Bring Out Your Dead: Interface

Bring Out Your Dead is a jam I ran for defunct WIPs, over the week around summer solstice. It is now complete, and you can see the 89 entries. Not all of these are interactive fiction: being on itch meant that the jam attracted a number of not-even-slightly IF projects, from a hexagonal Tetris variant to a bullet-hell shoot-em-up to Conflux, a 3D puzzle game about getting the right perspective on your environment.

Providing any kind of coverage of all 89 works is more than I can do, but I did want to look at a few concept trend over the next few days, starting with experiments in storytelling interface.

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Interactive Comics Prototype (Carl Muckenhoupt) is an interactive comic where changes in one panel instantly propagate forward to later panels. That means it’s possible to explore a Time Cave-structured story extensively without moving on from a single page.

What would this look like for a longer structure? I could imagine each strip being itself a node in a larger tree; I could also imagine a game where you’re actually working your way backwards, trying to open up earlier panels so that you could exercise greater and greater agency, in the style of 18 Rooms to Home. I would definitely play more of something like this.

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A Conversation with Ruber Eaglenest about ZFiles

zfiles

Z Files: Infection is a project currently being Kickstarted, an interactive comic book set in a zombie universe. I talked with Ruber Eaglenest, aka El Clerigo Urbatain, about the project, and how it works as an interactive comic, as interactive fiction, and in terms of how it portrays its protagonist.

Interactive comic

RUBER: There have been other games that have tried to this fusion, but they are most experiments, or resort to the “infinite canvas”.

EMILY: I think that is an interesting direction. I’ve seen a handful of pieces that do similar things, but I think there is probably a lot of additional room to explore it. IIRC, some of the Tin Man Games pieces do include some comic illustration elements; also a few other things I’ve covered.

RUBER: To be honest, sometimes I’m not at all satisfied about how I try to communicate how interesting is our project compared to other attempts to make interactive comic. I do not want to look as I disregard other attempts, especially when I can climb on his shoulders and improve from there.

We are going to stay inside the pages of a comic, and so, the challenge is to apply the tree structure of CYOA to the finite space of a comic book.

EMILY: What actual constraints do you have in mind here? For instance, are you trying to make all the pages be the same size, or have the same amount of visual space assigned to each node?

RUBER: You see, people and the press likes to praise the infinite canvas because we simply love to see common things applied to new technologies. But when one uses the infinite canvas in a digital or interactive comic, you lose some of the features and inherent properties of the comic format. For example, the ability to close a page narrative, or leave it open with a cliffhanger so that an important revelation occurs at the turn of the page. To play with the structure, with graphic symmetry, among other wonders you can do within the pages of a comic book. For example, in the following conference praising Watchmen, Kieron Gillen explained very well the capacity of traditional structures of comics raised to its maximum capacity of artistic expression.

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Secret Agent Cinder (Emily Ryan)

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Secret Agent Cinder is a retelling of the Cinderella story, except not: though you dress up and dance with fancy people, it’s really about espionage and sneaking about at Versailles shortly before the French Revolution.

It belongs to that small but growing category of Twine games — with Hallowmoor, Krypteia, and This Book is a Dungeon — that feature a world model and a map you can get to know. There are some light puzzles, and you can reach a sudden bad ending, though the game will then automatically restore you to the last reasonable checkpoint to replay. At the end, you get a rating for your stealthiness, revolutionary violence, and zeal. The result is short, polished, accessible, and quite a lot of fun.

Besides having a map, Secret Agent Cinder uses illustration as a primary channel for storytelling: the pictures aren’t just a gloss on the text, but give key information about, say, the locations of guards. If you don’t pay attention to them, you’re likely to get caught. Many of the jokes are embedded in the imagery as well; it plays more like an interactive web comic than most things I can think of.

Mildly spoilery discussion of the humor follows the break.

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Tightening the World-Plot Interface: or, Why I Am Obsessed With Conversation Models

framed

Framed is an interactive comic game in which you move around the panels of the story, reordering events in order to change what happens in the story. It looks really attractive, too.

Forgetting is a graphic novel with CYOA-style branching when you click on certain panels.

Forgetting is a graphic novel with CYOA-style branching when you click on certain panels.

