Twine Gardening

I haven’t published much in Twine on IFDB, but I actually use it a great deal: it’s become a prototyping tool of first resort for a wide range of professional projects, the format in which I deliver content to be converted into some other final presentation. A not-trivial amount of pro-level game story prototyping happens in Twine these days.

Which reminds me to mention that Chris Klimas has a Patreon for Twine maintenance and development, and it would be great to see that get some more support. Twine is usefully free to creators who might not be able to afford it, and long may it remain so — but I use it for industry purposes, so I pay for mine. (He’s also reachable via Unmapped Path, and has developed an engine to bring Twine pieces to mobile.)

One of the most characteristic things about writing in Twine is the business of curating the narrative map. Twine generates this map automatically, making a new passage for content every time you create a link that doesn’t refer to an existing passage, and placing that box somewhere near the originating passage. Which is fine, to a point, but very soon several things happen.

  1. performance drags and Twine takes its own sweet time inserting the box
  2. Twine’s idea of where to auto-place the box doesn’t correspond to my idea of how the contents should be visually arranged
  3. I can never zoom out as far as I want to, because even the smallest-box depiction of the Twine map doesn’t show me the whole monstrosity I’m working on

A really large portion of my time working in Twine consists of clicking back to the map view and dragging boxes around to better convey the story structure I have in mind. Pruning. Gardening. Rebalancing. Trying to make clusters of content stick together and make critical moments visible at a glance. Structuring so that I can recognize certain standard mini-structures.

For instance, both of these passages belong to a narrative that is, at the large scale, a standard branch-and-bottleneck, but the lower-level structure is actually very different:

The first diagram describes an “are you really sure you want to commit to this disaster” sequence: if the player heads down the left-hand path, they have several opportunities to opt out and rejoin the main storyline; but past a certain point, they’ve lost the game and are committed to a losing epilogue. And then, if the player survives that and traverses to the lower right portion of the diagram, there’s a big delayed-branching result with many different outcomes customized to what the player’s done so far: a narrative payoff for earlier choices. There’s some clustering to those delayed-branch results, which the diagram also tries to convey.

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Stats and Narrator Viewpoint

coglogo2.pngI’ve written a few times before about handling stats in ChoiceScript games, and making particular choices available. But in writing my own WIP, I also wanted to make sure that the story felt distinctly different if the player gave the protagonist a different personality — not just in terms of which choices they were able to make (or make successfully), but also in terms of the inner narrative.

With that in mind, I set for myself the following (silly) goal: when I ran randomtest, after the very first segment of play, none of the narrative output should be repeated across more than 4000 of the randomized playthroughs. That means that

  • many plot beats are reached only on 1/3 playthroughs (or fewer)
  • those plot beats that do occur every playthrough are narrated in at least three different ways, depending on the player’s stats and relationships

This speaks more to the fiction than to the mechanics, but the aim was to make the moment-to-moment texture of the story feel malleable, not just the plot structure.

This was also a good time to do more with the extreme ends of my choice spectrum: as discussed previously, I wanted to give some acknowledgement to players who managed to work their way into the top (or bottom) 10-15% of particular stat ranges, because that demonstrated a commitment to playing a particular way and should probably be understood as representing more deliberate agency than other approaches. So a lot of my alternate narration is designed to capture those high-end or low-end variations in how people view the world.

As I’ve often found before, it often enriches an interactive fiction to approach that story with some mechanical disciplines in mind.

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Loose, Tight, Flat, and Bumpy Stats in ChoiceScript Games

coglogo2Previously, I wrote about setting, checking, and gating content in stat-heavy choice-based games such as ChoiceScript content.

In that post, I didn’t get into the question of stat distribution: over the course of the game, how possible is it to reach particular stat distributions? Can you reach the top and bottom of each personality stat (raise it to 95+, or lower it to 5-)? Can you do this easily/immediately, or only with persistent (or even perfect) choice selection? If you run a bunch of random plays and look at what levels the random player can reach for a given stat, is the distribution reasonably bell-curve-like, or is it more flat or multi-modal?

If it is easy to reach the ends of the stat spectrum, I’ll refer to this as having a loose stat system: plenty of buffs or nerfs are floating around the system and it’s easy to get to one end or another. A player doesn’t necessarily have to play with purpose in order to achieve a particular character build. The problem here is that the resulting experience may feel fairly low-agency, because there are so many ways to get a particular stat profile that it seems like the player’s particular choice blend doesn’t matter all that much.

The extreme case of a loose stat spectrum is on where being at the ends of the spectrum isn’t even that unusual: by the end of the game, the distribution looks nearly flat, with little or no bump at the middle. This is a very unresponsive stat system, and it’s not going to reward the player at all for playing one personality stat consistently.

