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Month: July 2017

Review: Andrea Corbin’s Base of the Comet

Review: Andrea Corbin’s Base of the Comet

screenshot

Base of the Comet
Andrea Corbin (@rosencrantz)
Interactive Fiction / Twine Game
2014


Base of the Comet, by Andrea Corbin, aka @rosencrantz, was one of the first Twine games I read that experimented with what it means to have different links in a hypertext. Then Corbin went on to try something I hadn’t seen before. It’s basically the story of a space scientist, Cal, who wakes up confused and alone on a spaceship. Here there be weird space monsters!

When you load the webpage, the first visible lexia, or story passage, loads and you instantly see two types of links, coloured purple or blue. Clicking on the purple links will find those paragraphs extending from a simple description to something more, and then to a full-blown investigation of whatever it is describing. Instead of navigation, purple is “explore”.

I really like this style of hypertext, and I what I liked the most was the very quick introduction to one key fact for this Twine text: there are a whole bunch of link types.

So, making Cal explore the environment (or not, as there is some element of control) we can move her on to explore the rest of the space vessel. Very quickly, it’s possible to dive into a loop of backstory.

With a new link colour (green) we enter flashbacks and see some characterisation, motivation, and minor plot. All of this is completely optional, of course, and that’s what I love about these games.

These optional lexias are fun, interesting, and deliver the meat of the story. We get the hint of past and current relationships, for example, which in reality has no business being in a short story of this type. However, as backstory it completely changes and becomes hugely important.

But, this wouldn’t be an experimental Twine game without something new, something quirky.

When we reach a section of the narrative that Cal enters a dark tunnel (I’ll leave the details to you to discover), the entire webpage goes completely black.

This combination of narrative and design brings a new level to the text that I wasn’t completely expecting, but it makes perfect sense now that I think about it. Of course it should go dark when there are no lights, right?

Not only does Corbin experiment with the narrative here (it’s speculative fiction after all) but the form of the hypertext, too. I don’t want to spoil every little design quirk that just adds to the experience; I want you to discover that for yourself.

The story is rather short, as it’s more of an experiment than a novel. But in the space that we have to explore, we find out some rather intimate aspects of backstory that flesh out the character of Cal, and we empathise with her easily.

The narrative doesn’t branch off so much in the beginning as it offers exploration of an area before one moves on; this gives the reader a sense of engagement with the story that is always welcome in a hypertext.

But, whilst the main narrative is mostly — key-word mostly — linear, there are multiple areas and rooms that are very easy to pass by. This text rewards the reader who explores with extra story, extra characterisation, and extra stats.

You have a very game-like statistics page at the end of a readthrough, telling you what you did and didn’t manage to do. It encourages replays, but at the same time could be slightly annoying to those who aren’t interested in replaying, I suppose, by taunting them with how much they missed the first time through.

As an aside, I once found 11 out of 7 things in this story. That’s right. If you can beat that, please leave a comment letting us know how you did in Base of the Comet, whether you liked it or not!

Base of the Comet was written in Twine by Andrea Corbin, @rosencrantz on Twitter, and can be found in various locations around the web, but mostly here.

Review: Hana Feels by Gavin Inglis

Review: Hana Feels by Gavin Inglis

Hana Feels by Gavin Inglis
Interactive story / Twine game
2015


I’m always anxious about reading fiction about depression. There’s a tendency towards romanticising mental illness – or at least the ‘pretty’ side of mental illness – that rubs me the wrong way. Fortunately, Hana Feels might be about depression, but it is not romanticised.

Hana Feels is an interactive storygame centred around the eponymous character, Hana, and her struggle with depression. However, we don’t play as Hana, but rather the characters she interacts with, including her best friend, Jen, her boss, Christine, and a helpline volunteer named Will. Their reactions decide what path she will follow, either helping her recovery or making her worse.

There are three possible endings to the game: better, the same, or worse. Obviously, it’s not exactly true to life – recovery from mental illness isn’t linear in any way – but Inglis manages to capture a version of reality with these endings. There isn’t an ending where everything ends up hunky-dory. She’s not going to walk away suddenly cured, which is a relief for those readers who have experience with mental illnesses.

