Zero Summer: Fifty Miles South of Lexington

Zero Summer IconIn November I wrote about the StoryNexus game Zero Summer. At the time I didn’t play their for-pay content, Fifty Miles South of Lexington, but I’ve done so now, and it deserves its own discussion. Fifty Miles is its own short story, which you can buy from within the main game of Zero Summer using Nex, once you’ve progressed far enough to move around town a bit.

From the StoryNexus perspective, Fifty Miles South of Lexington is pushing the envelope of what the engine can do. Which is a good thing! Every new storytelling engine needs some content that pushes it to or beyond its capacity; that’s how the formal capacities of the machine are discovered. Experimental stuff typically feels just a little bit odd, though, just because it is doing something that may be hacky and weird for the affordances of the toolset. Consequently, the following is a review both of the content of Fifty Miles and a discussion of StoryNexus’ ability to cope with this kind of content.

Continue reading “Zero Summer: Fifty Miles South of Lexington”

Assorted Items

Failbetter is Kickstarting Below, a StoryNexus piece with rogue-like underground exploration and a Viking-flavored backstory. One of the higher-tier rewards is a physical opportunity deck; I have an earlier version of this from their Silver Tree Kickstarter, and it’s a fun piece. Not sure if this sounds like your thing? There’s a playable prototype already online.

If you’d rather write your own StoryNexus game, you might be interested to know that the Winter World of the Season competition is open; the deadline is 31st December 2012, and the entries will be judged by a panel of various interactive storytelling people, including Jon Ingold.

Meanwhile, “To Be or Not To Be: That is The Adventure”, a choose-your-path version of Hamlet (careful not to call itself CYOA for legal reasons) has steamed through to an astounding $139K raised. This is no doubt due in part to the luscious Kate Beaton illustrations accompanying the pitch. Like this:

Which incidentally looks like it might be prototyped in Twine. (Check out 4:07 in the video if you don’t believe me.)

Evolve (Caitlin Lill)

Evolve placed third in the StoryNexus World of the Season competition, after Samsara and Zero Summer. Unlike the other two pieces, it’s a work of educational non-fiction: you begin as a single-celled organism and make choices that allow your organism to evolve. The author has written about her inspiration: she works in a science museum, and saw the StoryNexus platform as a possible way to convey the educational content she’s interested in.

Continue reading “Evolve (Caitlin Lill)”

Winterstrike (Yoon Ha Lee)

Winterstrike is a StoryNexus world by Yoon Ha Lee, the SF/fantasy author whose previous IF work includes the art-show piece Swanglass and the evocative, elegant The Moonlit Tower.

Winterstrike takes that same gift for imagining a strange and alien world and presents it via StoryNexus mechanics: Iria is a city of etiquette and technology. It used to have spaceships and dueling clubs, architects and soldiers. Now suddenly it is oppressed by a heavy unnatural winter, the result of an act of war, though it is not clear who made such an attack, nor how. Bodies are frozen; buildings are broken; there isn’t enough hot food to go around. It’s not immediately clear how many races of creatures inhabit the city, let alone what their allegiances might be. Hints about the nature of the world accumulate slowly.

Plot grips less strongly here than in Samsara — at least during the opening stages. There are fewer of the pinned cards that represent ongoing plot threads. Some come in time, but to start with there aren’t many options of that kind. Instead, playing Winterstrike resembles exploring a foreign city when one has no special agenda of one’s own. A market, a street performance, an attempted crime, an interesting ruin capture the protagonist’s attention and then let it go again.

Meanwhile, the action bank is very generous, which means you can play more of Winterstrike at a time than you can of some SN games — a good move, I think, because it allows the player a little more scope to begin putting together clues and fragments before an enforced hiatus helps her forget them again.

As with Fallen London, the player character seems to be intentionally short on allegiances and long on self-preservation. Sometimes you have opportunities to act altruistically, take a side, help someone in trouble, but there’s also plenty of freedom to cross the lines and combine multiple strategies. It grows on me more slowly than Samsara did, I have less clear sense of what my character might in the long run wish to accomplish, but in the meantime the worldbuilding and imagery are intriguing, and there seems to be a lot of content to explore.

And a side note which is not really about Winterstrike per se:

I am not quite sure how I feel about StoryNexus’ recurrent use of a pool of iconic images. Playing Winterstrike one finds the same bridge over a river, the same sword, the same flag that make constant appearances in Samsara: now tinted a grim blue-grey rather than Samsara‘s heated gold, but with the same forms. This is a much better outcome than having no art for StoryNexus games — the concept of interchangeable cards more or less requires the player be given some visual distinction between options. And the available set is fairly evocative while at the same time not committing itself too firmly to any one genre. Nonetheless I found myself struggling with the imagery set more in Winterstrike precisely because those images already had meanings for me; it was like trying to hang a second coat on the same peg, associating this new set of story options with the same pictures.

Zero Summer (Gordon Levine et al)

Zero Summer is the second place finisher in the seasonal StoryNexus competition, after Samsara. The setting is an apocalyptic western dated to 2026: Corpus Christi has become ground zero for an outbreak of monsters, and much of Texas has become essentially frontier territory again. And you’ve been clubbed on the head in a train robbery and forgotten everything, so that you are now the Man With No Name. Soon you fall in with people who offer to help you, and you begin to be embroiled in local plots.