The opposite is a tight stat system: buffs and nerfs occur less frequently or in smaller increments, and it takes time to reach very high or very low levels. The problem here is that the game may feel quite difficult, especially if there are special endings or consequences associated with the extreme ends of the spectrum; it may be that most players never manage to reach ideal outcomes without relying on wiki guides to help them map their choices. This is especially frustrating if there is one “main” outcome that is boring/losing and all the special/winning endings require near-perfect execution.

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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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Small-Scale Structures in CYOA

Over the last few years the IF community has become more systematic about how we talk about structure in branching choice-based narrative. Sam Kabo Ashwell’s Standard Patterns in Choice-based Games is a go-to article defining some useful terms; it pairs well with Choice of Games’ article on how to use stats to create long-term consequence without combinatorial explosion, and Jon Ingold’s talk on inkle processes at GDC 2015.

A lot of that conversation revolves around the shape of the whole plot, or at least whole chapters, though; so I wanted here to talk briefly about some structures that I find really useful at the smaller scale.

screen-shot-2016-11-05-at-10-19-11-amConfirmation-required Choice. One of the things Jon talks about sometimes is the use of text to let the player opt in to doing something profoundly stupid, through a series of escalating choices. Are you sure you want to do this? It looks like the monster is getting angrier. Are you still sure you want to attack? Yes? You notice that the monster’s bite is poisonous. Are you going to attack now?

Once the player has opted in multiple times, it’s really on their own head if they wind up in a situation with a combat roll that wipes them out. This expands what would otherwise be a binary decision into an experience with more tension; it also tends to work well in cases where there’s one dangerous-but-interesting option and one safe-but-bland option.

How to enhance with stats: count how long the player sticks to the risky path before giving up (if they give up). Use this later as a metric of their commitment to the dangerous cause, and/or their recklessness.

screen-shot-2016-11-05-at-10-59-04-amTrack Switching Choice. A variant on the Confirmation-required choice is one where the player is allowed to change their mind in either direction for several beats. Later beats might introduce some potential drawbacks and warnings about whatever track the player is currently pursuing. Like the confirmation-required choice, this is a way to give some extra weight to a decision and emulate a situation where the protagonist might be genuinely conflicted about what to do next.

How to enhance with stats: track how often the player chose the outcome they ultimately landed on, vs. another option. Use this later as a metric of their commitment to a cause, or their willingness to change their mind about things.

Scored Choice. In the track switching choice, we hold the player to their final selection, whatever that might be. With the same basic structure, we could also score how many times the player chose one way vs. the other, and then use their top score to determine the outcome. The track switching choice often works well when there’s a single tough decision in the story; the scored choice is a good fit for a montage of related choices. For instance, if the player is choosing between a career-enhancing move or staying with a romantic partner, we might have a series of small decisions that test their commitment to one option or the other. (This strategy pretty much requires stats.)

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Mailbag: Studying IF and Narrative

I sometimes print letters I’ve received and what I wrote in response. This is usually for one of two reasons: I’d like to pass on what the writer had to say, or the writer asked a question that requires a long detailed answer, and I think other people might benefit from seeing that as well.

I am experimenting with doing this in a more formal way, with a regular mailbag post. Reprinted letters may be edited for length; if so, I will note that editing has occurred. I do not do this without the permission of the letter-writer, so if you write to me and would be open to seeing your email appear as a blog post, feel free to mention that fact. On the other hand, I do not guarantee to print every letter that grants permission.

*

Hi! 

[Identifying information removed.] I’m in the formulation phases of an honors project, for which I am working to create and advocate for interactive fiction as a literary medium. In doing so I’ve been trying to explore interactive fiction and engage with creators, and I’ve repeatedly had people refer me to you! I’ve been spending time reading your blog and your IF work, and I was wondering if you would answering a few questions (or, at least, directing me to more reading material). 

• First, I am a bit curious about how you would define Interactive Fiction. When beginning reading about it, I began with my preformed definition of the medium that has since been a bit challenged. Initially, I had been using the term to describe any fiction that is interactive, i.e. video games and visual novels, as well as traditional text-centric fictions. Would you say that Interactive Fiction, at least in regards to how it is broadly discussed, is more of a straightforwardly defined medium consisting of text-based fictions, multilinear or otherwise? Where is the line between video game/visual novel/interactive fiction?  Nick Montfort, in Twisty Little Passages, suggests that a work isn’t truly interactive fiction if it does not utilize a parser and have an interactive world. What do you think about this? (I know that this is probably a question without a very quick/easy or objective answer, but I would still love to hear your thoughts).

I intentionally avoid trying to specify such definitions.

In recent years, we’ve seen a lot of community upheaval around what is or is not “real” interactive fiction, which somewhat mirrors the broader arguments about what is or is not a “real” game. These are not bloodless battles: they’re pitched fights about who gets access to resources, coverage, and respect. In that context, I’ve become much more cautious about trying to provide exact labeling instructions for IF.

I’d also say that it’s common to see choice-based and hypertext work included in lists of interactive fiction and submitted to IF comps these days, so it seems that at least a significant part of the community is inclined to include those.

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