StoryNexus supports authors in building what Failbetter calls “quality-based narratives” — stories where the available nodes and choices depend on the player’s stats at that point in the narrative. The result is somewhat more fluid than the typical choose-your-own-adventure model, in that it doesn’t impose a strict order to the branch points, but allows the player to explore whichever of the available storylets happen to be open to him.
The only other tool I know of that currently supports this particular blend of world model and choice-based storytelling is Varytale — not entirely coincidentally, since Failbetter had considerable input about Varytale at the design stage. But where Varytale tends towards the more literary possibilities of the format, with long prose passages and a book-like presentation, StoryNexus aims more at RPG-like explorable worlds reminiscent of the original Echo Bazaar. The tool allows authors to select from artwork and theme options, and in the future will also allow authors to upload their own imagery to accompany their creations.
StoryNexus authors may offer their work for free, or may charge for it, as they like, using StoryNexus’s built in system for putting purchase gates on content. (This functionality is I think closed at the moment, but scheduled to open very soon, offering a 60/40 split with authors on any revenue a story may earn.)
So Bee has been out for a couple of days now in reader beta, and my analytics page overflows.
The Varytale system includes a mechanism by which readers can rate and comment on any individual piece of the story as they go along, giving a one to five star ranking and displaying the average of those ranks as the book’s quality score. The commenting part is well-hidden and of course requires more effort on the part of the reader — I’ve gotten only a handful of comments, mostly to inform me of localized typos or bugs — but the ratings part is almost intrusively prominent.
As a reader, I’m not sure how I feel about being asked to grade what I just read every few paragraphs, so I haven’t actually had the nerve to grade anyone else’s Varytale books; and for that matter even just being asked, “hey, how did you like that?” so frequently relentlessly draws my attention back to an evaluative process when I might prefer simply to experience the story for the time being.
So I have mixed feelings about it as a reader, but it’s the authorial perspective I want to mostly talk about here.
As an author, you get a big chart that ranks all of the ratings of all of your storylets. Analytics results also break down further details about how many people chose each of the several paths through a branching storylet, in what order, and so on. You can see exactly how many people read each storylet, and on which dates. There’s no way to tell for sure when a given reader stopped reading your book, because in theory they could just not have finished it yet, but lots and lots of other metrics are visible.
This is the first time I’ve been able to collect that kind or level of feedback on any of my work, and I am morbidly fascinated. I’m going to show the top and bottom ends of the chart for Bee, which will necessarily be just a tiny bit spoilery for the names of sections in the story.
The Night Circus is a new game by Failbetter, the creators of Echo Bazaar, set in the fictional world of the forthcoming book of the same name by Erin Morgenstern. (I should say as a disclaimer, before I go any further, that I’m not a completely disinterested party — I’ve worked with Failbetter several times in the past, and hope to do so again in the future, and I also did some beta work on the game of The Night Circus.)
Structurally, The Night Circus is quite a bit like Echo Bazaar, but tighter and easier to get into. If you’ve ever looked at EBZ and thought that it was more confusing or more of a commitment than you were ready for, Night Circus is doing some similar narrative experiments in a more streamlined fashion, with a shorter lead time and fewer optional extras. (There’s no store to buy objects from, for instance, and no map to move around — just a set of storylets to choose from at any given moment.) Brief text passages let you explore the environment of the circus and make choices about what you’re interested in pursuing. As you go, you accumulate mementoes — an inventory of physical and non-physical rewards from your exploration, some of which are required to open up new possibilities. Because it’s about exploring the mysteries of a setting and making serendipitous connections, it’s light on plot and strong on imagery, but there are some gradually accumulating ideas nonetheless.
The art is disciplined and evocative. Night Circus’ commitment to a black-and-white-with-red-touches scheme means the iconic art fits together well, even when the images are of quite different things.
There is a diary, to which you can save the text of events that are most important to you, and there’s the option of adding your own brief comment to something you’re recording. (Here’s mine, containing some of my favorite snippets from play so far, and here’s another from someone who comments more extensively than I do.) The diary is something EBZ does also, but (IMO) less effectively: Night Circus lets you add things to your diary even if you don’t simultaneously choose to tweet them to your friends, which means that you can make decisions about what you want to include in your personal narrative record without agonizing whether you’ve annoyed your twitter list enough for one day. I’m keenly interested in this technique: it encourages players to think about which events are important and memorable to them, and cooperate in constructing a narrative for themselves. I’d like even more to be able to go back and change the tagging on past events, I think, but that might be a bit heavy-handed for this particular piece.