Those Trojan Girls (Mark Bernstein)

Screen Shot 2016-11-30 at 1.09.05 AM.png

Those Trojan Girls is a hypertext novel by Mark Bernstein, written in Storyspace. Storyspace is Bernstein’s project, and the blurb for Those Trojan Girls describes how the tool might add to the possibilities of the medium:

Those Trojan Girls is also the first published hypertext to use the new Storyspace 3 facilities for stretchtext and sculptural hypertext – ideas explored in the research literature for more than a decade but that remain little known outside the research community.

In practice, stretchtext and sculptural hypertext refer to ideas that already exist in interactive fiction. As discussed in an interview with Bernstein here, “sculptural hypertext” refers to having pieces of text that appear based not on links but on other variable conditions, similar to quality-based narrative. Stretchtext refers to replacing a section of text with a longer, more detailed section, which is one of several things Twine texts do fairly routinely with text replacement macros. So “little known outside the research community” might be a slight exaggeration.

But the point, I think, is that the piece is attempting to introduce some of these features and methods to a community of practice — academic/literary hypertext — that has historically not paid terribly much attention to the IF community of practice, despite very significant overlap in many of the technological affordances of their tools.

Those Trojan Girls is definitely unlike game-like hypertexts, and avoids the kinds of agency found therein. I’m not sure I’d say there’s much of what I typically think of as “readerly” agency either. It’s hard, for instance, to decide on a theme, character, plot point or other element you want to pursue and track that train through the narrative (in contrast with Arcadia, which is designed for exactly that type of reading, or if, which thematically encourages completionist rigor).

There are a few formatting challenges familiar from Twine and not exactly solved here. Some blue links expand in place, while others lead through to a new passage of text — a frequent complaint about Twine works as well — and in Storyspace (or at least in this implementation) one can’t predict which is which without either clicking through or referring to the map, which appears in the lefthand side of the screen and moves as you read:

Screen Shot 2016-11-30 at 1.24.02 AM.png

Continue reading

Small-Scale Structures in CYOA

Over the last few years the IF community has become more systematic about how we talk about structure in branching choice-based narrative. Sam Kabo Ashwell’s Standard Patterns in Choice-based Games is a go-to article defining some useful terms; it pairs well with Choice of Games’ article on how to use stats to create long-term consequence without combinatorial explosion, and Jon Ingold’s talk on inkle processes at GDC 2015.

A lot of that conversation revolves around the shape of the whole plot, or at least whole chapters, though; so I wanted here to talk briefly about some structures that I find really useful at the smaller scale.

screen-shot-2016-11-05-at-10-19-11-amConfirmation-required Choice. One of the things Jon talks about sometimes is the use of text to let the player opt in to doing something profoundly stupid, through a series of escalating choices. Are you sure you want to do this? It looks like the monster is getting angrier. Are you still sure you want to attack? Yes? You notice that the monster’s bite is poisonous. Are you going to attack now?

Once the player has opted in multiple times, it’s really on their own head if they wind up in a situation with a combat roll that wipes them out. This expands what would otherwise be a binary decision into an experience with more tension; it also tends to work well in cases where there’s one dangerous-but-interesting option and one safe-but-bland option.

How to enhance with stats: count how long the player sticks to the risky path before giving up (if they give up). Use this later as a metric of their commitment to the dangerous cause, and/or their recklessness.

screen-shot-2016-11-05-at-10-59-04-amTrack Switching Choice. A variant on the Confirmation-required choice is one where the player is allowed to change their mind in either direction for several beats. Later beats might introduce some potential drawbacks and warnings about whatever track the player is currently pursuing. Like the confirmation-required choice, this is a way to give some extra weight to a decision and emulate a situation where the protagonist might be genuinely conflicted about what to do next.

How to enhance with stats: track how often the player chose the outcome they ultimately landed on, vs. another option. Use this later as a metric of their commitment to a cause, or their willingness to change their mind about things.

