Games That Make You Read: 80 Days and Fallen London

Brisbane landing screen 80 Days
80 Days was one of the big games of 2014. Both games and mainstream media loved it and many games makers and writers whose opinions I respect, such as Emily Short, Anna Anthropy and Simon Parkin, included it amongst their favourite games of the year.

Over the past month I’ve played it three times and I couldn’t understand why so many people rated it so highly until the third game when I was able, partly through luck, partly through design, to make a few connections between the stories. I get it now, but I also think the storytelling is fundamentally flawed.

Without question, the game is beautifully written and as Anna Anthropy says “it’s a great reimagining of super-colonialist source material that re-centers the story around non-european characters and their lives”. But the problem is all that beautiful writing about undeniably interesting characters didn’t draw me in at all. When I finished the game the first time, I was reminded of Fallen London. At first glance there is so much depth, but the fragmentary nature of the storytelling means that there are few or no connections between the stories. And no connections between the characters. Also, no opportunity for character development because there’s no reflection either. So that means for me, there’s no pleasure in the reading. And so then I don’t understand why I’m reading.

But I do understand how important conversation is on a mechanical level in a story like 80 Days. Someone you meet tells you about something in another city and then a route opens up to that city. That’s how you move forward so that’s vital. Similarly, being told what you can buy in this city that you can sell for a profit in another city is very helpful, especially when you’re constantly on the verge of running out of money and you don’t have enough to pay for your next passage. What I would like though is for the conversations to also work on non-mechanical levels. I want a meaningful connection with the people I encounter along the way. I’m travelling the world, living on my wits and meeting people who are on the inside of some very big upheavals. I’m constantly stumbling through revolutions and wars and the people I meet provide an insight into what has brought their city to this point. And I go through experiences with some of these people where we could easily die. Surely I’m going to grow a little from all of that. But I don’t appear to. I can spend a number of days with my fellow travellers but once we part company I never think about them again. Nothing they say or do influences me. Nothing I experience makes me change my behaviour. I never reflect in any meaningful way.

During my first two play-throughs I didn’t relate to any of the characters, including my own. The third time I played, I tried to be more consistent in the responses I chose to situations and that gave me a greater sense of who I was as Passepartout. But I didn’t have emotional reactions either as the character or the player. I felt no tension, even when my life was at risk. Sometimes I tried to help people, at a cost to myself, but I still felt nothing.

As I said, it was the fragmentary nature of the storytelling that reminded me of Fallen London. And after my first game I looked up Meg Jayanth, the writer of 80 Days, and discovered she’s also written for Fallen London. So then that made perfect sense to me. Fragmentary storytelling, that’s what she does.

Since then, I’ve thought more about Fallen London (and played it again) and realised how unfair that comparison was. There is a logic and depth to 80 Days that is not evident at all in Fallen London. And in 80 Days the characters are very real and breathing compared to the shadowy outlines that flit past in Fallen London. Yes, that is partly Fallen London’s style. And also one of its central weaknesses.

I first played Fallen London in July 2013. I wanted to like it but right from the start I had problems with it. My notes from the time express my annoyance with the fact that the game doesn’t remember anything. I still have a copy of an email that it sent me just after I’d started playing, telling me that I have an appointment with the Last Constable.

I’d seen the Last Constable the day before. I clicked on the link in the email to go and see her again but it didn’t take me to her directly. And then when I did make my way to her she didn’t remember that we’d just met and even though she’d apparently summoned me because she wanted my help (to find someone called the Cheery Man I discovered), she didn’t seem to be aware of that fact. And she was quite unhelpful in what she told me. So why did the game send me an email? It would have been ok if my character could have expressed frustration or gone off and talked to someone about it or if the Cheery Man had then contacted me and shed some light on the Last Constable’s character, but the game doesn’t allow any of that.

In fact, the Last Constable doesn’t have a character as such. She’s just a device. I never found the Cheery Man but I presume he doesn’t have a character either. That was one of Fallen London’s story fragments. Once that fragment is over there are other fragments to play. There are no connections between them and therefore nothing means anything. You play this bit for the sake of it and then you play another bit for the sake of it. And that’s it, that’s all.

