The return of the scroll

Phallaina is “the first scrolling graphic novel,” and it is fun. Instead of turning pages, you just scroll from left to right. Breaking free of the confines of the codex means there is no need to divide the illustrations into panels. Take a look at this example, where one plane serves first as the floor but then also as a door perpendicular to that same floor:

phallaina

There are dozens of thoughtful, playful moments like that, all enabled by the scroll.

This is the sort of thing that is both exciting and difficult to think about in relation to a future generation of ebooks. Sometimes, as you can in most ebook readers now, you want to give people the option to switch between pagination and scrolling. But sometimes, as evidenced by Phallaina, scrolling is essential to the experience. Other times text and illustrations will have been carefully crafted to sit together within the rectangle of a page, and in that case not only must you force pagination, you can’t allow the text to reflow for different screen sizes. How do you accommodate all those variables—scroll vs. page, optional vs. forced, formless vs. definite? One of the under-appreciated virtues of paper is the number of decisions that are made for you.

‘Walking simulator’ as technique, not genre

Games like Gone Home, Firewatch, and The Stanley Parable are sometimes called “walking simulators,” a term that started out as derogatory before it was appropriated, or at least accepted, by people who like these games that focus more on story and exploring a space than on puzzles, fighting, and whether you win or lose. But in reading an article about the making of the interactive short film Solace, I was surprised to see the term applied to something that isn’t a game at all:

The original concept could be boiled down to a cartoon you could play with. Like a more traditional film, I wanted the story to be front and center — the interaction should not overpower the narrative. The challenge was to balance playability with the joy of sitting and listening to a good story, well told.

From the start it became apparent that there was a conflict between listening to the narrator’s voice and playing with the interaction. If any of interaction was too complicated, or absorbing, users would miss key moments in the narrative. On the other hand, not being a traditional animation, if the interaction wasn’t strong enough, a user would get bored. This was an experience that couldn’t use traditional game mechanics, or puzzles in general. It had to be closer to a film that you are mindlessly toying with. Nothing to solve. Nothing to complete.

Through numerous iterations and user testing, the end result can be described (in the trendy parlance) as a ‘2D walking simulator’. The user plays with each of the 17 scenes, but their actions don’t drive the narrative. Each scene and the interaction within the scene is a metaphor for the story at that particular point. Sometimes it is as simple as what the narrator says is what the user sees. At other times, the interaction referred or alluded to greater themes of the story.

This offhanded comment by Evan Boehm does something brilliant: It redefines “walking simulator” as a storytelling technique rather than a game genre, a technique that strikes what I think is a very satisfying balance between player agency and authorial control.

Quietly personalized stories

Sam Barlow, the author of Her Story, is now at a company called Eko, thinking about interactive storytelling without the need for explicit choices from the viewer:

Barlow was uncertain how much of the “WarGames” tracking mechanics he should reveal to the viewer. “The two-million-dollar question is: Do we need to show this?” he said. He believed that interactive films will increasingly resemble online ads: unobtrusively personalized media. “When ads first started tracking you, for the first few months you’d be, like, ‘How did they know?’ A couple of months later, you’d be, like, ‘Of course they knew. I was Googling baby formula.’ And now it’s, like, ‘I’m still getting spammed for vacation properties around Lake Placid, and I’m, like, Dude, we went. You should already know!’ ”

The entire article, “Will interactive films be this century’s defining art form?,” is worth reading. 

Notes on Her Story

Her Story by Sam Barlow is an interesting, enjoyable experiment. Its website describes it as “non-linear” storytelling, but I think a more accurate description would be “random-access” storytelling.

You find yourself in front of a computer screen in which you type in keywords to search for video clips from a series of police interviews with…well, part of your job is figuring out who.

Like Gone Home, you control the plotting but not the story (the syuzhet but not the fabula, for you formalists out there). Like CLOUDS, the database at the heart is exposed and central. Like PRY, you are given an indication of how much of the material you have uncovered. The mechanic feels a little like what I described in my Kuleshov 2.0 thought experiment, except the story itself doesn’t change depending on the order in which you watch the clips; it’s the draft in your head that is changing, mutating with each new piece of information to better align itself with the story slowly being uncovered.

Part of its charm is that in scale and quirkiness it feels like the work of one person, and it largely was. I had fun reading about the tools Sam Barlow used to put it together: a couple VCRs to degrade the video footage, a $100 audio recorder supplemented with a free sound effect library, a MacBook Air that I picture slowly but surely chugging through its Final Cut and Unity renders.

