Save the Cat (Blake Snyder)


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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End of November Link Assortment

December 1 is the next SF Bay IF Meetup.

December 2 will be the next Seattle area IF Meetup, at University of Puget Sound in Tacoma.

December 5 is the next date for the upcoming Boston IF Meetup, discussing IFComp winner Alias: The Magpie.

December 5-8 in Dublin is the next ICIDS, an academic conference on interactive digital storytelling. (I have enjoyed this in the past, though it’s been a few years since I’ve been able to attend.)

December 15 will be the next Baltimore/DC IF Meetup, discussing IFComp winner Alias: The Magpie from 3-5 at Mad City Coffee.

December 15 is the submission deadline for SubQ’s Game Jam, for very short pieces that focus on the theme of love.

The Oxford/London IF Meetup does not meet in December, to give everyone a holiday break.


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Guest Review: Three Games from Ectocomp

The following reviews are from an anonymous-by-request friend who played a number of games from Ectocomp, had a good time with the judging, but didn’t have a good venue for posting his own responses. I invited him to share some reviews of his favorites here. His background is mostly in film and theatre rather than interactive media.  Without further ado…


Disclaimer: I know Emily Short, but I’m not a game designer or programmer.  I have no games entered into this competition, and my opinions are my own, not Emily’s.

Ectocomp 2018 has just a couple days left before the judging ends!  Here are a few that I particularly enjoyed:

Santa Carcossa Nights (Bitter Karella)

f%2FCc1O.pngSanta Carcossa Nights comes from the mind of Bitter Karella, who recently gave us IFComp 2018’s well-received Basilica de Sangre.  Like BasilicaSanta Carcossa Nights is written using Quest as its authoring system.  It’s a short-ish horror-adventure (gameplay should take about ninety minutes) consisting primarily of exploring and a few puzzles.

I have to admit almost didn’t give this a try, for purely practical purposes.  I was using the app to play my Ectocomp games, but Santa Carcossa Nights was listed as Windows-compatible only, and I wasn’t going get very far by downloading it onto my MacBook.  Fortunately, the game’s comments section revealed a link to the browser version, which I recommend for Mac users, (with the added suggestion to go ahead and create the free account so you can save your progress.)

I’m happy I didn’t let myself be deterred.  Santa Carcossa Nights is good fun.  It has a bit of a late 1980’s aesthetic and feels a bit like going back into the past, containing ingredients that are reminiscent of classic adventures like Wishbringer or Zork.  You spend your time wandering around a strange town, discovering objects on one side of the map that unlock pieces on the other, while the horror element is constantly bubbling just underneath the surface (but not coming to its fruition until the very end).

Something I really appreciated here: Karella’s user interface has a control panel that allows the player to take stock of inventory, or to see the current room’s potential interactions with objects or other characters.  Additionally, a quick look at the game’s compass reveals all the directions one can go (that’s a godsend for us visual-learner-types).  Often a command can be given in multiple ways: by clicking on an option from the control panel, by clicking the bolded text itself, or by typing it into the parser.  The multiple avenues for gathering info and giving commands makes the game easier to navigate and less likely to hit a snag.

There are a few parts where the game does need a little fixing up.  I had several instances where examining an object immediately after “taking” it wound up returning the object to its point of origin.  In one case I walked halfway across town before I realized that an object I thought I had wasn’t with me any more (though to be fair, I’ve also done this in real life).

But these are minor quibbles.  The game is engaging, and if anything, it is over too quickly.  At the end I found myself wishing there were more (always a good sign).  There were only five reviews when I started this game, which is a shame –– it deserves more attention, and hopefully a few more players will check it out before the competition wraps up.


Wretch! (Josh Labelle)


This was my first time playing anything by Josh Labelle, who has taken the basic premise of Frankenstein and brought it to a modern setting, with the player making choices from the point-of-view of the “monster.”  As you awaken in your stitched-together form, you are also sorting out memories from past lives.  Next you try to figure out your place in the land of the living, first in the home of the scientist that brought you back, and later in the outside world.

The Twine format is simple and user friendly.  Occasionally a choice will appear that you can’t yet click on because pre-conditions have not been met.  When this happens, the choice is rendered as a heavily blurred line of text, so you can guess at what it is you might need to do next.  The result is that the game gives you a hint as to the right direction – but doesn’t tell you exactly how to get there.

All in all, this is a charming game that is “horror” only in regard to its ingredients.  The structure, at least in the story I played, feels much more like a comedy of manners, with the monster awkwardly trying to talk to kids or blend into normal social interactions.  I can’t help but feel that there may be more here that the author didn’t have time to write before the game needed to be entered into the contest.  It’s not that it feels unfinished, but there’s potential here for something fuller (if he wanted to expand on it.)

