Return of the Obra Dinn (Lucas Pope)

Return of the Obra Dinn is probably already familiar to you if you follow indie narrative games at all: winner of both the Grand Prize and Excellence in Narrative at the most recent IGF, the creation of Papers, Please designer Lucas Pope. I’m only getting to it now because I’m seriously behind.

The game puts you in the role an an insurance inspector, trying to work out what happened to everyone who used to be aboard a ghost ship. Thanks to a supernatural pocket watch, you’re able to revisit the time-frozen moment of death for every body you find, allowing you to explore one disturbing tableau after another to figure out who died, in what sequence, and why.

Unsurprisingly, it’s a very good game, one that achieves spectacle, surprise, and even some comedy within its confines. It’s worth playing with as little spoiler information as possible, so I’ve put less than usual above the fold. More design thoughts follow below, but they assume you’ve either played the game or read enough of a synopsis to be able to follow references.

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S. (J. J. Abrams, Doug Dorst)

sfeelies.jpgS is a puzzle-novel with feelies, imagined by J. J. Abrams and written by Doug Dorst. The premise is that there’s a novel, The Ship of Theseus, written by the mysterious VM Straka and edited by his devoted editor FX Caldeira. This novel is the object of considerable academic debate and political struggle.

There’s also an ambiguity about the true ending of the book: the Chapter 10 printed here is (fictionally) not the original written by the author, and the “true original” ending has been made available online.

The scholarly debate draws in two students, Eric and Jen, who start leaving one another notes in the margins of the book, and then get entangled in the struggle, and also entangled in one another’s lives. Jen and Eric’s story is organized semi-thematically rather than chronologically with the passing pages: they tend to come back to certain bits of the book to talk about certain subjects. Even the early pages of the book contain notes from late in their relationship. Conveniently, they change pen colors at a couple of key points, which at least tells you what era you’re looking at.

Between the pages, there are a number of other very lovingly made artifacts, including postcards, photographs, letters, and in one case a map hand-drawn on a café napkin. The book is also (for various reasons) full of ciphers and clues, some of which Eric and Jen solve themselves, and some of which have been discussed at great length by internet onlookers. The artifacts are amazing, and the whole book shows tremendous production values.

So it’s a piece that feels like a form of analog interactive fiction, or a classic Dennis Wheatley mystery dossier. Or, also/alternatively, a call-out to literary mystery/romance stories like Possession. I didn’t really find it satisfying either as puzzle or as novel, though, because what it communicates is in fact fairly thin relative to the number of pages and amount of work involved.

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Spring Thing 2019

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Spring Thing 2019 is now open. The second-biggest regular competition of the interactive fiction calendar, this year it has 20ish games including both choice-based and parser-based work, some experimental and some more classic in style. I haven’t had time to play nearly all of them, but here are a few I’ve had a chance to look at so far:

ballroom_cover.jpgLiza Daly has for several years been working with her own custom Windrift system, which produces lovely and typographically pleasing browser stories like Stone Harbor and Harmonia.

The Ballroom is a piece in this system where you can tweak certain details of the story in order to mutate it towards being a different story entirely. What starts as a disappointing anecdote in the life of an impoverished Regency miss can turn in other, rather startling directions as you alter your protagonist’s clothing and social choices, and the rest of the scene changes in consequence. Initially that stays within the Austenesque world, but it soon starts genre-hopping.

There is a logic of world features that persist through significant changes of genre and tone, that reminded me in some ways of Dual Transform or Invisible Parties. And the way you have access to the whole temporal sequence at once and can change the state of things earlier or later in the narrative as you choose, felt a bit Midnight. Swordfight. (though it’s definitely smaller than that work).

Meanwhile the player’s role in the game is not exactly protagonist or co-author — you don’t have enough control to really be responsible for the authorship of the story, but you’re also not straightforwardly a single person in the narrative, either.

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The Advanced Game Narrative Toolbox (ed. Tobias Heussner)

advancedgamenarrativeThe Advanced Game Narrative Toolbox is a brand-new followup to The Game Narrative Toolbox, which I covered previously. The “advanced” bit means that the book doesn’t re-cover all the same ground already found in game writing books. The authors suggest that if you are entirely new to game literacy and writing advice, you should go to the first book in the series, to Skolnick’s Video Game Storytelling, and/or to McKee’s Story.

