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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Mailbag: Deep Conversation

This one was a follow-up question to the asker wondering whether Blood & Laurels was still available anywhere. (It isn’t.)

If there are any other games (IF or otherwise) that you’d recommend for deeper conversational experiences, I’d love to hear about those… I have a rather broad set of interests there, so anything you find especially exciting, new or odd would be great to hear about, especially where conversation is at the center of the game.

…right, okay. Well, that’s quite a broad field, but here are some possibilities, preferring more recent games (though interesting conversation games go back for quite a while).

Exploration-focused Dialogue

Parser-based conversation games are often designed to let the player explore concepts that interest them, treating the non-player character like a big encyclopedia rather than a goal-oriented partner in dialogue. That tradition goes back — well, back to the 80s, really, since Infocom’s murder mysteries allowed you to ask characters about important subjects and clues.

A few more recent examples that are either carry some of this concept over to a different interface or allow a different spin on it:

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Subsurface Circular (above) and Quarantine Circular are both primarily conversation games. Subsurface Circular has some embedded puzzles in the dialogue, including puzzles around manipulating emotional states and the knowledge of both the PC and other characters. As you find out new things, you gain “focus points”, an inventory of topics that you can introduce into conversation.

Speaking of manipulating emotional states, that’s really the primary approach in The Red Strings Club: you mix drinks for NPCs to affect their emotional status, then ask dialogue-tree questions.

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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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Ladykiller in a Bind (Christine Love/Love Conquers All)

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Ladykiller in a Bind is an erotic visual novel by Christine Love and co, released last year; it won the IGF Narrative category. Consequently, there’s already quite a lot of commentary about it, especially around its handling of queerness and kink; a late-game scene with dubious consent that bothered some players and that Love ultimately wound up replacing; about mechanics that do not make sex the end goal in itself. Andrew Plotkin wrote up his take on it, and the genre of visual novels in general, as part of his IGF Narrative judging overview.

Plenty of interactive erotica exists — and there’s plenty of demand for it, too, as witness the fact that people searching for interactive sex stories form a sizable portion of my daily blog traffic. They’re probably mostly disappointed, but perhaps this entry will console them a little?

But relatively little of what I’ve encountered is as well-written as Ladykiller in a Bind, particularly when it comes to characterization. As Olivia Wood points out, sex scenes avoid being embarrassing by having something to say beyond “here is a peek at the author’s fantasies.” Ladykiller does that. It uses its sex scenes to communicate who the characters are, and shape their relationships with the protagonist; to talk about honesty, fairness, emotional manipulation, self-image, power exchange, and consent. And sometimes the sex conversation feeds back into dialogue about other things:

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The story is very much a fantasy, with a cast of super-attractive, wealthy, popular just-barely-18-year-olds. And the framing plot is ridiculous: the protagonist is a girl cross-dressing as her twin brother and hoping that none of his friends, enemies, and exes on the ship will notice. Nonetheless, the sex scenes detail emotional states that are relatively rarely shown in media. I don’t just mean the BDSM aspects here, either. There’s a storyline about a character who is relatively inexperienced and also doubts her own attractiveness, who gradually alters what she wants to consent to as she becomes more confident, and this played out quite plausibly.

That’s not to say the game is, or is trying to be, an encyclopedia of all possible sex formats. There are some places it didn’t go, at least during any of my playthroughs: the BDSM scenes I saw delved deeper into the bondage and submission aspects than into the masochism side, for instance. And, unsurprisingly, the scenarios skew towards issues that arise early in a relationship or for relatively inexperienced partners. At one point the older Maid does comment on the comparative immaturity of all the characters — an acknowledgement that would have felt like a lampshade, except that of course these characters are immature. They haven’t had time to become anything else.

But never mind about sex. Let’s talk about conversation mechanics.

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Beyond Branching: Quality-Based, Salience-Based, and Waypoint Narrative Structures

This blog post has a more than usually technical title, for which I apologize. It’s inspired by some recent conversations in which I hear people saying “branching narrative” to mean “narrative that is not linear and in which the player has some control over story outcome,” apparently without realizing that there are many other ways of organizing and presenting such stories.

There is a fair amount of craft writing about how to make branching narrative thematically powerful, incorporate stats, and avoid combinatorial explosions, as well as just minimizing the amount of branching relative to the number of choices offered. Jay Taylor-Laird did a talk on branching structures at GDC 2016, which includes among other things a map of Heavy Rain. And whenever I mention this topic, I am obligated to link Sam Kabo Ashwell’s famous post on CYOA structures.

This post is not about those methods of refining branching narrative; instead it’s describing three of the (many!) other options for managing the following very basic problem:

My story is made of pieces of content. How do I choose which piece to show the player next?

In this selection I’ve aimed to include solutions that can offer the player a moderate to high degree of control over how the story turns out, as opposed to affect or control over how the story is told.

I’ve also picked approaches that are not primarily based on a complex simulation, since those — from Dwarf Fortress to Façade — tend to have a lot of specialist considerations depending on what is being simulated, and often they’re not conceived of the same way in the first place. So with those caveats in place…

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Regency Games: Regency Love, Marrying Mr Darcy, Regency Solitaire, Fitzwilliam Darcy’s Dance Challenge

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Regency Love is an iOS game set in a pseudo-Austen town; it is in the same general territory as a dating sim or visual novel, but with a structure that also owes something to roleplaying games.

The core interaction loop is that the player can select a place from the map of Darlington, their town; the place may yield one or more possible activities. The activities can either be quizzes about Regency life (how long should you properly mourn a sister? how much did muslin cost?) or social interaction scenes that are primarily dialogue-driven. From time to time, there’s an opportunity to do another quiz-like activity, a game of hangman in which you’re trying to fill in a missing word from a famous quotation, mostly from Austen. Doing quizzes and hangman gains you motivation points which you can spend to raise your skill in one of six “accomplishments” — drawing, needlework, reading, dancing, riding, music (harp and pianoforte and singing are not distinguished). Some of the social activities depend on you having a certain accomplishment level in a certain area before they will unlock. Other social events depend on what has already happened.

Using a map to pick the next little story you want to participate in also reminded me a bit of StoryNexus, though whether the underlying engine relies on anything like quality-based narrative, I have no idea.

Before the game began I evidently paid NO attention to my governess.

Before the game began I evidently paid NO attention to my governess.

I was never a great enthusiast for the quizzes and stats part of this game. The questions refer to information from Austen that is not provided internally, so you either already know the answers or you have to guess. There aren’t enough hangman sentences and quizzes to last the whole game, either, so you’ll see the same things repeat over and over again before you’re done. Meanwhile, your accomplishments are necessary enough that you can’t ignore this part of the system, but there’s not enough variety to what the stats do to make it an interesting choice which one you raise next. Somewhere between halfway and three quarters of the way through play I had maxed out all my accomplishments and could now afford to ignore the whole quiz-and-hangman ecosystem, which was a relief.

Based on your behavior, the game also tracks character traits, reflecting whether you’re witty, dutiful, etc. It displays what your traits are, but I never worked out exactly what was moving the dials. What I said in conversation must come into it, but I didn’t know which dialogue did what. Nor did I ever figure out how it mattered. Some events were plainly closed to people with less than 12 Needleworking, but I never saw an explicit flag that excluded people who weren’t witty. So the character trait system may have been doing important things, but it was opaque enough that eventually I started to ignore it.

What does that leave? Talking. Lots and lots of talking. I like talking games! This one made some slightly peculiar choices, though.

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