The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe

I wrote about The Stanley Parable a while back, as an exploration of the strange, non-linear storytelling that can be done in games, and how experience and participation can affect the player’s perception of a story.

I’m bringing it up again, because The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe has just released on PC and consoles, and I’ve had a chance to play a bit of it. Now I just have to figure out how to describe it in a way that doesn’t ruin all the fun.

What Is It?

First, let’s talk about the name—Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe (which I can only assume was purposely crafted for the abbreviation, SPUD). In a landscape plagued by remakes, remasters and sequels, SPUD has been cagey about exactly what it is. Something wildly new? Or a bare-minimum cash grab and excuse to release an old game on new platforms?

I fired up the game and discovered that it starts out exactly the same: the original experience with updated graphics. It gave me time to acclimate before I found anything new (or conversely, to wonder if the new content was really so paltry). I found myself squinting, asking myself, “Was that like that before?”

When I found the new content, there was no question about what it was. The game hit me over the head with it. “Look at this new content!” it said. “Isn’t it amazing?” It helpfully labeled doors “NEW CONTENT.” But was the new stuff very good? No, not really. Even the narrator was pretty let down. And then the game started over, because Stanley Parable is a game about

Rabbit Holes

What starts off as a little joke just keeps expanding. The game turns gags into running jokes into elaborate set-pieces, leaving you wondering whether you’ve seen the end of that particular through-line, or if you might turn another corner and pick up the trail again. It rides the line between absurdism and seriousness.

The silly bit about carrying around a bucket for comfort opens up storylines about addiction, murder, betrayal, and demonic possession. A standard video game scavenger hunt for pointless collectibles first gets a thorough mocking, then becomes an actual feature, then goes a little bit out of control.

SPUD is more of what was good in SP. As far as I’ve played, it doesn’t introduce anything radically new, but everything new fits right in. It’s happy to make fun of itself for being an expansion to a decade-old game. It realizes that its history comes with baggage, from awards and accolades to literal shipping containers full of negative Steam reviews. Eventually it shrugs it all off with a nihilistic sequence that seems to say “given enough time, the world will be ground down to dust, so maybe none of this matters that much.”

SPUD also brings some of the generic game sequel features like new achievements, while simultaneously making fun of those things. (The old game gave an achievement if you didn’t play it for five years. This one ups it to ten.)

Is It Worth Getting?

If you’ve never played The Stanley Parable, Ultra Deluxe is the perfect opportunity to play it. If you played the original and enjoyed it, you’ll likely enjoy this new iteration. And if you hate the game…well, now there’s even more to hate?

Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe is available for pretty much every major game-playing device. (To be specific, that’s PC, Mac and Linux, Nintendo Switch, PS4, PS5, Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S)

The Challenge of Telling Great Stories in TTRPGs

I recently played A Visit to San Sibilia for the first time, and I found it to be a really enjoyable solo tabletop role playing experience for crafting an interesting story. It appealed to me as a writer much more than as a gamer. In fact, I think part of the reason why it does so well at making interesting stories is that it’s barely on the edge of being a TTRPG at all. All of this got me thinking about telling great stories in tabletop RPGs, and why it can be so hard to do well.

One of the challenges I inevitably run into when I’m playing these games is the desire to craft a good story. I think this is only natural for writers. The problem is that good stories have certain structures, and the game often fights against that.

TTRPGs have three aspects that often disrupt good story structure:

Mechanics

Especially in rules-heavy games like Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder, the mechanics of combat, spellcasting, or even more esoteric things like politics or detective work can really limit the storytelling. If there is a rule for doing something, players tend to stop telling stories and start plugging values into the equation to get the outputs they want. They go into gameplay mode. Plus, working through these rules often throws pacing out the window. I’ve been in more than one session where the story was really getting good…right up until we got in an hour-long fight.

Too Many Drivers

Imagine going to get lunch with a few friends. Now imagine you all pile into the same car, but it’s a crazy car with pedals and a steering wheel for every seat. Oh, and you all want to go to a different restaurant. That’s what trying to guide the story in a TTRPG can sometimes feel like.

Each player has their own character and their own interests in the game. The only person who can really guide the story more than others is the DM/GM who is running it. But even they can’t really force the story to go in a direction unless the players want it to. If they try to railroad the players in the “correct” direction, the players will feel like they have no agency in the game. If they give the player characters the ability to shape the story, they will inevitably steer it away from whatever long-term plans the GM might have, whether on purpose or by accident.

Even harder to control are real-world intrusions into the game. Maybe a player has to miss a session or two. Maybe they have to stop playing. Suddenly a main character disappears, like a star actor unexpectedly leaving a show.

