The Written World on Kickstarter

The Written World is a computer-mediated interactive storytelling game (additional details available here). The authors describe it as an interactive fiction MMO, but it’s also not completely unlike a library of Fiasco-style playsets.

The game provides assets — characters, character goals, possible events — embodying a story concept, but each actual experience is a two-player exchange between a Narrator player and a Hero player, a bit reminiscent of Sleep Is Death. The players participate primarily through writing, by creating descriptions of what happens next. If either of them doesn’t like what’s been done by the other, they can spend some Force to override the decision; Force is in turn earned by writing particularly compelling content. The aim of the exercise is not essentially competitive, but mediated cooperation aimed at producing an interesting story.

The Written World chief Simon Fox was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about how the mechanics work.

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Balance of Powers on Kickstarter

Balance of Powers is a dark new alternate-history world from the team that wrote Perplex City. Follow the free-to-read story online, with eight chapters unfolding over eight weeks.

…Or better, sign up and receive bonus content in email, artifacts in your mailbox, or be invited to take part in live online events.

Balance of Powers is being launched on Kickstarter by Adrian Hon, Naomi Alderman, Andrea Phillips, and David Varela, a group that includes veterans of game and ARG design, live interactive events, and conventional fiction writing. The four of them were kind enough to answer a few of my questions about their new project — talking about pacing, storytelling as performance, and the narrative value of feelies.

Balance of Powers is set to unfold over eight weeks, one chapter a week. Can you talk a little about the function of time in your storytelling? How do you want the experience to differ from just sitting down and reading the story in one compressed session?

The action of the story itself takes place over much less than eight weeks – really more like eight days – so we’re absolutely not aiming to produce real-time storytelling. But there’s something deliciously Dickensian about enjoying a serialised story every week. It creates suspense. It allows time for the words to sink in and be analysed, either by the individual reader or between readers online. (We love a bit of speculation.)

The time between installments doesn’t just allow for reader speculation, either – it lets us peek at, and perhaps be influenced by, that speculation. The great thing about writing something online is that, unlike print materials, you can tweak at the last moment if you have a really fantastic idea. And it’ll allow us to drop in the other cool items – like our newspaper – between episodes, at a point in the story where they’ll have most impact.

The long timeline also gives people a chance to read at their own leisure without feeling that they’re being left behind. Having said that, we hope that the readers will be really looking forward to each week’s installment. TV execs talk about ‘appointment television.’ We want this to be ‘appointment reading’ because they’ll want to discuss and speculate about the story with their friends as soon as they’ve finished.

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More on Seven Fables: Planning a Conversation Model

The Seven Fables project I covered a week or so ago is now successfully Kickstarted and then some. With more resources available than they initially expected, the authors are thinking about how they might add conversational characters to the project, using some chatbot technology they’ve worked with in the past.

Here Mark Stephen Meadows and I talk through some of the design and tech issues involved.

ES: Why are you looking at adding chatbot technology to this piece?

MSM: Stories are almost always about people. Narrative’s core is about personalities: people, interactions, society, desire, fear, love, weakness. These are the building blocks of narrative and without people in a story it becomes more an exploration of architecture than a drama or adventure. That’s what IF is often about. Sure, it’s fun to poke around in a dungeon and discover doors that open and close. But I find that hearts that open and close are far more interesting.

Gollum? Princess Leia? Kung Fu Panda? Brothers Karamazov? Even great adventures like that are about the people, and what drives and limits them.

ES: Tell me what excites you about the chatbot technology you’re planning to use.

MSM: The problem with most chatbots these days is not the technology. Even simple systems like AIML have enough hooks and gears to work in a piece of IF as a believable character. The problem is design.

Usually chatbots lack context. They’re like abandoned people, homeless wanderers, that awkwardly roam the streets, looking for conversation. “Hi! My Name Is Bob! How Are You Today?” a chatbot might say. I dont want to talk with these chatbots. They’re drek, informational bums. Just like a person walking up to you on the street saying the same thing. “Hi! My Name Is Bob! How Are You Today?” I would do my best to politely brush him off and just keep walking down the street. But if there’s a design and narrative component to this then it starts to get interesting. If, for example, I see a small green man with dragonfly wings sitting on a post office box, asking me to open it because his faerie-wife is trapped inside, then I’m far more inclined to talk with him than the guy named Bob. Chat is not interesting simply because it is chat. It has to have a context. Chatbots are boring largely because they lack that context. NPCs / NPGs and chatbots should be given a context that allows them to serve a function. Give the bums a job.

