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?

Karen, the story app

Karen is a “life-coaching” app that is actually a story app. Or, as the New York Times would have it, “a software-driven experiential art piece…part story, part game.”

It was released last year, but I just got around to playing it. It’s very good. Some craft-focused thoughts:

  • I can’t tell having just played through it once how much the story adapts to the responses you choose. My sense, based in part on what that NYT article describes, is that your choices influence tone: you see different scenes based on what you say, but every combination of scenes adds up to the same basic story. (Again, this is my guess and gut feeling after one time through.)
  • It was an interesting decision to enforce breaks in the experience. Karen hangs up, and you can’t call back until some time later. The length of time you have to wait before calling her back varies. Sometimes I found this annoying, but sometimes I found it unsettling in the way I imagine the creators intended: sometimes those gaps were suspenseful.
  • Even though it’s fiction, it offers you a “data report” at the end that purports to give you psychological insights based on how you answered questions within the story/game. In doing so, it gives you a peek behind the curtain as to how it tailored itself to you.
  • Is this actually “part game”? It feels like all story to me. You can’t win or lose it, at least as far as I can tell. I think if I were trying to achieve as certain outcome it would be a game. But I wasn’t—I was just answering questions honestly and enjoying the ride.

Link

The people behind “Wallace & Gromit” have teamed up with Google to create a short film that is both 360° and interactive.

But changing the point of view this way doesn’t just put other aspects of the scenery into focus — it actually changes the plot itself: There are more than 60 trigger points placed around the backyard, and looking in a certain area essentially “unlocks” small parts of the story while pausing other parts of the action. This makes it possible to focus on an impromptu neighborhood band, and have Santa and his adversary patiently wait to continue their chase off screen.

[…]

By giving viewers the ability to explore different plots within the story, projects like “Special Delivery” also abandon the idea of a traditional timeline. Basically, a story can take as long as you want it to, which is obviously very different from a traditional YouTube video with a fixed length.

And you can watch right on YouTube! Well, theoretically. Right now you can only watch on select Android devices, but iOS support is coming soon. I’m looking forward to trying this out.

Video: “Saschka Unseld – Uncovering the Grammar of VR”

Video

Lots of interesting contrasts in this video between film and VR:

  • “In VR, if a story is told well, it actually is all about you.”
  • “If someone falls on their face right next you, it’s not funny.” (As opposed to pratfalls in film.)
  • “In cinema you have something like the fourth wall…between the [film] world and the audience. In VR there is no such thing as a fourth wall.”
  • “In a movie if you have an intimate scene, you would normally use a close-up shot… [But in VR] that is not what a close-up is. A close up [in film] is using a really long lens and being far away with the camera. But [in VR] because you are sitting really close to someone who is about to cry, that is not comfortable. But if the character sits back there in the corner and is about to cry, you actually have a lot of empathy for him.”

Notes on So Good They Can’t Ignore You, by Cal Newport

Like a lot of books that purport to offer “rules,” this has the whiff of the self-appointed guru — then again, part of the message is about effective self-promotion, so at least Newport is modeling.

It should have been an long essay instead of a book, but the good parts are quite good. My main takeaways:

  1. He says that “follow your passion” is wrong advice — but considering the evidence he presents I would say that’s it’s not entirely wrong, just too vague. He’s right that people usually don’t start out with a pre-defined passion, or if they do it’s usually not their life’s work: Steve Jobs would have ended up a Buddhist calligrapher if he had followed his passion. But Newport also talks about the importance of deliberate practice, and that what separates those who reach a pinnacle from those who plateau is the ability to push past the discomfort of stretching oneself. (The difference between noodling on the guitar and practicing the difficult parts on a loop for hours.) He convinced me of that, but what does that ability to push consist of? It’s either masochism or passion. It seems to me having enough passion about something to put up with deliberate practice is a good evidence that you’re on the right track — the real distinction to make is between making your passion your master or your servant. (In Mike Rowe’s words: Don’t follow your passion, but always bring it with you.)

  2. There is a popular notion that the only thing preventing people from following their passion is a lack of courage, and Newport thoroughly debunks this idea. It may take courage to quit your banker job and open a yoga studio, but if you’ve never taught yoga before it’s also stupid. That’s not to say that courage isn’t important, though: It also takes courage to turn down a promotion in favor of negotiating for greater autonomy in your work, but from the point of view of job satisfaction that is usually smart.

  3. Small, achievable projects give you a chance to quickly iterate, get feedback, and course correct. (Cf. Darius Kazemi, Thoughts on small projects.)

  4. He has a refreshingly straightforward view on supply and demand, and the value of not just self-improvement but specifically building marketable skills. “Career capital” is the term he uses.

  5. Despite his musician examples, this book has mixed messages for those who want to have an artistic career. He claims that “the right work” is secondary to “working right,” with the implication being that as long as your position has the traits that lead to job satisfaction (autonomy, impact, a sense of competence, good relationships) you might as well find the position that will maximize your earning potential. Money is a “neutral indicator of value” and art is a “hobby-style interest.” Tell that to Lewis Hyde.