Randomness

Sometimes you get a couple of lucky hits and the villain dies in the middle of the campaign. Sometimes you get a series of bad rolls and miss all the clues that move the mystery forward. Veteran GMs know that you shouldn’t count on any outcome if there’s any randomness involved.

Randomness can make a story arc drag on too long, or unexpectedly end it outright. It can be responsible for incredible highs when the players get lucky at a vital moment, and incredibly low lows like party wipes.

True randomness means you can’t be sure what’s going to happen next. That can be exciting, but it doesn’t help you to craft a tight story.

Story vs. Game?

So, are TTRPGs destined to have bad stories? Not necessarily. But a good story for a TTRPG has a different structure and a different feel to a good story on the page.

In TTRPGs, it’s important that the story give the player characters agency in the world, give them challenges and opportunities. It’s up to the players what they do with them. Much like video games, the fun comes from experience and participation. The “plot” will sometimes stall or take a ninety-degree turn. Or a session will get bogged down in mechanics, and the story will be mostly ignored. All of that is fine, as long as everyone is having a good time.

That said, there’s a reason why TTRPG logs often translate into boring fiction. Good fiction can’t afford to meander. Good fiction has to have tight character arcs, and the success or failure of the characters can’t be thrown out the window at a die roll.

I personally love writing stories and playing games, but I had to come to grips with these differences when I first started running those games. I had to realize that I don’t want a story outline that goes much beyond the current play session. I had to learn that my job was to build interesting settings and experiences and above all, opportunities, and let the players navigate them however they wanted to. I had to create a collaborative environment, and then I had to collaborate.

So if you’re frustrated or worried that your TTRPG sessions don’t feel like you’re playing a novel, realize that you’re not alone. That’s expected. Leave the books for reading, accept that the story in your game is sometimes going to be a little wonky, and enjoy it for what it is: a collaborative experience; part gameplay, part story.

Should We All Be Selling Fiction NFTs?

If you haven’t been living under a rock for the last few months, you’ve probably heard a bit about NFTs. The news outlets and crypto bros are all incredibly eager to tell us about just how much money this or that JPEG was recently sold for. The only thing more popular than gawking at these huge sales is writing blog posts trying to explain in layman’s terms what the heck an NFT is, or why the heck anyone would want to buy one.

As authors, it feels like we’ve been living in a technological revolution for a while now. We’ve seen a huge transformation of the publishing industry in the past decade or so. Traditional publishing and distribution channels shrank while self-publishing and online distribution became viable options. Could the recent rise of NFTs represent yet another way for authors to sell their work?

For as much talk as there has been around NFT visual art and the (ugh) “metaverse,” there is comparatively little discussion of monetizing the written word. Although the latest NFT craze has been around visual digital art, there’s no technical limitation stopping other types of art from being “NFT-ified.” An NFT itself is able to hold only a tiny amount of data, but the way NFTs are typically used is more as a glorified digital certificate of authenticity, and it can point to almost anything. So let’s take a look at what fiction NFTs might look like, and whether they seem likely to be a viable way for authors to sell their work.

Downsides

Publishing fiction and building an audience is already a challenge. Most of us aren’t looking to make it even harder, so it’s important to look at the downsides of using NFTs.

Minting Ain’t Free

NFTs use cryptocurrencies and blockchains as their bedrock (usually the Ethereum chain and its native currency, Ether). You’ll need a cryptocurrency wallet, and you’ll need some cryptocurrency in it. That means you’ll need to buy crypto with real money. You’ll need to pay gas fees. You’ll probably also need a browser extension or a wallet with built-in browser to interface with the exchange and set up your listing.

If that last paragraph sounded like technobabble to you, then you see the other cost: complexity. If you haven’t been involved with cryptocurrency and/or you’re not very computer savvy, getting all of this set up can feel like a pretty big undertaking. Plus, the world of crypto is full of hacks and scams (try looking up “rug pull” or “stolen NFT”), so jumping into it without a good understanding of what’s going on can be risky.

No Silver Bullet

Huge sales of NFTs have drawn big headlines because they make for exciting news, but anecdotes should not be confused with statistics. Like cryptocurrency, the NFT marketplace seems to be pretty volatile. It’s fueled by speculation, sentiment and hype.

A few people have tried to fight the hype with research, and what they’ve found is that most NFTs don’t sell for more than a hundred dollars (and that’s before fees). Most artists who jump in aren’t getting rich. It’s not even clear if the average artist breaks even. There are a few people selling for hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars, but is that really any different from Stephen King or E. L. James in the traditional publishing world?

