Thursday, April 10, 2014

Spring Thing '14 Games Released

I'm happy to announce that ten new playable stories are now available to discover in this year's Spring Thing competition for interactive fiction.

The Spring Thing (or Fall Fooferall, depending on which hemisphere you're in) was started in 2002 by Adam Cadre as an alternative to the main annual IF Competition, held in the fall (or spring; see above). It was envisioned as a space where longer works could flourish (the main comp requires judges to stop playing after two hours) with a focus on more polished games (a small entry fee and the need to declare an entry intent well in advance discourage last-minute or unfinished entries).

This year's competition features ten entries in seven formats (including z-code, Glulx, Twine, Quest, Alan, the online platform, and HTML), attesting to the wide diversity of ways people are telling interactive stories with text these days.

Anyone can vote in the competition, although judges are required to play at least half of the entries. The voting period lasts until May 11th, giving you plenty of time to dig in.


Saturday, March 15, 2014


Things are happening! All kinds of things!

I'll be at the Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco for a few days next week, mostly to help out my fellow slug Deirdra "Squinky" Kiai with their multiple IGF-nominated game Dominique Pamplemousse (now available on Steam!). Look for us at the IGF pavilion on Wednesday.

An interactive story folks meetup is slowly coalescing, too, probably a Thursday lunch--- if you're interested in coming, let me know and I'll add you to the list.

My own IGF-lauded game, 18 Cadence (which received a Nuovo Honorable Mention alongside such excellent things as DEVICE 6), has gotten some other flattering attention this year: the prestigious book review group Kirkus picked it as one of the Best Book Apps of 2013, it made several best-of lists, including Porpentine's Best of 2013: Interactive Fiction, and was just nominated for XYZZY awards for Best Use of Innovation and Best Supplemental Materials. Glad to see this quirky little thing connected with people.

In honor of IGF next week, and because I want a new pair of pants, 18 Cadence for iPad is on sale for 99 cents through Sunday. (If you don't have an iPad, but still think I should have pants, consider purchasing a piece of fictional history at the 18 Cadence Estate Sale.)

Spring Thing, a long-running annual IF competition which I am now organizing, recently closed its "intent to enter" period for the 2014 competition with a healthy crop of submitted games. Authors now have until April 9th to finish their entries, which should be released to the public shortly thereafter.

My inestimable collaborator Jacob Garbe and I have been hard at work since last summer on a really unique new interactive story project, Ice-Bound. You'll start hearing more about this soon, as we get closer to finished, but it combines augmented reality, a printed art book, dynamic story assembly techniques, and deep conversation with an intriguing central character. You can sign up to be notified about the release on the website, or follow @TethysHouse on Twitter.

Finally, I just completed a significant academic milestone: advancing to PhD candidacy at UC Santa Cruz. This signifies the completion of my coursework and start of my research (although I've really been doing both all along). My advancement proposal was titled "A Design Strategy for Dynamically Expressive Storygames," and I'll hopefully be writing more about it here in the coming months.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Announcing the Spring Thing 2014 competition for interactive fiction!

The Spring Thing is an annual interactive fiction competition (no, not that one!) with a focus on longer, more polished projects. There are typically lots of cash prizes and relatively few entrants, something which helped inspired me to first release some of my games there, including Whom the Telling Changed (I won!) and Blue Lacuna (I lost!). After nine years of heroic work managing the comp, Greg Boettcher is stepping down, and I'm pleased to announce that I'm taking over as organizer.

Entries aren't due until spring 2014 (or fall 2014, if you're in the southern hemisphere) but if you've got a work in progress, consider entering it in the Thing. (If you don't, prize donations of all sorts are always welcome!) To find out more about how to enter, donate, judge, or play, visit the 2014 competition page at:

Sunday, June 9, 2013

What I'm Reviewing: howling dogs, Guilded Youth, Counterfeit Monkey, and First Draft of the Revolution

The IF community's annual XYZZY awards are now accompanied by a set of official reviews by a great selection of thoughtful and informed members of the community. Especially since the XYZZYs have become more inclusive to different types of interactive stories over the past few years, this is really a lovely resource to have available. My reviews of the games nominated for Best Use of Innovation have just gone up. It was a challenge to write about a set of such well-crafted (and already extensively reviewed) games, but I hope I've been able to offer a useful perspective.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Césure, Lumiere, and other hits of pure exploration

