Text My Breath Away, StoryNexus

By Richard Cobbett on May 25th, 2012 at 8:00 pm.

It's easy to get into. Simply be rescued by the Enterprise, then use trilithium missiles to detonate suns so that it flies through Veridian 3, and be standing on it when it hits.

While it’s still at the ‘sign-up for info’ stage, Fallen London creators Failbetter Games are getting ready to launch a cool sounding set of tools that could let you beat them at their own game. It’s called StoryNexus, and with it anyone will (eventually) be able to create their own card/text based adventures. There’s also going to be a new game based on the technology, described with the company’s ever-erudite panache as “kind of a musketeer noir thing”.

I’m really looking forward to seeing this in the flesh, for a number of reasons…

The first one is that while I’m not the biggest fan of Fallen London’s actual game, the writing is wonderful and it’ll be fun to see what Failbetter does in a different setting – even if it does turn out to be a smaller scale demo than The Game Formerly Known As Echo Bazaar.

Mostly though, I really want to see text make more of a comeback. It’s often said that people don’t read for pleasure any more, but that’s clearly nonsense. Most people have never read more than they do now, even if the medium has changed to websites and attention spans moved to shorter form pieces like texts and tweets instead of books, or even articles that shamelessly try to avoid distastefully short lines by inserting the word ‘buttery’. Buttery, buttery, buttery.

Remember, there's a big difference between discovering a devil in disguise and a devil in 'dose guys. But both are very rude at a Civilised Dinner Party.

Fallen London – along with a few other games, like Kingdom Of Loathing – makes good use of this by serving up its game as a series of bite-size ‘storylets’. You’re not meant to spend hours in front of your web browser, just log on for a few minutes to make a few decisions and read some fun prose. There’s no penalty if you don’t, unlike the way many social games like Farmville will punish you with weeds if you don’t log in to clean up, and no pressure to buy things to keep playing. You can purchase a few things, but there’s plenty of story to enjoy for free.

Even if you’re not that bothered about the game itself, it’s worth taking a look for the style – punchy writing, and writing that takes full advantage of being able to paint pictures in a few words instead of having to render them. That’s where text absolutely shines. If Bioware wanted to create an RPG that starts with London being kidnapped by millions of bats and relocated to the edge of Hell, it be an insane amount of work. In Fallen London, it’s a sidebar. Multiple paths covering a city full of characters, where the player can chart any path from consorting with demons to going adventuring on the ocean? Not easy, obviously. But at least doable.

Using terms like “possibility space” remain strictly optional, of course.

A *reasonable* challenge for your Clicking quality.

Obviously, text-based games are nothing new – and not only are they a classic form of the adventure game, they’re still very much around. There’s an interactive fiction community, the yearly IFComp, and some great tools like Inform for creating them and Parchment for bringing them online. (You may have seen the latter right here when the goblins in RPS Tower’s basement temporarily go on strike). Amazing games can come out of pure text. The only catch is that they can be difficult to get into these days, from the mental or physical mapping required to navigate their worldspaces to fighting parsers, to the raw effort of sinking into them with things constantly popping up to distract. Like kittens. Look at the adorable kittens!

Fusing the text core with the power of the web proper however has many possibilities – not least immediately setting mood and atmosphere with HTML/CSS wrappers. If you’re a spy, here’s your desk. If you’re a detective, here’s a mean street for you to walk down. Not necessarily a specific street, or anything that would lead to the asset-heavy world that focusing on text can avoid, but just a few things to prime the player’s intellectual stove and build mood. Buttery.

This might sound heretical – surely the whole point is to do everything via words, right? Not so. Take the Infocom games, which packed in ‘feelies’ to help establish tone before you so much as put the disk into the drive. Deadline for instance came with a complete casefile, while Zork shipped with a ‘real’ in-game coin to establish a physical connection to its universe.

(And be copy protection and make the box rattle. But things can have multiple uses.)

