Fiction is a Three-Edged Sword

Fiction, interactive fiction and narrative


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The final 5%

If you watched the remake of Battlestar Galactica, you’ll know that after two or three years of escaping murderous robots with LED eyes and their sleazy-nightclub-owner-type owners, the last surviving humans were faced with the terrible threat of the Final Five. Five last Cylons who could yet destroy everything. Hard to pin down, hard to defeat, hard to negotiate with…

It’s something that anyone who’s worked on long projects can sympathise with. Projects can be easy or hard, but every project ends with that final 5%: the final 5% that nearly kills you.

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A game is for life, not just for Christmas…

Merry Christmas, and if you’ve just unwrapped a new game, here’s a sobering puppy-for-life type statistic which is urban legend in the games industry, and might even be true: the majority of console games are played once.

So what? you might think. Most books are read once, most DVDs are watched once, most Christmas cakes eaten once… But I don’t mean finished, I mean played. The majority of console games are opened, installed, booted up, played for a single session (possibly of several hours), then never booted up again. Even though games can afford tens of hours of entertainment; and even though games cost four times as much as books or films.

And that isn’t true of books, or DVDs, or Christmas cake. So why the difference? Is it just because people can get stuck on games?

I don’t think so. I think it’s deeper than that. In fact, I’m not sure there is a difference between the consumption pattern for a DVD, book or a game. I think instead that the difference is in what we mean by the word finished. (And, what is inkle going to do about it?)

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Adventures in Time and Space: linearity and variability in interactive narrative

Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of work with choice-based stories. I haven’t played a new IF work in a long time – but this weekend I picked up Emily Short’s brief-but-beautiful Speed IF Indigo and it got me thinking about what I mean when I say “interactive fiction”.

(This isn’t really an article about that game, incidentally, which you should try out; rather, Indigo was such a very clean example of what text IF does well that it got me thinking.)

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Kingdom Without End

This link appeared first as a comment, then as a tweet, and finally now as a blog-post, which is all back to front. But this is archaelogy, which works downwards.

The short version is: presenting Kingdom Without End by Shannon Cochran, a multi-choice input game from 2001 about archaeology, that is perhaps the best example of CYOA written in a parser-IF style, and not only that, it’s a damn fine piece of work too.

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Choices in the context of context

I’ve written a few times already about my new, novelette-length choice-based story built in Undum. The project began life as technical experiment – a quick attempt (a bit like this one) to “do” a text-game as a multiple choice adventure. The concept was simple: the game would have locations, and objects, but streamline the usual breadth of Interactive Fiction’s parser down to just the choices that mattered for the story.

It didn’t work and I had to change the design. But I learnt a lot in the process.

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Friend or foe?

Narrative games are full of binary choices, and the most common is “friend or foe?” Will you be nice to the NPC, or will you be nasty? Save the baby or burn down the farm? RPG games often have a stack of these choices, several hundred across the course of 20 hours play, and they use them to collect data on what kind of character you’re playing as.

Unfortunately they don’t do anything very good with the numbers. Here’s a suggestion for something better.

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An exposition about exposition

Starting on a new project has got me thinking about how games handle the business of exposition.

All stories need some exposition, and generally is serves to enrich the world and setting and save your from reader from the curse of generica. In a game, your exposition has also got to tell the player what to do next – usually in no uncertain terms – and how to set about it.

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Book Hack Day

Book Hack DayYesterday was Book Hack Day, organised by Perera Media, Idno and GeekCamp. A group of hackers, writers, designers and publishers braved a few closed Tube stations to meet at the Free Word Centre in Farringdon with their laptops (80:20 Apple:Linux, I think) to talk and work on the future of the book in the digital age.

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Set-pieces, pacing, flow, and finally, Vorple

Recently, I’ve been writing a lot of selection-based hyperfiction. There are two reasons: firstly, it’s a lot faster to go from idea to playable game, and secondly, I can show it to people who “can’t” play text games and they get it.

The first of these isn’t really a problem, if your idea is good enough. The second is something we’re working on, with extensions for making IF easier to get into, and good general design.

Then there’s the third problem: pacing. And that one’s hard.

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Planning to programming

For a new hypertext story I decided to try and actually plan the whole thing before starting out on writing. Partly because the story is going to be complex, with multiple protagonists and plots with twists, turns and reveals, and partly to try and ensure a solid level of interactivity throughout.

This is a big deal for me. I rarely plan stories. I let them grow and then pummel them into shape. But when you’re coding something as well as writing, that takes a lot more time and you throw a lot away. (And you father many, many bugs.)

That iteration is healthy if you’re finding your feet; with a new interface, say, or a narrative gimmick. But in this case, I know what I’m writing – an Undum-based hypertext along the lines of the (as yet unreleased) No Space to Breathe. So instead the experiment is in taking a more organised approach to story development.

Here’s how it went.

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