Dark rocky slopes tumble through empty spaces and dim red glow, connected by twisted fragments of catwalks and girders. Gravity seems to work different here, and light. Huge shells rotate slowly in the dim periphery, beyond a lake of black water; and farther still into the dimness, an uneven plane strewn with vector-sketched boulders. Peristaltic gurglings, distant bells, and a deep, resonant droning fill your ears as you explore. In Césure (Orihaus, 2013) exploring this strange shadowed place is all you can do.

Exploration has always been a key component of games with simulated spaces, with a lineage reaching from contemporary games like Journey and Minecraft back through Myst, Adventure and even earlier. Given a bounded space (a cave; an island) and a narrative pretext for being there (no matter how flimsy), you explore, often uncovering backstory and overcoming obstacles along the way. But one strand of experimental games of late has been to strip that concept to its bones, zeroing in on the core mechanic of moving through an unfamiliar space and discovering what's there. We might trace this trend most clearly through Dear Esther (Dan Pinchbeck, 2008), which controversially removed the gameplay elements from an island exploration, and then to Proteus (Ed Key and David Kanaga, 2011) which (also controversially) took away most of the story, too. While this concept isn't entirely new---the much-missed IF Art Show had categories for playable portraits and landscapes, with entries like The Fire Tower (Jacqueline Lott, 2004) about simply hiking a trail through wilderness---the thriving world of low-cost artisan games engendered by frequent public competitions such as Ludum Dare, and the easy availability of tools like Unity for building virtual spaces, has helped spur interest in this new type of storyless not-game: the first person explorer, characterized by richly detailed simulations of space that deprive the player of any verb but movement (and, sometimes, a nearly vestigial jump).

Many pieces position themselves on the edge of this space without quite letting go entirely. In March (Felix Park, 2012), an experiment in "implying narrative through spaces," the player moves through a series of abstract environments while encountering story text about the evolution of a relationship. The environmental obstacles (difficult jumps, long spiraling pathways, ascents and descents) mirror the ups and downs of the narrator and his girlfriend. Towards the Light (Peter Gardner, 2012) traps you deep in a pitch-black cave, your only source of light (and hope of escape) seven short-lived flares. To find your way out you'll need to replay several times, carefully planning your use of each flare, absorbing enough about the cave's topography to navigate at least some of it in the dark and position yourself carefully for your next brief burst of fleeting light. Exploration is clearly central to both pieces, with a sprinkling of story (in March) or gameplay (in Light) providing motivation for play. Perhaps unsurprisingly, March is longer and less replayable (like many stories), while Light is shorter and requires replay (like many games): as these two pieces reach towards each other across a center with neither game nor story, they exhibit patterns common to the terrain they're threatening to abandon. But this blog is about story in games: what can we say about experiences that supposedly have neither?

Césure, with its brooding, twisted spaces, feels oddly like a narrative game as I play it, perhaps only residually through association with other first-person experiences. It certainly evokes a strong mood, partially through its complex, layered audio, partially through spare, abstract visuals, but critically also through the mechanic of exploration itself. Exploration suggests an atom of narrative: if I'm exploring, I must be an explorer, and if I'm an explorer I'm probably somewhere far from home. That sensation, of being somewhere strange, invites a chorus of other emotions: is this place safe or scary? Is some treasure or breathtaking vista just around the next corner? Will I find something here that made the journey worthwhile? This is primal, even primeval stuff, predating story or even humanity, exploring a different part of the lizard brain than the fight or flight reflex of a shooter or the drawn-out tension and adrenalin spikes of survival horror. It's mystery, sublimed into its purest form.

Perhaps we can't help but narrativize that sensation. In Césure I try to make sense of this space and why I'm in it (the rocky shapes and low gravity imply an outer space setting: is this some sort of asteroid? Who put these catwalks here, and if I'm supposed to walk on them why do they keep twisting into nothingness and folding in on themselves?) Despite the lack of any ludic danger I feel afraid: this place with its red lights, sudden dropoffs, and oppressive darkness is clearly not safe.

