Twine Gardening

I haven’t published much in Twine on IFDB, but I actually use it a great deal: it’s become a prototyping tool of first resort for a wide range of professional projects, the format in which I deliver content to be converted into some other final presentation. A not-trivial amount of pro-level game story prototyping happens in Twine these days.

Which reminds me to mention that Chris Klimas has a Patreon for Twine maintenance and development, and it would be great to see that get some more support. Twine is usefully free to creators who might not be able to afford it, and long may it remain so — but I use it for industry purposes, so I pay for mine. (He’s also reachable via Unmapped Path, and has developed an engine to bring Twine pieces to mobile.)

One of the most characteristic things about writing in Twine is the business of curating the narrative map. Twine generates this map automatically, making a new passage for content every time you create a link that doesn’t refer to an existing passage, and placing that box somewhere near the originating passage. Which is fine, to a point, but very soon several things happen.

  1. performance drags and Twine takes its own sweet time inserting the box
  2. Twine’s idea of where to auto-place the box doesn’t correspond to my idea of how the contents should be visually arranged
  3. I can never zoom out as far as I want to, because even the smallest-box depiction of the Twine map doesn’t show me the whole monstrosity I’m working on

A really large portion of my time working in Twine consists of clicking back to the map view and dragging boxes around to better convey the story structure I have in mind. Pruning. Gardening. Rebalancing. Trying to make clusters of content stick together and make critical moments visible at a glance. Structuring so that I can recognize certain standard mini-structures.

For instance, both of these passages belong to a narrative that is, at the large scale, a standard branch-and-bottleneck, but the lower-level structure is actually very different:

The first diagram describes an “are you really sure you want to commit to this disaster” sequence: if the player heads down the left-hand path, they have several opportunities to opt out and rejoin the main storyline; but past a certain point, they’ve lost the game and are committed to a losing epilogue. And then, if the player survives that and traverses to the lower right portion of the diagram, there’s a big delayed-branching result with many different outcomes customized to what the player’s done so far: a narrative payoff for earlier choices. There’s some clustering to those delayed-branch results, which the diagram also tries to convey.

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ECTOCOMP 2016

Ectocomp is a yearly competition for Halloween-themed IF. There are two subsections, one for games that were written in three hours or less, and one for authors who wanted to take longer. That three hour rule gives a sense of the casualness level of this competition: it’s kind of a mental break from the much heavier-duty, on-going IF Comp. Still, there’s quite a lot in this year’s competition — 16 entries in the speed-IF category, and 5 in the unlimited-time category.

A couple of highlights from the things I’ve had time to try so far:

psychomanteumPsychomanteum (Hanon Ondricek)

On a dare, you are forced to spend some time alone in a dark room with mirrors. Which should not be inherently horrible, right? Besides, you have matches, and a safeword. But I’ll say this: I wound up having the protagonist use the safeword the first time through, because I was pretty sure they were too freaked out to stay and see how much worse things were going to get. Then I went back and played it to the other ending. An unnerving experiential game. It’s not exactly puzzle-y, but the parser aspect of it works really well, because there were several points where I wasn’t sure whether to WAIT or try to take an action, and that ambiguity is spot-on for the content. If you can, play with the sound on: the soundtrack also helps a lot.

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Spring Thing 2016: Ms. Lojka, Tangaroa Deep, Sisters of Claro Largo

I’ve been playing more of the games from this year’s Spring Thing. (You too can play! And vote! And review, if you wish!)

lojkacoverMs. Lojka is a horror Twine about a beastly supernatural killer in New York City, with some references to Babel and Rasputin, backed by some (I thought) rather effective illustrations, as well as whispery sound effects and music. Meanwhile, the text appears on the screen as though typed. I typically find that effect annoying and slow, and Ms. Lojka was not quite an exception, but it does use the interesting conceit that the narrator’s typing becomes more error-prone as the story goes on and they become less stable. At the end, it wound up in a loop of repeating text that I couldn’t seem to stop, which was narratively appropriate, so I assume that is the intended ending; but it’s just possible there’s an alternative outcome.

