How To Write A Good IF Comp Blurb

IF Comp is fast approaching. We’re in an era where comps get a lot of entries – almost eighty, in the past couple of years, which is way too many for most judges to play. It’s more important than ever for your game to make a good first impression. In past years I’ve reviewed the blurbs and cover art of the entries: the following is some advice garnered from the time I’ve spent thinking about the blurb part. (Cover art is a whole other topic, and one I’m less confident about giving design advice on.)

First of all: writing blurbs is difficult. For many IF authors, they’re the most painful paragraphs to write in the entire process. Ideally, you shouldn’t leave it until the last minute. Think about your blurb as you write the game! Write a bunch of different blurbs in different styles to see which you like the most!

Secondly, writing a blurb is an art, and art resists rules. Very good blurbs can absolutely break a lot of these guidelines: if you’re already writing very good blurbs, you need no advice from me.

What Your Blurb Should Include

Genre. Genre is both your friend and your enemy. If your work is related to any established, recognisable genres (hint: it is), you probably want to signal that. This helps set expectations for the reader, and helps select for players more interested in your work. ‘Genre’ here covers both mechanical approaches and fictional conventions.

But if genre is all you signal, you’re in trouble, especially if you’re doing a genre that’s already heavily represented in IF.

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Introcomp 2019

Introcomp, one of interactive fiction’s long-running annual events, is out, with eleven entries.

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The past few Introcomps I have either missed or only looked at briefly, and I think I’ve got an expectations mismatch going on. I think that the value of Introcomp is largely about giving authors experience in a small version of an entire release cycle, including things like scoping and testing and figuring out how to process reviews. Another way to put it: I feel like an appealing Introcomp game should say not just ‘I have this idea’, but ‘and look, I have the full set of skills needed to pull it off.’ I’m thinking of it as something like a movie trailer – when I see a movie trailer I don’t expect a final piece, but I do expect a complete, polished, tightly-edited short, with the soundtrack in place and the CGI fully rendered.

For a non-trivial (and, I think, growing) proportion of Introcomp authors, that’s not the point at all – the point is to rough out the first part of your work in progress, put it in front of some people, and get a non-zero amount of attention and/or feedback for it. For feedback’s sake, this is probably something akin to an alpha test or a first-reader situation; for attention’s sake, it’s more like an early-access game.

The thing is, I think that while it’s very tempting (and a very familiar approach for modern creators), early-access is a really bad model for most IF, because early access only works when your early audience keeps playing the game, over and over, through each iteration. And most IF has very low replay value. There are exceptions, of course – very procedural, systems-driven things like Textfire Golf or Kerkerkruip or Sunless, grindy energy-limited things like Fallen London, pornography, arguably certain kinds of exhaustive-play visual novel, Yawhg-likes – but if you’re writing a fairly conventional IF narrative, the safest assumption is that your early adopters will not keep coming back.

On the other hand, alpha-test feedback is a very different kind of situation from reviewing an open competition! An alpha-test is a time to make big design changes. As an alpha-tester you need to be both encouraging (because the author may be unsure of the strengths of their premise and prototype) and brutal (because if there are major flaws, the author needs to know about them as early as possible, up to and including ‘this is a fundamentally flawed idea and you should not pursue it.’)  That’s a much easier balance to strike in a conversation than it is in a public review or anonymous feedback. For instance, a common problem with early-development games is that the author doesn’t really have a fully-articulated sense of what they really want the game to do – its themes, its mood, its player experience – and for this uncertainty to be reflected in the game. A good alpha-test questions the author about what they really want out of a game, and makes them confront whether the design they’ve got is serving that. That’s a back-and-forth exchange, a conversation.

So the upshot is that I’m not entirely sure how to address these. I’ve tried to modulate my responses somewhat more in terms of alpha-test feedback than as critiques of polished short pieces which are ready for review; but it’s a weird position. I’m not going to post my scores, but I will call out my favourites at the end.

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House of Danger: CYOA book to tabletop game

houseofd-coverHouse of Danger is an adaptation of a Choose Your Own Adventure book into a card-based format, sold in a box in board-game format.

Considered purely as game design, this might seem wrong-headed. Turning a choice-based book into a board game is cumbersome and doesn’t really add a lot of affordances compared to book plus character sheet; adapting it into a digital format would give the designer more tools and free the player from a lot of the busy-work of managing their stuff, but a tabletop game does none of that. There’s a certain pleasure in handling a physical artifact, sure, but you already get that from a physical book!

