IF Only: Alcyone on Kickstarter

Logo and banner from Alcyone

Fresh on Kickstarter is a science fiction IF piece called Alcyone: The Last City. A look at the screenshots will suggest something familiar to dedicated IF fans: it looks a lot like StoryNexus, the Failbetter engine that powers both Fallen London and (behind the scenes) Sunless Sea/Sunless Skies.

Screenshot from Alcyone

Both as a player and as an author, I enjoy the experience that StoryNexus permits. It’s looser and more RPG-like than most of the other types of interactive fiction experience out there: less heavily directed than the average Twine or ChoiceScript story, more focused on developing stats. StoryNexus can do what amounts to a montage sequence better than most other IF systems. It allows the design space to let players pursue strategies, bulking up stats and building connections. It even permits something I can only call narrative deck-building, where the player collects particular resources and opportunities (or dangers and menaces) that then pop up later during play. Chris Gardiner’s Below, for instance, plays a lot with this mechanic, letting the player add storylets to the pool of things that could happen to your protagonist later in the story.

There’s just one problem: unless you work for Failbetter Games, it’s not terribly practical to develop for StoryNexus, because the public version is unsupported and is not guaranteed to go on existing. Besides, there are a lot of design choices specific to StoryNexus, such as the heavy use of illustrated cards, which require an artist on the team alongside any writers.

Other than StoryNexus, there aren’t a lot of alternate systems for implementing this type of IF — what Failbetter used to refer to as quality based narrative — where the player’s assembled stats and qualities unlock new storylets and new possibilities. There was also a brief-lived alternative quality-based-narrative system called Varytale, but it, too, is now unavailable.

So this remains a comparatively under-explored aspect of the IF design space in general, without well-supported freeware creation systems and not all that many examples of finished games in the space: on the order of a few tens, as opposed to the hundreds of ChoiceScript works, or the many thousands of hypertext, CYOA, and parser IF games. Someone with good JavaScript skills and a lot of determination could hand-roll something, but that’s out of scope for many IF designers.

Alcyone, however, is a new and serious project in a similar space, with a lot of the same affordances. It begins with some character creation elements, including a choice among four genders — male, female, androgynous, and none:

Gender selection screenshot from Alcyone

…followed by a choice of personal backstory that will determine what happens to you next once you go out into The City to make your way. It’s a setup approach that echoes both StoryNexus games and Choice of Games projects.

In style and worldbuilding, though, Alcyone is doing something a bit different. There is an extensive, atmospheric soundtrack. The global story affects everyone in The Last City at once: unlike Fallen London, this isn’t a multiplayer game, and there’s no obligation to keep the baseline world state stable. The map is hexagonal and SF-flavored:

Map screenshot from Alcyone

Prose passages are longer and more extensive than in a lot of StoryNexus projects (and certainly longer than is typically permitted in Fallen London). Alcyone is also less shy than a lot of IF about telling the player what they’re feeling: this is something parser IF traditionally avoids, for instance, but other IF traditions take different approaches to it. Here, I was told that my breath caught, that I was feeling nervous or curious, at various points in the story.

The prose in Alcyone runs a little heavy on modifiers and light on specificity, for my tastes. E.g.:

This is a very dangerous secret to be holding, but one that would be immensely valuable to the right people — the politics of the Six Ruling Houses is beyond mere mortals, constantly shifting, and very deadly. If one House is beginning to move openly against another, it could have drastic repercussions across the entire City.

That’s two more “very”s than this paragraph needs. And since we’re new to this universe, perhaps it would be useful to spell out what “drastic repercussions” look like. Does this portend riots? Assassinations? Warfare in the streets?

The world-building is augmented with tooltips: hover over an unknown term in the story, like “City” or “golem” or “Houses,” and you’ll bring up a paragraph of further explanation, layering in the information you might not have picked up yet. This is useful in the long run, and eventually I found myself relaxing and deciding it meant that I didn’t have to do all my homework at once, as it were. In the very first couple of screens, though, it meant that I was reading every tooltip as well as the main text and feeling a little bit overwhelmed.

Finally, and perhaps this is unique to the path I took myself in the demo, but I found that a lot of the decisions were of the form “1) take a risk or 2) don’t.” This can be a productive structure in some circumstances — inkle deploys it to good effect in a lot of their work — but the Alcyone demo seemed to rely on it a lot, to the point where if I hadn’t been in a risk-taking mood, I might have missed out on most of what the story seemed to have to offer. I think my playthrough consisted of about a half dozen consecutive choices where I picked DO THE FOOLISH BUT INTERESTING THING.

At the same time, I’m a sucker for games with detailed politics, houses with different agendas at odds with one another, and significant narrative agency — all of which Alcyone promises to deliver. And the city apparently has a moon that scowls down for an hour or so every day, with a humanlike face. Specific gripes and personal preferences aside, I am curious where this will go, especially as it bids to be a sizable new piece in an underexplored region of interactive fiction.

[Disclosures: Emily Short has not met or worked with Joshua Meadows or the other creators of Alcyone. She does do work at times with Failbetter Games, inkle, and Choice of Games; she has met, and been commissioned for work by, Chris Gardiner. She also wrote a story for Varytale. More generally, Emily Short is not a journalist by trade and works professionally with various interactive fiction publishers. You can find out more about her commercial affiliations at her website.]

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5 Comments

  1. poliovaccine says:

    If this sort of thing served as the backbone for all the many Skyrims and Fallout 4s of the world, those games might have that ever-elusive quality of “depth” that so many gamers pine after – especially us aged gamers of yore, who remember a time when games relied not on spiffy graphics but rather imagination… If this was how all 3D, open world RPGs were blueprinted, I daresay the quests would wind up feeling a little less rote. In particular, I would *love* to see the concept of “storylets” somehow integrated with a dynamic 3D (open?) world. They could be like AI behavior packets, except they’d be packets which apply to a whole population of AIs, generating group events. Remember how cool it was the first time you killed a dragon in Skyrim and a bunch of villagers all huddled around to awe and gape and rubberneck? Why arent games chock full of that stuff, I wanna know??

    I know, I know. Because it’s hard, resource-and-labor-intensive work. But it’d be worth it! he declared from his armchair.

    • Goregeous says:

      This, this, this. We’re at a point where graphics can take a backseat role with the base level of quality coming from Unreal Engine 4, CryEngine, Frostbite, etc. these days. Witcher 3 is proof that this is the case, given what is cited as putting it over the top, and above it’s many competitors, is the writing and scripting, and the fact that all the quests, down to the most inconsequential side quest feel rewarding and fulfilling to complete. I second this idea emphatically and hope we see more of this kind of thinking manifest in games of the future.

  2. Czrly says:

    Sadly, the grammar looks dire from the screenshots. I try not to be a grammar pedant but, “Do you remember what gender you identify with?” is simply beyond unbearable. It is not only grammatically incorrect, it is also clunky.

    • poliovaccine says:

      Eh, it may not be grammatically correct, but if it sounds like ordinary peoples’ speech, I can hardly call it unbearable.

    • Dilapinated says:

      aside from “with” being replaced with “as”, which I don’t think is a particularly hard rule, I don’t see anything wrong there.

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