Joey Jones on Best Use of Innovation

Joey Jones is the co-author of philosophy romp The Chinese Room, and Calm, a post-apocalyptic tea-drinking simulator. Interested in pushing the boundaries of parser fiction, he was behind the meta-fictional IFDB Spelunking and is currently working on a much expanded re-release of the adverb-only blank verse game, Danse Nocturne. His interests include literature, foraging, and the abolition of paid employment.

The Best Use of Innovation finalists were Trapped in Time, Final Girl, 18 Cadence, Sorcery!, Ex Nihilo and Castle of the Red Prince.

Trapped in Time (Simon Christiansen)

The conceit of repeating the story until you figure out the way forward is common in time travel games (there was that one in the IFComp a few years back, no?). What is innovative about Trapped in Time is its central conceit of adding numbers to the section header to gain new options in prior-visited locations. This mechanic imbues each revisited section with fresh possibilities that wouldn’t be there if you had ‘If You’ve Died and Come Back Again Turn To Page 12′ at the end of every other page.

The reader is faced with a surprise when they first repeat the story with new options, although no real wrong turn van be taken, there is still a non-trivial cost to looping back through everything, so the mechanic rewards a certain amount of forethought and canniness, figuring out at which points to use ones new power to add up the number differently.

There is, however, a difference between innovation and novelty. The innovative pushes forward the boundaries of possibility for a medium, whilst the merely novel exhausts all the ground it opens up. Another time-travel game with the same mechanic would be tiresome unless it was done very well, but the true innovation is in opening the possibilities of manipulating the section numbers in numbered branching stories to reach new content. Is it fertile territory? Was it all done thirty years ago but has since been forgotten? Is it fine just to be novel? Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

Sorcery! (Steve Jackson, inkle)

The story from which Sorcery! is taken is a moderately grim swords and sorcery tale with hidden poo jokes and a world design based in the idea of an adversarial dungeon master, setting the player up to fail. With the ability to redo any section, Inkle’s Sorcery! is a lot fairer as a system, and as such the writing is able to remain true to the spirit of the original without being quite so frustrating. While the substance of the story is competently handled genre writing, the system that enables the story to take place is highly innovative.

When it comes to story platform, their different forms of presentation encourage different kinds of storytelling. What a lot of the more contemporary platforms (like Inkle, Varytale and StoryNexus) do is the divide up of their games up into self-contained scenes of various sizes in which multiple interactions can take place. This is opposed to having the entire game scroll down on one screen (as is the norm in parser fiction and Undum hypertext stories) or have each choice take up a single screen (typical in most other hypertext games, like those made in Twine). This kind of structure is used to great effect in Sorcery! through its presentation of storylets, the map, and the interface for the different mechanics.

The storylets (I’m sure Inkle have their own terminology for this, but that’s what I’m calling them) are different locations, most typically conversations and environmental encounters, in which the player usually has at least two or three regular choices, with more added if they’ve met certain conditions. While most scenes can resolve with different outcomes, whatever the outcome, each storylet is a self-contained island of interaction. This modular design, along with the map layout, allows a prodigious amount of content to be easily made without worrying too much about the problem of combinatorial explosion.

The map screen is the structure that binds the whole of Sorcery! together. The tale is one of a journey, and suitably enough there is a world map across which you’ll meander, and after each section you must make a choice as to where to drag your little figure to next. The dizzying wash of passes, mines and villages are made comprehendible every time you travel, giving you a consistent visual reminder as to your progress on your quest, as well as rationally tying the different storylets together. Also, it helps make highly arbitrary choices feel less arbitrary: on a single hypertext screen ‘Do You Go Left or Right?’ is an uninteresting choice, but looking on a map and thinking ‘I have to be heading north and this looks like the quickest route’, makes the choice more fun even if you know that ultimately either way is eventually going to get you where you want to go.

Finally, there are a number of unique persistent mechanical elements that enrich the game. Given the source material, spells and random combat were necessary, and every attempt has been made to make these less tiresome by turning them into mini-games capitalising on the tactile element of the touch-screen design. The combat itself was a nice solution, a sort of guessing game where you might read the procedurally generated battle messages for some kind of clue; there was almost always some useful spell to use in any given situation, and though there was a long-term resource management element to the stamina, it was fairly easy to maintain and so the player needn’t be overly conservative in their use of spells to solve problems. While these mechanics (along with the obligatory inventory that I’ve heard Jon Ingold say he’d rather have done without) aren’t so very innovative in and of themselves, they present

themselves as elegant solutions to the problem of translating the classic text into something more palatable to modern sensibilities and, indeed, modern smart-phone and tablet technology.

Final Girl (Hanon Ondricek)

Any medium constrains the kind of stories that can be told within it, with innovative works pushing the boundaries of what was previously considered possible. Still, within the realm of the possible, there are those games that gel well with their medium and others that strain against its limitations. It’d be difficult to imagine Final Girl working quite as well in another medium, but yet there were clearly aspects of it that felt shoehorned in to fit the strictures of the StoryNexus platform.

The main features of StoryNexus are locations where different challenges can be undertaken and, in some places, a randomised deck of cards which can be drawn for random events. There’s also a persistent sidebar of equipment, knowledge and stats. The story is a film-inspired, slightly satirical slasher horror game (more Scream than Scary Movie) in which you play the eponymous Final Girl, the one that survives to the end. Most of the game is spent wandering around a lake, either trying to figure out who the killer is, or arming yourself for a final confrontation. The set of locations with challenges was an easy fit for the exploratory sections, though it necessitated a certain amount of repetition and grinding to increase stats (a danger inherent in the platform, requiring careful design or a richer array of ways to increase one’s skills).