The thing is, Hana Feels has two possible readers: those with experience, and those without. For the former, it’s a familiar story. Although no two people have the same journey, there are elements that most people experience: alienation from family members and friends; feelings of self-doubt and blame; disassociation from everyday experiences and so on. In its way, Hana Feels is a mirror, and it hits home.

But for those readers who have never experienced mental illness, or have only ever watched from afar? For them, Hana Feels becomes something more like a manual. On my first playthrough, I got frustrated with how similar the options were – what does it matter if you ask someone’s name before you ask them how they are? It wasn’t until my second and third playthrough that I understood better: every word mattered when trying to help someone else, and they especially mattered when a single misstep could cause irreparable harm. It was uncomfortable and stressful and exactly what it’s like in real life – and that’s why Hana Feels is a great storygame.

I won’t say it’s perfect. There are moments where the dialogue doesn’t quite mesh perfectly, or where the reactions are too limited for there to be a satisfying option. But that in itself is quite clever: after all, we’re not reacting as we would, but rather exploring how the characters themselves might choose. It’s shorter than I’d like, and once you’ve figured out the right options to pick the game ends a little abruptly, but overall Inglis manages to draw us into the world successfully – uncomfortably, awkwardly, but certainly successfully.

Built in Twine 2.0, Hana Feels is sort of the quintessential storygame: limited interactions allow for different possible conclusions. For those used to interactive fiction, it is somewhat predictable, but that doesn’t detract from its enjoyability – rather, the comfort of the familiarity is a perfect offset to the discomfort of the topic. It’s free to play, only takes about fifteen minutes to get through, and is something I’d definitely recommend giving a go.

Read more about the project on Gavin Ingis’s blog.

Review: The Domovoi by Kevin Snow

Review: The Domovoi by Kevin Snow

The Domovoi by Kevin Snow
Twine game / Hypertext
2014


The Domovoi is one of two games created by Kevin Snow and available on his Bravemule website, with a third being created and funded by Kickstarter. The Domovoi draws its inspiration from a mythical creature of Slavic origins. Whilst at first jarring, what came from subsequent playthroughs was a deeper understanding and interest in this myth, undoubtedly Snow’s aim.

Upon opening the game, the first noticeable thing is the atmosphere. The Domovoi employs minimalistic illustrations and ambient sounds to create a cold, lifeless world. Couple this with Snow’s bleak narrative style, The Domovoi can end up being a dark affair. It is a rich and bitter piece that cannot help but immerse you in its world, even if it is relatively short.

Sitting down and playing this story to see all it has to offer takes just under an hour. Each subsequent playthrough remained fresh in my mind and made it easy to remember what choices I had previously chosen; the work returns you to exactly where you started – a small candle lit paragraph giving some exposition to the narrative and myth.

You are a traveller who has been offered sanctuary at the house of a storyteller and, to pass the time, you help them craft a new yarn. This yarn is the tale of a domovoi: a fantasy Slavic creature that tends to the house of its master. The storyteller offers you choices for the domovoi to make and this leads down a narrow narrative path. Whether this limitation is intentional or not, it helps develop the feeling that the storyteller has their own agenda for this tale.

You can choose, however, to weave your own story. At a few places, you can derail it and inject your own ideas, causing some aggravation from the storyteller. These little moments add some comedic relief from the sombre tone of the narrative. If you derail the story too much, it ends in the player being kicked out of the storyteller’s house, becoming one of three possible endings.

Perhaps The Domovoi’s biggest shortcoming is its length. The piece works well as an introduction to this Slavic myth, but an introduction it remains. Snow had the opportunity to delve into a rich area of mythology and serve as a piece to not only entertain, but to also educate those unfamiliar. Furthermore, the interesting dynamic between you, the player, and the character who you are helping create a tale could have been explored further, but it is left relatively under-developed.

All in all, The Domovoi has the potential to be something more by exploring Slavic mythology and player/narrator relationship more. That being said, however, it remains an intriguing and brilliantly bleak short story – whichever way you decide to play it – that is worth your time to visit.

You can find The Domovoi and Kevin Snow’s other projects on the Bravemule website where you can play for free, or pay what you want.