Simply minting an NFT is no guarantee you’ll make money, and it’s certainly possible to lose some.

An Ideological Minefield

Cryptocurrency and NFTs aren’t exactly mainstream yet, but they’re getting more attention and press. And there are plenty of institutions and investors hyping them (often with holdings that stand to benefit from that hype). But there are plenty of others who are just as loudly pointing out the dangers: energy consumption, unstable and insecure technology, lack of regulation or oversight, and more.

In a world that is increasingly polarized, this is a natural ideological battleground—a tangled web of political beliefs, complicated technology, and economics. Having money at stake rarely makes people more objective.

It’s fair to say that announcing a venture into this arena will be met with excitement by the true believers, and scorn by the skeptics. Be ready to deal with that, and hope that the audience who gets excited is big enough to make it worthwhile.

Upsides

So far, NFTs don’t seem like a great deal. They’re certainly fraught with challenges. But there are some possible advantages too.

Novelty

NFTs have name recognition. They’re relatively new technology that’s attracting a lot of attention. And for those who are interested, they feel a bit like being involved in a sci-fi future.

If you’re the sort of person who likes experimenting with new, technology-infused forms of storytelling (like interactive fiction), then NFTs may be an exciting new playground. And the readers who are interested in new forms of storytelling may be more likely to jump the technical hurdles and be willing to support an NFT project.

This article from Lit Hub suggests that at least a few authors are making money by using NFTs to experiment with form and function, or at least provide a novel (heh heh) marketing twist for their writing projects.

Another Potential Income Stream

One of the oddities of NFTs, at least where digital art is concerned, is that they don’t actually provide legal or physical ownership of the thing they represent. They’re a digital note that can’t be easily forged, and point to the digital item of your choosing.

An NFT could be used as a way to sell the rights to a story or a novel, but it doesn’t have to be. It could be used more like autographed promotional materials or Patreon rewards: a bonus or collectable for invested fans. Minting an NFT of a story doesn’t mean the buyer owns any legal rights to that story, and you could still go on to publish it yourself.

Be aware, however, that blockchain information is inherently public. A typical NFT points to the item it represents at a URL that anyone can access. Since many publishers want “first” rights, minting an NFT of a piece of fiction may severely limit the rights that you can subsequently sell.

Conclusions

I’m personally pretty skeptical of NFTs and their cryptocurrency underpinnings, but it is a fact that it is now possible to mint NFTs for our art (or at least tangentially related to it). If nothing else, I think it’s always good to know what options are out there.

What do you think? Would you ever consider making NFTs of your fiction? Do you think there’s a market for it today? What about in five or ten years?

Games for People Who Prefer to Read — The Stanley Parable

If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to personify different types of media for a moment.

Literature is the eldest. From flash fiction to the longest novels, it has been thoroughly explored. Comfortable in its tropes and standard structures, but permitting all kinds of experimentalism. Home to derivative commercial fiction and plotless literary meanderings.

Cinema, and its fraternal twin, television, are mature adults, but perhaps not quite as well-explored as their venerable older sibling. With the advent of ubiquitous streaming, we’re seeing new and exciting forms that break the strict boundaries of commercial viability that have constrained them for so much of their history.

Finally, there are video games. Just blooming into their teenage years, they have realized with a thrill that they can become something more than what they currently are, but are still not quite sure what they want to be when they grow up.

The Stanley Parable

The Stanley Parable is indicative of these teenage growing pains, grappling with the questions of experience and participation that we’ve discussed here before. The game is nearly a decade old, and the narrative ideas that it pioneered have been expanded in other games since then. However, a new expanded edition is coming early next year, so now seems like a great time to talk about it.

The game begins with a black screen and cheerful, perhaps cheeky music plays as we zoom slowly through a very dull office building. We land in a particular drab office, facing the uninteresting back of a man in front of his computer.

The very British narrator sets the scene:

This is the story of a man named Stanley. Stanley worked for a company in a big building where he was employee # 427. Employee # 427’s job was simple: he sat at his desk in room 427 and he pushed buttons on a keyboard. Orders came to him through a monitor on his desk, telling him what buttons to push, how long to push them, and in what order. This is what employee 427 did every day of every month of every year, and although others might have considered it soul rending, Stanley relished every moment that the orders came in, as though he had been made exactly for this job. And Stanley was happy.

