Aaron Reed on Best Use of Innovation 2012

Aaron Reed writes on howling dogs, First Draft of the Revolution, Guilded Youth and Counterfeit Monkey.

howling dogs, by Porpentine

Articulating the innovation in howling dogs is difficult, because while it’s clearly there, it’s not in the form of a clear blinding stroke but distributed through corners and edges, of the piece itself and also the context around it.

I could talk about the writing itself as innovation (Porpentine has quickly become one of my favorite writers making interactive content) but there are other categories for that. Suffice to say the game’s success, for me personally and probably at large, hinges in no small part on its words and the story they tell, about prisons of all kinds, the disturbing, shifting connections between death and free will and the social and sexual constructions we live within.

We might frame howling dogs as innovative symbolically, a representative of the Twine revolution. When trying to write about it I also want to write about the two dozen other Twine games I’ve read in the last year that also (and continually) surprise me about what such an apparently-simple medium can do. It’s embedded in that ongoing conversation and hard to extract from it. Many of the things it does other games did first or more clearly (and some of those were by Porpentine, too), but I don’t much care as I read it: they all seem in this together. My preconceptions about hypertext-like interactive stories have continually been challenged by these works, and howling dogs especially tweaked my lazy stereotype that link-based fictions can be read lazily, just clicking through without needing to comprehend the world underlying the links, the way IF requires understanding to proceed. You can play dogs through blind clicking, sure, but it invites you, subtly but frequently, to pay more attention: through the unlabeled counter on the wall of your cell, through the unexplained relationship between the VR segments, left for you to connect; and most explicitly, through the elaborate endgame hidden behind a single word in a massive waterfall of links at a luxuriant festival. Nearly every link says only “How interesting!” when clicked: the one that yields is indistinguishable from the others in a normal web browser, identifiable only through noticing, on the story level, the one thing out of place– or, perhaps, by scrutinizing the source code which inevitably accompanies any Twine game, definitionally part of its textual labyrinth.

howling dogs has other structural innovation. Sentences stop mid-word, waiting for a click to finish the thought: a textual pacing mechanic. The sudden appearance of swaths of pixellated color to mark the transition between worlds provides an extratextual shock upon each appearance, a transition-to-Oz moment that effectively uses images to help tell a primarily textual story. The spatializing of words and letters themselves in one sequence to create the sensation of a shrinking space is another way the story productively flirts with the medium’s supposed walls. There are more moments like this: the blurred text that resolves into focus along with the narrator’s consciousness. The hidden ending in a form where hidden endings shouldn’t be possible. There’s also a playful relation between agency and frustration: whether the choices you’re offered are honored, scoffed at, significant, or useless, and sometimes whether you’re even offered them at all.

Ultimately, perhaps, the bit of innovation I find most resonant about dogs is how unexpectedly visible it’s become, in our community and the larger circles of indie games, mainstream games, and interactive art in general. Richard Hofmeier’s gesture at the IGF awards was a brave and brilliant implicit challenge (at least as I read it), externalizing what many of us have long wanted to say: Why aren’t more of you game designers making things like this? If this much innovation and passion can be found in as structurally simple a tool as Twine, why aren’t people who can tell stories with Inform 7, with Processing, with Unreal or Unity, making more personal stories, exploring more facets of the human condition? Many of us try, of course, and keep trying: but it’s great to have a new voice in a newly visible branch of the interactive story tree make that case so loudly this year, and so clearly.

First Draft of the Revolution, by Emily Short

(This review was originally posted at >TILT AT WINDMILLS, the reviewer’s blog.)

Emily Short’s First Draft of the Revolution is a unique digital fiction for the inkle platform told through a series of letters. Rather than control the main character or choose between branches of story, here the reader’s agency concerns how the characters choose to express themselves through their writing. The process of revision and the many small and large decisions (about how much detail to include, whether a certain phrasing goes too far or not far enough, what tone a sentence should take, and so on) reveal a deeper layer of the characters than is found purely in the text of the letters themselves. It’s a unique mechanic and a refreshing take on interactive text. The production of the app by Liza Daly is also beautiful and well-polished.

