Fiction is a Three-Edged Sword

Fiction, interactive fiction and narrative


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Parser as Prototype: why choice-based games are more interesting

Gosh, but it’s been a long time since I wrote anything here. The reason for that is I’ve been tied up with inkle: the last post was September ’12, which was about when we started on our Sorcery! series, and that hasn’t really let up. Sorcery!, if you don’t know, is a series of choice-based text-games for touch screens, that’s done pretty well so far. I’ve been working on the design, and also done the adaptation from the original gamebooks to our inklewriter-based format.

But that’s not really what I wanted to write about. What I wanted to write about the type of games we’re now making. They’re not parser games – they use choices – but in terms of design, they’ve ended up being closer to parser games than anything else. In fact, I’ve got a provocative statement to make, which is this.

“Parser games are prototypes of choice-based games.”

This is not quite true, but it’s quite close to something true. I’m now going to try and argue it.

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New interactive story: The Intercept


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?

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Working on a new branching narrative project for inkle has crystallised in my head a problem I think I’ve often skirted around, but not ever pinned down before; and it’s a problem that sits right the heart of interactive narrative design.

The problem is this: if we’re tracking what the player chooses, and using that to alter how events play out, then how do we decide when to cause, and how do we decide when to affect?

There’s a conversation going on here – the reader says something, and the author says something back. The best interactive writing matches the author’s reply to the reader’s comment so perfectly it feels like there must be a human being inside the machine, typing furiously away.

But how do we decide who gets to hold the talking stick at any given moment?

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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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CYOAs, remembered

A nostalgic article on CYOA books of old published in Fantasy magazine. Things like this make me think, was I just born twenty years too late? And do these books have to be for children?

The other interesting tidbit is this, from a writer working for one of the original publishers:

Endings for the series had nothing to do with logic—there simply had to be one-third happy endings, one-third bad, one-third neutral.

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