As it is, I was engaged from start to finish, and am hoping we see more of Labelle’s work in the future.


Death By Powerpoint (Jack Welch)


I most recently encountered Jack Welch’s work in the 2018 IFComp’s re: Dragon, a meta-story referencing the competition itself, and an imagined response to actual games from the previous year.  The result was light-hearted and hilarious.

Death by Powerpoint is not that.  It is considerably bleaker, at least it seems so at first.  After the first ten minutes, I began to feel as though I were watching David Lynch’s version of Office Space, as Welch gleefully piles on surreal imagery and then blends it up with ample helpings of all-too-familiar corporate-life banality.  The effect is unexpected and captivating.

Of course, it helps that Welch is an excellent writer.  I can imagine this falling flat in the hands of a less capable prose stylist.  Part of that lies in the game’s design: Death by Powerpoint feels less like a game than it does a short work of fiction.  Many of the choices one makes are revealed to be little side-plots that lead right back to the point of departure.  Indeed, navigating gameplay here is like being lost in an unfamiliar suburban neighborhood full of dead-ends and cul-de-sacs.  In the end, you keep running in little circles until there seems to be only one way out.

Of course, perhaps I’m wrong and there are some divergent endings… but I played through the game a few times and always got to the same endpoint (my paths getting there were wildly different, though).

What makes the game ultimately rewarding is the gradual revelation of the underlying reasons for the bizarre experiences you’re having.  The journey, in this case, is largely internal, and the “horror” element is more existential/philosophical than anything grotesque or spooky.

I can easily see this game being frustrating or confusing if the player is expecting something else… though perhaps that’s part of the point.  But I found myself thinking about this game for some time after I had played it through.  If you like having your expectations messed with a bit, give it a try.

West of Loathing (Asymmetric)

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West of Loathing is a fourth-wall-breaking comedy RPG descended from Kingdom of Loathing. The art is made of stick figures. The combat tends toward the gentle side, difficulty-wise. You may spend a lot of your time reaching into disgusting spittoons and harvesting needles from haystacks.

It’s not a genre of game I typically cover here — and I generally don’t have time to play loads of RPGs, which tend to demand a lot more time each than interactive fiction. But there is in fact a certain IF-y sensibility about many of the interactions. You can wander around the world and pick people and things to interact with, but once you do, you enter into a choice-based exchange. These make good use of standard small-scale choice structures: situations where your persistence is tested against assurances that you’re getting into trouble, or where the risk goes up. (You can play poker against other denizens of the town, which is a classic stakes-go-up, are-you-sure-you-stay-in scenario.)

Anyway. I don’t have loads of analysis on this one, and I’m not done with it yet, but it’s entertaining and may appeal to some folks here. (And yes, I know it came out last year. I’m slow.)

Beckett (Simon Meek)

Screen Shot 2018-08-26 at 9.54.35 PM.png

The author of Beckett reached out to me and suggested I have a look at it. So did a couple of unrelated people on Twitter. But when I looked at the website, I couldn’t figure out what it was meant to be: the premise, the play experience, how long it was likely to take. What was this thing? No one seemed eager or even able to describe this game to me. It was only after I’d downloaded and played a bit that I encountered this explanation. It has a clearer plot overview than I could really offer myself.

I’ve played the first several scenes of it now. I’m not sure whether I will play more: it is off-putting, intentionally so, and I am not sure whether it’s giving me enough to make me put up with its off-putting qualities.

But here’s what I can tell you so far. Mechanically, it is a point-and-click adventure, albeit one with a fair amount of text, and set in a moody sepia world generally viewed from above:

Screen Shot 2018-08-26 at 9.58.00 PM.png

As for genre and premise: I am not quite sure of the ground truths of the world, yet. The place is old-fashioned and noir-ish. The protagonist appears to be a form of detective, though he “doesn’t do domestics.” People use physical paperwork and old-fashioned desks. Images hung on the wall look like they come from the 1920s. At one point we visit a bar and to enter we have to speak through a buzzer at the door; it suggests a speakeasy. Someone tells us to plant a bug, and the bug that we see is of the animal variety, shown in video and from a disquieting proximity. Indeed, insects appear frequently and in contexts where you might not expect to see them, including at one point on the neck of an attractive woman, as though it were a kind of jewelry.

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IF Comp Roundup

IF Comp is now over for the year! Here are a few recommendations for different audiences, depending on what you’re looking for.


If you want serious story:

cover.pngBogeyman (hypertext) is a story of children who have been taken away by the eponymous character as punishment for behaving badly. It’s a little simplistic to describe it as horror, because this is less a work about fear and more a work about moral queasiness, complicity, and responses to abusive power. It made me feel vaguely ill a good portion of the time — but despite how that might sound, this is a recommendation.