I didn’t respond as much to the content as to the presentational effort. Ms. Lojka mingles hints of mental illness and supernatural or mystical powers, and it finds some creepy images to express those ideas, but ultimately felt like a combination of fairly standard tropes to me.

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Spring Thing 2016: Evita Sempai, Harmonic Time-Bind Ritual Symphony, and Standoff

Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 10.28.52 AM

The 17 IF games of Spring Thing 2016 are now available! This is a huge crop: historically Spring Thing has tended to have entry numbers in the single digits. I’m delighted to see it, because I think it’s useful having other events that at least somewhat rival IF Comp in size and attention. The trend towards diversity continues as well: there are a mix of Twine and Inform games, but also Ren’Py, a homebrew HTML/javascript game, and a pen-and-paper RPG submission.

So far I’ve had time to look at Evita Sempai, Harmonic Time-Bind Ritual Symphony, and Standoff.

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Readerly Experiments in Narrative Form

Sometimes people write to me asking for suggested lists of interactive fiction that fit particular criteria. When that happens, I like to publish the results to my blog rather than just answer by email — both in order to establish a resource for other people in the future, and in case commenters here have additional thoughts that might be useful.

Yesterday I was on a panel that included Richard Beard. He is an author of novels (including the OuLiPian Damascus, which constrained itself to use no words not in a specific issue of the Times) and nonfiction, as well as a contributor to PAPERCUT, an enhanced ebook app. Today he wrote to me for suggested IF — perhaps prompted by my vehement assertion during the panel that there’s lots of interactive fiction that is not simply an enhancement of a pre-existing static text:

I’m particularly interested in any experience that is excitingly different from reading a book, but still recognisable as reading (rather than, say, wordy gaming). This would seem to mean experiments with narrative, with new ways of enfolding form and content and new ways of enlivening conventional storytelling techniques.

“Recognisable as reading rather than wordy gaming” seems to me to exclude parser-based works, since those require typed input: probably not a “reading” activity. Otherwise I would include last year’s Map and Midnight. Swordfight., both of which are certainly experimenting with allowing a plot to be radically reshaped (but within a predictable system) by the reader’s actions. I’d also mention Analogue: A Hate Story for its compelling use of a database narrative structure; Lime Ergot for evoking the reader’s curiosity and telling its story through telescoping descriptions; What Fuwa Bansaku Found for its reweaving of translated Japanese poetry into a new story. Alethicorp‘s storytelling via a faux corporate website probably also includes too many non-reading actions.

The request suggests that the writer might not be looking for something like 80 Days, which — though very much an experiment in narrative and remixable vignettes — bears enough game markers in terms of scores and goals that it might be off-putting to a readerly audience. Anything from StoryNexus is probably off the table, thanks to the card metaphor and overt mechanics. The emphasis on reading would also seem to exclude interactive film, interactive audio, and interactive comics.

Even the Choice of Games catalog — though almost purely textual — might seem too game-like, given that there are success and failure possibilities and some stats-tracking is expected if you want to get the best outcome. (Otherwise, as a first taste of CoG for someone interested in readerly merits, my picks would be The City’s Thirst for general prose quality and imagery, and Slammed! for its investment in its character arcs.)

And given the desire to actually try the works in question, I unfortunately also cannot suggest anything from the Versu project, since those apps are now unavailable.

So now that I’ve eliminated many many honorable mentions:

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Imaginary Game Jam

Imaginary Game Jam is an IF community project, run by Jason Dyer, in which participants first contributed reviews of imaginary, perhaps unwrite-able games — in some cases games that plainly require technology we don’t have, or belong to a universe we don’t live in. These reviews were swapped, and then people wrote… something… to correspond with an imaginary game review they’d received.

Structurally this is a bit like ShuffleComps 1 and 2, in which authors wrote games around tracks of music selected by other participants — only way weirder. Sam Ashwell’s game reviews from Tlön were an inspiration here — indeed, one of those reviews (Fire Next Time) was submitted and used in this jam. (See also Speed-IF Jacket for a shorter, less serious take on this idea; for the reason why these posts refer to “Tlön”, see Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.)

The games created for the Imaginary Game Jam have now been released, along with the reviews that inspired them. They are fairly extraordinary. Continue reading