Market-wise, though, it’s a much more obvious choice. Videogames are a tough market; how tough varies over time and venue, but the breaks in the cloud often turn out to be sucker holes, particularly given development time. Board games have a softer reputation: the audience is less aggressively demanding and more willing to pay reasonable prices, you’re less beholden to monopoly platforms, and development costs for a given level of professional polish tend to be lower. And in the past few years board games have been experimenting with more narrative-focused design, often in ways that reflect established patterns of adventure games and CYOA, and being successful even when they’re not very good as narrative. Just this week I found out that Fiasco, perhaps the most popular storygame RPG, is getting a Kickstarter for a new edition as a boxed card game, which might make it appealing to a much larger board-game audience who might be reluctant to invest in a game composed of a book and some grimy index cards – and also, not coincidentally, opening up the option to sell playsets as card decks, rather than having them churned out as free .pdfs by third parties. Point is: the board game space is regarded with envy by a lot of narrative-gaming fields, and I can absolutely see why you’d go after this. Continue reading

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Dialect and Sign: two RPGs about language

At this year’s GoPlay NW I got to try out a couple of games about language, Sign and Dialect. They’re the work of the same publisher, Thorny Games, whose entire thing seems to be games about linguistics (they are currently testing a third, Xenolanguage).

They’re very different games. Sign is inescapably a LARP: immersion-driven and bleed-prone, with a modicum of walking about and no table-talk. Dialect is very clearly a storygame, with in-character acting less important to the narrative than out-of-character assertions, explanations and discussion.

signSign is inspired by the origin of Nicaraguan sign language, which was spontaneously developed by deaf children c. 1977-1986. It is careful to explain that the game is not closely representative of those childrens’ experience; in particular, learning of signs in the game is much more structured, guided by a sympathetic teacher and relying on, e.g., the ability to read.

As a Sign player, you play a deaf child among other deaf children, with no pre-existing language community. You are not allowed to speak; you communicate with your hands and facial expressions. Play is divided into classroom periods, structured time where the facilitator, as teacher, hands you cards and leads the group in learning new sign vocabulary; and recess, which is mostly about unstructured interaction between the children. You ultimately learn a vocabulary of perhaps twenty words, including names.

Sign follows fairly well-established methods of teaching basic vocabulary to speakers with no common language; my mother has described teaching English to Vietnamese refugees in very similar ways. (Our facilitator, Marc Hobbs, has substantial real-world experience at language teaching.) There’s a lot of pointing and repetition, broken up with sessions of familiarity-through-use. It’s accelerated, quite a lot, by relying on a common understanding of text: in one round concepts are defined by words on cards before you make gestures for them, and in another you write your own words to define. (This is particularly helpful when it comes to defining more abstract concepts.)

LARP is particularly good at evoking a character’s emotions through strong immersion, and Sign‘s emotional palette is one I haven’t felt before. Frustration and isolation are not uncommon LARP feelings, but the particular struggle of not being able to make oneself understood is very powerful here. There is a lot of joy in breaking through that, of figuring out how to make oneself understood, of faces lighting up as you get your ideas across. It’s also a game that’s very good at evoking sympathy and solidarity. Most LARPs I’ve played are set up to give your character lots of narrative agency: you might not succeed at what you want, but you can sure as hell try, and your manner of trying will make a lot of difference. In Sign you are a disabled child; you have very little power, and most of your personal challenges lie outside the school and the scope of the story. You can’t change your world. Language is the only challenge you can really deal with, and it’s difficult.

Every LARP I’ve played has derived most of its interest from player-player conflict, from people wanting different things and struggling with one another to get what they want. Sign is not like that: you’re all working for the same goal of communication, even if you might ultimately want different things out of it. You do not really have much space to be snobs or bullies; there are too few of you to be cliquey. It’s a game about encountering strangers and building sympathy and solidarity with them, and it is, in general, really good at that – every time someone’s described Sign to me after playing it they’ve been really enthusiastic.

That said: Sign was kind of rough for me. It’s a game that’s easier to play and enjoy, I think, if you’re a socially enthusiastic, outgoing person. I’m an introvert with social anxiety, and Sign prodded some of my raw spots in ways I wasn’t entirely comfortable with; a lot of the things which the game makes difficult are things I sometimes find painfully difficult in normal socialisation. So I’m glad I got to explore Sign, but I absolutely do not want to play it again.

