Fiction is a Three-Edged Sword

Fiction, interactive fiction and narrative

New interactive story: The Intercept

8 Comments


The Intercept

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 Setting

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 Mechanics

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:

Flaws opening

 

…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.

Structure

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.

Inklewriter

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).

Links

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.

Enjoy!

 

 

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Author: joningold

Jon Ingold is a writer and games designer from Cambridge, UK. He is co-founder of inkle, a company specialising in interactive narrative for mobile devices. He has written prose, plays, short films as well as interactive fiction, both in hypertext and parser-based systems. His short stories have appeared in Interzone magazine and his IF works have won competitions and awards.

8 thoughts on “New interactive story: The Intercept

  1. Clicking the “Back to top” button at the end of the story has no effect.

  2. It doesn’t work with Firefox 15.0.1 on Linux, and Firefox nightly on Linux. It works fine in an oldish Chrome.

  3. Entertaining. I liked the choices. More than one ending? I will try again tomorrow.

    Wait / Co-operate
    “This is an unseemly situation, it would be appear.”
    – it would appear.
    / Take it
    “He picks his own up and just holds it. ”
    – Suggestion: He picks up his own…
    / Evade / Evade / “I’m Fine” / Evade
    “The conclusions had been obvious to all four of us immediately, but had gone undiscussed,”
    – “had gone undiscussed” Unnatural sounding IMO.
    “And drunk our tea and watched each other. ”
    – And drunk [the] tea. “Drank” is British English?
    / “I know nothing”
    ““This is time of war,” Harris answers.”
    – This is a time of war,
    / Put the cup down / Evade / That’s not it / Disagree / Tell him / Yes
    “He replies, “I can see how that must have been attractive to you,” with such plain-spokeness I almost have to ask him to repeat it.”
    – Suggestion: “with such plain-spokeness” with such nonchalance
    / Yes
    Harris answers. “I know you didn’t sign up for it but, well. There’s plenty of other men who didn’t who are serving now, too. Now, go on with your confession.”
    – “There’s plenty of other men” = There is plenty of other _men_. But it is a possible mistake in speech.
    ““There’s not much else to say. I took the part from Bombe computing device.”
    – from the Bombe computing device.
    / Tell the truth
    “I thought you would have me locked up: I couldn’t bear the thought of it. I love working here.”
    – would have locked me up? Suggestion: I thought you would lock me up:
    / Lie
    “It would have been idiocy to do differently.”
    – do differently? Suggestion: irrational to do otherwise
    / Answer back / Make your peace
    ” You seem very calm | You should try to escape!”
    – Relax | Run away!
    / You seem very calm / The door is opening
    “Our little computation here is complete.”
    – Suggestion: Our little game… hmm “calculation” would go with the calculating engine metaphor in the next paragraph. “Computation” doesn’t suggest contention.
    “our victories and tragedies,”
    – Suggestion: triumphs and tragedies OR victories and defeats.
    / No
    “he hustles me out of the door”
    – American English, you can drop “of” as some previous sentences did.

    Clicking the up arrow next to “End” has no effect. The Start Again link works.
    The display does not scroll after selecting a choice (manual scrolling was necessary).
    Browser: Camino 2.1.2 (1.9.2.28 20120308211433) a moderately old Mozilla codebase.

    • Very thorough! I don’t agree with all your style points, but I’m grateful for the typos and the thoughts. Thanks!

      • No problem, style is a matter of opinion.
        With Google Chrome, the interface works (selection scrolls, End return button works). Exploration and repeat play is revealing. (I’m going to be absorbed with ifcomp next month so this is the end of the flood).

        Wait / … / Be optimistic / Protest ( / Make your peace )
        “I fear for the future of this world, with men like you in. Reich or no Reich, Mr Manning, people like you simply complicate matters.”
        – “with men like you in.” in it.

        Wait / … / i do / evade / Blame no-one
        “That damned machine, Harris; it’s made from spare parts and string. Even these huts leak when it rains. It wouldn’t take more than one fellow to trip over a cable to shake out a component and have it roll away across the floor. Have you tried looking under the thing?”
        – “Even these huts leak when it rains.” suggestion: When it rains, these huts even leak.

        Wait / … / “Put me in with Hooper…” / threaten / lie / wait
        “Look of out the window | Listen at the door | Wait”
        – Look out of the window

        Wait / … / Don’t confess / Don’t check
        “The individual pieces – the men, the components – do not matter. They are quite identical.”
        – Suggestion: quite uniform.

        / Don’t check / yes
        “Hooper may have taken the fall for the missing component, but if it was his recovering it from Hut 2 then I have nothing to sell to save my reputation.”
        – if it was his recovering it? Too brief, expand, make explicit.

        … / Leave it / Unlikely
        “I might have no option but to hand my young blackmailer over my superiors for the spy he is and let him wreak what damage he can.”
        – to hand my young blackmailer over to my superiors
        “the most smart.”
        – the smartest.

  4. Ah, yeah. The FF scroll bug. Do need to fix that. (Bit worse now we have the “back to top” button.) Thanks for reminding me!

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