About William Comfort Anderson

Perennial interests: film, literature, screenwriting. Recent obsessions: content strategy, software art, essay films.

Notes on The Pickle Index

The Pickle Index is a story app by Eli Horowitz and Russell Quinn with art by Ian Huebert:

In a glum nation ruled by a stylish dictator, all citizens are required by law to participate in the Pickle Index, a fermentation-based recipe exchange. From within this network, an incompetent circus attempts an unlikely uprising.

Thrills, chills, spills, & dills!

The writing combines George Saunders-style bureaucratic verbosity with some Tom Robbins absurd flair. You can get it in print, too, but you’d be missing some groundbreaking experiments in using software to tell a story.

When you open the app, it doesn’t present itself as a novel. It presents itself as the Pickle Index from the story. Rather than having a page 1 to start on, there are several different places to dive in: the recipe index, the Q&A section, bulletins from the dystopian administration, an animated map of the story world.

Notification badges—little red circles with numbers in them that people are used to seeing on their email app—keep you from feeling unmoored: There are several places you can go, but you never have to wonder where need to go to take the next step in the story. It’s a smart way to keep readers from getting lost.

The app isn’t just a framing device; it is itself story content. For example, rather than being told by a third-person narrator “Flora’s missives became more and more popular as time wore on,” you see yourself that the share count keeps going up. And when you reach the end of the story, the animated map of the story world shows that for the first time people are traveling between two formerly blockaded areas. That could have been a written epilogue: “Following the downfall of the administration…” But instead the app silently shows it.

The app makes playful use of its platform in other ways too: You can shake your phone or iPad to make certain things go faster, and there are title treatments that transform as you tilt your device. One thing I’m ambivalent about: It forces you to read the story over at least ten days—once you finish a section, you have to wait until the next day for a notification to alert you that the next section is available. This makes sense: The app is supposed to be the app from the story, which sends daily bulletins. But as a reader with a tight schedule it’s frustrating to have the time and desire to read something and be prevented, especially if you know you’re not going to have time the next day. I understand the desire on the part of the authors to immerse people in the story world by making story time line up with reading time, and the appeal of having an excuse to send notifications as another way to use the platform, but I think a useful rule of thumb would be “Don’t prevent people from reading your story.”

I’m a couple years late to this party: The Pickle Index was published in late 2015, and right after it came out there was a fascinating back-and-forth among Eli Horowitz, Russell Quinn, Robin Sloan, and Craig Mod. Required reading if you’re interested in this stuff.

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.