Mailbag: The Unique Selling Points of Parser IF

@mattlaschneider writes: I’d love to see a series of posts geared towards people who are interested in learning to write parser IF in a post-Twine era… I could be totally off base, but I do think that parser IF has a lot to offer people who would normally otherwise be attracted to Twine.

We then had a long Twitter-thread argument about whether it was even appropriate to try to recruit people to writing parser IF, especially because I think many people who come to IF because of Twine have motives or needs for which parser IF is a terrible fit.

So let’s start with the reasons not to write parser IF, and we can come back to the question of how to write it if somehow none of my persuasions work on you.

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Reigns

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Here is Reigns, a game about managing a series of kingdoms currently available on Steam for a few dollars. (Or £1.99, for those of us buying in the UK.) The mechanics are simple. Each turn you’re presented with a choice, typically presented as a request by someone in your kingdom. Swipe left to refuse; swipe right to agree.

Your decisions affect some or all of the four stats at the top of the screen, which correspond to the well-being of the church, the populace in general, the army, and your treasury. If any of those stats reaches either maximum or minimum states, you will die and be replaced by your heir, who will start from where you left off (but with stats set back to average). Some of those death reasons are pretty contrived: make too much money and your citizens will throw a feast in your honor, where inevitably you will choke to death. But the need for balance makes this much more difficult and interesting than if it were safe to just max out your treasury, for instance.

There are a few minor complications that turn up after you’ve played for a bit: for instance, you can make decisions that add semi-permanent resources to your kingdom, such as a placement on the Silk Road that provides income every turn regardless of what else you do, or a siloing system that helps protect you in the event your kingdom runs out of food. And there’s also a combat mini-game that you can unlock after a bit of experiment.

Still, there’s a heavy component of chance here. You don’t know in advance what cards are going to turn up, and you can never just autonomously choose an action. So you may be able to see that your Treasury stat is edging up and up, dangerously close to triggering the Deathfeast, but not be able to do anything to offload your obscene wealth.

Each card also comes with a small amount of story, and because those stories are dependent on your existing stats, this feels like quality-based narrative — though without the wild proliferation of different stat types that one sees in Fallen London. Like other QBN pieces, this means it offers cause-and-effect chains the authors might not have specifically anticipated. During one of my reigns, I accepted a marriage proposal from an adjoining kingdom in order to avert a war; then I let my new wife throw a feast, but the feast bankrupted the kingdom and brought my reign to a precipitous close. Oops. Did the authors intend that sequence? Not necessarily, but it results naturally from the way stats move.

There is a longer arc that plays out over the course of multiple reigns, but it’s easy to go through a number of deaths without getting any new content for that piece of the game.

Ultimately, the story experience is a little dilute for my tastes. The tinder-style mechanic, the randomness of card availability, and the fact that you die so often, all made me sit back rather than sit forward. After all, the stakes are low (what do I care if yet another king dies of gangrene after an ill-advised boar hunt?) and my control is likewise limited. Still, Reigns is entertaining in short spurts, and I’m always interested to see new QBN-ish pieces, especially ones not written in the StoryNexus toolset.

Disclosure: I played a copy of this game that I bought with my own money.

Chatbots as Narrative Platform

Recently I’ve been running into a fair amount of news/discussion about “conversation as a platform” and “bots as the new apps” — specifically, that people spend so much time texting that chatbots are a viable way to do advertising and storytelling and personal assistant functions all at once.

This means taking in natural language input (as opposed to the Lifeline-style experience, where the user is still pressing buttons to navigate a choice-based conversation). Historically,  I’ve tended to be skeptical about this because the error rate on chatbot output is high enough to make for a frustrating game experience.

All the same, there have recently been some developments on this front, partly because there’s now stronger AI for classifying natural language input, and partly because app discoverability problems make it appealing to embed content within chat platforms. Meanwhile, streaming means that there’s a greater audience for games that produce amusing results and accept idiosyncratic player input: here’s PewDiePie making Facade produce weird results.