There are several ways to go with this sort of setting. Happily (at least in my view), Zero Summer seems more interested in the society that might result from such a disaster, the sorts of people who would find themselves living in it, and how everyone gets on, than in dwelling on the monstrosities first thing. There’s a good establishing scene of creepiness, but it’s played with a lot of restraint, and then the player is sent out to get to meet people and be part of the life of the town.

The setting and the writing alike set Zero Summer apart from what I might call the StoryNexus house style — aspects that are not at all inherent in the system of StoryNexus, but that show up a lot, because a number of the existing works are written by Failbetter and then many of the others were written by people who liked Failbetter’s content and to some degree were inclined to emulate it. Fallen London, Samsara, Night Circus, Winterstrike, Cabinet Noir, The Silver Tree share a tendency towards artisanal virtuosity; towards luxury and violence, slashed silk and blossoming wounds; towards perfumed encounters with NPCs forgotten in the morning. If a story were a meal, the archetypical StoryNexus work would be a box of tiny, exquisitely intense bonbons — not chocolates, but Turkish delight, crystalized violets, spun-sugar caskets of anise liqueur.

This is by no means a complaint. StoryNexus is hardly the only language or system with a house style. Twine’s house style tends towards stream-of-consciousness and highly personal narrative, perhaps thanks to Anna Anthropy’s championing of it as a tool for self-expressive game design, while ChoiceScript’s tends towards highly customizable protagonists with a lot of stats and minimal pre-defined characterization. There’s no reason that has to be the case. Twine and ChoiceScript have most of their feature set in common — just different ways to visualize those features, and different supporting cultures.

So I tend to think the use of a system is driven as much by the community of people who are already using it as by the technical affordances. If a new author doesn’t like what’s been written already, or is not on the same wavelength with the existing experts who could help her, she’s much much less likely to be drawn to using that system. Eventually, if you’re lucky, you get a sufficiently complex ecosystem that the house style starts to break down, and people are trying lots of new things, and tool becomes separate from genre. But it takes time, and examples, and variation.

Zero Summer takes StoryNexus a step in this direction. Zero Summer is not a box of sweets.

Continue reading “Zero Summer (Gordon Levine et al)”

Samsara (Meg Jayanth)

Samsara is a game written for StoryNexus, and the first place winner of Failbetter’s recurring “World of the Season” competition. (The second and third place were taken by Zero Summer, which appears to be an apocalyptic western of sorts [I have yet to play it]; and Evolve, a Spore-like story game that starts you off as a one-celled creature.)

For those not familiar with StoryNexus, it has set of mechanics that are more streamlined than Fallen London (fka Echo Bazaar) but with more persistent elements than Night Circus: there’s no map or travel paradigm built in, but the player has an inventory and stats, a deck of randomized cards to draw from (like FL’s Opportunity deck, or the sole deck in Night Circus), and a sequence of “pinned cards”, which represent quests currently in-progress. Cards look like this:

To play, you select a card — either one of those dealt from the randomized deck, or one of the pinned ones — and read a storylet setting up a situation; you can then try to do something about that situation (and often you have several options for how) or decide to put the card back and look at another instead. For instance:

(The imagery from these cards appears to belong to a common stock of StoryNexus images, though I’ve seen them rendered in other colors as well for other games.)

Success or failure in these various storylets depends on your stats and inventory, but even failure at a particular challenge will raise your stats in that area, so that you’re more likely to succeed if you try again. This is a system that can lend itself to fairly grinding content, and certainly Fallen London in its early days featured a sometimes-oppressive amount of grind. But that’s by no means a required feature, and some pieces (including Samsara) offer enough opportunities all the way along that it’s not necessary to redo and redo the same actions in an attempt to bulk stats out.

Another consequence of the mechanic is that it tends to be very much up to the player what narrative line she wants to pursue, and often playing a StoryNexus game feels like it’s more about texture than about plot. Moreover, because the stories are told so incrementally and the words themselves are the main reward for playing, each individual bit of text has to work very well on its own. The premium on well-turned sentences is higher in this medium than in almost any other kind of interactive narrative I know. Even parser IF is more forgiving.

Samsara deals gracefully with these challenges. Set in 1757 Bengal, Samsara casts you as a court magician with the ability to wander through the dreams of others, gathering information and planting ideas, choosing sides and reporting back as appropriate. The player can move back and forth between the waking and the dream states, depending on what she needs to accomplish.

This is a scheme that suits the StoryNexus platform well: the scraps of dreams are visionary and evocative enough to be effective in short prose snippets, while the political context naturally provides multiple quest lines to pursue and allegiances to explore. It’s also exactly the flavor of thing I love: historical fantasy with elements of romance, mysticism and intrigue, embedded in an unusual and beautifully envisioned setting.

Perhaps my growing familiarity with the system is at play here, but I was also impressed by how quickly Samsara gets its story off the ground. The opening phases of StoryNexus/quality-based narrative pieces are typically, in my experience, the rockiest aspect of the whole experience, because there is so much to teach about how the system will work, and because establishing character, setting, and motive within such brief snippets of prose can be challenging. Several pieces open with a long, linear introduction that doesn’t convey what the rest of the experience is going to be like, or else offer the player a bewildering array of options too soon. By contrast, Samsara establishes its core issues exceptionally quickly, introducing the idea of dream travel as well as the conflicts between local rulers, French and British army and trading interests, and competing religions and castes, all within a few short moves.

Like most pieces in this system, Samsara has an action meter and only allows playing so many turns at a time. On this scheme the current content lasts a day to a day and a half, ending on a cliffhanger; but there’s a promise of more to come, and I look forward to it.