Scored Choice. In the track switching choice, we hold the player to their final selection, whatever that might be. With the same basic structure, we could also score how many times the player chose one way vs. the other, and then use their top score to determine the outcome. The track switching choice often works well when there’s a single tough decision in the story; the scored choice is a good fit for a montage of related choices. For instance, if the player is choosing between a career-enhancing move or staying with a romantic partner, we might have a series of small decisions that test their commitment to one option or the other. (This strategy pretty much requires stats.)

Continue reading

Nothing for Dinner (Nicolas Szilas et al, IDtension)

IDtension_conversation_menu.png

“Nothing for Dinner” is an interactive drama released last fall by Nicolas Szilas and collaborators, using a tool called IDtension. Szilas works out of the TECFA Lab at the University of Geneva. If you read my writeup on the book Interactive Digital Narrative, you’ll have seen a mention of Szilas’ article there. Though it would have been out of place in the book overview, I wanted to come back and look more closely at what “Nothing for Dinner” accomplishes.

The premise of the story is that you’re a young man whose father has suffered a stroke that affects his behavior and memory. You need to get something ready for dinner, but your father keeps getting in the way, and other events spontaneously happen — a school friend coming over to get back a textbook she left at your house, your sister’s DVD player breaking, a phone call from your mother with extra chores — to add blocks to your progress.

The system is clearly quite dynamic: I played three times, and the sequence of events was very different each time, with some blockers appearing only in one of the playthroughs. Also, the conversation menus are dynamically generated to let you try various approaches to any of the currently-active problems, or to give emotional feedback to the other characters about what they’ve just done.

IDtension_grandma.png

If you try to cook dinner alone, your father resentfully complains that you never want to do anything with him; if you try to involve him, he may get annoyed and refuse to help you; if you let him cook by himself, he’ll break things and make a mess. And whenever your father gets upset, your grandmother comes over to chide you for not looking after him.

It’s a very effective mechanism for making me rapidly resent my entire family for offloading all the emotional and practical labor onto me: like a time management game, but with more passive-aggressive commentary, and less opportunity to get anything done.

Continue reading

Card-Deck Narratives

In a previous post about narrative structuring, I promised a followup about stories based on card decks — not simply the card metaphor that Failbetter uses in StoryNexus, but actual physical decks, sometimes accompanied by rules.

I’ve covered a few narrative card games here before. Gloom is a popular card game about Gorey-esque horrible events, in which you accumulate misfortunes for your characters until at last they die; each event is named briefly on its card, like “attacked by ducks,” and it’s up to the player to describe how this fits into a larger sequence, if at all. Some players work harder on their narration than others.

Gloom has a number of expansions and spin-offs at this point, including a Cthulhu version and a fairytale recasting. There are also a few features in Gloom designed to encourage continuity, symbols on some event cards that determine whether later events can be played, but in general any chains of causality are invented by the players at game time, rather than baked into the rules or the behavior of the deck. And because Gloom is emulating a type of story in which one bad thing arbitrarily happens after another, there also is not much attempt to guarantee a well-paced story arc.

Once Upon a Time is light in both writing and mechanics: it’s a sort of trope toolkit that the players can use to stick together stories, so that your card might just say “Brave” and leave it up to you how the concept of bravery applied to a character in the story will enhance what is already going on. Or there are Story Cubes, which are dice with trope-y images on them. The line between game and brainstorming device is pretty thin here, though, and I wouldn’t accuse either Once Upon a Time or Story Cubes of actually being or having a story already in any meaningful sense.

Then there’s Dixit, which provides image prompts and it’s up to the player to find some way to describe what is happening in the image. The narrative content is pretty light here, though, and I’ve found that usually we become more engaged with the wordplay of it — what is an interesting, slightly misleading way of characterizing this picture? — than with anything of narrative merit. Perhaps a more successful and storyful version of the Dixit idea exists in Mysterium, which game reviewers Shut Up and Sit Down really liked, but I haven’t had a chance to play that yet. (It was available at Shut Up and Sit Down’s curated board game area at GDC, which was awesome, but I was there at the wrong time to get a try at it.)