And then one day, something very peculiar happened, something that would forever change Stanley, something he would never quite forget. He had been at his desk for nearly an hour when he realized that not one, single order had arrived on the monitor for him to follow. No one had shown up to give him instructions, call a meeting, or even say hi. Never in all his years at the company had this happened, this complete isolation. Something was very clearly wrong. Shocked, frozen solid, Stanley found himself unable to move for the longest time, but as he came to his wits and regained his senses, he got up from his desk and stepped out of his office.

At this moment, when the player first gains control of Stanley, the game has already hinted at its objectives. Stanley has been made exactly for this job. He has been frozen solid, unable to move, as he waits for the player to finish the cut-scene. The player and Stanley have exactly one way to proceed: get up from the desk and step out of the office.

It is this interplay between the player and The Narrator that The Stanley Parable is all about.

The Meta-Narrative

A single play-through of The Stanley Parable is short and strange, and not especially profound. It might elicit a few chuckles. It might be a bit uncomfortable. And then the scene fades and Stanley and the player find themselves back in the office, starting over. The game is not in the play, but in the replay. The peculiarities of The Stanley Parable only become apparent when playing the game over and over again.

As the player, you soon discover that you can make choices that change the story. In fact, your choices have such a radical effect on the story that it is completely different and often contradictory between playthroughs. Strangely, this mish-mash of alternative stories makes any one version of it seem less and less significant. You may like or dislike particular stories, but the game doesn’t tell you how to win or lose. As a player, the most obvious goal is to explore and discover all the different ways to “complete” the game.

In this way, the narrative becomes unimportant. It’s the meta-narrative that matters.

Through playing over and over again, you also discover that you can interact with The Narrator himself. He does his best to describe what you’re doing, and what you’re going to do. He explains that you’ll go left at the fork, and the you can make him a liar by choosing to go right. He explains that there’s nothing of interest in that broom closet, but you can choose to sit there anyway, much to The Narrator’s consternation.

And yet, this is a false rebellion. The Narrator is just another character in the story. Even if you fight the story he has planned for you at every juncture, you’re still choosing from options that have been meticulously planned by the developers of the game. You can foil The Narrator, but you’re still playing into the hands of the developers.

You have choices, and those choices have consequences…for a little bit. Then the game starts over. The world begins anew. The Stanley Parable asks if those choices—choices pre-defined and wiped away after each reset—have any meaning. Can any choices in a video game have any meaning when they only have consequences within the game, and perhaps, within the player?

A Light Touch

These are heady questions, and a lesser game might find itself mired in dull philosophy. However, The Stanley Parable couches everything in absurdism. It alternates constantly between the bizarre and the mundane. Kevan Brighting’s voice acting as The Narrator provides dry wit and hammy over-acting in equal measure.

The game is enjoyable even if you only pay attention to the surface-level silliness. But it gives the player the opportunity to dig deeper, if they so choose. Chances are good that some of the well-hidden story paths will slip by even a dedicated player without a guide, giving the impression that the game just keeps getting more subtle and strange as you invest more time into it. A quick google search for “the meaning of The Stanley Parable” will make it clear that plenty of players have chosen to dig very, very deep into the game. Honestly, maybe a little too deep.

And Even More?

It’ll be interesting to see what The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe edition adds to the original game. This is a game that really affected the landscape of narrative games in the eight years since its release, but that also means that it’s no longer necessarily on the cutting edge.

The marketing copy suggests there will be “new endings and new choices,” which again is merely the surface-level experience that the game offers. More interesting to me will be any new directions the developers take the meta-narrative ideas of the first game. Will it be derivative of the original, or introduce something new?

Getting the Game

The original Stanley Parable is available on PC via Steam.

Despite several delays, the Stanley Parable Ultra Deluxe is expected in 2022, on Steam and consoles.

Games for People Who Prefer to Read — Fallen London

Albert, the Prince Consort, lies on the threshold of death. Facing the loss of her true love, Queen Victoria cuts a deal with the Masters of the Bazaar. They will save Albert, but in exchange they will take the Traitor Empress, her consort, and all of London to their domain deep beneath the Earth. The Neath.

Years later, when you come to the vast underground cavern that contains Fallen London, the Empress and the parliament remain, but it is unquestionably the Masters of the Bazaar who rule the city. The city is changed but recognizable, twisted and reconfigured around its new heart: the mysterious Echo Bazaar. Londoners are resilient, and have come to grips with the strange situation, including the fact that death is now a mere inconvenience — as long as you don’t venture back up into the sun.

Fallen London is a web browser game more than a decade old — an incredibly long run by the standards of such games. Thanks to its art style, its reliance on text, and a steady stream of improvements, it doesn’t feel outdated. It is by turns comedic and dark, and overflowing with Victorian sensibilities and literary references.

