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Text My Breath Away, StoryNexus

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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Richard Cobbett

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