The Beginner’s Guide (Davey Wreden) and Intimacy Inside Games

beginnersheaderThe Beginner’s Guide is a new game by one of the creators of The Stanley Parable. The premise is that Davey had a game-developing friend called Coda who wrote a bunch of small, arty games between 2008 and 2011, and Davey wants to walk us through these, showing the progression of the games and of his own relationship with Coda. He provides a voice-over that narrates everything we encounter. In some cases the discussion focuses on the design ideas and in some cases it touches lightly on the technical work that went into making a level.

This is one of those games in which the experience really suffers from spoilers, so if you think you would like to play a roughly 90-minute, mechanics light game about creativity, the challenge of understanding other people, and the mental health of creators, you may want to check it out before reading too many reviews, including this one. While I will not be giving away all the details of how the game turns out, it is impossible to discuss its major themes without ruining some of the surprise.

(Disclosure: I played a copy of this game which I bought with my own money.)

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Her Story, Further Reflections

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I wrote a review already about Her Story, and that is what you should read if you are trying to decide whether to play it.

But lately I’ve run into a strand of criticism of the game to the effect that the central mystery is very trope-driven and highly implausible. (Here are several: Claire Hosking, Jed Pressgrove, Soledad Honrado.)

I read these critiques, I see what they’re getting at, and I think: yeah, but I liked it anyway. Why? Fundamentally I believe stories need to contain some measure of human truth to be worthwhile. Was I just distracted here by how much fun the mechanic was, or did I see a truth in it?

So I want to talk a bit about the actual story that is uncovered here, and about why I personally responded positively to it. This will be very very full of spoilers and also really heavy on the personal reflections, so if you are not interested in those things, bail now.

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Her Story (Sam Barlow)

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Last year I wrote about the way Gone Home is mostly backstory but doesn’t yield to thematically directed exploration. I talked then about wanting to see more games of research, pieces where the player could make guesses about where things were going and then test them out.

Sam Barlow’s Her Story accomplishes that nebulously-framed wish of mine, and brilliantly so.

The idea is apparently straightforward: the protagonist has access to a database of video snippets taken from the interrogation of a woman involved with an apparent murder more than 20 years ago. The video snippets all have searchable subtitles, which means that if you look for a word that is spoken in one of these snippets, you can bring it up. What you can’t do is watch all the snippets in order; and if more than five snippets are associated with a particular keyword, then you can’t access those after 6. (This prevents the game from being too easily solved by someone who latches onto key names early on.)

As a police filing system this is perhaps not very practical, but it makes for a highly engaging game. One starts with a prompt, “murder”, which turns up several snippets with which to get started. From there, it’s a matter of thinking of new keywords to enter. Sometimes the keywords are names or places mentioned in one video that are obviously important. Sometimes I reached them by association or guesswork instead: if one hears about a death, it’s reasonable to want to know what happened at the funeral, for instance. And, of course, the same snippets of video may be reached by several different routes, so there’s less of a premium on exhaustiveness than in something like Toby’s Nose (but perhaps more than in the intentionally unmappable daddylabyrinth). It also feels less controlled and gated than Analogue: A Hate Story.

The game also has a second level of robustness, namely, it’s not necessary to see absolutely every snippet in order to work out what happened. 80-90% is probably sufficient. Personally I had a pretty good idea of what had happened by the end of a couple of hours, though I kept playing for a while longer in an increasingly quixotic mission to find the last remaining bits. I failed to get them all, but I reached a point where I felt pretty satisfied.

It’s massively daring to tell your story in whatever order the player happens to stumble upon — and yet my experience and the experience of every reviewer I’ve read so far was that the narrative order they experienced was compelling and memorable. After playing through this myself, I brought it along to an interactive fiction meetup and watched another group of people play: they saw the story unfold in a totally different way than I did, but it still worked. (They were also so fascinated with the game that we stayed on that for two hours and never moved on to other activities.)

There are a couple of features of the snippets themselves that make this scheme work. First, they’re telling a story that is very complicated (so there’s quite a lot to find) but differently shaped from what you might initially expect (so you’re not just filling in some sort of Motive/Opportunity/Method chart).

Second — and this is a reflection of both writing skill and the quality of the acting — they contain multiple kinds of information. In the earliest phases of the game, the player is just trying to get a sense of the key people and places in the story, scanning the snippets for names to build up a who’s-who. Then one starts comparing new snippets to old ones, looking for factual discrepancies and implications. Later, after the shape of the story has started to emerge from the mist, they start to be readable for emotional hints as well. There are details — visual details, verbal details, tones of voice and choices of imagery — that only take meaning after the player knows quite a lot about what is going on. And that is why the same snippet can still function well in the building of the narrative regardless of whether you see it as almost your first pick of the game or not until quite late.

I’d like to talk about the actual content a bit; however, any discussion of the story itself is of course massively spoilery, even more so for this work than for most games. So I’m going to put that behind a tag.

However, if you’re reading this review to find out whether I think it’s worth playing: yes, absolutely. If you’re a parser IF fan from the old days, you probably remember Sam Barlow from Aisle, a one-move game that is still one of my go-to pieces for introducing new players to parser IF despite the fact that it was written in 1999 — and you may find that the game has more in common with parser IF than you might have thought possible. If you’re a student of experimental narrative forms, this is a smashing example that people will be discussing for some time, and you should know about it. If you’re more of a mainstream indie game enthusiast, you’ve probably already seen the collection of positive reviews Her Story has racked up elsewhere, but in case you haven’t: this is not only a fascinating experiment, it’s also a solid, suspenseful gaming experience that kept me on the edge of my seat.