Gameplay

The gameplay elements are simple. You create a character, and this character has attributes. They may represent skills you’ve picked up, items you’ve acquired, or connections you’ve made with people and organizations. In general, they represent who you are, and what you can do.

Your character, at any given moment, is in a location. You draw from a deck of cards called the opportunity deck. Your opportunities depend on your attributes and where you are. Each opportunity gives you an illustration, a few paragraphs of text, and usually a choice. The outcome will often depend on your attributes and plain luck, and you may gain or lose something as a result.

Unfortunately, Fallen London came of age in the heyday of FarmVille-style mobile games, with energy mechanics that limit the number of actions you can take before you must wait (or pay) to recharge. You cannot binge Fallen London without paying. That said, it’s designed around brief play sessions, and I don’t think the energy mechanic detracts too much from the experience.

Story

The gameplay is not really the draw of Fallen London. It’s merely the engine for dispensing story. Players have stayed with the game for a decade because of the masterful environmental storytelling, interesting characters, and deeply interwoven plot elements.

There are hundreds of unique characters in dozens of locations within the city. There are centuries of history buried (literally) beneath London, including the ruins of other cities previously stolen from the surface world by the Masters.

You can venture out into the cavern, across the Unterzee. There are strange islands and distant shores. Hell is a real place, populated by bureaucratic and seductive devils. In Polythreme, inanimate objects spring to life.

Above all, Fallen London is a game of mysteries. The rewards most valued by the playerbase are not currency or items. They’re new stories that reveal why things are the way they are in this slightly steampunk, cosmic-horror alternate history.

How did the Gracious Widow come to run a vast smuggling empire? What exactly are the bumbling, Cthulhu-esque rubbery men, and where did they come from? Why do the Masters of the Bazaar steal cities and bring them to the Neath?

Content and Costs

The bulk of the content in the game is free, and there is enough to keep new players busy for months. Additionally, there are seasonal stories that appear for a limited time each year, sometimes with little additions. The developers also release a new story each month, with new locations and opportunities.

The game makes money primarily by selling these monthly stories. Players can purchase a $7 monthly subscription to automatically get all the new stories as they come out, but old stories must be purchased individually for around $5 – $25 each, depending on size. The subscription option also doubles your energy pool.

See You in the Neath

Whether Fallen London pulls you into its story or not, I think it’s a great game for writers to check out, to see just how literary and story-centric a video game can be. It’s a master class in the looping and branching techniques of interactive fiction.

If you like cosmic horror, steampunk, Victorian mystery, you’ll probably find something to enjoy in Fallen London. It’s a weird and living city, deep as Vandermeer’s Ambergris or Miéville’s New Crobuzon. I find myself getting pulled back into it every couple years.

In fact, I created a new account as I was writing this. So if you need an acquaintance in the Neath, let me know in the comments. We can exchange letters, insult each other for our own gain, or take turns attempting assassination.

Games for People Who Prefer to Read — “What Remains of Edith Finch”

Video games can be many things. They may be about building empires, stacking oddly shaped bricks, or finding misplaced princesses. Most often, they’re about rather a lot of shooting and blowing things up. Games can be simple or juvenile, and they can certainly have bad writing. For these reasons and many others, games tend to get a bad reputation among the literary-minded.

In this series, I want to highlight a few games that care about story. I want to try to prove to the skeptics that some games have something to say, in much the same way that a good book does. These are games where you can’t die. You don’t need twitch reflexes or a deep knowledge of 900 pokémon. Instead, these games work hard to build deep characters and a compelling narrative, and pull you into their world.

So, if you’re someone who loves books and hates games, consider giving one of these a try. You might just be surprised.

What Remains of Edith Finch

Edith Finch is a young woman returning to her childhood home. She is the youngest of the family, and the last one still alive. As she explains, the Finches believe they are the victims of a curse. Few of them die of natural causes. Instead, they seem destined for strange ends, whether their lives are long or cut tragically short.

As the player, you guide Edith through the Finch house, a seaside mansion that has been built-upon and expanded over several generations, a bit like the Winchester House. You quickly discover that the rooms of the deceased Finches have been sealed off, untouched, like little museum pieces. As you open those rooms up, you get glimpses of each person — visions from their perspective, enhanced by Edith’s narration and her journal entries, filling out her family tree with whimsical sketches. You begin to piece together the history of the Finch family in all of its joys and tragedies.