Digital Fiction Resources

Digital Fiction Resources

Quicklinks:

What is Digital Fiction?

Digital fiction (DF) as we understand it here at Wonderbox is:

Fictional stories that are written and read on digital devices, using some element of digital interactivity or expression (e.g., links, multimedia, gameplay). DF stories would lose something – or everything – if they were expressed in print form only.

For more thorough (and scholarly) overviews of what digital fiction is, have a look at the [S]creed for Digital Fiction, and Reading Digital Fiction’s overview.

Examples of DF include (but are definitely not limited to!) interactive fiction, text adventure games, hypertexts, Flash fictions (the ones built in Adobe Flash), multimedia fiction, mobile story apps, enhanced books, and more. We review a lot of these across a breadth of styles and platforms here on Wonderbox.

Writing Digital Fiction

(Previously posted on the Reading Digital Fiction website.)

Digital writers have historically used a lot of different platforms, often proprietary software that was both expensive, and repurposed for digital fiction. Luckily, a lot has changed as digital fiction has grown in popularity, and there are now a number of really great, inexpensive/free/open-source, built-for-purpose platforms for burgeoning digital writers to choose from.

The first step is always to check out existing digital fictions (start with our suggestions for readers and reading groups, and also review those collected at the Electronic Literature Collection and the Interactive Fiction Database), to get familiar with how digital fiction works, and be inspired by the different styles and genres you can write in.

Twine

If you are new to creating interactive texts, programs, or websites, it’s best to start simple. Twine, an open-source platform for creating hypertexts (called “Twine games”), is an excellent tool. You can build a Twine game in just a few minutes, and there is a fantastic community posting tutorials and sharing mods. The great thing about it is that as your skills advance, so does Twine; it can be adapted to work with conditionals, JavaScript, CSS, and html.

It’s worth noting that game developers often use Twine, or Twine-like environments, as planning and organizational tools for their game design. Even if you choose to go on to other platforms, Twine’s easy-to-use, visual mapping space can be a valuable tool for digital writing.

Twine resources:

Texture

Texture is a more recently developed platform, but it is already showing promise. Texture provides a WYSIWYG platform to create interactive narratives. Check out some of the Texture stories already written, and write/publish your own.

ChoiceScript

ChoiceScript is the platform used for Choice of Games fictions, and is freely available. If you enjoy CoG, or “multiple-choice games”, this is a good option.

InkleWriter

InkleWriter creates interactive stories in a scrolling visual that mimics the look of book pages, a nice crossover between interactivity and print-based stories.

Inform7 & TADS

On the purely text-based front of interactive fiction (a.k.a. text-adventure games) is Inform7 and TADS. Through these platforms, you can create parser-based interactive fictions in the mode of the old commercial games of the 1980s (think Zork or Colossal Cave Adventure). The form has turned to more of a literary bent in recent years, and experienced a resurgence.

Inform7 resources:

Quest

Quest allows you to create interactive fictions of the Inform7/TADS style, but without the need to learn the specific coding language.

Ren’Py & Novelty

Ren’Py and Novelty are visual novel engines. Both are free, and both offer large libraries of VNs to explore, as well as extensive tutorials on how to make them. VNs are more popular in the East Asian market than in the West, as you’ll see from the visual style, but that popularity means they have been around for a while longer, and have more examples and tutorials, than some of the other engines.

Adobe Animate CC (formerly Flash)

Flash was created as a general-purpose multimedia tool, and as such it’s A) expensive, and B) really robust (although finicky). You pay a lot for it, but you also get a lot (probably more than most digital writers need, given its wide range of uses, from multimedia websites to Flash games). A lot of digital fiction has been created on Flash, and some of the…er…”flashier” works use it well.

The limitations of Flash, of course, are well-known, as Flash has had a rocky relationship with mobile devices.

HTML-CSS-JavaScript

Because of the controversy and difficulties with Flash and mobile devices, a lot of digital writers shifted to HTML (and later, HTML5) in the early 2010s. With new attributes and potential for dynamic websites, HTML5, used in conjunction with CSS and JavaScript, enables digital writers to create fictions that work across all devices, with a minimum of adjustment between them. Clearly, working in these “pure” code-based environments requires some digital expertise, but once mastered, they offer a strong foundation for the digital writer to implement a wide array of digital fictions, from web-based dynamic texts to stand-alone mobile apps.

