Mailbag: Teaching Spatial Storytelling

A Twitter follower asked me for resources to teach students to pair space and story in a meaningful way, and they were already familiar with my article Plot-Shaped Level Design.

Screen Shot 2017-04-21 at 1.36.22 PMTo state what will be extremely obvious to some of my readers, but probably new to others: this is classic craft territory for parser IF, where maps are generally developed in tandem with plot and puzzles.

The primacy of the map, in this tradition, is why Inform had a map index much earlier in its development than it had a scene index: charting the space, together with its doors and access points, was understood as more critical (and also easier to do programmatically) than diagramming a CYOA-style node structure.

Classic text adventures rarely experimented with treating space as continuous rather than room-based, even though the possibility of doing so cropped up in discussion at least as early as 1991, with another discussion in 1996. Some of that may have had to do with technical challenges, genre convention, and the relative difficulty of expressing quantitative information in prose. But I suspect another major factor was simply that the room-based approach to map design offered a lot of leverage in controlling which parts of the story the player saw at a time. Games such as Ether that allow for very free movement through a highly connected volume have to rely on alternative methods to control narrative presentation, or else have story content that can safely be encountered in any order.

In classic parser IF design, the companion of the map was the puzzle dependency chart. Puzzle dependency charts showed which barriers had to be crossed before which others; maps represented how this manifested in physical space.

In most parser IF, not all of the map is available at once, and the player has to solve puzzles to open particular areas, whether by unlocking a door, getting past a guard, throwing light on a dark room, etc.: many of the classic IF puzzles reward the player with access to new spaces, though there are many different ways of setting up the challenge initially.

That progression of spatial access was typically what let the author control the difficulty curve (only give the players puzzles that they’ve proven they’re ready for) and the plot reveals (put the more important clues deeper in the map). Often, reaching a particular location, or reaching it under particular circumstances, or interacting with an object there, would serve to trigger dramatic scenes marking a major advancement in the story.

Then there’s the question of pacing and content density. How much story material belongs in each room? How much real space does a given room represent, and how does that connect with narrative presentation? Adam Cadre’s review of Lost New York gets into detail about some of these topics, and the problem of representational space vs. literally simulating a large area.

So with all that background explanation, here are a few other resources beside the links already given, but if anyone reading wants to recommend others, please feel free to comment as well. Continue reading

Mailbag: Mysteries in CYOA

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.

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[Negotiation redacted, but this letter exchange began with the writer asking how much of a question they could ask before my response started to get into paid consulting territory. Which was considerate! In practice it didn’t seem like we needed to go there yet, so this is just a casual conversation so far.]

Briefly, then, the project is called [redacted] and is an interactive noir in the technological/interface vein of 80 DAYS, SORCERY!, and FIRST DRAFT. I’m using “ink” for the base nonlinear narrative scripting, and will be custom-implementing an interface in Unity (which I’m very experienced with, so won’t need to talk about that.) Broadly, [a previous game in the same world] is about sowing chaos in a city during a coup, and [redacted] is about the ensuing power vacuum, fallout, and human cost, in the general direction of THE THIRD MAN and CHINATOWN. 

That’s the premise, here’s the problem: I want to make something that is current in terms of IF design, and after MAKE IT GOOD, to a lesser extent AISLE/HER STORY, and recent releases (I’m behind on my IFComps), how exactly does one design an interactive mystery narrative? I don’t want to go Keyser Soze, it would be not-trivial-but-understood to just write a mystery novel with interactive stage business, but I don’t think either approach would be responsible to the player/reader. The aim is to make a solid CYOA-style mystery, and there is a very real problem with that format – any investigation is necessarily telegraphed by the options given to the player.

I can think of several approaches, but none are particularly satisfying. Additionally, there’s the problem of presentation/retention: Jon Ingold suggests that the ‘standard’ pace of an ink story should be 1-200 words between choices. I enjoy working within constraints, but the basic problem of a mystery piece with suggested actions complicates this particular guideline.

On top of all this, although I’m an enthusiastic hobbyist and pro-am IF theorist/creator, I’ve primarily used Inform 7 to date, which is entirely different than a multiple-choice approach, so I had also hoped to glean some insight about your work and study of CYOA and hyperlink/Twine narrative in recent years.

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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.

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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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Mailbag: New Game Versions

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.

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Dear Emily,

You’ve once included our game “Code 7” in your article about parser-based games (https://emshort.wordpress.com/2016/01/02/experimentation-in-the-parser-domain/). Thank you very much for that, I appreciate your constructive observations, which we have considered when redoing the game. We have released the remade version (that now features a professional actress for Sam’s voice) again for free. We would be very happy if you would play it again (it takes approximately 1 hour to play through) and let us know what you think about it: http://gamejolt.com/games/code-7-episode-0-allocation/53924

The game has been created on a very tight budget, so we have decided to launch a Kickstarter Campaign to fund the upcoming five chapters. We plan to have more non-linear/multiple solutions for puzzles in the future. You can find the campaign here: http://kck.st/2cUGMID

Thank you very much for your time,

Sincerely yours,

Zein

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timecrest.png

Dear Emily,

I’m reaching out to you because you wrote some very thoughtful feedback about our game, Timecrest  in your blog post about Lifeline 2 in October of last year. I wanted you to know that we took your feedback to heart, and we’re hoping that with the improvements we’ve added over the last year, you’d give our game another chance.

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