I also wrote frustrated notes about a place within the game called the Ladybones Road. There, I took up a challenge to study the hidden language of tattoos. I was apparently successful. “Customers boast of their tattoos and their esoteric meanings. Some of it is obvious nonsense, but certain symbols and patterns come up again and again: the Wheeled Eye, the Broken Sun, the Child-and-Chariot, the Singer of Roses. You make notes, and extend your understanding.” That’s what the game reported to me on my success. But what exactly was the understanding that I had extended? Those words sound good but what do they actually mean? How are they contributing to the story? What can I do now? I don’t know. Nothing, I think is the answer. The game does not come back to this. It’s filled with words such as these, they sit prettily and don’t do anything.

Because the last time I spent any meaningful time with the game was in 2013, this month I have played Fallen London again. There have been some changes – I now have 20 actions instead of 10 when I begin playing and there’s a journal where I can record my progress. That seems like a good idea but then all it asks me to do with it is make a record of the game text. And meanwhile, there is still no character development.

My inability to make meaning within the world of the game makes me not care. In 80 Days, I never managed to navigate the world in the required amount of time. That has consequences for Phileas Fogg, my master, but his character isn’t developed so what does it matter? He never talks to me about what he has either to win or lose from the journey and I never think about how winning or losing might affect me and whether or not my wants and needs are in sync with or in conflict with Fogg’s.

There’s a fascinating storyline, where, while in Hong Kong, someone who says he’s from the UK police tells me that Fogg is a bank robber and tries to separate me from him by getting me addicted to opium. I found myself in Hong Kong in each of the three games. The first two times I successfully resisted the opium. The third time I succumbed. And in my opium-addled state the policeman was able to put me on a flight to Yokohama. Without Fogg. I was annoyed the first two games because afterwards my character apparently never thought about that episode ever again. I didn’t seem to harbour any suspicions towards Fogg and conversely, I didn’t feel that someone was out to get him and I should warn him or protect him. At no point did I worry for myself that someone had tried to get me addicted to opium. During the third game, however, while on a train between San Francisco and New York and talking to a Pinkerton agent, I was suddenly moved to defend Fogg and say he’s not a bank robber. So it does come up again. But just as a side detail.

There’s obviously a flag in the game, where Fogg reacts to certain things I do and that either increases or decreases his opinion of me, which then is reflected in how snappy he is or isn’t when he’s making small talk with me. But small talk is all it ever is. I’m travelling the world with a stranger. And maybe his position as my aristocratic boss means that he should remain in some way a stranger but people reveal themselves to each other all the time. And strangers who see each other every day develop some understanding of each other. Externally, there is so much that’s interesting in this game. But internally, there’s almost nothing going on. My character doesn’t develop either through reflection or experience and I finish with no greater understanding of the man I’m travelling with than when I started.

I have not yet tried to build anything more complex than a Twine game. And in fact in terms of complexity, my Twine game is more of a Twine story. So I have not experienced how much of an impossible task it might be to build a virtual Earth, where one can navigate in rapidly expanding directions and have each conversation remembered so that it influences what comes next. But as a player I know I don’t want fragments. I want proper joined-up stories. I want to care. I want my character to develop. I want the characters of those I interact with to develop, maybe not the minor characters, but certainly the major ones. And if shocking or astounding things happen to me then I want to see the ripples from those things as they affect me and my life and my decisions and how I feel about things and how I act.

Because otherwise I might appreciate intellectually how well a story is written, but if it didn’t make me feel anything then I don’t understand what the point is. And after that I don’t care, I just don’t care.

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Writing video games – Jeffrey Yohalem at the Brisbane Writers Festival

Jeffrey Yohalem is a video game writer and designer. He works for Ubisoft Montreal, which is one of the big (AAA) game studios. A couple of weeks ago, during the Brisbane Writers Festival, Yohalem gave a talk at the State Library about writing video games. He divided his talk into two parts. In the first he schooled us in how to write games that are immersive and meaningful. In the second he described the battlefield that is the AAA studio, where no one cares about story except the writer.

Yohalem believes that video games should be immersive experiences that treat players as actors. If we are inside a game, acting it as if we are living it, the game gives us the ability to reflect on our lives. It also allows us to empathise with other people because we can experience someone else’s life as it if was our own. To illustrate his points, Yohalem quoted often from the director and teacher Konstantin Stanislavski. Stanislavski believed that actors should draw upon their own life experiences and emotions when they take on a role. Yohalem used his writings as a kind of a handbook on game design.