Césure provides only the simplest iconography with which to construct an implied story: water, heat, metal, flickering light. Lumiere (2013), by the same author, strips away even these minimal foundations. Drifting slowly in absolute silence through a weightless vista of whirling shapes, black-and-white angles, and distant lights, my reference points have become mere echoes of concrete things, an abstract poem rendered somehow to geometry. The experience is either curiously compelling, or boring, depending on who you ask. Most first person explorers trend the opposite direction. Proteus throws a few bones towards setting and story, its island filled with alien but recognizable flora and fauna, hints of civilization in abandoned towers and statues on distant hills, the rings and lines of standing stones responding to your presence in consistent ways that are vague but interpretable. Farther along this spectrum is something like Stephen Lavelle's overwhelming Slave of God (2012), which presents an at-first entirely disorienting cacophony of swirling lights and sounds that resolves, through exploration, into a recognizable setting and plot.

Slave of God
On the other hand, maybe the first person explorer is better understood not as narrative but as art installation or symphonic interlude: something designed to impart a mood, not tell a story. In Ruins (Tom Betts, 2012) is an "experimental, ambient game examining the procedural construction of space." Each time you play you appear in a different, randomly generated world, but these worlds are all of a piece: islands filled with sprawling, dilapidated towers and stairways, abandoned courtyards, and beacons of light reaching up towards the sky. The piece has hints of both narrative and ludic content (getting to each beacon reveals a snippet of philosophy from Lucretius; finding all of them unlocks access to the generative controls) but these elements do not seem critical to the core experience ("inspired by artistic interpretations of the sublime," says the author) of exploring the abandoned ruins. As I wander the overgrown alleys between these crumbling towers I get a sense of faded grandeur, a wistfulness: I think about the inevitability of collapse, and things left behind. Maybe these spaces don't need stories to fill them: as if plunged into a narrative deprivation tank, my imagination merely flickers through shadows of story to fill an unexpected emptiness. Maybe I should just be here instead.

In Ruins
That's not enough for most gamers, perhaps, or for someone who just wants to find a good story. But there's value in isolating and investigating the essence of an experience. I treasure my visits to these places, and I'll remember some of my expeditions with as much clarity as my real-world explorations. How these projects achieved that result is something a lot of more overdesigned games might want to study up on.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Some Favorite Cadences

My interactive story/storymaking kit 18 Cadence has been out for a few weeks now, and people have made well over a hundred stories with it so far. Fellow creator of intriguing experienceJacob Garbe has started calling these stories "cadences" (as in "I made a crazy new cadence today," or "Whoever made that cadence must have been so high"). I'd like to share a few cadences here that I've particularly enjoyed.

#181 juxtaposes moments of tragedy against a moment where someone returns to the house to try to make peace.

#187 overlaps dozens of actions and objects related to food and cooking, creating a blurred sensation of the thousands and thousand of meals cooked in the kitchen of any long-standing house.

#207, made, it seems, on a rather large monitor, gives the focus to long tableaus describing scenes in various eras, the actions and people taking only secondary roles.

#240 repurposes moments from several places to create a new story, possibly about loneliness, possibly about obsession-compulsion disorder.

#216 collects mentions of people named Emily throughout the house's history, perhaps part of an investigation into why this name seems to recur so often.

#190 simply charts the growth, maturation, and decline of the oak tree in the front yard.

#200 and #225 overlay text fragments to create a surreal space where objects seem to take actions and descriptions twist in surprising directions.

#193 is a poetic character study of Rose and her relationship to her daughter Catherine.

I love that people are making experiments and sharing stories with each other: saying "look what I found," exploring ideas, repurposing content, and remixing ideas in surprising and creative ways. It's exactly what I hoped would happen. Please keep sharing your cadences! The Options : Share button lets you easily make a post to Facebook, and also gives you a link you can share on Twitter or anywhere else. Options : Browse lets you explore what others have made.

(Finally, if you've had fun with the web version of 18 Cadence, you might consider checking out the Estate Sale, which lets you virtually purchase an object from the house's history. Your donations on this page help me pay app developer fees and encourage me to keep working on crazy projects like this one.)