On a technical side though, there are many other advantages to taking this stuff online. Being able to see exactly how people explore a world for instance, and either react to or implement content based on collective decisions. Adding new content on the fly. Implementing features like multimedia, or being able to know for a fact that the user is online if you want them to research something. Scope for forums where people can argue and debate things. The list goes on, made more interesting by how much the core game can be presented as a casual experience.

All games use tricks to make you think that simple blocks of pixels and words are real places. Fallen London simply leans harder towards the words than most.

How much power StoryNexus will let its users have has yet to be seen, along with how much scope there’ll be for monetising creations and customising the experience. Games made with it are going to be very similar to Fallen London’s style in terms of using cards as a metaphor for actions and similar, though Failbetter has said that they won’t necessarily have to follow its lead in terms of CRPG mechanics, grinding for skill points and so on. And of course, the worlds and stories can be anything, which is where the really exciting part starts. Only with text can the average mortal have a chance of creating anything from a Bakumatsu samurai epic to the proper detective game it’s still bizarre nobody’s ever created. (Gumshoe Online doesn’t count.)

Whether or not this specific project brings the joy of text back to a wider range of gamers doesn’t really matter. Anything that helps reinforce it as a modern story-telling medium should be welcomed, both for the experiences it can bring us, and the further democratisation of who can bring them to us. I’m certainly looking forward to playing with the tools and seeing what they can do, and checking out a few of the deliciously wordy games people come up with.

StoryNexus goes live in June with its sample games, with the actual tools landing at half-past TBC. If you sign up, you’ll be sent an e-mail telling you that you can improve your chances of a beta invite by bugging your friends and using a referral link – but don’t do that because it’s obnoxious dickery and you will be deservedly shunned by all. Buttery. Buttery. Buttery.

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24 Comments »

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  1. djbriandamage says:

    This looks extremely enticing and I will most certainly give this a try.

    After being phenomenally impressed by Christine Love’s games (like Digital: A Love Story which I learned about from RPS) I’ve been delving into the Ren’Py SDK with which she writes her games. It’s a very good, easy-to-learn programming language that I’m growing more comfortable with, but unfortunately it only compiles games to executables (PC/Mac/Linux), ergo cannot be run in a web browser. Storynexus seems to provide many of the “I wish” features missing from Ren’Py.

    Aside, if you’re looking for a simple but engaging game to play for 2 minutes every day I highly recommend Max Barry’s Nationstates. It’s kind of like a choose your own adventure novel version of Tropico. It’s web-based, free of charge, and you can remove the ads if you claim to have bought one of Max Barry’s novels. Like his books the game is snarky and playfully pessimistic, with a narrative voice somewhere between Douglas Coupland and Douglas Adams.

    Ren’Py: http://www.renpy.org
    Nationstates: http://www.nationstates.net
    My nation: http://www.nationstates.net/nation=raccoonsylvania

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    Faldrath says:

    This sounds interesting, and reminded me that I still should check out Fallen London. What didn’t you like about it, Richard?

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Essentially, it’s a stats/resources grinder. There’s more to it than that, but the majority of your time is spent clicking on a box that says “This is a [Whatever] challenge for your [Whatever] quality” and being given a failure message until a random number goes your way and you get to move on. Repeat a million times, sometimes to get enough objects or whatever to do A Thing, with the time broken up by waiting for your energy meter to recharge. It’s not a desperately satisfying thing to do, no matter how good the writing on offer in the various challenges and storylets.

      (I won’t go into details because there’s a lot of individual components, but essentially a lot of the Storylets and decisions are linked to prerequisites like having “Watchful 4″ to spy on someone, or not being able to do anything in the Circus area until you’ve acquired a pack of tickets. Sometimes that might be as easy as just buying a thing from the store, other times it might involve helping someone else out. It works, but it means you spent most of your time just throwing your energy against a wall rather than doing cool stuff or worrying about risks and repercussions)

      That said, the world itself is absolutely wonderful – really detailed and lavishly described – and it’s worth putting up with at least some of that to get a flavour of it. It’s got a wonderfully dark sense of humour, and there’s a lot of it. And after you play for a while you realise that there is more going on than just grinding stats and reading prose – for instance, having to avoid going insane or be arrested, both of which throw you into dungeon type areas until you can get your character back on track, or the dedicated storylets that let you decide who your character is and what they want out of the Neath. That stuff is really fun, it’s just not really Fallen London’s focus.