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dialectWhere Sign is very much its own distinctive experience, Dialect is, in many ways, a pretty conventional storygame. It is strongly reminiscent of The Quiet Year, and particularly of Downfall, in its construction, evolution under strain, and final collapse of a moderately-sized community. Its trickiest element – using fairly common features of linguistic change to evolve language – is conveyed through prompt cards, giving the player some choice while avoiding the problem of introducing too much all at once. It was Kickstarted into an attractively-presented book with professional-quality illustration and layout; it’s no Bluebeard’s Bride, but it’s definitely in line with the generally increased level of presentation in storygames within the past five years or so.

This is not a game with daringly novel mechanics, a hugely distinctive tone, or sharply brilliant connections between the two. As a work of game design, it is a piece of diligent, capable and unsurprising craft, polished but not daring. It’s interesting because of content, not form; it’s interesting insofar as you’re interested in language and in telling stories about it. (As a strictly amateur linguistics enthusiast, I can’t really speak to how Dialect would read to actual linguists. For the most part it focuses on relatively well-known features of languages, focusing more on vocabulary than grammar.)

Setting, in Dialect, is largely governed by playsets, lightly-established scenarios which provide a reason why your language community became isolated from its parent language. As you play, you draw prompt cards which suggest ways to introduce new vocabulary to the dialect, or change existing words. After explaining each new or evolved word, you use it in a scene. The overall arc of the story is one of linguistic isolation: you tell how your language community became distinct, and how it changes as it loses that isolation and risks being subsumed; language reflects culture and cultural change. Reading the rulebook is, if nothing else, a decent introduction to the subject of threatened languages.

Using your vocabulary in Dialect scenes can be tricky. My favourite word from our game was a pause word, used as an ‘um’, to fill space in a sentence or serve as a general acknolwedgement. I went with ‘steady’, derived from boat crews and generalised to reflect a cultural value of toughness and firm resolve. I had a good sense of where it’d go in speech if I was writing it – it’d get jammed on the end of sentences a lot, show up as an emphasis adjective – but getting it to spill naturally off the lips, the way a pause word should, wasn’t the kind of thing we could pull off in a few hours. A lot of the vocabulary in Dialect focuses on commonly-used language features – so you can use them more often, of course! But these are also features that tend to be pretty strongly ingrained and are difficult to shift quickly. And, of course, everything you’re creating is artificial, something consciously created rather than learned from use.

In Sign you’re using immersion to learn a very simple vocabulary; in Dialect you’re trying to acquire idiomatic fluency by stipulating it, and that’s much harder. The proportion of time you’re using your conlang is much higher in Sign. Both produce fairly small vocabularies, but this felt more pressing in Dialect. A game of Sign feels like a beginning; more words, it suggests, will come later. In Dialect your language is doomed, and what you construct of it ends up feeling like you’ve only scratched the surface.

My feeling after one session of Dialect was that it I’d enjoy playing it with friends who are already interested in and knowledgeable about linguistics, but that for general purposes I’d rather play Downfall, which is less confined by playset-settings.

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Eastshade: Fantasy Without Crisis

Eastshade is a game somewhere between a traditional CRPG and a walking simulator. You’re a painter, exploring an unfamiliar island in a game without combat or skill-based challenge. It is, very approximately, Skyrim without swords and monsters, a CRPG led by environmental design.

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It goes a lot further than this, though. A lot of videogames struggle to do storytelling in a nonviolent or lower-violence way, because story is about conflict and violent conflict is relatively easy to simulate and show. (How much of that is the result of design history and how much comes with the territory, I’m not going to get into here.) Often they backslide somewhat – you just clubbed the guard from behind, it’s not like you shot him, there wasn’t a struggle. Some end up bringing along awkward assumptions from violence-driven mechanics – like in Renowned Explorers, where the consequences for failing a Friendly contest are the same as losing a Violent one.

Eastshade sets out to avoid this by largely eschewing high-stakes storytelling. Continue reading

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IF Comp 2018: Recommendations

Voting in the IF Comp is concluded for this year, so before we get the actual results, here are the works of interactive fiction that I’d encourage people to play.

