Fiction is a Three-Edged Sword

Fiction, interactive fiction and narrative

“Flaws”: an interactive story for Kindle

12 Comments

Flaws

Flaws, for Kindle

In the last few weeks I’ve been reading up on what kind of IF possibilities the Kindle opens up. The short answer is, “anything” – well, anything without too much animation. The Kindle is a computer like any other. But the more app your thing becomes, the less e-booky it feels. So what can the lowest-tech approach achieve?

The short answer is: here’s my attempt. (US link here). It’s a rework of my science-fiction short-Undum-story Flaws as a Kindle ebook. A longer discussion follows after the cut.

Don’t get me wrong. I think the app capability is awesome. As it stands, the ebook format seems like a placeholder until the requirements for proper interactive books settles down. That makes this a time for bold and interesting experiments, and while there don’t seem to be many, the few there are make for interesting speculation.

From a personal point of view, I’m particularly excited by the glimpses of Jimmy Maher’s “The King of Shreds and Patches”, a full parser-based IF game (oh, yeah, with auto-maps, and everything else too). IF on Kindle has the potential to be a killer app and I’d love to be in a position to release some of my own games that way. (Especially, if we could spruce up the interface while we’re at it).

At the other end of the spectrum there’s the Choice Of Games approach, making choice-based games (duh) in easy-to-recognise genres (Choice of the Vampire, for instance). This is much lower tech – there are options, you choose them. In the background, there’s a lot of stat tracking and options become enabled and disenabled depending on what you do.

But these are both apps. What about vanilla ebooks?

The limiting factor on the ebook format is the lack of any memory at all. Any choice you made will be forgotten as you move through the story (just like in a paper book). So the kind of CYOA that works in ebook format is probably the scattershot kind where the story goes all over. Right?

Well, I thought I’d see what I could do to work round that.

So, as mentioned above, here’s my reworking of my story Flaws (as a $.99/£.79 download). The game starts like this:

‘I will ask you one more time, and for love of your life, be sure to answer me truthfully. Did you kill him?’

  • No
  • Yes
  • Tell the truth
  • Lie

The story then goes back in time for a flashback, and when it returns to the present, the player’s previous choice is recalled and played out. Along the way, the game also keeps track of what the player’s seen and learnt so as to avoid repeating text and other weirdnesses.

The system in the background is primitive – it’s just a big old book of text. What’s neat is the tool that writes the ebook file, by playing out all the possibilities and then writing out the minimal set of paragraphs needed to play the game.

The storage available is tiny – just a nibble: four bits of information. This is a judgement call on my part: there’s no reason the tool couldn’t use as many bits as it likes, but with every extra bit there’s the potential of doubling the number of paragraphs the game needs to contain. (Because bits are stored by copying paragraphs and editing their text / links appropriately).

That said, the full doubling effect is rare; and Amazon’s compression is pretty good.

But even four bits is enough to allow a tighter approach to story-telling: something that keeps decisions small and close, with a directed narrative, rather than the sprawling epic that most CYOAs turn into.

Flaws is written mostly as a proof-of-concept-and-tech: does it feel good to read a story like this on an e-reader? (My feeling: yes, it does). Does it feel booky? Does it make sense to non-game-players? Can it get onto the Amazon system?

I’m about halfway through a longer story written using the same tool, called Follow the River. I’m hoping I’ll get enough feedback from Flaws to make Follow the River a really strong piece of work.

(Apologies for the one-dollar-download: this is hardly a get-rich-quick scheme, but I don’t think Amazon allows free e-book distribution.)

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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.

12 thoughts on ““Flaws”: an interactive story for Kindle

  1. What tool are you using?

    • Homebrew. I hope, as always, to tidy it up and release it sometime soon. (But then, it’s a horrible Windows-only app, and I’d rather make something that works on my shiny new Mac).

  2. I’m not really supposed to talk about this too much, but because I admire your work so much and because I know there’s quite a bit of curiosity among IF folks in general I’m just going to say a few things.

    Making IF work smoothly on the Kindle has been a challenge due to technical constraints. Because of that and because the ultimate outcome of the whole project was so uncertain, I’ve been careful not to get stars in the eyes and not to over-promise, to myself or to anyone else. However, I had a call with my rep at Amazon yesterday that was quite exciting.

    Amazon gets IF, they get why it could be such a great fit for the Kindle, and they’re ready to put significant resources behind it. Their policy is quite different from that of, say, Apple with the iPhone and iPad app stores. They are much more selective about the apps they choose to accept, and take a personal interest in making each one that does pass the cut to make it the best it can be. King has made the grade, but must now go through a quite rigorous three-stage testing process, which includes not only bug-swatting and stress testing but also usability testing and feedback from ordinary Kindle users. This means we are probably at least a month, possibly considerably longer, from launch, but in the long run this feedback and support can only be a good thing. I want to continue to stay grounded, but IF hasn’t had an interested partner with this kind of reach and power for a long, long time. It’s hard not to get just a bit excited.

    “IF on Kindle has the potential to be a killer app and I’d love to be in a position to release some of my own games that way. (Especially, if we could spruce up the interface while we’re at it).”

    One of the first questions Amazon asked me was whether there would be more if King succeeds. So, yes, we’re all looking at this not as a single title but as a sustained effort, possibly skimming off the cream of the IF community’s output for as many as five or six releases per year. (If such a model can take off, it should give authors great incentive to release kick-ass games to the Comp and the Spring Thing in the hope of making the Kindle grade. And if that results in so many great games that we can release more than five or six per year, hey, no complaints here.) A lot of frankly ugly hacking and special-casing went into making King a smooth Kindle experience. If it does well, the next big project will have to be standardizing all of that into, say, an Inform 7 extension authors can simply drop into their game to “Kindleize it.” Also necessary will be documenting and standardizing some Kindle-specific GLK functions I hacked into King.

    As for the interface: Amazon gets the parser, and, thank God, have never come close to asking me to dump it. They are, however, interested in ways of making it more accessible. I actually mentioned your recent efforts in our conversation; they won’t make it into King, but perhaps they will in the next release. So… hopefully we’ll be in touch, both about your parser work and also about those games of yours.

    Please understand I’m not trying to play CEO here or to brag about the connections I have that the rest of you don’t. My hope is that this can result in opportunities for authors to finally reach a wider audience and make a little bit of money from their efforts, but I have to lay down some technical and interpersonal infrastructure before I can get everyone who wants to be involved. And, as encouraged as I am, this is all still just a hope right now. I’m still very much in one-step-at-a-time mode. And we’ll all just have to be patient as we see how it all plays out. In the meantime, please know that I’m doing my humble best to make this work for everyone. Hopefully it will be good enough.

    IF folks: If you could keep this on the down-low, I’d appreciate it. (Yes, this is possibly the first time in Internet history that anyone has asked others NOT to link to him — in this context. On any other subject, hey, knock yourself out.)

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  4. “disenabled”??? Seriously?

  5. Pingback: Flaws reviewed on Jay is Games… | Fiction is a Three-Edged Sword

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