This kind of design is, like writing, as much about psychology as anything else.

Once upon a time, in 2007, my company HeadCase had developed some technology that showed how a personality could be distilled from a conversation. We did it with Arnold Schwarzenegger. We were using ‘scrapers’ – an automated system that would traverse websites, search for first-person interviews, drag those back into a
database, snap off chunks of the interviews that were relevant to similar topics, ideas, and categories, and then rank that stuff according to frequency. Then we asked the system a question. So, for example, we asked the Arnold Schwarzenegger system, “What do you think of gay marriage?” and it answered, “Gay marriage should be between a man and a woman, and if you ask me again I’ll make you do 500 push-ups.”

It was Arnold. Like a photo, it was his likeness. This was, really, an authoring technique for NPCs. The goal was to take interviews and be able to generate NPCs from them.

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Seven Fables: an Interview with Mark Stephen Meadows

Mark Stephen Meadows is the author of several books on interaction, including Pause & Effect: The Art of Interactive Narrative. Mark is currently in the process of Kickstarting his new project “Seven Fables”, an interactive ebook with a companion volume in old-fashioned codex form. (Leather-bound, no less.) Being a sucker for retellings of classic stories, I was curious about the project. Mark has kindly agreed to talk a bit here about the interaction in “Seven Fables” and what he hopes readers will take away from it.

ES: Who is your ideal audience for “Seven Fables”?

MSM: The same folks that read the Grimm fable collections, back in the 1800s. I’d like those folks to be reincarnated, iPad in hand! That would be adults, mostly in their 30s. In the 1960s and 1970s Disney did a fine job of both sterilizing and infantalizing fables like Snow White, but the real, undiluted fables are pretty intense. There’s real horror and joy in old fables, so I like to think that we adults can read them, too. Fables have generally been read by many generations, because they can be read on many levels, so I hope we can span that gap.

The Grimms did it, and I’m mostly copying them. I went out and collected nautical fables from Japan, India, Europe, North America (generally while visiting those countries), and I’ve rewritten some of the words, changed a few of the characters, illustrated them, and now i’m trying to get them into a modern outfit. But the stories are wicked old, and
already quite popular in some ports, so I like to think they’ll be enjoyed by many people as they’ve already been proven to be valid tales. I think this will naturally both attract and filter an audience.

Ideally, I’d also like hard-core fans of fables to read this work. There’s a terse language, a tight form, and a meaty metaphor in the fable genre, which is why I like them so much. From a literary perspective, a good fable is a bit more like poetry than anything else (there’s often even repeating stanzas), but if that’s true then it’s a lazy-poet’s poetry, and its for a reader that wants a little sugar with his philosophy. The genre is very constraining, and I look forward to knowing how people think we’ve done, if we’ve preserved that tightness and form in these interactive versions, or if we’ve flopped by expanding reading options. That’s a big challenge, and it will also determine who our readers are.

So it’s an experiment for those of us that were raised outside of Disneyland.

ES: What is the experience you want to create for your player/reader through the interaction?

MSM: Exploration punctuated by moments of surprise. I want the reader to enter an amazing world, a world where even Jim Woodring would be wide-eyed, and to explore things, test things, evaluate their actions, and try to suspend judgment until the outcome of their actions are clear.

There’s this fable about the old Chinese man whose horse ran away. All the villagers said, “Oh, that’s bad!” and the old man said, “We will see, we will see.” then, two weeks later, the horse came back, and it brought another horse with it, and all the villagers said, “Oh, that’s good!” and the old man said, “We will see, we will see.” Then, two weeks later, his son was out riding the new horse, and it threw him, and he fell and broke his hip. All the villagers said, “Oh, that’s bad!” and the old man said, “We will see, we will see.” Then two weeks after that, the army came and they were recruiting young men for a war, but the old man’s son could not be recruited because he had a busted hip. All the villagers said, “Oh, that’s good!” and the old man said, “We will see, we will see.”

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