Choices: And the Sun Went Out (Tin Man Games)

IMG_0330Tin 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.

IMG_0329Tin 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.

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Choices, Episode

There are several thriving brands of inteThe_Freshman,_Book_1ractive fiction on mobile that tend not to get a huge amount of coverage in the traditional IF community, despite their large player base. They’re placing well on the app store, though, and GDC talks increasingly cover them — so I went and had a look at a couple of the main contenders.

I should preface further discussion by saying that I have occasionally worked with mobile IF companies that might be considered to be competitors in this space. I did not spend any money on either of these games, though this does not mean I had review copies: they’re free to play with pay-to-unlock options in some places (and I’ll come back to that later).

Choices, from Pixelberry Studios, is a library app containing a bunch of different stories aimed at teenage girls. The top promoted story is The Freshman, and details the main character’s dating options in college.

IMG_0308It’s immensely trope-y stuff, especially if you got your tropes from 1955: running into a boy and having your luggage pop open, revealing (gasp) a bra! Exploring your suite, meeting suite-mates, and deciding whether to wear a bikini in your first encounter with your classmates. Playing getting-to-know-you games, deciding whether to drink or not. At least in the first few chapters, it’s an entirely social and low-friction vision of what college might be like, without the intellectual challenge, the self-discovery of being away from home and family, or the stickier kinds of interpersonal conflict.  (Perhaps it gets more complex later — I only played the first few chapters.)

Gender roles are stereotypical, and although I was able to choose a black protagonist, it looked as though the character art still featured her mom as a middle-class white lady at one point — which is of course possible, but it didn’t feel like an intentional storytelling choice at the time.

crownflameVanilla college is not the only option. Choices also offers several other books. There’s Rules of Engagement, in which the protagonists are aboard a cruise ship and forced to try to find love there thanks to the terms of a wealthy grandmother’s will. While that sounds pretty silly, I’m not sure it’s really a lot more ridiculous than many a romance novel I’ve encountered.

The Crown and the Flame is a fantasy story of a dispossessed princess and the male sidekick who remains loyal to her: there are still some romance choices, but also strands of combat, espionage, and political alliance. I managed to get myself killed a couple of times, but the game allows you to rewind instantly to the last choice point and pick another direction, so my political bumbling didn’t cost me too dearly.

The gameplay is reminiscent of a visual novel. Each area has its own background illustration; in-game text mostly takes the form of short pieces of dialogue from the various characters, shown in a box with the character’s face and expression visible as well. And, as in a dating-focused VN, the games take a lot of their initial startup time on introducing the cast of characters. On the other hand, the Choices stories felt comparatively linear, and they’re broken up into short chapters — targeted to the kind of constrained attention span one often has when interacting with a mobile device. And, unsurprisingly, the gameplay in The Crown and the Flame is nowhere near as complicated as in something like Long Live the Queen: the player isn’t necessarily expected to replay, let alone replay multiple times to find a survival strategy.

Then there’s the monetization.

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Chatbots as Narrative Platform

Recently I’ve been running into a fair amount of news/discussion about “conversation as a platform” and “bots as the new apps” — specifically, that people spend so much time texting that chatbots are a viable way to do advertising and storytelling and personal assistant functions all at once.

This means taking in natural language input (as opposed to the Lifeline-style experience, where the user is still pressing buttons to navigate a choice-based conversation). Historically,  I’ve tended to be skeptical about this because the error rate on chatbot output is high enough to make for a frustrating game experience.

All the same, there have recently been some developments on this front, partly because there’s now stronger AI for classifying natural language input, and partly because app discoverability problems make it appealing to embed content within chat platforms. Meanwhile, streaming means that there’s a greater audience for games that produce amusing results and accept idiosyncratic player input: here’s PewDiePie making Facade produce weird results.

What follows is a summary of some existing work I know about in this area. I wouldn’t be surprised to see quite a lot more come along.

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Lifeline: Silent Night (3 Minute Games)

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 10.55.29 AMLifeline: Silent Night is a (very lightly) Christmas-themed sequel to the original Lifeline (though, mercifully, it has no important connection with the disappointing Lifeline 2). In it, Taylor, the gender-nonspecific protagonist of the original game, has gotten into trouble aboard the ship home after the events of Lifeline. (I have always thought of Taylor as female, so I refer to Taylor as she below, but your version of Taylor could well be “he” or “they” if you prefer.) There’s less mystery this time around, because we basically know the parameters of the kind of universe we’re inhabiting. Taylor still spouts pop culture references from Futurama and The Simpsons (and the conversation even lampshades this overtly). There are still long pauses where Taylor is “traveling” or “resting” – perhaps somewhat less plausibly now that she is not on a vast moon but are instead poking around what is described as a small spaceship, and during an emergency.

But Silent Night offers a couple of other tweaks on the formula of the original. There are fairly long stretches of non-interactive text in between choice points – sometimes a page or two of text messages on my iPad, more than I remember from the original Lifeline. This text-to-choice ratio wouldn’t seem that odd in, say, a Choice of Games piece, but it’s more noticeable when the text is formatted as text messages (where we’re used to a rapid back-and-forth) and when it’s printing on a delay.

There are structural changes, too. Taylor is no longer completely on her own. The ship is crewed, and Taylor’s connection renders their dialogue in contrasting colors so that you can see the conversation when we’re around them (which is not very often). These other characters are still out of the way for most of the duration of the game, perhaps because otherwise it’s hard to explain why Taylor would be taking our advice to the exclusion of theirs, and it’s also not quite obvious why we can hear them but they can’t hear or see the advice we’re giving back to Taylor. But we just have to accept that that’s how the communication link works.