Where the first book walked the reader through steps for building a basic portfolio of game design documents and related materials, The Advanced Game Narrative Toolbox is more topic-driven, each chapter written by a different author (with just a couple of repeats).

The topics cover a range of craft, commercial, and cultural considerations. Many (but not all) of the chapters end with a suggested exercise for the reader, as they did in the first book; but the feel here is less of a core syllabus and more of a set of electives you might pick to round out your understanding.

Many of the chapters approach their subject by defining process: what are the steps that you would take to go about a given task, what considerations should you apply, who else needs to be involved, what could go wrong, and how will you know when you’re done? So, for instance, a chapter is more likely to say (I paraphrase) “next, make a map that shows where each step of the quest will occur in the game world,” and less likely to dive into deep analysis of different possible map designs and how they will affect player experience. Typically, that process guidance is really useful, especially as it comes paired with lists of references if you need more technique training, but you should be aware which you’re getting.

The book is expensive. I bought it as soon as I heard of it, and I’m glad I did, but I flinched at checkout. Price is not typically something the authors can control, but it means I talk later in the review about how to tell whether you’re likely to get enough value from it to justify the price. That’s not meant to reflect on the book’s quality: it’s good, no question. If you get a chance to pick up a used copy for $15, just buy it.

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Story (Robert McKee) and the Expectation Gap in Interactive Story

McKeeStory is one of a handful of screenwriting books that turn up constantly in the bibliography of game writing books. McKee himself gives courses — I’ve never been, but I hear they’re very good shows, whether or not they’re good advice. It’s advised at least as often as Save the Cat, and possibly more so.

It is also, I think, more applicable to non-cinema writing than Save the Cat: McKee is interested in structure, and he has a lot of formulaic rules to suggest, but he cares about content as well. At one point he has a speech about the need for emotional truth, and how this can only come from within the author.

There are aspects of the book that aren’t entirely to my taste. In support of his points, McKee often spends quite a while reprinting classic screenplays — he’s particularly enamored of Chinatown — with his own commentary interspersed. I did not generally find his comments to be that much more instructive than the original dialogue, undisturbed. And even when he’s not giving verbatim chunks of screenplay, he spends an awful lot of time summarizing the events of various movies you’ve probably seen. He’s also a bit grandiose with his rhetoric about the great imaginative work of writing.

Then, too, quite a lot of his advice belongs to the “add an appropriate amount of salt” school of recipe writing — warning that too little or too much of something will be bad, but offering no heuristics.

All the same, there is a lot of basic vocabulary about how plots are assembled and how scenes are designed, which this book introduces as well as or better than many another. Personally, I’d be inclined to go for e.g. Wonderbook instead, if you want an introduction to basic structure vocabulary, and you’re not specifically writing screenplays. For most purposes, Wonderbook is more varied and goes deeper than Story.

There are, however, a couple of points — the ideas of expectation gap and of internal subconscious conflict — where I think it’s interesting how those concepts carry over to interactive work.

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Save the Cat (Blake Snyder)

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Save the Cat is one of those screenwriting books, like Robert McKee’s Story, that you can’t help running into if you’re looking at writing advice at all. The title refers to the idea that you must establish your protagonist in a movie with some sympathetic action. There are a lot of musts in this book. Snyder is telling you specifically how to write a three-act, 110-page movie script that fits a Hollywood formula of a few years back — down to which pages of the script should feature major events and reversals; how many beats should appear within each act; and how the hero should be feeling at the midpoint of the movie.

He explains that the heroes ought to be in their 20s at the latest because Men Under 25 are the most coveted viewing demographic. He does not overtly say they should be white, but that assumption is I think implicit. The book is a few years old; after Black Panther and Get Out and Crazy Rich Asians and so on, perhaps Snyder would now have something different to say about representation.

In any case, the book is largely about formula — and a formula much more genre-bound than my nemesis The Hero’s Journey. Snyder has very little to say about theme, other than to acknowledge that you probably should have one and mention it early in your screenplay. He has not much to say, either, about developing characters or about representing personal truths. He doesn’t very much care what the substance of your work might be. This book is about how to package it, how to make it accessible to audiences in a format that is familiar to them and that will help them quickly understand the emotional landscape.

So if this is mainly formula for a different medium and different market from games, does it have anything to offer?

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