Scarlet Sails (and a discursion about game size)

scarletsailsScarlet Sails (Felicity Banks) is a fantasy pirate adventure, written in Choicescript; originally entered in IF Comp, it has now been polished up into a commercial release.

The classic Choicescript formula is a story that follows a career over many years; Sails, instead, is very much a single adventure, a literal quest for treasure. The setting takes a lot of its cues from the golden age of piracy, but we seem to be in a full-blown high fantasy world, complete with its own magic system. It apparently has no government, at least not at a higher level of organisation than the leader of a pirate fleet, or if there is it never comes into play in the narrative.

The protagonist starts out serving as first mate to the feared Captain Blood:

You hear her before you see her: that distinctive thump-tap, thump-tap as Captain Blood walks up behind you. Her half-wooden footsteps drum like a heartbeat underneath the sounds of yelling, drinking, crying, singing, and throwing up. Even among the thieves and villains currently patronizing Cutlass Island’s biggest inn, your captain is a danger worth watching. As she draws closer many of the other pirates stop and stare, entranced by the beacon of her scarlet hair when everyone else’s hair is black.

As prose, this has its good points, but the overall effect is kind of cumbersome. There are lots of weak or awkward turns of phrase, often in ways which disrupt the tone rather; the immediacy of “drum like a heartbeat” sits ill in the same paragraph as the distant, dry, almost ironic “currently patronizing.” A lot of the sentences get into trouble by trying to pack in too much explanation; whether you think “entranced by the beacon of her scarlet hair” is a good line or not, qualifying it with “when everyone else’s hair is black” ruins its impact. That information isn’t unwarranted; it just falls in precisely the wrong place.

The most striking elements of that paragraph – the footfalls, the shocking red hair – are hints that this was conceived of cinematically. And I think this is kind of a pattern throughout the work; the rapid-cut pacing, the characterisation, the action sequences all feel as though they’re taking their cues from film, and it doesn’t entirely fit in a text format. (Max Gladstone recently said some useful things about the cinematic instinct in prose. It’s a problem I see all the time.)

CYOA is a form where pacing is really important. The general inclination of the reader is to hurry, because advancing the story is generally straightforward; and as they hurry they tend to skim the text, to engage less closely with what’s going on. In a lot of recent Twine works you see fancy tricks being employed – sometimes crudely, sometimes very deftly indeed – to control that pace, to force the reader to slow down and pay closer attention at the appropriate moment. But the most powerful (and difficult) method of pacing is still the text itself: how much there is of it, how densely packed the ideas it conveys, how long a scene or a situation continues, how it’s broken up by choices. It has the advantage of being inobtrusive; the best Choicescript games master it without most readers noticing.

Scarlet Sails throws a lot of characters at you early on, in a recruit-your-crew sequence. I got the sense that the author had a lot of investment in the characters and a strong sense of who they were, but that this had led to acting as though the audience did too, without taking all the steps needed to really establish that. Now that I think of it, that formed my major impression of the game: “I bet this was awesome in the author’s head.” There’s a feeling of enthusiastic impatience about it, a hurry to get to the next cool thing.

As the plot progresses (you steal the titular ship, then stumble upon a treasure map) there are a lot of action scenes. Action is really tough. Action in text is doubly tough; you have to maintain a sense of urgency without moving so fast that things get confused. You have to deliver all the crucial information, but overspecifying can weaken both pacing and prose. Sails’ problem is that it moves too quickly, leaping from one thing to the next; there isn’t time to develop the drama of a particular scene. Part of this, I think, is because it structures its action scenes so closely around stat checks; you choose the stat you’re already good at, it doles out a success message, and then it moves on to setting up the next stat check – which is often an abruptly different piece of action. I think transitions are a big part of what’s missing here, the natural flow of one thing into another.

Action is also a place where the tone of a piece really gets pinned down, and Sails feels pulled in different directions here: it wants to be a rip-roaring swashbuckling adventure, in a less-brutal fantasy idiom where tavern brawls are rambunctious free-for-alls and dueling is something more than an affordance for bullies. But at the same time, it wants to be something a good deal darker than that: in the middle of that tavern brawl a man gets fatally impaled. The backstory suggests that the PC’s hatred of the antagonist comes from a childhood in slavery. These things aren’t irreconcilable – The Princess Bride, a light-comedy swashbuckler if ever there was one, features the hero being tortured to death – but the tension didn’t feel as though it was resolved.

Among the requisite romance options, it’s possible to get yourself into a polyamorous set-up. The only other Choicescript work where I’ve seen this attempted is Hollywood Visionary, and the approaches are very different. Visionary‘s triad doesn’t really come together until right towards the end of the game; this has the benefit of not requiring too much extra writing, putting most of the relevant text into epilogue. Scarlet Sails makes the romance stuff happen abruptly and all at once, around midgame, so the relationships are in the background as the big climactic action scenes take place. On first principles, I approve of this – I like to see stories explore relationships beyond the ‘hooray, you are established partners now!’ point. But on the other, it gave the plot logic ample opportunity to run into trouble.

