Writing for Varytale

As mentioned in a previous post, Varytale is a platform for interactive stories. It’s put together by Ian Millington, the same person who created the Undum tool, but Varytale goes quite a bit further.

Writing Tools

Undum provides a slick front-end and a way to build a few choices and otherwise leaves everything up to the author (hey, you don’t mind learning some javascript to code your story, do you?). It’s been used for a couple of neat IF works, including Deirdra Kiai’s 3rd-place Comp 2011 winner The Play and Andrew Plotkin’s The Matter of the Monster.

By contrast Varytale comes with a complete authoring tool; a website where books are showcased and attractively presented online; the capacity (eventually) to use one of several payment schemes to charge for content; and feedback and statistics tools that allow the author to collect ratings and comments on content, and to see which story choices are especially popular or unpopular. These tools require vastly less coding than traditional interactive fiction, but they do allow for world state and player stats-tracking. (Some time back, I described why CYOA without world state is a bit too restrictive for most of what I want to write.)

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Varytale Analytics

So Bee has been out for a couple of days now in reader beta, and my analytics page overflows.

The Varytale system includes a mechanism by which readers can rate and comment on any individual piece of the story as they go along, giving a one to five star ranking and displaying the average of those ranks as the book’s quality score. The commenting part is well-hidden and of course requires more effort on the part of the reader — I’ve gotten only a handful of comments, mostly to inform me of localized typos or bugs — but the ratings part is almost intrusively prominent.

As a reader, I’m not sure how I feel about being asked to grade what I just read every few paragraphs, so I haven’t actually had the nerve to grade anyone else’s Varytale books; and for that matter even just being asked, “hey, how did you like that?” so frequently relentlessly draws my attention back to an evaluative process when I might prefer simply to experience the story for the time being.

So I have mixed feelings about it as a reader, but it’s the authorial perspective I want to mostly talk about here.

As an author, you get a big chart that ranks all of the ratings of all of your storylets. Analytics results also break down further details about how many people chose each of the several paths through a branching storylet, in what order, and so on. You can see exactly how many people read each storylet, and on which dates. There’s no way to tell for sure when a given reader stopped reading your book, because in theory they could just not have finished it yet, but lots and lots of other metrics are visible.

This is the first time I’ve been able to collect that kind or level of feedback on any of my work, and I am morbidly fascinated. I’m going to show the top and bottom ends of the chart for Bee, which will necessarily be just a tiny bit spoilery for the names of sections in the story.

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Bee out in Varytale Reader’s Beta

Varytale is a platform for interactive stories that fall somewhere on the spectrum between stateful CYOA (like Choice of Games) and quality-based narrative (like Echo Bazaar).

As you can see from the screenshot, the experience is intentionally booklike and lushly textured. Varytale borrows or improves on the attractive qualities of Undum. There are visible stats if the author wants them (or else not). Choices can appear as links embedded in the text or a list of options immediately following it. You can keep track of your place in a book with one or several bookmark ribbons, which grow longer over the cover of your book the more you’ve read.

Currently the reader’s beta offers access to four official books:

I haven’t gotten very deeply into Fighting yet, but How to Read is a tidy, brief introduction to how to use Varytale and is likely also to be interesting to anyone thinking of writing Varytale books in the future. Hymn and Shanty is more like interactive poetry, allowing the player to choose stanzas to add to a song. There’s also a growing collection of reader-submitted stories.

Bee is a new work of mine, written for Varytale: it’s the story of a home-schooled girl preparing to compete in the national spelling bee, dealing with various small crises with family and friends, and gradually coming to terms with the clash of subcultures involved in belonging to a family like hers.

Bee is not reviewed anywhere that I know of (unsurprising given it’s only just out), though one reader had this to say:

It’s fascinating to me, how the family dynamics and cultural dynamics–and the growth of the main character–weave in and out with the concentration on learning how to spell strange and unusual words. The protagonist has a distinct personality, but the choices she (well, you) make are constrained and opened both by earlier choices, and cultural indoctrination, and all sorts of other things. And it often comes back to spelling: as a concentration tool, a mode of defiance against parents, a meditation on spiritual matters.

If you heard about the Varytale beta before now and went to have a look, you may have encountered a version that was action-metered so that you could only play a few steps at a time. I don’t feel like that was perfect fit for the book. The platform has been revised so that it’s now possible to remove that requirement, and I’ve done so; if you want to read Bee in pieces, that’s still possible, but you can also go straight through if you want. (Though the screenshot includes a bit about “Credits”, Bee is currently free and requires no purchase.)

There’s quite a bit to say about the Varytale authoring tools as well: unlike its predecessor Undum, Varytale offers a fairly significant set of tools for putting a book together. But I’ll save that for another post.

Edited to add: some additional comments on Metafilter, Free Indie Games, IFDB review, Gamespite thread.