First Draft made me think about the difference between absolute and perceptual changes in interactive narratives. To explain I need to say a bit about the work’s structure. The story unfolds over a series of about twenty letters, each a seemingly self-contained unit, and the reader must alter a certain number of passages before being allowed to move on to the next letter. Previously completed letters cannot be altered. While some edits within a letter can be reversed, the majority cannot; and often, perhaps half the time, a passage provides only a single option rather than a choice between alternatives. At times this makes the experience come close to feeling on rails: in some letters you simply click to expand each section of text until most have been revealed and you can move to the next letter. In addition, while the project’s website implies certain choices can have an effect on subsequent letters in the web-based version, it wasn’t clear to me what that effect was. Inkle’s first release, Frankenstein, also seems to be based largely around choices that have no permanent effect on the story, focusing more on asking readers how they feel about or interpret what’s happening to the central characters.

So does it matter whether a reader’s choice has some concrete effect on an interactive story, or just that the choice is an interesting one to think about? I also recently played the first episode of The Walking Dead, which flashes notifications after certain choices indicating that they were important and will be remembered. This was pretty reassuring; it made me feel like I’d accomplished something, rather than just clicked through another consequence-free dialogue tree. The downsides of this technique are that it’s tricky to do without breaking the fourth wall; if kept honest, it can reveal how few choices actually have significance; and it implies choices that don’t change some variable in the game state aren’t important. I’m not sure this is true; in the best moments of First Draft, I certainly felt connected to the characters, and deciding how domineering a husband or how vicious a sister-in-law to be was a fun bit of role-playing. At the same time, the sequence where the main character needs to successfully forge a letter from her husband felt strangely flat when I realized there was no gameplay present; I couldn’t actually play — win or lose — the game of imitating the style established in earlier letters that was implied by the narrative. The edge here between gameplay versus story providing the driving interest in an interactive narrative was brought into relief in an interesting way, and I’m not sure there are any clear answers — but it’s great to have experiments like this to make us think about the questions.

Guilded Youth, by Jim Munroe

Making subtle but significant use of this year’s Technological Development winner, the Vorple library for making Javascript-powered IF front ends, Guilded Youth is a cozy nostalgia-steeped story about a handful of friends and the fuzzy boundaries between real and online social lives. Short, and firmly on its rather rigid rails (the piece was originally made for a time-constrained game jam), Youth is a little frustrating as a piece of interactive literature, but charming for its cast of characters, hastily sketched (sometimes with ASCII art) but nevertheless shining through with clear voices.

Presumably the sentiment behind Youth‘s nomination in this category was to celebrate its effective use of Vorple to create a look and feel for the game that’s not possible with the standard Inform environment. The primary device used is switching between a modern look and feel and a retro, green-on-black BBS aesthetic: while simple, the technique is well used here as not just a gimmick but as central to the meaning of the piece. This story could certainly be told as traditional IF, but the transitions back and forth between the two worlds the six central characters inhabit (the ASCII-driven BBS hangout of their online life, and the higher fidelity but equally monochromatic “real” world) are more effective for existing on the structural and not merely content plane. Other uses of Vorple’s features are more subtle: its use of modern CSS to cleanly and easily make layouts; integration of sounds, such as the nostalgic screeches of modem dialing; the use of animated GIFs to add some hints of life to the character portraits (Inform 7 nominally supports only static JPG and PNG images). But we are clearly (and finally) entering an age where IF can be beautiful without herculean effort: and none too soon.

As parser IF itself, Guilded Youth is minimal: only three commands are necessary to get to the ending, GO, TAKE, and SHOW. Other IF commands are available, sometimes providing interesting detail; but more often than not attempts to draw outside the lines here produce only stock messages or terse rebuffs. Is this innovation? Maybe it is: as we’ve moved towards prettier interactive narratives, we’ve moved towards less complicated ones as well, under perhaps the theory that simpler games make it easier to attract new players or are even better design in general. In the case of Guilded Youth and its time-constrained origins, this question is mostly academic: but it’s interesting to note that only one game in the Innovation category this year (Counterfeit Monkey) has the level of interface complexity I traditionally associate with IF. Youth focuses in on the minimal set of verbs needed to tell its story, cutting the cruft away from the perhaps-baroque default model with its couple dozen often extraneous actions. This is something more authors might consider taking the time to do.