Second, Silent Night comes with a schematic map of the ship, allowing you to pause during conversation and check out where Taylor is and what she’s doing. This is kind of cool, from a feelie perspective, and helps sell the idea of the ship as a particular place. I wouldn’t ever say that the map becomes necessary, though, and in fact it frequently felt to me as though it had been awkwardly appended to the game after the script was already complete.

For one thing, the game frequently has Taylor making long trips through solitary corridors. Empty corridors are a staple of television and movie spaceships, certainly; but they don’t appear anywhere on the schematic. On the schematic map, all the rooms are directly connected to one another, wasting no time with intervening space. (I couldn’t help thinking of Coloratura here, which also included feelies but felt like the ship had been rigorously researched and planned.)

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Brief Reviews from December

I didn’t post many reviews in December, partly because I was a bit burned out (thanks, IF Comp), partly because of paid workload, and partly because I was playing so many things, between IGF judging and working on the Kitschies list, that there wasn’t time to review all of it. But here are quick thoughts on a few December releases.

Screen Shot 2016-01-01 at 11.54.09 AMLyreless, a Bruno Dias retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice story for Sub-Q magazine. This version tells of a journey to the underworld in which we must shed one aspect of ourselves after another in order to pass through the gates of Hell and find our beloved again.

It is not a love story. Eurydice is essentially uncharacterized: who she is, or was, doesn’t matter as much as the quest, and specifically the question of how a quest changes us and our motivation for starting out on that quest in the first place. What happens when you are motivated by strong passions – pity, anger, a sense of justice – but those passions get in the way of what you are trying to accomplish? What if you have to give up some of your identity in order to become the sort of person who can do what a person-like-you would want to achieve?

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Recent IF for iOS

monstrMonstr (Laura Michet, Kent Sutherland, Meagan Trott, Emily So, Travis Ford DeCastro, Rachel Sala, and Rosstin Murphy) is a game in which you’re searching for the dating profile of a monster you saw at a bus stop. It’s made up primarily of spoof profiles and then short “chat” scripts that go horribly badly until you find the one monster who is right for you.

As far as I can tell, it’s largely a matter of luck when you will stumble on the correct monster, and the chats with wrong monsters usually go wrong because the protagonist is scripted to say something foolish or horrible. So it’s easy to build up a sense of the PC as a somewhat-awful being before you get through to a win condition.

On the other hand, the dating site satire is fun and some of the monsters seem rather sweet.

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Wonderland is a new audio IF game by veteran IF developer Jim Munroe. It’s a mystery puzzle centered on Munroe’s own neighborhood in Toronto, and it has a hangman-like mechanic of puzzles where you can unlock additional letters by walking around with your phone.

I’ve been enjoying it, as far as I’ve gotten — though I haven’t finished yet. I think this game would be ideal for someone who spent a lot of time on rambling strolls. Right now, that’s not really me: Oxford is pretty drippy and forbidding this time of year, so most of my exercise happens indoors. But the game has a pleasant radio drama quality and the voice acting is well done.

(Disclosure: I received a free copy of this game.)

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IMG_0210One Button Travel (The Coding Monkeys) is a Lifeline-genre game: you’re engaged in CYOA chat with one other character, and there are real-time delays spacing out your conversation. The app is skinned with a somewhat retro, Device 6-esque design.

Unlike Lifeline, its rather less successful sequel Lifeline 2, and its free-to-play imitator TimecrestOne Button Travel invents a premise in which, instead of aiding a mysterious stranger, you’re the person in danger (at least initially). Your correspondent is trying to assist you, though assisting you quickly involves them getting into trouble as well. They’re also able just occasionally to send you messages with photographs inside, which the Lifelines did not attempt.

So I was well-disposed when I started the game. However, the timing elements are really frustrating. There are a lot of pauses that run for 30-120 seconds, as far as I could tell. (I’m estimating: I didn’t keep a stopwatch on these.) Maybe the delays are meant to add to the realism of the situation, but they really annoyed me. They broke up the narrative just long enough that I put my iPad down and went to do something else, only to be interrupted with a notification just as I was settling into a different task — meaning that to make any significant progress on the game, I had to let this game fragment my attention and keep me from getting anything else done, even though it itself wasn’t keeping me continuously engaged. And it wasn’t necessarily signaled when my interlocutor was going to be gone for two minutes and when they were going to be gone for hours. Sometimes when I did respond to the notification, the result was another page of texts without any further choices for me to make at the end of it, so there was functionally no reason (other than perhaps a long-ago eroded sense of suspense?) not to have given me those additional messages right away.

Meanwhile, after the initial hook, I found myself increasingly detached from the story itself. Some of this is because that bitty, occasional level of interaction made it hard for me to connect. Some is because the world-building is so implausible — you are “helping” someone escape through, among other things, a really bizarre system of automated laundry handling that sounds like it was designed to be an amusement park ride. Some is down to lack of agency: it wasn’t until I’d been playing for something like a week of real time that I encountered a choice where it felt like that choice might have caused a significantly different outcome than if I’d picked the other option.

Anyway, I’m declaring bankruptcy on this one. I haven’t finished it, and I don’t plan to: it’s not giving me enough in exchange for my time.

(Disclosure: I played a copy of this game that I bought with my own money.)