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