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).
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:
…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.)
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!
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.
Note the “Remaining Daylight: Sunset” feature at the bottom of the screen.
A while back, you alluded to the aesthetic preferences cultivated by Choice Of Games and their writers. Is this written down or codified somewhere? Is there a critical discussion? Have you written about it?
There’s a lot of advice and material codified for people who are actually working for them, on their website. An obvious starting point would be their three-part series about how they judge good games: 123
It’s also probably worth looking at their ideas about structure, which covers branch-and-bottleneck (or what they call “stack of bushes”) design, delayed consequence, and stats deployment. Endgames specifically are covered in this post.
Overall, I’d characterize their preferences like this:
a highly customizable protagonist who at a bare minimum can be any gender and romance any gender, but who might also embody many other possible variations
a tendency towards bildungsroman, so that the protagonist’s definition can be incorporated into the storytelling, and because the whole brand was inspired by the game Alter Ego; many of their works start with an education and training period
less focus on prose style: their structure allows for more verbose writing between choices than inkle or Failbetter, and the undercharacterization of protagonists often precludes using a strong narrative viewpoint
an emphasis on plot consequence (you did this and as a result the company failed) over internal or emotional consequence
a tendency (though not an absolute rule) in favor of interchangeable characters
riffing on core conventions of existing genres (though this is something where they’ve matured over the years, I think — but early pieces sometimes felt focused on “what if we took this standard trope set and then explored the consequence trees possible within it”)
The premise of The Frankenstein Wars is that the protagonists are involved in a republican war using Frankenstein’s technology to resurrect the dead, creating stitched-together “Lazarans” — not zombies. The Lazarans have a memory of what came before, but sometimes are wearing someone else’s arms and legs: this is a scenario more like extensive organ donation than anything else. Together, they’re fighting against Charles X of France, the last of the Bourbon kings, who in our timeline was ousted in the July Revolution of 1830.
As protagonists, you control two brothers, the sons of Henri Clerval in Frankenstein. Other characters both real and fictional come in as well: Frankenstein’s monster (fictional, we trust); Byron’s brilliant daughter, Ada Lovelace (real, but heavily mythologized here); Percy Blakeney, the Scarlet Pimpernel (fictional); assorted real French political figures. There was something a bit League of Extraordinary Gentlemen about all this, albeit a few decades earlier. The Byron connection is a little twisty given that Byron was friends with the Shelleys, and Mary Shelley had the original idea for Frankenstein while on a trip to Lake Geneva with Byron (and others) in the summer of 1816; so any narrative universe that contains Byron would seem like it ought to include Mary Shelley was well. Mercifully, the story doesn’t wink at the reader about this, just takes it as a baseline fact and rolls on.
It’s not at all necessary to know the relevant history to play. It’s not even particularly necessary to be deeply familiar with Frankenstein, though it’s maybe worth noting that the original idea for the story came from Dave Morris, who did a Frankenstein project with inkle. The actual writing is by Paul Gresty (author of The ORPHEUS Ruse and Metahuman, Inc for Choice of Games).
There are a number of clever or unusual things going on with the interface, and even if it weren’t for its other merits, the game would be worth a look on those grounds alone.
(Throughout the below, I’ll refer to Ronn as “he” because Ronn mentions using the pen name Michael in places, despite the gender non-specific initials on the cover.)
Ronn’s book makes an entertaining diptych to Deb Potter’s piece, since he starts out in the introduction by vehemently rejecting a lot of the things Potter embraces: writing for children, leaving protagonists blank, deploying frequent deaths, and the use of the second person POV in general.
Ronn claims it’s flatly impossible to tell a good or characterful story in 2nd person POV; there are plenty of counter-examples in the IF canon but instead I’ll take the opportunity to recommend some Jennifer Egan. To be fair, however, I think he’s really railing against AFGNCAAPs rather than second person.