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Keeping the narrative pressure on

I played another session of Trollbabe yesterday, and I would like to take the opportunity to write a little bit about GMing this game (and similar narrativist games). This is not a worked out manifesto so much as an attempt to think through an approach that I've been taking more or less instinctively.
First, some context. This game was online, with two people I had never played with before: Judith and Katy. Actually, it's not quite true that I never played with Judith. I've known her for some 38 years, and possibly the first roleplaying I was ever engaged in was on a vacation with her family and my family. She acted as a kind of story guide, and I and her brother Adriaan played characters in an unfolding short story. I was thrilled by the possibilities inherent in such an activity, but it would take more time before I really discovered the world of tabletop RPGs.Both Judith and Katy played a bunch of roleplaying games before, though as far as I can judge they were all fairl…

Thoughts on a Trollbabe session

Yesterday, I played a second session of Trollbabe with Erik and Michiel, even more delightful than the first. (Trollbabe. I dislike the title of the game, to be frank, but it's the only thing about it to dislike. Let me stress that the whole point of the game is that you're playing strong, independent women. With horns.) To give you an impression of the context, let me say that both Erik and Michiel are very good friends of mine, and that we've done a fair amount of roleplaying before, though mostly D&D. In fact, the two of them have played various editions of D&D almost exclusively, and neither had any previous GMing experience. That was about to change.
In the first session, I GMed their characters Rolda (Michiel) and Vekir (Erik), who were together in a single adventure -- something that is not a given in Trollbabe. This time, we were going to do the same thing, but in addition I would also get to play a character, one adventuring at a different location. Michiel…

Two new videos: introduction to IF, and "We know the devil"

Fictional truth and secondary worlds

The (more or less verbatim, but certainly not 100% accurate) text of my video on Fictional Truth and Secondary Worlds can be found below.1. In this episode, I want to talk about fictional truth and secondary worlds in traditional as well as interactive fiction. But I’ll start by talking again about the game I discussed in the first episode of this series, the game 9:05 by Adam Cadre. Just like last time, I will spoil the story – so if you would prefer to play it unspoiled, you should pause this video now and return later.2. Let’s ask this question: what is the story of 9:05? Since it’s an interactive piece in which you can reach multiple endings, there’s no simple answer to that. How it ends depends on what you do. If you’re a first time player, you are very likely to end up seeing the following text, which summarises what you, as the protagonist, have been doing: a burglar broke into an East Las Mesas home, killed the owner and stashed his body under the bed, put his possessions in t…

Video: fictional truth and secondary worlds

Posted a new interactive fiction video. Starting (again) from Adam Cadre's9:05, I discuss issues about fictional truth, secondary worlds and canonicity. Major roles for Tolkien and M. John Harrison. This video should also of interest to traditional fiction folks!
Since I wrote out the entire text of this video, I'm planning to post that as an article here sometime in the future.

Video: "9:05" by Adam Cadre

I've been playing around with video editing software, in part because I'm probably going to need it for teaching next semester -- at least if I want to do it well. But I decided to first try my hand at an interactive fiction video, and so here I have for you an analysis of Adam Cadre's 9:05.

Clearly, I need a better camera. Less clearly for you, but clear for me, is that I need more memory and CPU/GPU power. However, otherwise I'm very interested in hearing your thoughts, both in in terms of the technical aspects of the video and of course in terms of the substance of what I'm saying.

[IF Comp 2019] Dull Grey by Provodnik Games

(I'm here analysing a fantastic piece of interactive fiction, and the analysis will contain spoilers. So do yourself a favour and play it first!)

The first thing one notices about Dull Grey is how it looks. Provodnik Games's previous piece, Railways of Love, was presented as a retro pixel-art game, which was nice enough; but for Dull Grey the authors have chosen to use a large-scale visual background. As the story progresses, we move and zoom through the white, grey and black landscape, focusing on one or another location. The art style reminded me slightly of the cover art of Radiohead’s Kid A, the haunting and sometimes obsessive sounds of which would in fact work nicely as a soundtrack to this piece. Speaking about soundtracks, Dull Grey in fact comes with background music. It gets perhaps a bit repetitive on subsequent playthroughs, but it does set the tone nicely.

Like Railways of Love, Dull Grey takes place in the world of the Progress Program, which I described last ye…

[IF Comp 2019] Pirateship, by Robin Johnson

I haven’t played anything by Robin Johnson, I think, but I know his Detectiveland won the competition a few years ago. That’s a pretty high recommendation. Silly pirates is not a theme I’d otherwise be too interested in, but I can have fun with the genre. Indeed, I wasted quite some hours this summer playing through an electronic version of the Fighting Fantasy gamebook Bloodbones. That was dark, and this isn’t going to be dark if the cover and blurb are any indication. Still – I’m up for some good pirate fun.

(As in all my IF Comp reviews, spoilers follow; in this one especially, some puzzle solutions will be given away. If you just want an impression, you can skip to the last paragraph.)

Pirateship is a classic adventure in which you explore a map, collect objects, use those objects to solve puzzles, and finally find a treasure. It doesn’t get much more classic than that, and the puzzles too feel very traditional. Some guy is making breakfast in front of a gate; if you wan…

[IF Comp 2019] Randomized Escape, by Yvan Uhlmann

Randomized Escape is a game in which you have to escape from a randomly generated area of vacant lots, unnamed streets, discarded junk and, worst of all, ghostly apparitions. To do so, you must find several clues and items that are also randomly distributed, and then go through a rusty door. This is a sound set-up. With the right design, one could create a game that offers fresh challenges on every go; or that at least offers some variety while the player attempts to stitch together the solution.

Unfortunately, the actual game is all but unplayable. The first thing that we notice is that the prose is very hard to follow. The chosen style is disoriented horror: the protagonist, losing his or her mind, thinks in extremely disjointed sentences and has highly disconnected experiences. Achieving clarity while using this style is hard even for a talented writer of English. But Yvan Uhlmann is clearly writing in a second language here, and the prose is hard to get through. Here…

[IF Comp 2019] The Mysterious Stories of Caroline by Soham S

This has been a difficult review to write. I wanted to like this piece, but I believe it gravely mishandles its highly sensitive content in at least one of the possible endings.

Before I get to that, I want to say something about the interface first, just to get it out of the way so that we can then focus on the narrative content of the game. The Mysterious Stories of Caroline uses quite a bit of sound, and lots and lots of timed content. Neither made my experience more enjoyable. Whenever a sound clip started, Spotify would fall silent, the sound clip would play, and then Spotify would not restart. I’m willing to listen to your game’s continuous soundtrack, but small sounds that interrupt my own background music… preferably not. The timed events were even more annoying. I like to play a game at my own pace; having to wait after I have finished reading, just because the choice links have not yet appeared, interrupts that experience. This is, of course, especially notable…

[IF Comp 2019] Each-uisge by Jac Colvin

Each-uisge is a supernatural horror story set in Scotland and based on Scottish mythology. You play a child of around ten years old who has to confront an animal that may be just a horse, but is probably either a dangerous kelpie or an even more dangerous each-uisge. In spite of the prominent horror elements you can’t actually die, I believe, and the entire piece feels like it’s aimed at perhaps a younger teen audience. (The blurb tells us that parental guidance is recommended for younger children, though I’m not sure how I’d guide a younger child through a story in which you can callously let loose a monster that will kill your neighbour.)

What I like most about the piece is that it takes this rather unknown bit of mythology – no vampire or werewolf or other overused creature – and keeps us in suspense about what kind of story is going to unfold around it. For a while, I thought it was going to descend into full-scale horror, with me being devoured by the demonic horse …