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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Three Fourths Home ([bracket]games)

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Three Fourths Home is a choice-based interactive story about a young adult named Kelly driving home through the Nebraska rain while carrying on a telephone conversation with her mother (and, as Mom passes the phone around, other members of the family). With music, sound effects, and illustration, it’s more lushly constructed than the average Twine game, but offers the same general style of play.

The conversation is simple menu-based stuff, usually with two or three available options, but — a little like Coming Out Simulator 2014 — Three Fourths Home also uses animation and location imagery to remind you constantly of where you are, as your car slides down the road between corn fields and past water tanks and into gathering darkness. While you play, you have to actively keep driving your car, or the whole story slides to a stop. Driving only consists of holding down a single button, but I found this was a good physical representation of being slightly distracted by an ongoing task. Sound effects also present some environmental distractions.

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Detective Grimoire (SFB Games)

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Detective Grimoire is a short (90-180 minutes, probably, depending how much you rush through the voiceover parts) point-and-click mystery adventure. It’s pretty easy — strong hints about what to do next and what you might have missed thus far, as well as a “sparkle” mode to draw attention to environmental object that you should really look at. (If you want a more classic pixel-hunting experience, you can turn the sparkles off.) The content is also reasonably kid-friendly; though you’re investigating a murder, the actual and hypothesized reasons for that murder are all kept fairly PG. Some other reviewers refer to these as “grisly” or “dark”, but I didn’t find them so; it seemed to me that the character motivations are either quite gentle or cartoonish or both. If you squint, there’s maybe a bit of an argument for preserving the wilderness, but even that is softly handled enough that it avoids any political bite.

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IF Comp 2014: The Contortionist (Nicholas Stillman)

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The Contortionist is a puzzly game that uses a menu of verbs, somewhere between parser and choice-based. I played for a while normally, then as much further as I could with the walkthrough, until I got to a point where the walkthrough did not help.

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Ice-Bound Kickstarter

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Aaron Reed and Jacob Garbe are currently Kickstarting an amazing project called Ice-Bound, which is an impressive experiment in combinatorial narrative and augmented reality: the story uses both an iPad app and a printed book. Their Kickstarter and website have lots of background on the project’s techniques, as well as loads of screenshots: this is nearing completion, and now needs money for print run support.

Aaron’s work is consistently some of the most unusual, format-expanding stuff being done in IF, and I’m extremely excited to see where this particular project goes. Definitely worth checking out.