Meanwhile, there are also aleatory traditions of literature to consider here: Marc Saporta’s Composition No. 1, a book in a box with unbound pages, to be read in any order; BS Johnson’s The Unfortunates, with chapters the reader may reorder. Nick Montfort and Zuzana Husárová have written about shuffle literature in more depth, including those works and several others.

So it is in light of those various traditions that I’m going to have a deeper look at two particular card narrative games that recently came my way: Jedediah Berry’s The Family Arcana, and the USC Game Innovation Lab’s Chrono Scouts.

Continue reading

18 Rooms to Home (Carolyn VanEseltine): rooms 18, 17, 16

Carolyn VanEseltine is releasing a serial parser IF project called 18 Rooms to Home. The serial is working backwards in time: Room 18 was released first, than Room 17, then Room 16. So Room 18 represents the ending of the story, the point where the protagonist has arrived at home. Room 17 starts you in the room just before you get home, but includes the 18th room. Room 16 is a three-room game that, again, starts a bit earlier than Room 17.

This backwards, Memento-esque story structure might seem counterintuitive in IF, especially since it makes the player replay the story’s ending over and over. But Carolyn is doing something very ingenious with it. In Room 18, there is, as far as I can tell, only one way that the story can end. Room 17 introduces new information, skills, and possibilities, which in turn means a new possible outcome. Room 16 layers on yet a third (at least — it’s conceivable, I suppose, that there are even more variations I’m not aware of). Even when the player gets back to a room or prop she’s already seen in a previous episode, there are new possibilities.

This in turn does a great job of building up the player’s sense of consequence. Even when there are a lot of branches in a traditional-format story game, there’s no guarantee that the player will see all the variant endings, or that she’ll realize all the points at which branching could occur. But playing through 18 Rooms an episode at a time means learning exactly what is allowed to go differently, and why, as more and more past branch points are introduced.

As for the story itself, much remains shrouded in mystery at this point, but it seems to involve competing powers — whether superhero-style powers, or something more Nobilis-like and mystical, I am not yet entirely sure. I’m enjoying guessing, though, and staring at props in certain rooms that aren’t useful currently but that might become useful at some future date…

If you decide to play and speculate along with others, there’re a couple of related threads (hints, general discussion) on the intfiction forum. Selfishly, I am hoping that others will help encourage Carolyn to finish the project — I really want to see where it goes…

Tightening the World-Plot Interface: or, Why I Am Obsessed With Conversation Models

framed

Framed is an interactive comic game in which you move around the panels of the story, reordering events in order to change what happens in the story. It looks really attractive, too.

Forgetting is a graphic novel with CYOA-style branching when you click on certain panels.

Forgetting is a graphic novel with CYOA-style branching when you click on certain panels.

When I first heard of this game, I was hugely excited about it. There aren’t that many entries in the interactive comic space, and this seemed to offer a slightly different set of mechanics to go alongside Dan Benmergui’s (unfinished but, to judge by the demos, awesome) Storyteller or Troy Chin’s Forgetting or the somewhat over-difficult Strip ‘Em All.

When I actually played Framed, though, I had essentially the same reaction described at The Digital Reader:

While Framed is based on a clever dynamic, the actual game is repetitive to the point that I am bored… Rather than have the user solve puzzles with different goals and different solutions, the vast majority of the levels I played all had the same goal: avoid the cops. Other than setting things up so the protagonist can either bypass cops or sneak up behind cops and hit them over the head, there’s not much to this game.

I’m maybe a little less harsh than this — I did feel that Framed was worth playing, and I know that some people did enjoy the puzzles — but nonetheless, I was hoping for something that did new work in telling an interactive story, rather than just setting up a bunch of puzzle levels. In that area it fell short. All of the puzzles are about a similar problem — one set of characters escaping another — and the stakes don’t alter much either. This makes for boring story.

The problem occurs at the world model-to-plot interface. That’s a challenging area for parser IF, too — and indeed for any game in which the player cannot influence the plot directly, but has to change the world model in order to move forward. Choice-based games vary in this regard, but probably more of them are of the directly-influence-plot variety than of the indirect-influence variety.

Continue reading