who explained that this was a game that used mixology as its conversation interface. If you want someone to talk to you, you make them a cocktail.

That does really sound like my kind of thing, I have to admit. I have written multiple prototype games, all of them sadly occupying dusty corners of my hard drive, that were based on some variation of “you have to mix evocatively-described liquids together in order to elicit information.” In one, it was a form of scrying with magical ingredients. In another, you were going to custom mix perfumes for yourself to wear to social events in order to subtly influence the conversation of the nobles around you. In a third, your choice of how to weight components in the mixture was going to drive the probabilities in generated descriptive text, so if you used a lot of one liquid you might become more perceptive about physical qualities, or a lot of another liquid would reveal memories.

None of these projects ever got finished. The perfumes one didn’t get further than an “oh I think I see how I’d do that” level of spec. But what appealed to me was a combination of challenge, physicality, and expressiveness

The challenge would have to do with the mixing rules: you might find that the ideal potion to scry out the murderer was one requiring ingredients that reacted horribly together, and you’d need to find a way to mix them safely.

The expressiveness would arise from the fact that you’re combining several elements into a single choice, and they could carry different axes of information. Imagine a perfume in which the top and heart notes express the noun and verb of action, the “what are you doing” portion of the command, while the base note expresses how you feel about it, a touch of protagonist characterization. Patchouli for the earnest, unguarded, irony-free. Sandalwood if you’re old enough to know better but not quite old enough to be genuinely subtle. Myrrh for bitterness. Vetiver for an inscrutable smirk.

It’s too rare in games that we’re allowed to say whether we take an action eagerly, or joyfully, or with reservations, or because we can think of no alternative.

Anyway. That is a very long preamble to say: that is not how The Red Strings Club works at all.

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Quarantine Circular (Bithell Games)

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Quarantine Circular is not a sequel to Subsurface Circular, but is very much an extension of the same core concept: a dialogue-driven game with dialogue menu and topic inventory, plus a lot of polish. In a few select places the topic inventories even allow you to combine concepts, constructing questions with multiple facets.

It’s less puzzle focused than Subsurface Circular, though, and more ambitious in the way it simulates social circumstances. You’re often talking to multiple parties at once, and things that please one character may irritate another in the same conversation. The story is less linear, as well: there’s more room to make choices early in the interaction that may have some long term effects. Meanwhile, the handling of the protagonist has shifted. Subsurface Circular has the player play a single character. In Quarantine, you take on several different viewpoint characters — though you may have limited access to those characters’ true understanding and motivation.

So mechanically, this has a lot of features that appeal to me — more than the original did. But that meant shifting more focus onto the fiction, and that didn’t bear up quite as well as I would have liked.

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Subsurface Circular (Bithell Games)

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Subsurface Circular is a game of puzzle conversation. The look and feel are quite polished — nice animations, sound effects, a sense of three-dimensional place, a UI representation of how far you are along your subway journey — but your activity in the game is talking to your fellow robots on a subway car, mostly picking dialogue options.

For Plot Reasons, you yourself are never allowed to leave the subway. But other riders come and go, and you can interrogate them for as long as they’re seated near you. The subway ride also functions as a measure of your progress through the story, in an elegant understated way: you know where you started, and roughly how far you are from completing the loop.

Character entrances and exits are gated in such a way that, as far as I can tell, it’s not possible to fail at an important conversation beat because you’re too late and the character leaves the train before you’ve talked to them. The frame structure provides just enough sense of passing time to imply a little urgency, but not so much as to actually get in the way of success.

As you do so, you gather “focus points” — a topic inventory that you can deploy whenever your current strand of conversation runs out, unlocking new menu items. Your focus point buttons highlight when you have any available gambits associated with them. And there are also a handful of things to figure out, passwords you can extract from one character to use on another and so on.

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The Harbinger’s Head (Kim Berkley / Choice of Games Hosted)

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The Harbinger’s Head is a fantasy horror story from Kim Berkley, in Choice of Games’ Hosted Games category.  It’s set in 1820s Ireland, in which the player encounters a supernatural creature — a kind of headless horseman character — and has to agree to help find his missing head.

The story that follows is focused on action and folklore. You’re partly collecting stories to try to piece together what has really happened in this supernatural situation, but there’s also quite a bit of violence, and one moment where it felt like my protagonist was implicitly under sexual threat, though this passed quickly. Descriptions often focus on the physical, and the game’s text doesn’t hesitate to tell you when you’re supposed to be feeling afraid.

The diction of The Harbinger’s Head sometimes feels substantially more modern than its period — there’s a reference to cutting and pasting something, for instance, and while both concepts individually certainly existed in the past, the paired idiom belongs to the computer age.

But for the most part it does deliver on the folkloric feel. There are several types of faerie creatures, but not your standard vampires and werewolves. Promises are made in desperation and redeemed in less than ideal circumstances. Old bonds of family come into play; so does the conflict between Church and Faerie (though fairly lightly, in the playthrough I experienced).

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The 39 Steps (John Buchan remade)

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The 39 Steps app is an adaptation of the book and movie of the same name, available on Steam. It gets a lot of comments about how it is not a game, which is probably unsurprising given the Steam audience. Some of the things written about it make defenses about how it’s really meant to be an enhanced book, and therefore the lack of gameplay is to be expected.