Barlow must have had help recording the actual video interviews, and the success of the whole thing hinges on the performance of the actor, Viva Seifert. Other than that, the development of this game is as close to a writerly experience as I have ever heard of for a visual (non-text) game.

Notes on PRY, part 2

I just finished the second and final installment of the app-novella PRY, which I first wrote about a few months ago. Looking back, I mostly still agree with what I wrote in that post. Some additional notes:

  • It’s an exciting idea to present different parts of a story in different ways, e.g., give readers more of a lean-back cinema experience when the story calls for it, then make them dig with their hands when the atmosphere changes or a plot point is better illustrated that way. Authors do this already by, for example, modifying their syntax to slow down a reader when it serves; film editors modify rhythm over the course of a scene and an entire film. Doing a more exaggerated version of this with software is a leap, but it’s a leap along a path we have already been following.
  • I’m amazed that the word “palimpsest” did not appear in my first post.
  • Letting readers cut between different angles of a filmed scene is an engaging middle ground between traditional cinema and virtual reality.
  • Since remarking on PRY’s “completion indicators” the first time around, I noticed a very similar feature in another piece of electronic literature, The Truth About Cats & Dogs by Sam Riviere and Joe Dunthorne. I wonder if this will become common practice, or if we will begin to abandon the idea of “finishing” certain types of electronic literature as they begin to adopt the less-bounded character of the web.

Hypertext narrative contrasted with interactive fiction

As I continue to figure out the different types of interactive storytelling out there, this dialogue between Emily Short and Mark Bernstein was helpful:

Emily: I like the distinction between calligraphic (sparsely linked) and sculptural hypertext (densely-linked, controlled by rules); though I think I tend to associate hypertext only with the former kind of work. When I hear “hypertext”, I assume something with minimal modeling behind the scenes.

Mark: This is an interesting – perhaps the interesting – distinction between the IF and hyperfiction traditions. IF is inclined to model story, while HT is inclined to model — or to believe itself to be modeling, plot. I don’t believe this has ever been stated clearly. Has it?

UPDATE: Mark Rickerby gets at something similar:

The core distinction [between parser games and choice fiction] is between the story unfolding through actions modifying a world model and the story developing through predefined narrative branches.

 

Writers of writers

In a couple previous posts, I wondered about what it means for humans’ role in the creative process when computers begin generating texts. Will we be promoted to editors and curators, or be out of a job?

Ross Goodwin provides a different metaphor:

I would have been more nervous about sharing the machine’s poetic output in front of so many people, but the poetry had already passed what was, in my opinion, a more genuine test of its integrity: a small reading at a library in Brooklyn alongside traditional poets.

Earlier in February, I was invited to share some work at the Leonard Library in Williamsburg. The theme of the evening’s event was love and romance, so I generated several poems [1,2] from images I considered romantic. My reading was met with overwhelming approval from the other poets at the event, one of whom said that the poem I had generated from the iconic Times Square V-J Day kiss photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt “messed [him] up” as it seemed to contain a plausible description of a flashback from the man’s perspective.

I had been worried because, as I once heard Allison Parrish say, so much commentary about computational creative writing focuses on computers replacing humans—but as anyone who has worked with computers and language knows, that perspective (which Allison summarized as “Now they’re even taking the poet’s job!”) is highly uninformed.

When we teach computers to write, the computers don’t replace us any more than pianos replace pianists—in a certain way, they become our pens, and we become more than writers. We become writers of writers.

“Writers of writers.”

Anybody interested in machine-generated text should read Goodwin’s “Adventures in Narrated Reality”: Part 1, Part 2.

Notes on Firewatch

In my notes on Gone Home, I said that the mechanics of the game forced the story to be told in the past tense. I didn’t see how one could create a story exploration video game with that degree of subtlety any other way.

Then, a few months ago, Firewatch was released.

I won’t spoil any plot details, and instead only say that, although there are past events that you uncover, the main story is yours, and it unfolds as you play—in the very beginning as a text adventure that quickly moves you through several years, then in the remainder as a “walking simulator” experience that takes place over a summer spent as a fire lookout in the forest, and that is as much about the conversations and other events happening as you go as it is about the past you are uncovering. And it works.

So, no, Gone Home’s retrospective style is not the only option for this medium.


From what I can tell from playing and what I have read, Firewatch follows the same basic plotline no matter what, but customizes its dialog based on your choices as a player. The writer, Sean Vanaman, explained to Slate:

“The conversation is putting itself together dynamically, and that means it can be hyper-specific,” said Vanaman. “There are 10,000 events in the game—speech and everything else—that can happen.” Rather than simply shunting you from branch to branch of a dialogue tree, the game looks at everything you’ve said and done, and picks the truest and most specific thing that can happen next. “There are so many [variables] in our game that are so silly and weird. There’s stuff like, has Henry ever mentioned the outhouse? Maybe that matters.”