Friday, April 19, 2013

What I'm Playing: Winterstrike (and some thoughts on the StoryNexus platform)

Winterstrike, by Yoon Ha Lee
Winterstrike, by Yoon Ha Lee, is the first StoryNexus game I've found both compelling and finite enough to play through to a conclusion. This is less a criticism than it sounds: designed originally for Echo Bazaar (now Fallen London), a sprawling MMO-style world without (as far as I know) an ending, the system has only recently opened up to third-party authors, who are still feeling out what kinds of stories it can tell. As a platform I find StoryNexus intriguing, but I've had a hard time staying engaged with most of the stories I've tried for it for long enough to complete them. Winterstrike was an exception, and I'd like to work through why below.

In this world (which is what Failbetter Games calls its creations), you begin as a survivor of the winterstrike, an at-first vaguely specified calamity that's struck the city of Iria, part of a far-reaching galactic empire. The winterstrike has brought on a deep, charmed winter and also cut the planet off from all interstellar travel. Both your character and the city are struggling to remake their identities in a new world that's colder and stranger than it was before. In the process you can ally with or antagonize four factions, interact with a smattering of intriguing characters, and befriend a curious creature called the ironbird with secrets of its own. The writing is beautifully evocative, akin to some of the richly textured worldbuilding of Delany or Miéville, and the piece has a sound narrative structure, building towards a climax shaped by your actions and dramatically justified by them. Yoon Ha Lee has previously written both fiction and interactive fiction, and that experience shows in this piece: it feels more polished and put-together than most works of this sort. There's apparently about a novel's worth of total content: it took me a few weeks of casual play to traverse the story to an ending.

Some of Winterstrike's qualities include Spark of Camaraderie,
Dubious Omen, and The Ironbird's Regard, in addition to the primary
attribute-like qualities of Force, Finesse, Resolve, and Ice.
To discuss the work, it's important to understand how the StoryNexus platform works. More details are available elsewhere, but in brief: your character is defined by a set of author-specified numerical qualities representing aspects of that character which change over the course of the story (ability scores, insanity level, treasure, progress through a plotline; anything variable). You spend action points to draw from decks of event cards, where each card presents a situation and several possible ways your character might react to it. Interactions may be gated by or tested against some of your qualities, but almost any interaction will also change them: so one common pattern is that failure raises an ability quality, while success raises a treasure quality. Advancing the plot involves improving your qualities towards a threshold that unlocks new cards, decks, or options. Action points regenerate over time, usually with a fairly small cap, encouraging play in small chunks of five to ten minutes spread out across several weeks or months. Finally, players can spend real-world money to unlock additional story options or raise the action point cap and progress through the story more quickly.

As a platform for interactive stories, StoryNexus falls in an interesting middle space of complexity between hypertext-plus systems like inklewriter or ChoiceScript, and systems with more complex world or social models like Inform 7 or Versu. There's a nice match between a wide expressive space for authors (what qualities a given world needs, how linear or open-ended a structure to create, how many cards and decks to offer) and a high degree of local agency for players (who can choose which card to play next, when to discard/redraw, what qualities to try to improve, and how to roleplay their character through the given choices). At its best, the system taps into the success of open-world games like Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto, where you're given a goal (acquire 500 gold pieces) but have an open-ended set of ways to meet that goal (steal? work? loot corpses? of monsters or townsfolk?) that allow you to explore the world and perform as your character, rather than selecting solutions from a list or struggling to guess a predetermined puzzle solution.

However, some of the dynamics that emerge from the StoryNexus foundations make it hard for me to sustain interest in most of its story worlds. I played quite a bit of both Echo Bazaar and, a few years later, Fallen London (with a different character) but the interesting mid- and end-game content I've heard about always seemed distressingly difficult to get to, requiring my qualities to get to levels that seemed higher than I'd ever be able to reach in casual play. I enjoyed The Night Circus for a few days (and read the book which inspired it) although the mechanics here are stripped down enough that much of the interesting complexity is lost; and I tried both the Kickstarted The Silver Tree and the French-revolution tale Cabinet Noir, but had a hard time staying engaged with either. Thinking back on my experiences with these worlds, a couple common sticking points emerge:

It's often hard to predict the effects of choices on qualities. Frequently you're trying to acquire a certain amount of a quality to advance, but it can be unclear where you might find it, in a possibility space that can be both large and hard to control (the random drawing of event cards). At times this makes the whole system feel unpleasantly like a giant game of Memory, where I'm trying to mentally juggle that, oh yes, if the Summer Carnival card comes up, whispering to the juggler will get me more Sparkling Cider, but yelling at the barker will make me lose Intriguing Secrets, which I need for some other thing: the large number of cards and qualities can make this almost impossible to keep track of.