In particular, the two people I shacked up with had Touching Moments which triggered about the same time; one of them involved the lover being all “yay pirating is the best I only want to pirate forever”, while the other was all “you remind me that there is more to life than pirating, maybe some day we could stop pirating”. More smoothly integrated, this could have been a wrenching moment – but it felt accidental, with the protagonist blithely unaware of these two contradictory visions of future bliss.

Again, during a crucial stage of the final battle, I failed to overcome some threshold with one of my lovers, and she – well, not precisely betrayed, but acted out of distrust in ways which, reasonably speaking, should have completely destroyed my trust in her, while the other lover saved my ass. And then later on things rolled along as if that hadn’t ever happened. Then, when for an unrelated reason I made choices that ended one of the relationships, I got an abrupt, generic message that didn’t feel like any kind of resolution whatsoever.

If it sounds as though most of what I’m asking for is “make this game bigger” – well, part of that is the territory. Choice of Games markets its games on word count, true, but at a deeper level, the CoG house style makes it difficult for games to work well without being quite large. To make delayed branching work effectively takes quite a lot of space. To introduce a variety of romance prospects, develop them enough that the player has a reasonable idea about whether they’re interested or not, allow the player to pursue romance and then make that relationship resolve in some manner more narratively interesting than ‘and then they had sex’ – that takes a ton of space. Scarlet Sails is on the small side as commercial Choicescript games go – 80,000 words. (Hollywood Visionary and The City’s Thirst are 150,000; The Sea Eternal and Choice of Robots are around 300,000). I don’t want to make out as though word count is an absolute constraint: you can do more with less, to an extent, but that kind of concise delivery makes for a lot more work per word.

This is doubly awkward to talk about in the context of the unreasonable expectations which have (for over three decades) been cultivated in games consumers by games marketers. Most of the user comments on Sails are complaints about its size – which on the face of it seems pretty entitled, given that they paid three bucks for the thing.

In recent years there has been a lot of advocacy in indie spaces for smaller games. Small Games has become something of a political banner, standing for the interests of artistic license over consumer demand, of solo and marginalised creators with little spare time and energy against big commercial efforts (and, perhaps, the kind of privileged amateur dev who can afford to spend years working on a single game), of novices, of much-scorned “casual” gamers unwilling or unable to dedicate hundreds of hours to a single game. And all of this is a reasonable point; but what tends to get lost in all this is that size is more than an arbitrary marketing-created demand or a reflection or denial of the author’s needs. It’s also a really major determinant of what a game can do well: what kind of story it can tell, what kinds of experience it can deliver, what kinds of mechanic it can satisfyingly explore. Often there’s a mismatch.

And there’s a lot going on in Scarlet Sails, most of which isn’t given its due. I haven’t even gone into the secret-identity subplot with the wanted man, or the climactic sea-monster battle, or the three different kinds of magic. It’s the kind of thing that explains why SF/F authors have a tendency to sprawl out into dozen-book series, just to adequately explore all the Stuff they wanted to put in there. So this is a piece that either needs to expand in order to properly address its present scope, or to tighten its focus by cutting some of its elements and developing others.

(This review was written at the author’s request. I paid full price for the game.)


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1 Response to Scarlet Sails (and a discursion about game size)

  1. Ooh, really interesting reading. I have a lot of delicious food for thought.

    I could talk for hours about my piratical baby, but I’ll just pick a random point or two (before I wander off to think more deeply about the above review, and what I can do better in future).

    I’m really glad I allowed polyamory. It was fun and inclusive, and it fit the story. It’s also a place where, as you said, I needed a lot of words. Which meant I needed time. Which meant I needed money. I definitely got to a point where I could have written another 20,000 words on polyamory alone, or I could move on. Under the circumstances (royalties, no advance, no trust fund) I moved on (I think the polyamory bits I have could be as much as 10,000 words altogether, but there’d be a maximum of 2000 or so that would be visible per play-through. Good for replay value, but bad for individual play-through versus total word count.

    Having said that, Scarlet Sails was only the third or fourth game I ever wrote. I’m very happy about how well it’s done, and that means I’ll trust my next story a bit more.

    I’m currently working on a (non-ChoiceScript) story that’ll be around 250,000 words. This time, I AM getting an advance (but I’ll also have firmer deadlines, and significant time pressures, and will be required to release the beginning before the game is finished). It’ll be very interesting to see how that plays out.

    At this stage in my career (and with two little pirates to ship off to daycare so mummy can work), there’s absolutely no way I’d take on a story that size without knowing I’d receive significant payment for it.

    Which certainly doesn’t mean shorter games don’t have merit. That’s nonsense. They’re just a different creature (and one that’s not well suited to the delayed testing of ChoiceScript). All things being equal, I imagine longer games take longer to master. But I do so love a complicated world.

    It’s also worth noting that I’ve earned more from IF in the last twelve months than I’ve earned in 15+ years of novel writing – and not just because my writing sucked for most of that time. In my opinion, the IF market is significantly more lucrative than the straight-fiction market (with the same bias towards buying longer work).

    Felicity Banks

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