What follows is a summary of some existing work I know about in this area. I wouldn’t be surprised to see quite a lot more come along.

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Secret Agent Cinder (Emily Ryan)

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Secret Agent Cinder is a retelling of the Cinderella story, except not: though you dress up and dance with fancy people, it’s really about espionage and sneaking about at Versailles shortly before the French Revolution.

It belongs to that small but growing category of Twine games — with Hallowmoor, Krypteia, and This Book is a Dungeon — that feature a world model and a map you can get to know. There are some light puzzles, and you can reach a sudden bad ending, though the game will then automatically restore you to the last reasonable checkpoint to replay. At the end, you get a rating for your stealthiness, revolutionary violence, and zeal. The result is short, polished, accessible, and quite a lot of fun.

Besides having a map, Secret Agent Cinder uses illustration as a primary channel for storytelling: the pictures aren’t just a gloss on the text, but give key information about, say, the locations of guards. If you don’t pay attention to them, you’re likely to get caught. Many of the jokes are embedded in the imagery as well; it plays more like an interactive web comic than most things I can think of.

Mildly spoilery discussion of the humor follows the break.

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Riddles and Madlibs UI: Blackbar; Interactive Sexy Story

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Blackbar is an interactive puzzle story, for various mobile platforms, about censorship: you see one side of a correspondence, and must guess the missing words in order to move forward, as the participants try to communicate through the filter of an oppressive regime. It got a reasonable amount of enthusiasm at the time, and appeared on some top-ten lists for 2013.

screenshot-2-3.5-outlinedI have to confess that I went to a walkthrough for some of the later puzzles. One of the issues with riddle-style puzzle design is that it isn’t very explorable: you either have that flash of understanding or you don’t, and if you are thinking along the wrong lines, it can be very hard to get back on track. A few of the puzzles in Blackbar are divided up into components that you can try to solve individually, which moves it more towards crosswords territory — you can figure out some bits, get confirmation, and then use that to work out the parts you don’t understand — but others aren’t as friendly.

I also thought there wasn’t all that much to the story when it was all stitched together. Others described its storyline as Orwellian and said that it critiqued censorship, but that critique mostly boils down to: “Censorship. It’s bad.” Orwell made points about how controlling language ultimately means controlling thought, as sophisticated arguments become impossible to form. Blackbar is more about goofy ways to try to get around the censors, and casts the censors themselves as pretty incompetent. Surely a censor who really wanted to suppress information would black out more at a time, leaving us with puzzles that were harder to solve. Still, it was entertaining and competent and lots of people had fun with it.

I was reminded of Blackbar again recently because, while I was looking for a completely different thing, the iOS app store recommended Interactive Sexy Story, a free to play app with in-app purchases. I downloaded it as a piece of potential kusoge, and I was not wrong.

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Hybrid interfaces: Texture; Contrition (Porpentine); Spondre (Jay Nabonne)

Lately we’ve been seeing more and more work that falls somewhere between parser-based IF and hypertext: in the past six weeks or so, I’ve run across two new games and a creation tool that push the boundaries in various directions.

Jim Munroe and Juhana Leinonen recently released Texture, a system designed especially to produce touch-based IF that will play well on mobile devices. Texture features the idea of applying verbs to passages of text:

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When a verb is used on text, it replaces that text with something new, or else moves forward to a new page, mimicking the change-or-advance link distinctions in many Twine games. (With Those We Love Alive actually makes this distinction obvious by coloring these links different colors.)

The pairing of verbs and nouns means that navigation is a bit less obvious than in most pure hypertext Twine pieces, allowing for puzzles. The back end is still extremely simple, though, so although it might appear to be a system that would compete with the parser, in practice there’s no way (yet) to build up an extensive world model. The verbs that are available may change from page to page, and the author is handcrafting each verb-phrase interaction.

To the best of my knowledge there aren’t any released pieces yet that use Texture, but I’ll be interested to see what comes of it.

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