It’s a fascinating way to tell an interactive story: Exert total control over the main plot points while letting the player’s choices shade the experience. It makes real one of the first things you see when you play the game: The statement “You are Henry.”


Some people have been frustrated with the ending. Those who were disappointed seemed to think they were playing a potboiler and discovered at the end they were playing literary fiction.

But it seems obvious that this was intentional misdirection on the part of the authors, and if you’re receptive to a climax happening on an emotional register instead of a blowing-things-up register, the fact that you weren’t sure which type of ending to expect makes it that much more impactful.

Aside from the issue of the ending, I would guess that the issue of audience comes into play: The story deals with marriage and kids, and it wouldn’t have meant as much to me if I had played it before experiencing those things.

If you want a more thorough meditation on the ending and don’t mind spoilers, see “The End of Firewatch” in The Campo Santo Quarterly Review. (Campo Santo is the company that developed Firewatch. Any development company that runs a literary magazine on the side is one to follow.)

What makes Gone Home a game

In a previous post on the story app Karen I wondered whether it was appropriate for The New York Times to call it “part game” since there is no way to lose. Turns out, Steve Gaynor, the writer and designer of Gone Home, presented a very thoughtful answer to this and related questions about what makes a “story exploration video game” a game in a 2014 presentation.

He lists the aspects of Gone Home that have been criticized for being un-game-like:

  • No combat/puzzles
  • No story branching/player builds
  • No failstate
  • Short runtime

And then lists the things that Gone Home does have that, by his definition, qualify it as a game:

  • Variability of player experience
  • Central focus on player agency
  • A spirit of playfulness within its themes and rules

The whole video (55 minutes) is well worth watching.

Notes on PRY, the book app

From the art collective Tender Claws comes the app-novella PRY.

Six years ago, James – a demolition expert – returned from the Gulf War. Explore James’ mind as his vision fails and his past collides with his present. PRY is a book without borders: a hybrid of cinema, gaming, and text. At any point, pinch James’ eyes open to witness his external world or pry apart the text of his thoughts to dive deeper into his subconscious. Through these and other unique reading interactions, unravel the fabric of memory and discover a story shaped by the lies we tell ourselves: lies revealed when you pull apart the narrative and read between the lines.

In the app, there is one part where you pry apart lines to reveal new text, literally reading between the lines. It’s a bit heavy-handed, but also hints at the promise of “a hybrid of cinema…and text”: the written words’ gift for abstraction and introspection can be complemented with the metaphors of cinema, which are much more immediate, concrete, and visceral than figurative language — and even moreso than literal language, because, of course, for something to be literal it must be frozen as a written word. In a book, one might figuratively “pry” into someone else’s affairs, or one might literally “pry” into a locked drawer, but only cinema allows you to see someone’s hands in all of their visual excess physically work apart a blockage to reveal a secret…and only with an app can those hands be yours.

I have more fun thinking about what PRY means for the future of the book than I do actually reading it. Each chapter is read in a different way — sometimes by using multitouch to open or close the main character’s eyes while you’re “inside his head,” sometimes by dragging your finger along braille that is read aloud to you while video plays as a palimpsest beneath, sometimes with scrolling through text that loops infinitely. It’s more clever than rewarding. In one chapter I had to escape to the help menu to figure out how to read it.

But what bothered me more than the tricky mechanics were the ones in which I felt a loss of control — with a book, you can easily go back and reread a sentence, and with a movie, you might miss details of plot or staging but you can be confident that everything you need to pay attention to is either between the four corners of the screen or is hitting your ears. With this app, there were chapters that played along like a movie, complete with a play/pause button, but that also had several layers going on so that it wasn’t clear (to me, anyway) whether you did or even could catch all the story material there was on offer. In other words, there were several times when I didn’t know where to look — which is never a problem in a purely textual novel and only comes up in a well-directed movie for rare, specific effects.

The app seems to know that this is an issue, and gives you a graphical representation of how throughly you have read each chapter, on a scale of one to four. I suppose this is to encourage you to go back and reread, but that’s asking a lot: most of the best books I’ve ever read I haven’t read four times.

That is my critique of the experience so far — one of the most promising affordances on display in PRY is the fact it’s being rolled out in stages: apps make a very convenient distribution system for serializing stories.

It also occurs to me that the discomfort I feel while reading might be necessary: If we are going to push the boundaries of what books can be, will that mean learning how to read all over again?