And the disclaimer: I bought this game in preorder, but Sam then sent me an advance key so that I could play early and review it.

Go play it before you read anything else I have to say. PLAY IT PLAY IT.

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The Century Beast (The Mysterious Package Company)

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The Mysterious Package Company sends story experiences through the mail. Sign up, and you or your chosen recipient gets a sequence of unexplained mailings. Inside: objects that tell a story, from documents and newspaper clippings through medium-sized statuary and significant physical props. There’s a little of a sense of the magic trick about all this, too — they even describe the stages of their presentation in terms of “The Pledge”, “The Turn”, and “The Prestige”.

Having occasionally made much less ambitious, much less polished physical props to go with my games, I’m both jealous and a bit in awe of the talent going into their work. (I’ve seen a few props that they sent to a friend, but I’ve not signed up or tried a full experience myself.)

The Mysterious Package Company are now kickstarting a larger-than-usual experience called The Century Beast, a Lovecraft-meets-Vikings story about which the pitch is alluring but vague. The Kickstarter has been funded, and is meeting further stretch goals by the day. For anyone who likes narrative of objects pieces, single-player ARG-like experiences, or feelies — especially feelies — this is likely to awaken covetous impulses.

The Company is mysterious even in its correspondence, so I don’t actually know who runs the business, but someone called the Curator was kind enough to answer my questions about storytelling in their particular format.

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Tell me about the kinds of storytelling that are possible with objects that would be harder to do any other way. What are the strengths of your particular medium?

Storytelling is universal, whether it be oral, written, or performance. However, with some notable exceptions, becoming truly immersed in a story is difficult. You may relate to the characters, or be taken by the narrative, but you are observing what is happening to others, not participating yourself. The advent of video games has provided new and wonderful ways to tell stories, whilst placing the player in the role of the protaganist, and that is a large step toward creating immersion, but there is a significant missing element: physicality.

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So You Want to Write IF: A Party Game for LudoLunch

LudoLunch was a game designers’ picnic lunch held in Christchurch Meadow yesterday by Simon Roth, Nia Wearn, and compatriots. (Edited to add Nia — apologies for leaving her out initially, as I hadn’t realized she was co-organizer here.)

Simon asked if I would talk about interactive fiction, and it only really hit me after I accepted that the parameters of a family picnic ruled out most of the kinds of intro IF talk I usually give. We wouldn’t have computers or projection screens or wifi, so I couldn’t teach Twine or inklewriter or Inform. I couldn’t run Lost Pig or Aisle, or do a slideshow overview of recent or canonical IF. Even some non-techy options were out too: it can be fun playing through good paper CYOA books in a small group, taking turns reading passages aloud, but that’s more a 2-6 person activity, and ideally done someplace quiet enough that no one has to shout. Besides, I wanted to communicate something about the diversity of current IF and the appeal of creating it. This was a dev crowd, after all.

Finally, this was a family event including small kids, which meant a) attention spans were likely to be shorter and b) it wasn’t the ideal place to do a presentation on, say, Horse Master, or queer sexualities in interactive fiction, or IF explorations of the problems with late-stage capitalism.

Below is what I came up with: a casual party game meant to give a partial taste of what IF writing involves, and hint at the diversity of IF games out there in the world, while being as flexible as possible about the audience size and composition.

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Tightening the World-Plot Interface: or, Why I Am Obsessed With Conversation Models

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Framed is an interactive comic game in which you move around the panels of the story, reordering events in order to change what happens in the story. It looks really attractive, too.

Forgetting is a graphic novel with CYOA-style branching when you click on certain panels.

Forgetting is a graphic novel with CYOA-style branching when you click on certain panels.

When I first heard of this game, I was hugely excited about it. There aren’t that many entries in the interactive comic space, and this seemed to offer a slightly different set of mechanics to go alongside Dan Benmergui’s (unfinished but, to judge by the demos, awesome) Storyteller or Troy Chin’s Forgetting or the somewhat over-difficult Strip ‘Em All.

When I actually played Framed, though, I had essentially the same reaction described at The Digital Reader:

While Framed is based on a clever dynamic, the actual game is repetitive to the point that I am bored… Rather than have the user solve puzzles with different goals and different solutions, the vast majority of the levels I played all had the same goal: avoid the cops. Other than setting things up so the protagonist can either bypass cops or sneak up behind cops and hit them over the head, there’s not much to this game.

I’m maybe a little less harsh than this — I did feel that Framed was worth playing, and I know that some people did enjoy the puzzles — but nonetheless, I was hoping for something that did new work in telling an interactive story, rather than just setting up a bunch of puzzle levels. In that area it fell short. All of the puzzles are about a similar problem — one set of characters escaping another — and the stakes don’t alter much either. This makes for boring story.

The problem occurs at the world model-to-plot interface. That’s a challenging area for parser IF, too — and indeed for any game in which the player cannot influence the plot directly, but has to change the world model in order to move forward. Choice-based games vary in this regard, but probably more of them are of the directly-influence-plot variety than of the indirect-influence variety.

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