I don’t demand recognizable gameplay elements in my interactive stories, but I do want some consistency in how the interface works and how it’s engaging the audience.

39 Steps uses interaction and gestures for pacing: click to move the story onward and read more text. Rotate the mouse to move the text forward or backwards. (I hated this one. I don’t have a mouse; I’m using a trackpad. I never quite worked out whether I was doing the gesture correctly.)

It also uses interaction to create a sense of place and context. Sometimes the text narrative will pause and put you in an environment with two or three interactive objects you can look at more closely. This is a bit like Gone Home with less walking or looking for pale pixels in dim corners, which, in my view, is a net positive. The main narrative is full of pompous, stalwart-colonial stuff about going to South Africa and establishing diamond mines, or the protagonist’s friend deciding to try his luck in the Congo. This is true to its original period but hard now to read without at least an undercurrent of distress. So when in the protagonist’s club we find objects such as this:

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…they serve to ground the story more concretely in its particular time, and to suggest that the app doesn’t uncritically approve of all this empire-building. (Unless, that is, you’re the sort of person who can look at that map and think “Rah, the good old days!”)

All the same, though, it felt like an adaptation without a strong understanding — as though someone had looked at the original story and asked where they could stick in some pictures and clickable bits, rather than reimagining it from the ground up as an interactive story.

This piece was recommended to me by someone who finds most traditional interactive fiction disappointing, because they’re looking for more audio-visual richness.

(Confession: I found this piece sufficiently irritating to interact with that I did not complete the whole thing.)

 

Nocked! True Tales of Robin Hood (Andrew Schneider)

title screen.jpgOut today for iOS is Nocked, a Robin Hood adventure story by Andrew Schneider, which ran a successful Kickstarter back in December. Here’s the blurb:

Rob from the rich and give to the poor, cross swords with the Sheriff of Nottingham, and above all, lead Sherwood through the turning of the seasons and into a new age.

By your actions, gain gold, renown, followers, and even a measure of grace. Then spend those resources to fortify your forest home, accomplish special missions, and change the course of Sherwood’s destiny. Will you save your plundered gold to rebuild the walls of your home, or send it to the poor and dispossessed to increase your renown and attract Merry Men to your cause? And what of the rising bounty on your head?

Consider your choices carefully, for the consequences of your actions are not always readily apparent. For better or ill, in ways both small and large, you will change the course of history.

 

In story terms, Nocked! shares some of the features of a Choice of Games piece: it starts at the beginning of Robin’s career as an outlaw and allows the player to build up his (or her) resources and personality, then play out subsequent adventures. And rather like a Choice of Games work, Nocked! advertises itself on the strength of its size and massively branching narrative: more than 400K words! Five distinct backstory options! Fifty possible endings!

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Note the “Remaining Daylight: Sunset” feature at the bottom of the screen.

The “true tales” subtitle or title extension might seem to suggest that this is going to be a particularly historically accurate rendition of Robin Hood. It’s… really not. Early in your adventures you may encounter a unicorn, a talking wolf, the Sheriff of Nottingham’s mystically enormous hounds, and/or a lesson in archery-related spell-casting. Likewise, the game lets you be the long-lost heir to the throne of England whether or not you’re male (and there are other male contenders; this isn’t a Queen Elizabeth kind of situation).

Gold, men, and renown accrue when you do useful or clever things (or, like, steal stuff); you can then spend these again to get out of problematic situations. Meanwhile, certain chapters of the story have their own special timing stats: for instance, you can be wandering in the woods and have an indicator at the bottom of the screen of how much daylight time you have remaining — a reminder of your current limits and constraints.

All this makes sense to a degree, though I found myself bothered by the use of Robin’s men as an expendable stat, especially given how freely the resource is given out in play. One of the very first actions I took gained me something like 55 men; another action took away 80 again. Maybe this makes sense as a representation of how frequently the player is expected to be deploying manpower, but it felt dissonant with the fiction when it happened — partly because it’s hard to imagine suddenly accruing 50-odd followers without significant effort, and partly because the protagonist’s easy-come, easy-go attitude to said followers made it hard to believe in him as a legendary leader.

The storytelling is packed with event — battles, fires, chases, magic lessons, unicorn sightings, ambushes in narrow ravines, misplaced royalty — and the writing is rather less concerned with developing a coherent personality for the protagonist. The prose style is sometimes actively clunky:

A horse with a sparkling horn that rises from its forehead grazes on a nearby hilltop.

It’s not mostly quite so awkward about its noun phrases, nor so Lisa Frank in its imagery — I’ve cherrypicked. But I did sometimes feel that the whole thing was creaking a bit under the strain of those 400,000 words, which perhaps did not have time to be thoroughly edited.

What you get in exchange is a huge amount of narrative consequence for your choices. I played a good bit, but I haven’t talked much about the plot because I can’t be sure that your plot experience will be anything like mine.

Nocked! is built in an engine that brings Twine to mobile (not, I should add, the only such engine — there are other commercial IF games that are Twine under the skin). This variant displays mostly text, but with a strip of illustration at the top to establish setting, and a menu / status bar area at the bottom. I thought this worked pretty well, while keeping the majority of the screen for the text.