Most StoryNexus games require you to play the same cards many times to raise your qualities high enough to advance. This means a good card must be written in such a way that it feels like a generic event that could be plausibly repeated, rather than the specific event you'd expect in a linear narrative. Fallen London actually does an admirably solid job at this, but other StoryNexus titles are less consistent, sometimes producing a surreal, Groundhog Day effect where plot points keep repeating over and over again, and narrative continuity feels broken. When this happens, you inevitable start disengaging from the narrative and treating the world like a game, and without the narrative there's not enough intentional gameplay in the system to sustain interest. (The failure of Legends of Zork, which had similar underyling mechanics but much less focus on story content, might be attributable to this effect.)

The randomness and lack of high-level, first-order structures makes it harder to create a compelling narrative arc. The creators acknowledge this limitation, calling their approach a "fires in the desert" style of storymaking: they provide interesting individual moments but leave filling in the spaces between them and building an overall story arc to the player ("we provide the shots, the player does the arrangement," is how Failbetter characterizes this). Authors can create their own mechanisms to structure story progression, but the core mechanic of random cards from a deck means StoryNexus games will always be fundamentally about a series of disconnected events that happen in a random order, which limits the kinds of stories the system can effectively tell.

Playing in small intervals makes it hard to stay immersed in the fiction, especially in stories where keeping a large number of factions, characters, and qualities straight is important. There's probably a reason we consume most kinds of stories in longer intervals than this: it takes work to load a fictional universe into  your head, and once you've done it you want to stay there for a while. In most StoryNexus worlds, I feel I don't get enough continuity within a single session to keep the thread from day to day of what's going on and what I'm trying to accomplish.

Because the story state is server-based, there's no way to save your game or take back a move, so it's hard to experiment and impossible to correct a mistaken click. This is a more minor frustration, but can have serious narrative consequences: the ending I got in Winterstrike came about largely because of a mistaken click that undid a lot of progress towards the goal I was originally aiming for.

Finally, it's hard to discuss StoryNexus without bringing up the monetization model: games are free to play, but structurally encourage (through grinding and action capping) the purchase of "nex," a cross-world currency that can unlock more (better?) content and often significantly reduce the amount of grinding required. I have mixed feelings about nex. It encourages players to reward authors directly for interesting content, and the carnival ticket model (a handful of coins! places everywhere to spend them!) creates a unique bazaar-style approach to paying for story content that I want to like more. It's an interesting experiment, but it also feels fundamentally uncomfortable to me to have financial decisions constantly intruding on my narrative experience, as if Spielberg kept nudging me during Jurassic Park and saying I could see a good bit with raptors now if I gave him a dollar. My perception that nex doesn't seem to go very far probably exacerbates this effect: most individual opportunities to spend it work out to around a dollar of real-world money, which feels like more than an impulse buy for a paragraph of story and some minutes saved from grinding. While I felt Winterstrike was well worth the $10 I spent to nudge it along towards an ending, I second-guessed myself a lot about when and where to spend my precious nex, which made me feel miserly and stressed rather than more engaged. (Fallen London's model of paying for a month with a higher action cap felt like a better deal.)