Dead Man’s Fiesta (hypertext, on the dynamic fiction end of the spectrum) is the story of the after-effects of grief.





If you want evocative, illustrated story:

cover-1.pngÜrs is an illustrated hypertext piece about a rabbit who has to learn to manipulate the technology of the ancients in order to save their warren. The art is really good: beautiful, stylish illustrations for every location that manage to communicate the functionality of the technology, the wonder of the setting, and the viewpoint of the rabbit (along with a little Watership Down flavor) all at once. It’s very mildly puzzle-y in a way that I think most people will find easy to solve, but that component gives the story a bit of body and some agency for the player.


If you want playful story:

cover-2.pngRe: Dragon (hypertext/fake email interface, executed with Inform and Vorple). Though framed as a meta-piece about the IF Competition, the piece swiftly becomes a charming and well implemented comedic fantasy. This game included some of my favorite turns of phrase in the competition. There is a cocktail recipe that looks pretty good, frankly, though you might have to omit the unicorn sparkles.



If you want something reminiscent of a Choose Your Own Adventure or gamebook:

cover.pngWithin a Circle of Water and Sand is an attractively illustrated story of a Polynesian girl who has undertaken an adulthood ritual that requires her to visit other islands. The setting is unusual for IF — Aotearoa is vaguely reminiscent but is told from the point of view of a white visitor, for instance. Structurally, this is a bit of a gauntlet: there are many ways to die suddenly and relatively few ways to manage the final ordeal, and you’ll likely need to replay several times in order to build the necessary understanding of the world. There’s a lot of text between choice points, as well — but as you replay, you’ll likely stop reading those closely and move towards a more mechanical traversal.


If you like a story/puzzle balance:

magpie.jpegAlias ‘The Magpie’ (parser-based) sees you playing a gentleman thief infiltrating a manor to acquire a priceless artifact. It’s Wodehouse-y farce with one ridiculous scenario piling on another, complete with implausible disguises and unreasonable excuses. As a nice bonus, it comes with stylish virtual feelies and a map of the estate you need to rob. The game does depict mental illness in a pretty unrealistic way for comedic effect; if this is a concern for you, that’s something to be aware of.

cover.pngErstwhile (hypertext) is a murder mystery in which you’re trying to solve the question of your own death, from beyond the grave. As you explore the testimony of the suspects, you’ll build up an inventory of clues and topics, which you can link together to discover new evidence.



If you’re interested most of all in the texture of language and interactive poetry:

cover.jpgTohu wa Bohu is both puzzleless and storyless, a piece that explores particular ways of thinking and states of mind. Built in Texture, it asks the player to pay close attention to the individual words, and to changing words as a representation of changing thought. Very formally experimental.



If you mainly want puzzles:

showimage.jpgJunior Arithmancer is your bet for mathematical puzzling. None of the mathematical operations are more difficult than you’d see in a pre-algebra course — there’s some square root-taking, and that’s about it — but some of the challenges require a bit of thought in how you string the operations together. Written by Mike Spivey, who contributed last year’s excellent A Beauty Cold and Austere.


showimage.pngAilihphilia is a workout for fans of palindrome-based wordplay. It’s the work of prolific wordplay game creator Andrew Schultz, so if you’re already familiar with his work, you’ll probably have a good sense of whether you’ll enjoy it.



cover.pngTemple of Shorgil, meanwhile, is an Arthur DiBianca game — this too is becoming something of a brand. DiBianca’s work often has a very light fiction wrapper, gameplay that relies on 2-5 core verbs, with brainteasers around maths, timing, sequencing, and understanding symbolic references. The Temple of Shorgil’s premise is that you’re exploring an ancient temple full of tricky puzzles, as ancient temples always are in Indiana Jones/Infidel-style fiction. Wall paintings and snippets of legend provide additional clues. This was a bit smaller and more focused in design than DiBianca’s earlier comp game Inside the Facility, but both games involve exploring a gridded map in quite a systematic way.


If you’re a fan of superheroes with silly powers:

cover-1.pngThe Origin of Madame Time (parser-based) is a sequel to last year’s The Owl Consults: there are a bunch of characters with strange powers, but they’ve all been frozen in time, and you need to rush around dealing with a crisis-in-progress, sometimes drawing on the abilities of these characters in various ways. Solidly constructed, not terribly difficult.


If you’re really feeling it being 2018:

There were several games in this comp (Bi Lines, A Woman’s Choice, Ostrich, Careless Talk) that in some way or other address currents of incipient fascism, government oppression, the possibility of fighting back, and the treatment of women at the hands of men. I didn’t play all of these, but we did play Ostrich in the London IF Meetup; I think that was an ideal context to experience. The satirical aspects were broad, but that played pretty well in a group experience.