Character Development and Storytelling for Games (Lee Sheldon)

Screen Shot 2017-08-04 at 5.24.18 PM.pngIn an essay on Tom Bissell years ago, I took a not-very-contextualized swipe at this book, as follows:

The latest book on the pile is Lee Sheldon’s Character Development and Storytelling for Games, which is apparently designed for those game writers who have never written anything before and came in from some other part of the production team.

Sheldon’s book dutifully describes many, many basic aspects of story-building; offers an introductory view of plot structures for video games, while deftly avoiding any really hard problems or really interesting solutions; and takes care to remind the reader every few pages of Sheldon’s credentials not only as a professional writer but as the sort of person who has shared a limo with Dick Clark… It is the mental-nutrition equivalent of buttered macaroni…

That was way more of a cheap shot than it needed to be, and I’ve felt a bit guilty about it since. In the unlikely event that Mr Sheldon is tracking my opinion of his work, I apologize for being so flippant.

As I reread the 2004 edition on my ongoing survey of game writing books, I do still have some related criticisms, but I would phrase them more gently and admit more virtues in the project. There’s also a fair share of material that is likely to be helpful to beginners, as well as observations that go a bit deeper. It’s also perfectly readable from moment to moment. I just find that the rate of new revelations per chapter is significantly lower than I would prefer.

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End of November Link Assortment

December 2 is the SF Bay Area Interactive Fiction Meetup.

December 9, the Baltimore IF meetup gets together to talk about Harmonia.

The next meetup of the People’s Republic of IF in Cambridge (MA) will be Tuesday, December 12 at 6:30 PM in MIT room 14N-233.

Also December 12, there’s an IGDA Writers SIG panel in London for people who are interested in getting into game writing as a career, presenting views from creators who have worked on a number of different commercial genres.

December 14, Hello Words meets in Nottingham, UK.

December 16, there’s an intro to Twine run by Queer Code London and co-sponsored by the Oxford and London IF Meetup. We are not otherwise having a meetup this month, as it’s such a busy time of the year.

December 27, “Game Over,” the radio play I wrote about indie game development, is being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. It’s produced by Judith Kampfner and starring Sarah Elmaleh, and I’m delighted that I got to work with such amazingly skilled people on this project.

The Opening Up Digital Fiction competition runs through February 15, 2018. It offers cash prizes and the possibility of future publication.


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Thaumistry (Bob Bates)

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I recently wrote about Bob Bates’ commercial parser IF game Thaumistry for PC Gamer. Bob was kind enough to speak with me about the project for context.

A couple of other observations came up in that conversation with Bob that couldn’t go into the PC Gamer article because they involved spoilers or too much detail about parser IF implementation, but I thought I’d discuss them briefly here.

I’ll do the spoilery bits last, with additional warning, for those who might not have played the game but intend to do so in the future.

Other references.

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Dagstuhl Workshop on Narrative and Social Graphs

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Graphing a Facebook network without information about interaction frequency.

I’m currently in Germany for the Dagstuhl seminar Artificial and Computational Intelligence in Games: AI Driven Game Design. Wednesday, I was part of a workshop focusing on social network analysis and its application to narrative: how are social networks graphed? What kinds of information can they contain? What data could be associated with an edge — number and recency of interactions? Emotional valence of average interaction? More than this?

And — given the graphs available — how might we build interesting narrative game mechanics that in some way made use of a knowledge of the network? Might there be games that turned on either a human or an AI interacting to modify a social graph as the primary mode of interaction? What about gameplay experience interventions that were triggered by the discovery of particular graph states?

This is interesting to me in part because I feel a lot of our game design is currently poor at facilitating stories about communities and group dynamics.

Screen Shot 2017-11-22 at 5.58.38 PMOne of several contributions from the graph theory members of the group was the idea of a “motif,” a recurring pattern from within a larger graph, which could be reasoned about. The motif here might represent the idea of a small family — all the members know one another. Many other social situations could be represented this way, including ideas like “one character knows everyone else” or “this character is a loner.”

It occurred to us that this might make the useful basis for an authoring tool where motifs were used to specify prerequisites and post-conditions for narrative moves — a little the way StoryNexus specifies numeric range prerequisites and post-conditions for its storylets.

Depending on the rest of the system, eligible narrative moves might be presented as options to the player — it’s up to you to choose which one you want to use to advance the story — or executed by an AI automatically, in which the AI would need to select among all currently valid narrative moves.

The author would have a palette of motifs to work with, and could apply these to a story segment to say “if this configuration of relationships exists in the game, the following narrative segment is eligible for use; please fill each role with an available character who fits that slot.” (This is a system with dynamic requirements, a bit more flexible than a quality-based narrative system.)

For instance, here’s how this system might express a narrative moment involving a love triangle:

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Mailbag: Writing Commercial IF for Mobile Devices

Dear Emily,

I am a professional writer–22 years plus of making my living from my pen–who is just now sticking my toes into the world of IF… I recently had a chance to revisit the world of IF in drawing up a planned project for a grant proposal. It’s been many years since I’ve played in this world, and it’s changed monumentally. Your blog has been tremendously helpful in giving me an overview.

I haven’t yet, however, come across an entry from you where you really get into the nuts and bolts of which engine you consider the best for independent writers hoping to create a commercially successful game as a  phone app.

Like a lot of newbies to this form, I don’t come from a programming background, and have little facility with coding. After trying Adrift and Inklekwriter, along with a couple of others, I settled on Quest, but I’m finding the lack of a GUI and the amounts of coding that are expected pretty daunting.

Before I jump down yet another half-dozen rabbit holes to try to find the best solution for me, I thought I’d ask you. What, right now, November 2017, would you recommend as the best IF engine for creating content for a phone-based app, that would work best for experienced writers with little coding experience?


So the short answer to this is: I don’t know of any solution that requires no programming or technical savvy, but that will let you write free-concept, text-only IF and sell it on mobile, with reasonable odds of making money, and without going through anyone else’s platform.

“Commercially successful” does introduce technical requirements, because that does imply that you’re going to need attractive, non-generic screenshots, and that it has to be an app; merely being able to play the resulting IF on a phone, e.g. as browser-based IF, is not enough to meet the asker’s criteria.

Furthermore, most genuinely commercially successful IF has the advantage of an experienced studio putting it together (Big Fish’s Lifeline series, Choices), a really attractive front end/additional gameplay (inkle’s stuff), and/or a brand concept that has been developed with a bunch of titles over time (Choice of Games, Episode, Choices again).

Also, I consider “commercially successful parser” to be such a hard target that I’m not covering it here. And it’s harder to get solid results out of a parser game unless you’re willing to code more. So I think we can rule that out.

However, there are a few approaches that I consider currently realistic, given the right combination of circumstances.

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Mid-November Link Assortment


IF Comp is nearly finished, so keep an eye out for results!

ICIDS, the academic digital storytelling conference, is in progress as we speak, in Funchal, Portugal.

New Releases

Robin Johnson’s classic Detectiveland is now available on Android.


Kate Compton presents this set of ideation cards to help with the design of generative art. Some really cool ideas in here.

Articles and Reviews

I wrote about some of the IF Comp games for RockPaperShotgun.

Bobby Lockhart proposes five unusual and novel dialogue mechanics. Some of these look like they’d require a lot of additional content in order to function in an interesting way — NPCs who have to be able to answer what you didn’t pick as well as what you did might require a bunch of extra content, possibly. And methods that involve putting together strings of words from a possible selection could be needlessly frustrating or slow for any extended conversation, so it would have to be something where there was expressive power in a fairly short space.