Those Trojan Girls (Mark Bernstein)

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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:

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ECTOCOMP 2016

Ectocomp is a yearly competition for Halloween-themed IF. There are two subsections, one for games that were written in three hours or less, and one for authors who wanted to take longer. That three hour rule gives a sense of the casualness level of this competition: it’s kind of a mental break from the much heavier-duty, on-going IF Comp. Still, there’s quite a lot in this year’s competition — 16 entries in the speed-IF category, and 5 in the unlimited-time category.

A couple of highlights from the things I’ve had time to try so far:

psychomanteumPsychomanteum (Hanon Ondricek)

On a dare, you are forced to spend some time alone in a dark room with mirrors. Which should not be inherently horrible, right? Besides, you have matches, and a safeword. But I’ll say this: I wound up having the protagonist use the safeword the first time through, because I was pretty sure they were too freaked out to stay and see how much worse things were going to get. Then I went back and played it to the other ending. An unnerving experiential game. It’s not exactly puzzle-y, but the parser aspect of it works really well, because there were several points where I wasn’t sure whether to WAIT or try to take an action, and that ambiguity is spot-on for the content. If you can, play with the sound on: the soundtrack also helps a lot.

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Games on hard topics; TAKE

cover.pngLast night I gave a talk in Vienna at the Subotron arcademy series — an invited talks series aimed at the indie game dev community in the area, taking on matters of art, craft, and politics. Previous speakers have included Meg Jayanth on the narrative of 80 Days, and Marie Foulston on curating video games for the V&A, among others.

I was talking about sex, intimacy, and non-sexual but emotionally intense elements in games; about how fiction gives us enough distance to be able to handle these topics, but how interactivity makes it harder again.

I talked about some of my own games in this area, and also about some games by other people: the emotional brutality of That Dragon, Cancer; the curious partial invitation to intimacy in 36 Questions; the way 18 Cadence invites the reader to pick out themes they find resonant.

And I spent several minutes talking about TAKE, Amelia Pinnolla’s game for this year’s IF Comp, because it is dealing with all of those topics — sex, trust, intimacy, revelation, the vulnerability of the author.

As far as I can tell, even a lot of people who liked TAKE didn’t completely get it. The biggest weakness of the piece is that it doesn’t guarantee that the reader will get what’s going on, because it’s otherwise pretty amazing; and in many cases what it’s saying would be very painful reading if presented without some layers of indirection.

So I want to talk about all that. This will be spoilery: proceed at your own risk.

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Aviary Attorney (Sketchy Logic)

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Aviary Attorney is a game in which you guide some French lawyers, who happen to be birds, through evidence collection and trial scenes in which they pick holes in the opposing testimony. It owes a great deal to Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, emulating its gameplay and in-court responses. People also compare with Hatoful Boyfriend, because both are visual novels with birds who act like humans, but Aviary Attorney owes less of a debt there: the gameplay and style are really rather different.

The art, meanwhile, is lifted from the public domain work of French caricaturist J.J. Grandville, and the game’s narrative takes place against the rising action of the revolutionary year 1848. There are also many current jokes and references: the evidence binder where you store pictures of people you’ve met is your “Face Book,” for instance.

The joke could have been too weak to sustain play through the whole game. But I wound up liking it a lot, and not just because the game only needed a few hours to play through. Sketchy Logic do a good job with the light animation, the soundtrack, the dialogue writing: moment to moment, production values are consistently solid.

More to the point, though, this is not just a grab-bag of goofy cases. The whole piece is addressing themes of justice, rationality, the use of force, and the relationship between the poor and the wealthy. 1848 Paris, as portrayed here, is a place with huge disparities in wealth and class; a place where judges preferentially protect the well-to-do, and where police may arbitrarily shoot the poor. In one of the endings, you are literally assembling evidence to work out whether the victim of a (supposed) police shooting was hit in the front or the back, and under what circumstances.

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Nothing for Dinner (Nicolas Szilas et al, IDtension)

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“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.

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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.

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Interactive Digital Narrative: History

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 1.12.24 PM.pngInteractive Digital Narrative: History, Theory, and Practice is an academic publication from Routledge that retails for £90/$123 on Amazon, which is why even though it is completely relevant to me and my work, it took me a little while to get around to buying it. I would guess that most people who write IF as a hobby won’t buy it either, which is in some ways a shame, because improving communication between the hobbyist and academic communities would be beneficial in both directions. But a book priced for academic libraries is not the most accessible way to accomplish that.

Consequently, this is not a conventional academic book review. Instead, it’s partly meant as a high-level overview of the contents for people in the IF community who cannot afford to read the book, or who might want to know what sort of thing is in it before plunking down more than $100 for their own copy. Much of the rest is an attempt to join up what is in the book with what I know about historical and contemporary interactive fiction and narrative games.

That I spend a lot of time pointing out related IF work is not meant as a criticism or complaint about the book’s scope of coverage — which is in fact quite broad — but as an attempt to help bridge community divides and suggest points of contact between hobbyist IF and academic digital narrative.

Finally, there’s a lot of content, so I’m going to take this in chunks. This post starts with the history section.

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