      I’d rather see something a bit more… not focused exactly because the scope is appealing… Something more personally challenging to progress through, with more of a story to stay latched onto beyond the ‘just do stuff’ vibe that defines much of the game and is reinforced by things like the card metaphor and its random draws.

      There’s a lot that I can see being done with the system though, especially if you can shift the metaphors. For instance, make the ‘cards’ into ‘e-mail’ and the random element becomes more specifically “Stuff I Can Respond To” than “Stuff I Get To Choose Has Happened”, with storylets forming an active pathed system using the flags and CRPG elements to alter the possibility tree. I don’t know how flexible StoryNexus is going to be, but if it goes that far there’s a lot of subtlety that could be added to what on the surface would look like easily digested choices. That interests me a lot from a narrative perspective – outwardly simple, inwardly complex.

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        Faldrath says:

        Thanks for the reply :) I can see how what you describe could be annoying, but perhaps not so much if you play the game “casually” (checking it once or twice per day for a few minutes)? I’ll sign up for it and see for myself, games with good writing always interest me.

        • Richard Cobbett says:

          Yeah, that’s how you’re meant to play (and even if you subscribe, the only real way – extra energy points cost a fortune in a “There Is No Way We Expect You To Buy These Unless You’re Right On The Edge Of Something Really Big” kind of way.) It’s a very casual, low-pressure adventure/RPG. Buttery. Buttery. Buttery.

      • alexiskennedy says:

        > especially if you can shift the metaphors

        You can. Cards are the default metaphor because they work so well. You draw them; play them; they have a ludic feel; they have images and text, they’re little frozen slices of semiosis, and they sit apart from the actual narrative so they don’t get in the way.

        But we’ve talked about allowing the ‘card’ images to be manila envelopes, telegrams from field agents, talking skulls, strange fruit. The underlying mechanic will stay the same – you draw opportunities to act from various pools – but you might be pulling an assortment of childhood mementoes out of a filing cabinet and reflecting on what they mean.

        (and there’s a couple of other ways to initiate a story, but later on that.)

        Ta for the writeup, Richard – you Get It. Apart from the bit about Fate pricing, where I think you meant to say ‘inexplicably cheap considering the hours of quality labour.’

        • Richard Cobbett says:

          Heh. It’s really not a criticism – a £3 subscription, give or take a few of the Queen’s Pennies is great value. It’s just interesting that you only get 20 Fate for the same price, which doesn’t strike me as being much of a push to get people to cough up if they’re not right on the edge of something cool – especially with no atrophy mechanic.

          (Though I’m sure some players do buy them by the ton, and fair play all round. As long as it’s just an option, I have no problem with energy currencies. It’s only when it gets player-hostile like in Farmville and similar that I get cross.)

          Cool to hear about the extra options available. And glad that I’m not barking up the wrong tree about what it is and is going to be able to do – it sounds like a lot of fun.

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          jrodman says:

          I’m generally suspcious of subscriptions, as we all should be. How much will we end up spending on them? It’s very hard to say.

          Imagine if I ended up playing this on and off for a year. The subscription would add up to 48 dollars. That’s a lot more than I typically care to spend on any sort of game. Perhaps if I was deeply engaged in the game and playing with my friends I might see it as an inexpensive fee. But I’m not.

          I think if it was more in the “pay 15 dollars to play all you want” zone, I’d go for it. But “pay 4 dollars per month ongoing to pay at a trickle instead of a dribble” doesn’t really hit home.

          • Richard Cobbett says:

            Eh, given the nature of the game, it’s not really that bad. And the difference between paying and playing for free is pretty small in this case.

          • MondSemmel says:

            I don’t have much experience with f2p games, but Fallen London really does do it quite well. You can subscribe for a small fee to get about twice as many actions for a month (I’m not 100% sure about the exact number) plus some bonus content; and buy some extra story threads for a bit more (which are 100% optional, but occasionally referenced in other parts of the game world).