This year I didn’t really have a single clear favourite – there’s a whole bunch of games which I think are solid in many ways and exceptional in some, but nothing where I felt ‘this game is a big deal and it obviously ought to win.’  (I don’t have a strong sense of ‘this game is a solid crowd-pleaser and is obviously likely to win’, either.) I’m going to list my recommendations in order of how much of a sense of doom it is likely to impart to its audience.

Bogeyman: Childhood horror. It’s a lot to deal with – there’s some good content warnings, I highly recommend checking them out first – but it’s strongly-handled. Play if: you like it when horror isn’t shy about its analogies to real-world monstrosity. Doom rating: 9/10 indications of antemortem trauma.

Dead Man’s Fiesta: A careful balance of the funny and the existentially bleak. A Sad Feels Game about grieving and feeling inauthentic, with sparky enough writing to avoid a sense of navel-gazing. Play if: you’ve ever lost someone and didn’t get the emotions you felt you ought to. Doom rating: 7/10 futile attempts at catharsis.

silverSix Silver Bullets: You’re a spy with amnesia and everyone’s out to get you, probably. Cruel, paranoid, confusing, epic, dreamlike in a way that few games accomplish. You’ll have to wrestle the parser a little, and it’s rather bigger than a two-hour game. Play if: you’re willing to put in a lot of effort to unravel an ever-shifting mystery. Doom rating: 7/10 black lodges.

Devotionalia: Strong evocation of mood and atmosphere; well-suggested weird-fiction world, with strong overtones of Sunless Sea. I suggest headphones; it’s not a huge game but you won’t want to hurry it. Play if: you’ve ever loaded Sunless Sea just to sit on your boat and soak up the gloom. Doom rating: 6/10 uncaring snake gods, although this is despair that you’re expected to savour like a very small glass of very expensive wine.

The Master of the Land: Political intrigues, family drama and revolutionary rumblings in an early-C19th Ruritania. Some elements are a little rough, but it’s a complex world with a lot going on in it. Play if: you like big parties and you’re OK with not succeeding at every task you’re presented with. Doom rating: 5/10 panic attacks.

Animalia:  Dysfunctional team dynamics among woodland creatures piloting a facsimile of a ritually murdered child. Less grim than that sounds. Funny, ridiculous, lots of variation, occasionally macabre. Play if: you like plots about inept, squabbling people executing ludicrous plans. Doom rating: 3/10 changelings.

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Ürs: ‘It’s Watership Down but in the ruins of an ancient space civilization.’ Well, OK, it’s a whole lot less brutal than Watership Down, and has more mysterious-machine buttons to press. Gorgeous art – some of the best I’ve seen in any IF – lifts the whole thing. Play if: you’re the kind of jerk who bothers your friends and family by waving illustrated books at them and saying ‘just fucking look at this, it is fucking unreal how good this is.’ Doom rating: 2/10 extinction-level events.

Alias ‘The Magpie’: Farcical, trope-heavy jewel-theft caper in a country manor. Wear stupid disguises, spread chaos and destruction, snark at the decor. Play if: you’re in the mood for something silly and light-hearted and gently puzzly, but you’d also like to smash up a rich guy’s house. Doom rating: 0/10 dreadful bothers.

 

 

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IF Comp 2018: Alias ‘The Magpie’

magpieAlias ‘The Magpie’ is a parser comedy in which you’re a gentleman jewel thief who has infiltrated a country manor.

For some reason I was expecting a Wodehousian comedy; the time period feels about right for that, although the game carefully avoids leaving any definite clues about the date. It’s riffing on locked-room manor mysteries; the detective you’re impersonating is a ringer for Poirot. And this gag is so extremely Peter Wimsey that it almost feels like a lift:

“Ah! The brother of the countess. Interesting, I thought you would be younger.”

“Younger than what?”

“Younger than you are, Monsieur.”

“Odd thing to say. One can’t very well be younger than one is.”

But the cover art should be a clue here: overall the tone is much closer to the 60s, and in particular The Pink Panther. It’s goofy and slapstick, and spends a good amount of time poking fun at genre tropes – the library of its country house has been the scene of so many murders that the chalk outlines haven’t entirely faded. There is a good deal of absurd coincidence, arranged in ways which are quite satisfying. A lot of the fun is about how the protagonist is introduced as a suave, debonair mastermind who performs elegant, whisper-smooth, gentlemanly thefts, but the action involves causing an enormous amount of chaos and destruction and avoiding the blame for it only through sheer luck and the obtuseness of your marks, plus a lot of silly disguises.

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