Each room in the house, each person, is revealed through a unique experience. Each is delightful in a different way. They range from eldritch horror to peaceful meditation. From the simplicity of flying a kite or swinging on a swing to navigating a living comic book to vignettes of a camping trip seen through the viewfinder of an old camera.

The uppermost rooms of the house are stacked in a teetering tower. They are a promise made in the opening moments of the game, as you first approach the house. They are the most recently-built rooms, the ones once occupied by the people most important to Edith. She will have to climb to the apex and come to grips with the legacy of the Finch family.

This poignant anthology of stories about death ends on a surprisingly hopeful note. The purpose of the journal, the narration, and the title all come together to deliver a clear message: it’s your life that defines you, not your death.

Getting the Game

What Remains of Edith Finch is a game by Giant Sparrow. It’s available for PC (from several providers), as well as Nintendo Switch, Xbox and Playstation.

Story in Games: Experience and Participation

This is still a blog about writing fiction, but in this post I’m going to talk about video games and the way they can provide some unique narrative experiences that are difficult or impossible to achieve in other media.

Even if you’re not interested in games, it’s worth learning a bit about how narrative in games continues to expand what media is capable of. A good place to start might be interactive fiction, an art form that straddles the boundaries of prose and video games. Interactive fiction is where a lot of interesting experimentation is going on, but more and more “traditional” video games are incorporating narrative lessons that were originally explored by IF.

Gameplay and Narrative

In many ways, the experiences in games can be tracked along two axes: gameplay and narrative.

I’ll define gameplay as systems to be solved or optimized. They are goal-based, whether implicitly or explicitly, and can be open-ended. Examples of gameplay include spinning and placing Tetris pieces or aiming and shooting opponents in a first-person shooter.

Narrative, on the other hand, is the “story” of the game. This may hew close to traditional story structures, as in film or fiction, but it can also branch, or even arise organically from the interaction of systems. Examples of narrative include branching dialogue choices in an RPG, characters talking in a cutscene, or distracting an enemy with a well-placed arrow in order to sneak past them.

I realize that there is a lot that could be argued within these definitions. I made them purposely broad, partly to illustrate how often we categorize narrative and story very narrowly.

Under these definitions, games may still range from no gameplay to all gameplay, and from no narrative to all narrative. However, the presence of one does not necessarily exclude the other — it’s not zero-sum, but it can require a deft hand to balance both.

Preconceptions

There is a certain set of gamers who think gameplay is the most important thing in a game. For this group, a game with little or no gameplay and lots of narrative doesn’t qualify as a game at all. These are the folks who coined the derisive term “walking simulator” for games that are entirely narrative, with little to no gameplay systems or challenges.

In opposition, we find the “games are art” crowd, who tend to be much more inclusive of walking simulators or visual novels, and appreciate narrative as much or more than gameplay. Many of the people in this camp will feel frustrated and excluded if a game has a lot of gameplay to wade through to get to the story, especially if it is difficult gameplay. If the player cares about the story, having that story blocked by gameplay that the player doesn’t care about can be irritating.

What Makes Game Narrative Special?

Games are a special narrative medium for two reasons:

  • They’re experiential
  • They’re participatory

In cinema, TV and books, the author will often try to create sympathy for a character. TV and movies have certain disadvantages here, because the visual media are always showing characters from the outside. Character narration is about as deep inside a viewpoint as they can get. Novels and stories, on the other hand, can use the first-person perspective to put the reader directly inside the character’s head. Even in third-person, they can reveal a character’s thoughts and emotions. The reader can more directly experience what the character experiences.

Games have a similar advantage, and go even further. In games, the player often controls or even inhabits a character. In this way, the player can experience what the character experiences. This is experientiality.

What a consumer of traditional fiction or visual media cannot do is take control of the story. Simple gameplay systems such as choosing where to walk at a given moment, or picking from several dialogue options, make the player an active participant in the story. Even if the choice is artificial and they are eventually funneled into a single location to progress, or the dialogue always ends with the same result, the feeling of participation is a powerful tool.

While other media can give the reader or viewer insight into a character’s thoughts and beliefs, games have a unique power to make the player feel unified with the character. The player becomes invested in the character’s actions as if it were the player making those actions, even when there really is no other option. Players often fall into first-person when talking about actions performed in the game. They say “I accidentally blew up the bokoblin camp,” not “Link accidentally blew up the bokoblin camp.”

Along with this fusion of player and character comes a strange feeling of player responsibility over the story. An unusual first person shooter called Spec Ops: the Line actively explores these concepts of narrative and player agency. The player has no real control over the story, moving from place to place and shooting everyone that moves. But when the characters participate in war crimes, the game asserts that the player did these terrible things. Because of the unification of player and character, it’s hard not to feel some amount of responsibility, even though the only other choice is to put the game down and walk away.