            But I’ve been playing the game for at least two months, never paid anything, and had a very pleasant experience so far. The game is rather grindy, though.

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            jrodman says:

            R. Cobbett: It’s not that I’m upset about the deal or anything. The no-pay and pay experiences are very similar. It’s just that I’d rather be convinced to give them money, but the current system convinces me not to.

            MondSemmel: Both pay and non-pay give you an unbounded number of actions per moth, well.. limited by 1 every ten minutes. Doing the math that’s around 4000 actions. However, that is predicated on the idea of logging in at least once every 100 minutes — for free. By paying, you can achieve the maximum by logging in every 200 minutes.

            I guess many players may log in once a day, giving them around 2x as many actions with the paid account. But I don’t feel like the “more actions” would change the feeling of hitting walls constantly, which would make me feel like I’m payingn to move the point of being annoyed.

          • Richard Cobbett says:

            I’m not sure where the annoyance at not feeling compelled to pay is. I mean, it’s obviously your call, but… well… I sometimes feel bad about using Dropbox without paying them anything, but it doesn’t discourage me from using the service.

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            jrodman says:

            I like the idea of paying money to people to do things that I enjoy.

            I dislike the status quo of advertising for everything, everywhere, and ‘consumers’ being semi-inconsequential.

            But that’s just the political slice.

            There’s also the feeling of the game being made to nag, rather than to entice. Nagging is not as fun as enticing.

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            Illessa says:

            Personally I *do* find Fate in Fallen London to be enticing rather than nagging. The basic refresh stuff is all tucked away in the Fate tab so I don’t even need to look at them unless I’m already intending to buy something, and the fate-locked content in-game is much more interesting.

            I totally agree with the “I like paying for enjoyable stuff” thing, and in fact that was the basis of my first Fate purchase. I grabbed the two storylets on the Fate page and a couple of bits and pieces on cards (Shroom Hopping and Flute Street, which are possibly the best value purchases in the game), but the main reason was to give something back to the guys who had provided me with such beautiful writing for nothing.

            Finally, I’m not a big fan of subscriptions, but I don’t mind the Fallen London one so much, because it’s not automatic (which arguably doesn’t make it a subscription at all, but whatever). That nicely avoids the annoying problem with MMO subs where you’re not really playing any more but you don’t want to cancel because it feels so final and you just might start again any day now. It’s also good when you start hitting the content limits as you can let it lapse when you’ve got nothing better to do than grind for super-expensive items or wait for rare opportunities, then pick it up again if there’s some cool new content you want to unlock quickly.

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    piratmonkey says:

    I support this.

  4. Bob says:

    Now I’ve got “Take My Breath Away” running through my head….that’s a good thing.

    As a person who likes to read this has possibilities, if I could steal some talent from someone. My favorite authors, Stephen King and Robert Ludlum, could give me ideas for a horror/mystery game. It could be an interesting hobby even if it doesn’t amount to much.

    • alexiskennedy says:

      > It could be an interesting hobby even if it doesn’t amount to much.

      We would like to support big, polished projects meant for a mass[1] audience, but we also want to little throwaway hobby projects written for giggles or a TRPG group or, you know, as a birthday gift. We’ll promote and encourage the big polished projects, but we’d love to see a pool of casual, fun pieces for an audience of friends.

      [1] by texty game standards

      • Bob says:

        I like ‘em already after reading that. Thanks for taking the trouble.

  5. Maldomel says:

    That’s interesting. As a guy who tries to read more and more stuff, I welcome this kind of project with a big smile.

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    Crimsoneer says:

    Moment I saw this, I KNEW it’d be a Richard post. Awesome as usual.

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    Bluerps says:

    Mmmmm butter.

    I love Fallen London. The actual game is primitve, but I don’t care. I’ll be on the velocipede squad some day!

    Didn’t Metallica have a song called Buttery?

  8. Noodlefighter says:

    I don’t think metallica did have one