Not long ago I asked on Twitter whether there was content people wanted to see more or less of on this blog, and one respondent said he missed the reviews of casual games with a narrative bent. (Miss Management remains my gold standard in this field, but there were others that I also really enjoyed.)
I answered that I don’t play as many of those as I used to: partly because my schedule has gotten more demanding, and partly because the time management and casual simulation games went through a phase where they just weren’t that great any more.
However, that conversation reminded me that there was a casual game I’d been meaning to try out — a mobile game called Lily’s Garden that received a warm write-up a while back from Carly Kocurek. And I’d heard a little from narrative designer Stella Sacco about what she was doing with the content, and was intrigued by the promise of a nuanced, grown-up storyline.
Rob from the rich and give to the poor, cross swords with the Sheriff of Nottingham, and above all, lead Sherwood through the turning of the seasons and into a new age.
By your actions, gain gold, renown, followers, and even a measure of grace. Then spend those resources to fortify your forest home, accomplish special missions, and change the course of Sherwood’s destiny. Will you save your plundered gold to rebuild the walls of your home, or send it to the poor and dispossessed to increase your renown and attract Merry Men to your cause? And what of the rising bounty on your head?
Consider your choices carefully, for the consequences of your actions are not always readily apparent. For better or ill, in ways both small and large, you will change the course of history.
In story terms, Nocked! shares some of the features of a Choice of Games piece: it starts at the beginning of Robin’s career as an outlaw and allows the player to build up his (or her) resources and personality, then play out subsequent adventures. And rather like a Choice of Games work, Nocked! advertises itself on the strength of its size and massively branching narrative: more than 400K words! Five distinct backstory options! Fifty possible endings!
The “true tales” subtitle or title extension might seem to suggest that this is going to be a particularly historically accurate rendition of Robin Hood. It’s… really not. Early in your adventures you may encounter a unicorn, a talking wolf, the Sheriff of Nottingham’s mystically enormous hounds, and/or a lesson in archery-related spell-casting. Likewise, the game lets you be the long-lost heir to the throne of England whether or not you’re male (and there are other male contenders; this isn’t a Queen Elizabeth kind of situation).
Gold, men, and renown accrue when you do useful or clever things (or, like, steal stuff); you can then spend these again to get out of problematic situations. Meanwhile, certain chapters of the story have their own special timing stats: for instance, you can be wandering in the woods and have an indicator at the bottom of the screen of how much daylight time you have remaining — a reminder of your current limits and constraints.
All this makes sense to a degree, though I found myself bothered by the use of Robin’s men as an expendable stat, especially given how freely the resource is given out in play. One of the very first actions I took gained me something like 55 men; another action took away 80 again. Maybe this makes sense as a representation of how frequently the player is expected to be deploying manpower, but it felt dissonant with the fiction when it happened — partly because it’s hard to imagine suddenly accruing 50-odd followers without significant effort, and partly because the protagonist’s easy-come, easy-go attitude to said followers made it hard to believe in him as a legendary leader.
The storytelling is packed with event — battles, fires, chases, magic lessons, unicorn sightings, ambushes in narrow ravines, misplaced royalty — and the writing is rather less concerned with developing a coherent personality for the protagonist. The prose style is sometimes actively clunky:
A horse with a sparkling horn that rises from its forehead grazes on a nearby hilltop.
It’s not mostly quite so awkward about its noun phrases, nor so Lisa Frank in its imagery — I’ve cherrypicked. But I did sometimes feel that the whole thing was creaking a bit under the strain of those 400,000 words, which perhaps did not have time to be thoroughly edited.
What you get in exchange is a huge amount of narrative consequence for your choices. I played a good bit, but I haven’t talked much about the plot because I can’t be sure that your plot experience will be anything like mine.
Nocked! is built in an engine that brings Twine to mobile (not, I should add, the only such engine — there are other commercial IF games that are Twine under the skin). This variant displays mostly text, but with a strip of illustration at the top to establish setting, and a menu / status bar area at the bottom. I thought this worked pretty well, while keeping the majority of the screen for the text.
Note the “Remaining Daylight: Sunset” feature at the bottom of the screen.
The premise of The Frankenstein Wars is that the protagonists are involved in a republican war using Frankenstein’s technology to resurrect the dead, creating stitched-together “Lazarans” — not zombies. The Lazarans have a memory of what came before, but sometimes are wearing someone else’s arms and legs: this is a scenario more like extensive organ donation than anything else. Together, they’re fighting against Charles X of France, the last of the Bourbon kings, who in our timeline was ousted in the July Revolution of 1830.