So, all this grousing aside, why did Winterstrike work better for me than other StoryNexus worlds? I think several subtle design decisions helped minimize the dynamics I dislike, while taking advantage of the strengths of the system. First, the story's premise lends itself well to the freewheeling, exploratory structure the platform pushes you towards. Your character has been uprooted from an old life and is trying to explore and make a name in a new world. (Fallen London has a similar structure, but I think the tighter scope of Winterstrike makes it work even better here: you can assemble a coherent picture of a smaller world more rapidly than with the sprawling, overwhelming flood of backstory in the larger piece.) The writing itself also feels infused with this structure, tiny intriguing details slowly building into a picture of a shattered society: sad, mysterious, beautiful.
Treading quietly, you make your way around the side of the crumpled starship toward the noise. You see what it is soon enough: someone's robot, probably five steps down from sentience, using a laser to scorch a word over and over into the hull. No, not quite a word, more of a pictograph: icicles, or perhaps teeth, splayed like great wings.
Lately you catch the ironbird dragging around gears, chipped crystals, fraying gloves, and trying to fit them together. ...You sometimes see a Ferocious Librarian for help researching the curiosities you discover around Iria, like the half-dolls that people leave at certain empty doorways. One day, however, when the fledgling is occupied unspiraling a wire, the Librarian takes you aside.
Winterstrike also uses qualities cleverly for worldbuilding: slowly increasing your "Memory of Far-Flung Stars," for instance, reinforces the loneliness of an exiled traveller. One of your central qualities is "Ice," which seems to correspond to how cold-hearted your character has become. Whether you should be trying to move this quality up or down is a complicated question with both gameplay and roleplay considerations that may change as you move through the story. This is something StoryNexus can do well: using game mechanics and story to reinforce each other, rather than awkwardly rub shoulders, and I felt it was done especially well here.

Winterstrike has a generous action cap of thirty instead of ten, which means your average play session is longer (closer to half an hour than ten minutes). I found this crucial for establishing enough narrative momentum to keep me engaged in the story long enough to complete it. I could often discover some interesting part of the world, work towards increasing my qualities to access it, and get a narrative payoff from doing so in a single session: Astrid Ensslin calls this "chaptering up" in an upcoming book on literary games, and I think that sensation of achieving a meaningful moment of narrative progression is as important in interactive fiction as anywhere else. Winterstrike also uses the concept of "pinned cards" to keep several plot arcs about recurring characters always accessible, giving players a little more control over the randomness of drawing from a deck. Along with clear labeling over which cards and choices would advance various plot arcs, I found myself able to make and execute plans in the story world with reasonable effectiveness.

My biggest difficulty with Winterstrike was that the story stalled out for me in the mid-game. Many of the actions I needed to take to advance were gated on qualities I couldn't figure out how to find more of. At times I would even lose a desired quality through what felt like arbitrary chance, since the side effects of trying various actions are not always clear. I ended up spinning my wheels for a number of days, not making much progress towards any goals. This presumably was an unintended effect, since my major qualities had advanced well beyond the levels they seemed expected to be at by this point; something about my play style or just bad luck may have made my progress more slow than usual. On the other hand, I did eventually buy some nex to gain the momentum necessary to finish the story, so maybe this stalling-out was by design. (If so, maybe the way StoryNexus worlds are marketed is a bit off: it feels to me like the pitch is "you can play this game for free, or spend money to unlock additional content" when perhaps it ought to be "You can preview this game for free, but you need to buy it to properly experience it.")

I think ultimately StoryNexus may be a system struggling with the conflicting goals of different types of story experiences. A sprawling world like Fallen London contains stories, but is not itself a story: like an MMO, it's designed to never end, but keep delivering "small, delicious chunks that you can read in your coffee break" (Failbetter's description) as long as a player is willing to keep returning. In contrast, a specific story (or tightly coupled set of story permutations) like Winterstrike has a much different goal: to begin, move you through a series of events building towards a dramatically satisfying conclusion, and then end, the protagonist's story having reached a conclusion. The needs of these two types of experiences are at times directly contradictory to one another (stories want to end; story worlds want to last forever) so perhaps it's awkward to try to build a single model for both kinds of experiences. (Or maybe there's an interesting middle ground: Winterstrike acts a bit like a story world through its middle section before things start to build towards the endgame. Is there a space for a story that's designed to last exactly as long as you're interested in it?)

Criticisms aside, StoryNexus is certainly one of the more intriguing systems for authoring interactive stories available right now, and Winterstrike one of the more intriguing worlds created with it. At some point I'd really like to create my own StoryNexus world and get a more hands-on take on the system's strengths and weaknesses. In the meantime, there's plenty to catch up on, and I hope much more to come.