Simple experientiality can be as powerful as active participation and choice, but that power is often underestimated. In What Remains of Edith Finch, the player spends most of the game exploring the many ways that the members of the supposedly cursed Finch family died. It quickly becomes apparent that whenever you encounter a new character, they are destined by the narrative to die. It’s surprisingly crushing then, when you reach a point in the game where you discover that you are inhabiting the perspective of a small child, left alone for a moment in the tub. You know what will happen, and the very fact that you have no power to make a choice to change that outcome is gut-wrenching.

Bringing it Back to Fiction

Games can deploy experientiality and participation to create stories that would be impossible in other media. But is there anything in these concepts that we can bring back to our fiction writing?

I think there is, although it’s a challenge. We may have to dip our toes into the experimental end of the pool.

Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves is an experimental novel that contains a layered narrative. It presents itself as a book pieced together from disparate documents, collected by multiple authors, and based in turn on lost video footage. It carefully passes the story through this chain of custody, from Will Navidson’s videos, to the old man, Zampanò, to the narrator, Johnny Truant. Implied within this is that the reader is the latest custodian of this story, which has driven its previous owners to obsession and insanity.

The text itself is cryptic and formatted in a variety of strange ways, sometimes swirling around the page with swaths of whitespace, colors or boxes. It is riddled with footnotes (and footnotes to footnotes), “supplementary” materials, and copious references to other works, both real and fictional. In some places, the text is so disordered, the reader must choose the order to read it in. At a broader level, the reader must make connections between disparate pieces of text across the book to assemble the story.

Simply by reading the text, the reader becomes a sort of detective, trying to derive meaning from this carefully constructed mish-mash. The reader begins to feel what Johnny or Zampanò might have felt as they compiled scraps of text into the book, or scrawled bewildered footnotes late into the night.

House of Leaves is a challenging book to read, and was no doubt a challenging one to write, but it is clearly trying to pull off the same tricks that many games achieve: to make the reader feel that they are experiencing and even actively participating in the story.

Trade-offs and Opportunities

Different forms of media will always have trade-offs — things they do better than other media, and things they do worse. For games, experientiality and participation are powerful storytelling tools. Working in fiction, we will always struggle to leverage those tools as effectively as games can.

Still, there are lessons that can be learned from this style of narrative, and perhaps opportunities to allow the reader to experience the story and even feel like an active participant.

Reference Desk – #2 – Interactive Fiction

Innovation in Fiction

As a software developer, innovation is part of my everyday life. My job is to grow and improve the software I’m responsible for. I use technologies that are regularly updated, and new tech is always being invented to improve on the old. Innovation is everywhere, and it’s constant.

As a writer, “innovation” is a much more nebulous term.

You might call challenging, complex language and structure innovative. James Joyce is popular largely because of this. Or you might consider experiments in formatting and typography to be innovative, such as Danielewski’s House of Leaves. But how innovative are these things, really? They’re still words, printed inside a book. You still read them from front to back. They’re still attempting to deliver a story from the writer to the reader.

Fiction has been around for so long, and it is so ubiquitous, that it’s difficult to find ways to truly innovate. But I’d argue there is at least one type of fiction that is genuinely innovating, by testing and expanding the boundaries of what fiction can be. As you might have guessed from the title, it’s called interactive fiction.

Where most fiction involves the creator (such as a writer or director) delivering a story to the consumer (a reader or viewer), interactive fiction turns this on its head, and says that the consumer should be an active participant in the story. This is a fairly broad scope, and can include media as diverse as books, movies and video games.

Choose Your Own Adventure

One of the most iconic forms of interactive fiction is the Choose Your Own Adventure book series that was popular in the ’80s and ’90s. This was probably my first experience with interactive fiction. These books, aimed at kids, contained a branching narrative that used a second-person perspective to make the reader the protagonist. Every few pages, the reader would be presented with a choice (usually with two options, occasionally with more). Each choice pointed the reader to a specific page where the story would continue.

These stories approached interactive fiction from the angle of books with choices, but this was the time period where personal computing was beginning to come into its own on a large scale, and others were approaching interactive fiction from a different direction: stories told through computer software.

Video Games

Games like Zork and its sequels provided a narrative in text, but also included game elements such as puzzles and simple battles. By using the computer to parse commands from the player, a much richer set of interactions could be developed. Even simple (and often cryptic) commands like “go north” or “hit troll” gave the player much more freedom than the binary options provided by Choose Your Own Adventure.