Counterfeit Monkey, by Emily Short

If Guilded Youth falls at one end of the spectrum for parser-based complexity in IF, Counterfeit Monkey sits squarely at the other: a large, complex, puzzle-filled adventure. It’s a rare treat to have a new, richly detailed full-length game written by someone with master-level experience. In many ways Monkey is a triumph of parser IF done right: it’s a unique world that would be impossible to realize in a graphical medium and not nearly as fun in any form that made your options more explicit. At the highest level, convenience features abound, including a GO TO command, tutorial mode, and a way to track active goals. But on a deeper level, the world of Anglophone Atlantis and the structural conceits of the game are tailor-made to showcase the joys of text and elide its limitations. One clever example of this is the bipartite being the player controls, a union of the central character and the clueless player-surrogate who exposition can be directed at: it’s the uneasy edges between player, PC, and parser made part of the fiction itself. At its core, Monkey structurally zeroes in on the strong point of parser-based fiction (making you feel clever) while minimizing the frustrations (making you feel stupid). It’s worth digging a bit into how it manages this.

Wordplay-based IF has inspired games before, from Infocom’s Nord and Bert through Nick Montfort’s Ad Verbum and the more recent Earl Grey, which features the same letter-removal mechanic at Monkey‘s core. But usually games in this genre feature puzzles with a single solution: riddles rather than explorable spaces. While many of Monkey’s puzzles have single right solutions, part of the delight in playing it is the meticulous realization of all the possibilities promised by the toys you’re given to play with, even the ones that don’t advance the story. There are more responses to “wrong” behaviors than “right” ones: failure is fun. Rather than giving you a shovel that can only dig in one precise spot, Monkey gives you a world to experiment with and acknowledges your attempts to play along.

As you play, you learn to “read” the language of Anglophone Atlantis, eventually knowing without having to prod that something called “water wheel” can’t be turned into a “heel” because “ater heel” doesn’t make sense. Like the highlighted keywords I’ve used in my games, this is a signpost to help the player manipulate the world, more subtle but also more elegant: allowing immersion sans seams into a world made of signifiers.

This sensation of freedom is also engendered through incredible precision of language. Though the text often gives the impression of being easily tossed off, every word here is carefully considered to expose only what’s necessary, often leading to room descriptions that seem chatty and elaborate but when scrutinized reveal not a single stray noun to interact with. The world is one that rewards paying attention, both to advance the plot but also to catch the many subtle jokes and bits of worldbuilding, such as the sign outside the pub which the game is named for:

In the picture, a villainous man threatens a cage full of tiny primates with a primitive Victorian letter-remover. In the background is an enormous bag of cash.

And this is not even to mention the many and sometimes elaborate in-jokes and easter eggs hiding in obscure corners of the game’s possibility space, including several complete story generation systems (try making a reel or a tale, if you didn’t discover these). Or take the umlaut punch, a minor item featuring nevertheless some elaborate code for making a procedural metal band joke customized to the item you choose to use it with. This ability to both radically experiment but also endlessly filigree the edges of a fictional world are other strengths of text as an interactive medium, strongly on display throughout the piece.

It’s interesting to contrast Monkey with the direction of Emily’s current professional work on the heavily simulationist Versu project. While Monkey creates a world that feels free and explorable through an incredible amount of lovingly hand-crafted content anticipating as many outcomes as possible, Versu stories use complex logic code and cutting-edge social AI to enable a truly emergent narrative possibility space. Both approaches clearly take time to do well, and Versu is new enough that there aren’t enough examples yet to draw long-lasting conclusions from. Is Monkey‘s approach innovative, or the last gasp of “dumb” interactive stories without procedural complexity? Ask again in ten years, but I expect both approaches will survive, attracting perhaps different types of authors or stories. For now, Monkey certainly demonstrates that doing something well can feel as fresh and original as doing something new.

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