Bletchley Park, 1942. A component from the Bombe machine, used to decode intercepted German messages, has gone missing. One of the cryptographers is waiting to be interviewed, under direst suspicion. Is he stupid enough to have attempted treason? Or is he clever enough to get away?
Available now is a new short interactive story, The Intercept. It’s a culmination of several different ideas, systems and projects that I’ve had floating around for a while. It’s playable online, and also downloadable as an ebook for Kindle devices, using the new inklewriter to ebook conversion we just announced over at inkle. (If you’ve no idea what that means, please take a look at inkle‘s own site).
The first thing about The Intercept is the setting – Bletchley Park. This is a stately home in England that was used by the military for code-breaking during WWII. They recruited a team of brilliant, awkward scientists using all manner of baroque tests and competitions (a crossword in the Daily Telegraph was used at point) and here, locked away from the War, this group cracked the “uncrackable” Enigma code and developed the world’s first computer (if you don’t count Babbage’s calculating machine).
This isn’t the first time Bletchley’s appeared in interactive fiction – there’s an Enigma breaking sequence in Graham Nelson’s epic Jigsaw - and it’s a great section, even if it does require the player to actually decode an Engima message. The Intercept is somewhat lower tech – it’s a play-by-choices, and the code-breaking is strictly a metaphor at play, rather than an actual challenge.
The core interaction in The Intercept is an idea I first tried out in Flaws and rather fell in love with, even though that story doesn’t use it much beyond the shock-value opening.
That game opens:
…and offers the player what I find is quite an intriguing two-dimensional choice – do you want to save the character, at the risk of being deceitful; or do you want to find out what’s going on in the story, but possibly at the expense of the main character?
I find that in one swift move this knocks away some of the props of interactive storytelling. It says, explicitly, up front, that you aren’t going to see every way this story can pan out, that your choices will matter, and that you’re going to have to do the best you can with the limited information you’ve got. This is not an optimisation problem.
I hope you think that’s as interesting as I do, because The Intercept takes that idea and – more or less – rolls it out into a full-length game, though here the choices are usually “Yes”, “No”, “Lie” and “Evade”. Again, there are trade-offs to be made between what the protagonist knows, and affecting the situation around you. Though in this story, it’s somewhat internalised – the protagonist is admitting things to himself as much as to his interrogator, and those choices of “Lie” and “Evade” are as much instructions to lie to himself, or dodge a truth he doesn’t want to recognise.
The structure is a bit accretive, with replays adding to your knowledge, a little bit strategic, but since it’s all choice-based with no parser, replay is hopefully not too painful an experience. Underlying this is the metaphor of a cryptogram – the classic method of solution is to guess a correspondence of a letter based on hints and clues, and follow it through until you reach a solution, or a contradiction, in which case you back up and try a different path.
So it’s Make It Good meets Flaws with a bit of the Mulldoon Legacy thrown in.
It’s also been written in inklewriter, inkle’s free, online web-app for creating branching stories. It’s the longest, heftiest use of the software that I know about, with around thirty variables in a mixture of flags and counters. It tracks some emotional state data, what you’ve done and what you’ve seen, has loops, branches, and text that varies depending on what you’ve seen and done so far.
It was originally written partly as a test-case of our “convert to Kindle” service (built on the Kindliser script that’s up on this site). This works in a slightly bonkers fashion, playing every single possible game, then crunching down and optimising duplicates. The inklewriter version is a little smarter and employs some pre-optimisation, which takes the number of unoptimised compiled pages down to 50,000 from, um, several million. (The final book is a mere 5000 pages long, which compresses to a natty 1.6mb Kindle ebook file. The Kindle itself doesn’t even blink).
For those of you who get this far, here are the “how to play” links over again, so you don’t have to scroll back up.