And finally, don’t forget the e-Book

Remember, e-Books have hypertext functionality! Using tools like Sigil and Calibre, enterprising digital writers can create hypertexts that can be enjoyed on any device, and sold through all major e-book sellers (including Amazon and the iBookstore). Our Hyperbooks project has started down this route in order to explore the commercialization potential of digital fiction and hypertexts, and we welcome all digital writers to join us!

Have other platforms or tools you like or that you built? Comment on this post with them and we’ll add them to the page.

Reading Digital Fiction

Resources for Reading DF (includes links to some great introductory DFs)

Resources for Reading Groups

Where to find DF:

Have suggestions for resources? Comment on this post with them, and we can update the page.

Review: Lifeline by 3 Minute Games

Review: Lifeline by 3 Minute Games

Lifeline
by 3 Minute Games
Mobile app / Text adventure
Steam / iTunes / Google Play
2016


There’s a tendency in interactive fiction for authors to use fairly dry, prosaic description to bring players into their worlds. It works, but perhaps it’s fair to say that there is room for experimentation. What’s so special about Lifeline is that it dispenses with that omniscient narrator in a very specific way: through conversation. Lifeline engages the player directly with its main character: an astronaut stranded on a distant planet. What follows from this conceit is a game essentially formed as an extended conversation tree.

Technically, Lifeline is based on the Twine 2 language, but is dressed up in such a way that even those familiar with the format would scarce recognize it. The cold, grey metal textures of the UI echo a more utilitarian Star Trek communicator, but are subtle enough to seem at home on any modern mobile device. The game features limited play options (no restarts, toggles only for the music and sound effects) and after a brief introductory message, the fiction is only broken when the player opens the settings menu. From the get-go, the player is ostensibly, believably using a communication program to chat with and direct the protagonist.

The lost astronaut, Taylor, is very personable and easily empathised with, which makes it very easy for the player to invest in whichever the branching outcomes of the story they encounter. Lifeline avoids identifying its protagonist in terms of more obvious attributes such as race or sex, allowing those details to be filled in by the player. That is not to say Taylor is a blank slate or that s/he lacks personality – indeed, that is one of the strengths of the work. Taylor regularly discusses, protests or endorses the player’s suggestions and it’s consistently fun to engage with the erstwhile traveller.

The tone of the work is set immediately upon opening the application with an echoey, alien soundscape that despite hundreds of loops over the course of the game never seems to grow old. The reason why it stays fresh is presumably because the game is only played in very short bursts (roughly a couple minutes at a time). This is arguably one of the most important features of Lifeline: the fact that it unfolds in real time. The game takes place over the course of several real-world days – with messages from Taylor being relayed to the player through push notifications on their phone. After choosing their response, Taylor will go away for anywhere up to a matter of hours to complete whatever activity or goal the player advises them to engage with. This unique use of mobile device infrastructure makes Lifeline stand out among its peers.

For the most part, Lifeline steers away from trying to convey any sort of moral or political message – it possesses no overbearing themes and instead focuses on telling an engaging, yet ultimately pulpy science fiction story, with appearances from some familiar tropes. This is not to say the story lacks depth, however; there are many small details and deeper nuances to the plot and world that make the game worth replaying.

Where Lifeline fails, perhaps, is where it forces the player to choose from ‘Snarky Response 1’ or ‘Snarky Response 2’ and slightly hamfistedly railroads the plot in a specific direction. But for the most part, Taylor’s banter makes for a convincing enough reason to go with the flow. The endings can be rather abrupt or drawn out as the tension wanes and the player becomes increasingly unsure as to why Taylor is messaging them instead of running for his/her life.

Ultimately, Lifeline is a rare example of interactive fiction which takes advantage of the unique capabilities of the medium. Text messaging is the norm for almost everyone these days and Lifeline taps into that world; it slips very easily into the background of everyday life. It’s certainly not the most revolutionary mode of storytelling, but especially for the modest asking price (<$2) it’s worth a shot.