The randomised deck was used for certain travelling sections, but given the limited number of cards available to draw, a system that was designed to enable random turns of luck quickly becomes tiresome, especially in those sections where the stalker continuously attacks. The main random element that did work is the reshuffling of victims between each game: the killer and where each person can be found changes from game to game, allowing a fair bit more replayability: or more rather, making it less tiresome when you inevitably have to restart after dying for the third time.

One of the stronger elements of the platform is the sidebar, a sort of expanded character sheet. It allows the player to review what they currently know at a glance. As much of the core game involves unmasking bodies, this is a good thing for solving the mystery, as the current list of suspects and victims can be seen easily at any given time, as well as being able to equip different weapons and outfits.

So far, so interesting, but is it innovative? Definitely: Final Girl tells a story of exploration and dread, weaving in a commentary on the nature of horror films; the telling of this story emerges out of the novel structure of the game as a StoryNexus-bound creation. In forcing a medium more naturally suited to creating text-based MMOs, Ondricek has pushed a few inches forward into fresh ludo-narrative terrain.

Castle of the Red Prince (CEJ Pacian)

Castle of The Red Prince is a cleverly constructed parser game based around exploration. Rather than exploring using the Go verb, one explores using the Examine verb, zooming in on locations, scanning about as if you had the greatest telescope in the kingdom and were standing from an excellent vantage point.

The tyranny of examining haunts the author of parser-based interactive fiction. They want to describe a rich and compelling world, but they don’t want to spend hours writing more detailed descriptions for present but irrelevant scenery. Some have suggested getting rid of the verb altogether. Pacian goes completely the other direction, and gets rid of moving and only has examining. This is a simple but incredibly effective solution, and its effect is rather striking. Whilst the core game-play of most parser games involves the exploration of discrete locations joined by cardinal directions, the landscape in Castle of The Red Prince is fluid and navigation is only a matter of focusing on a different part of the world. This allows for the removal of so many tedious in-between steps that are an inevitable by-product of typical parser game design, in which the player explores and scan their eyes quickly over, the same locations over and over as they pass back and forth. By cutting out on the extraneous aspects of the play experience, Castle of The Red Prince leads to a smoother play, with less junk turns spent between gaining new information and being in the right place to act on it.

Essentially, Pacian takes the everything-in-scope sensibilities of a one-room game like Shade and applies them to a fantasy game of exploration. It’ll be interesting to see whether this technique will be used to good effect by any future authors.

Ex Nihilo (Juhana Leinonen)

Ex Nihilo is an interesting browser-based experiment in Vorple, in which the reader picks the path for a deity through a linear but visually compelling hypertext progression. They discover that there is a mirror entity, they are not alone and may say one thing to this other being. So far, so odd. The innovation here is that the game, hooked up to a server, stores the player’s final response and there’s some sort of mechanism for spitting it out at other players. The consequence is that the player and protagonist both encounter the sudden presence of an unexpected other at the same time. While the piece is short and relatively limited in scope, this unity of theme and structure elevates the piece from the status of a technical demo to an accomplished interactive poem, where the important interactivity is between disconnected strangers.

The poem spreads itself out across a draggable page, and at the end of it, you can see how your mirror deity developed in tandem. As such, there are a number of innovative elements to unpack here. First, the story can be enjoyed partially by exploring a 2D plane, rather than the typical sequence of discrete pages or continuous transcripts. One can imagine a story being written that can be spread out in any direction across the screen; indeed the map in Sorcery! serves a similar kind of function. Secondly, there’s the dual story development. Perhaps one day we’ll see a hypertext game where the actions of secondary characters can be seen develop independently on the screen as you make your own choices, their tales interweaving and branching off from your own. The two gods develop in tandem, and the presentation of this dual focus neatly takes the player away from the typical single-protagonist focus of most hypertext games.

18 Cadence (Aaron Reed)

In stark contrast to all the other nominees, 18 Cadence is a different kind of interactive story altogether. The set up is as follows: you’ve got 100 years of family life, following everyone who has ever lived in every room of this one house, along with various significant items. Any number of these thousands of story elements can be pulled as text snippet onto a cutting board and re-arranged to make a history, or more often, a kind of narrative poem.

The game, depending on your tastes, can be played as an interactive historical-narrative construction game, or it can be played like fridge magnet poetry on the theme of family life.* It’s a construction set for creating stories out of a collection of times, rooms, and specific moments within them. The reader is cast as editor, and is encouraged to try and makes sense of the vast wash of history. It is presented in an elegant graphical interface, with the scalpel and text snippets spread out like you’re making a particularly poignant ransom note.

Unlike other games here, where the stories struggle up against their mediums, Reed has outright just developed a fresh system of presentation for this specific game. Indeed, ‘game’ is probably the wrong word. 18 Cadence isn’t a game or really a story: it’s a toolkit for creating stories and poems out of a vast but specific history. It’s broad in content, and each snippet is able to be altered into several different forms, modulated by time, object and location, to create an incredible array of potential sentences. It’s not just innovative; it’s an entirely different form of interactive story: it’s a toolkit for creation.

As a play experience, it’s a mixed success. It depends how interested you can get about the lives it briefly alludes to. The ability to share your stories and view those of others is one of its strongest features, giving a mild social element, and something rewarding to see for those players that don’t have the stamina to trek through a hundred years of domestic life. But as a signpost to other possibilities…

* It would definitely be possible to make 18 Cadence: the Fridge Edition. It’s a platform interactive fiction authors have traditionally shied away from, but I think there are vistas of (very niche interest) possibility here. If you’re reading this, Aaron Reed, call me and we can make this happen.

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