As protagonists, you control two brothers, the sons of Henri Clerval in Frankenstein. Other characters both real and fictional come in as well: Frankenstein’s monster (fictional, we trust); Byron’s brilliant daughter, Ada Lovelace (real, but heavily mythologized here); Percy Blakeney, the Scarlet Pimpernel (fictional); assorted real French political figures. There was something a bit League of Extraordinary Gentlemen about all this, albeit a few decades earlier. The Byron connection is a little twisty given that Byron was friends with the Shelleys, and Mary Shelley had the original idea for Frankenstein while on a trip to Lake Geneva with Byron (and others) in the summer of 1816; so any narrative universe that contains Byron would seem like it ought to include Mary Shelley was well. Mercifully, the story doesn’t wink at the reader about this, just takes it as a baseline fact and rolls on.
It’s not at all necessary to know the relevant history to play. It’s not even particularly necessary to be deeply familiar with Frankenstein, though it’s maybe worth noting that the original idea for the story came from Dave Morris, who did a Frankenstein project with inkle. The actual writing is by Paul Gresty (author of The ORPHEUS Ruse and Metahuman, Inc for Choice of Games).
There are a number of clever or unusual things going on with the interface, and even if it weren’t for its other merits, the game would be worth a look on those grounds alone.
You’re only fifteen miles from home; but those fifteen miles are a lonely road through woods drenched in mystery, that many locals dare not enter. Rain batters your windscreen; your radio reports an aggressive beast, lashing out against passers-by; and there is something — something — waiting on the road ahead. Your decisions will matter in this game; perhaps more than you think.
As this is currently an Android release, I haven’t had a chance to play it myself.
Tom and Anton Clerval have long guarded the secret to Victor Frankenstein’s resurrection technology. In revolutionary France, in 1827, that secret at last comes to light. The radical Zeroiste movement creates an army of the reanimated dead to seize control of the country, and then to cross the Channel to strike at the heart of the British Empire.
Only Tom and Anton have the power to halt the Zeroistes – or to stoke the flames of all-out war.
The game is out today for iOS and for Android next week (June 8). Please note that this is not a zombie story, technically. And I do enjoy an epic piece of historical-fantasy IF. And I have to say that the app looks pretty handsome in the screenshots:
Tin Man Games has an app called Choices — rather confusingly, since there is another well-known mobile IF platform called Choices that I wrote about recently. Tin Man’s Choices app contains two episodic stories: And the Sun Went Out and And Their Souls Were Eaten. [As always, I should frame the rest of this by saying that I have done some work with companies that compete in this space. Be warned, if that is a concern to you.]
Like the other Choices and Episode, Tin Man’s content is initially free to play, but handles monetization differently: after a certain point, you’re invited to subscribe to the app to receive additional chapters, rather than paying to unlock specific choices in the body of the story. You can buy a monthly, quarterly, or half-yearly subscription, but they all are subscriptions, with recurring payments — something that generally puts me off unless I’ve decided I definitely want to commit. I tend to forget to cancel subscriptions I no longer want and then six months later remember to go clean up, having accidentally spent $40 on an eFax service I only wanted to use once. On the other hand, it’s a clear pay-for-content model rather than pay-to-win or pay-to-seduce-Chris. So I approve in theory while still being a little hesitant about committing money to it in practice.
Tin Man’s Choices also borrows some Lifeline-esque features: in And the Sun Went Out you have an assistant AI called Moti who tells you what to do, forming a conversational interaction; apparently if you have an Apple Watch, Moti’s messages can appear there as well. (I don’t.) There’s a conversation partner in And Their Souls Were Eaten, too — one I found considerably more surprising and entertaining. But I won’t spoil that.
Tin Man has polished their interface a bit less than any of the competitors I just listed: one of the major challenges for me was simply the font size: tiny white writing on a black ground meant that I had to hold the phone pretty close to my face. There is a settings option to turn up the font size, but I only discovered this after quite a lot of squinting — I mention this now so that other readers have the opportunity to make that change early on. And in contrast with the other Choices and Episode, there are occasional facial animations for Moti, but otherwise, you don’t see the characters you’re interacting with, let alone get full-color background images.
And what of the content? It’s comparatively branchy and plot-heavy, focused more on how you navigate various dangers than on either role-play or relationships. And the Sun Went Out branches hard right at the beginning — do you visit this character or that one? — and you don’t have time to reach both of them before the story starts to move along.
It is also huge. Felicity Banks was one of the several writers on this project, and wrote to me:
It’s a near-future sci-fi story with literally thousands of choices for the reader to make including where to travel around the world (featuring, among other nations, the US, Peru, Canada, Kenya, Italy, China, Russia, Indonesia, Australia, Japan, and Egypt) and who to fall in love with (or not). It is just over 600,000 words, and each read-through is about 150,000 words. It’s a branch and bottleneck structure, with around 2-6 branches happening simultaneously between bottleneck choices.
For comparison, even large Choice of Games pieces like Choice of Robots are typically in the 200-300K word range, while Choices and Episode pieces are generally much shorter than this.