When I first heard of this game, I was hugely excited about it. There aren’t that many entries in the interactive comic space, and this seemed to offer a slightly different set of mechanics to go alongside Dan Benmergui’s (unfinished but, to judge by the demos, awesome) Storyteller or Troy Chin’s Forgetting or the somewhat over-difficult Strip ‘Em All.

When I actually played Framed, though, I had essentially the same reaction described at The Digital Reader:

While Framed is based on a clever dynamic, the actual game is repetitive to the point that I am bored… Rather than have the user solve puzzles with different goals and different solutions, the vast majority of the levels I played all had the same goal: avoid the cops. Other than setting things up so the protagonist can either bypass cops or sneak up behind cops and hit them over the head, there’s not much to this game.

I’m maybe a little less harsh than this — I did feel that Framed was worth playing, and I know that some people did enjoy the puzzles — but nonetheless, I was hoping for something that did new work in telling an interactive story, rather than just setting up a bunch of puzzle levels. In that area it fell short. All of the puzzles are about a similar problem — one set of characters escaping another — and the stakes don’t alter much either. This makes for boring story.

The problem occurs at the world model-to-plot interface. That’s a challenging area for parser IF, too — and indeed for any game in which the player cannot influence the plot directly, but has to change the world model in order to move forward. Choice-based games vary in this regard, but probably more of them are of the directly-influence-plot variety than of the indirect-influence variety.

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Games of Co-Authorship

Someone recently asked me about games in which the player is involved in the story as a co-author rather than as a protagonist, and this is the list I came up with (plus a few others that I thought of after answering the initial request):

witchs

Witch’s Yarn — a graphical point-and-click rather than text-based, but you’re picking which props/characters you want to bring on stage next. Eons ago I did a review of it here. I think there are interesting procedural narrative things they could have done with this premise, but mostly in practice it came out as a series of puzzles instead. (Still interesting and unusual, though.)

Screen Shot 2013-04-03 at 6.50.26 PM18 Cadence — players rearrange objects and narrative elements to construct their own stories. I talk about it more here.

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Appointment with FEAR (Tin Man Games)

Screen Shot 2014-11-14 at 8.16.05 AMAppointment with FEAR is an adaptation of a Steve Jackson gamebook, available in various mobile formats and also on Steam for desktop machines. It’s been polished up into a graphical-novel style interface — a juicy one that slides panels into place and makes stats expand bouncily when you click on them – but it retains a slightly disorienting early-80s mentality: there are jokes about “Michael Jixon”‘s new release “Chiller”, and “Vulture Club”‘s lead singer “Georgie Boy”. This kind of thinly-veiled reference is symptomatic of its sense of humor.

Content-wise, it’s straight parody superhero fiction. You have an alter ego who has a newspaper job (which you rarely have time to attend), and when you’re “in disguise”, your avatar wears a pair of Clark Kent-style glasses. There are various villains with various unlikely costumes. For yourself, you get to pick from a roster of jokey auto-generated names. I played first as “Sparse Manifestation”, a mind-reading black female superhero with amazing breasts but no other body fat, and then as “Apathetic Chicken Leg”, a flying white female superhero with amazing breasts but no other body fat. Once I had a fleeting chance to name myself “Absolute Chaos”, but I misclicked the show-more-options button before I could select it; that was pretty much the least bizarre title I was ever offered.

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Goofiness aside, I’m struck by the colorful energy of the interface here; it really feels as though it has projected you into a superhero universe with BAF and BOW animations. The mechanics are on the simple side, but have been carefully blended into the story. There are combat sequences, in which you can pick from a range of easy-but-weak or risky-but-powerful attacks, and these get some context-appropriate narration. There is a detection component to the game, in which you gather clues from various events and use them to solve additional problems you run into: when there’s something you might be able to resolve with clues, you go to your clue notebook and pick the clue you think applies, in good Phoenix Wright style. There are some simple stats: luck, stamina (hit points by another name), and Hero Points, which track successes along the way.

I never played the original gamebooks, so possibly I’m about to take issue with something that is fundamental to the whole historic experience. But despite the surface polish and the similarity to a number of games that I do enjoy quite a lot, I found myself pretty frustrated by this as both a game and a piece of narrative design.

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