(Unfortunately, the promise of parsers that could effectively parse arbitrary plain-text commands from users never materialized. Modern computer scientists and tech giants still haven’t managed to produce AI that can carry on a simple conversation, decades later.)

As computer graphics advanced, these story-focused games would influence the graphical adventure games of the ’90s, popularized by LucasArts and Sierra, and role-playing games all the way up to the present day.

The limitations of early computer graphics were a boon to interactive fiction. Some games painted rich and detailed worlds in text at least partly because graphics were so limited. However, the graphics have become more and more advanced, effectively killing the commercial viability of genres like text and graphical adventure games.

In modern times, it’s still possible to find games that pride themselves on narrative depth – huge AAA role-playing and adventure games, and all manner of small-team indies. However, even as graphics and gameplay have advanced tremendously, there seems to be comparatively little exploration of how the player can interact with the narrative in interesting ways. Much of the interesting work on this front is happening not in the huge, successful game studios with multi-million dollar budgets, but in small, independent studios with niche audiences.

Fallen London

One such example is Fallen London, a browser game that has been around for a decade and continues to put out new content every few weeks. Fallen London has some of the classic video game trappings: character stats in the form of vague attributes (watchful, shadowy, dangerous, and persuasive), as well as an expansive item system. However, all of these systems work in service of the story. The story itself is branching and immense – millions of words doled out a few paragraphs at a time.

The story is the main content and the reward. Whereas most free games would ask players to pay for shiny graphical customizations and costumes, convenience features, or a bigger, sharper sword, Fallen London offers pay-to-play stories, and rewards cleverness or hard work with more words and perhaps the chance to learn something about a character or faction in the sprawling story.

Rather than the simple binary options of Choose Your Own Adventure, or the flexible-but-sometimes-inscrutable commands of Zork, Fallen London uses a system of semi-randomized “opportunity cards” that the player draws. Each card offers an opportunity – a small story or snippet of a larger narrative. Which cards can appear in a player’s deck depends on the location of their character, as well as the character’s attribute scores and qualities. Qualities can be anything from a profession to living arrangements to acquaintances to quirks of personality. The choices available are dependent on a wide variety of choices already made by the player along with a bit of luck and randomness.

This kind of game shows the immense range of possibilities available when game systems that have normally been used for gameplay are turned toward deep, interactive narrative, where the player can feel like their choices matter. Failbetter Games, the makers of Fallen London, have been coming up with new and innovative systems for interactive fiction for years.

Exploring Interactive Fiction

While interactive fiction remains something of a niche, it has many vibrant and growing communities. There has probably never been a better time to explore.

I’d highly recommend at least dabbling in Fallen London. It’s free to play, but has an energy system that limits how frequently the player can take action. They’ve also built up an impressive library of additional stories for purchase.

The Interactive Fiction tag on Steam shows hundreds of games, ranging from classic text-adventure RPGs to visual novels.

The Interactive Fiction Database, Interactive Fiction Archive, and the Interactive Fiction Community Forum are all great resources to find interesting works.

Writing Interactive Fiction

The quantity and quality of tools for writing interactive fiction has exploded in recent years.

To get started, or just play around a little, Twine and InkleWriter are two excellent, free tools that can be used without any programming experience.

However, depending on how elaborate you want to get, there are many, many tools. Some of these can be quite technical. At the most technical end of the spectrum, there are many interactive fiction writers who code their own engines so they can tell their stories with very specific forms of interaction. The IF Community Forum has a section dedicated to tools that is a great resource.

The Craft of Interactive Fiction

One of the most exciting things about IF is that it’s still a relatively new and fresh medium. Authors are still exploring how it can be used, and innovation is happening all the time. Much like traditional fiction, one of the best ways to learn is to read or play a few stories. There are also plenty of discussions going on if you like to dig deep into theory and analysis.

  • The Failbetter Blog – The makers of Fallen London have interesting insights on narrative structure, as well as making interactive fiction as a business.
  • Emily Short – The only individual I’ll mention here, and it’s because she is the most prolific and insightful author I’ve found on the topic of interactive fiction. Check out her blog and her talks. She also has some great resource lists for digging deeper.
  • The Interactive Fiction Community Forum – A wealth of discussion on the technical and literary details of writing IF.

Try it Out

This is a topic that really interests me, so I’m sure I’ll be coming back to it again in the future. For now, if it sounds interesting to you, try writing a bit of interactive fiction yourself, and let me know what you come up with!