It is a given in AAA games that there must be one consistent super objective presented to the player within the first half hour of the game. And then everything the player is able to do within the world of the game must reinforce that super objective. At the moment, these super objectives are always external, for example you may need to save friends or solve a murder. But Yohalem believes that in the future they will be internal.

He says that scenes and dialogue are less important than gameplay. If scenes exist they should be a transition between gameplay. He believes that pure dialogue moments such as cutscenes shouldn’t exist. Games do not need them to convey meaning. He talked about good directors enticing protagonists towards meaning and bad directors shoving meaning down protagonists’ throats.

He believes that in the future, games will have A-list mechanics that are subtle expressions of life. He talked about shooting people as a B-list mechanic. He says there will be emotion-based dialogue systems but they won’t involve player/actors choosing what they say. Words are the least important part of the game. He talked about new analogue mechanics and control shifting, where controls are kept contextual. He didn’t elaborate but what I think he meant was the player/actor will keep control over what their character is doing rather than having the game suddenly step in and force decisions.

In the second half of the talk, Yohalem told us what it’s like to make a game in a AAA studio. There are a number of stages, and early on, in pre-production, the arc of the game is created. But the writer isn’t necessarily involved at that point, often they come in later and create the story as a kind of wallpaper over the top.

Nobody in the studio has the luxury of time. Games are rushed through and developed as quickly as possible. People work long and hard. And Yohalem told us that no one on the team will want to work overtime because of your story. And no one on the team will read your script. Anything you put in the script is just for you.

All the big decisions about the game are made during the pre-production phase. The level designers create the levels based on what was decided back then. They don’t care about the story that you’ve subsequently come up with and are now trying to tell. And they can end up putting characters physically in the wrong place or dialogue where you can’t hear it because of shooting that’s happening at that moment. Their focus is on making levels where cool things happen (cool being a subjective word), they don’t think about how that might fit with the story. Continuing his earlier theme, Yohalem said he thinks that level designers should have film or theatre backgrounds. That’s how he believes things will change.

At the final stage of the process, studios bring in a closer. The role of the closer is to make a passable game that recoups costs. They will make cuts that will potentially damage the coherence of the story and they won’t care.

This second half of Yohalem’s talk was quite astonishing and also quite sad. During Story+ the day before, where Yohalem also spoke, someone said they felt that AAA studios are putting out the same game over and over just each time with a new skin. Yohalem concurred. During this session he told us that there’s no time within the schedule to invent new mechanics or do any adequate playtesting. He said that indie games are the prototypes now.

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Story+ 2014


A couple of weeks ago, the Brisbane Writers Festival held its second Story+ conference. Story+ was created to look at the intersection of narrative, design and technology. The inaugural Story+ last year was a one day event, but this year it took place over two days: Thursday 4 September and Friday 5 September. Day one was about interactivity and day two was about authoring.

Day one began very well with a keynote from Jeffrey Yohalem from Ubisoft Montreal talking about how he believes we’re in the infant stages of game design and have stalled. He says, at least in AAA terms, we’re making the same games over and over. He thinks it’s technology such as the Oculus Rift that will allow game design to progress. And he had me almost cheering as he talked about doing away with cut scenes and finding ways for players to travel through scenes rather than watch them.

Next up was Christian Fonnesbech, who has made a game called Cloud Chamber. Fonnesbech showed us a video introducing the game and the impression I took from the video was that Cloud Chamber is an alternate reality game. But later on, I realised that’s not so. ARGs have real-life footprints created for the characters and as far as I’m aware, the characters in Cloud Chamber exist only in the game. During the afternoon session, Fonnesbech described the genre as “discussion as gameplay”. You can’t progress unless you engage with others who are playing and get enough likes for your comments. Progression equals getting access to videos and data files that further reveal the story to you.

The final keynote of the morning was from Greg Broadmore from Weta Workshop in New Zealand. He talked very disarmingly about what he has created at the workshop. He is also just about to make a game with Magic Leap. He said they have a top-secret technology, and the impression he gave was that this technology is spatially based. I looked for more information on the Magic Leap website, but it seems to have a virus on it (which is not confidence-inspiring). However a recent New York Times article says that Magic Leap are developing a virtual reality technology that is different from others because it will not cause motion sickness.

The keynotes were followed by a panel discussion on interactive storytelling chaired by Simon Groth from if:book Australia. Richard Wetzel, a PhD student at the University of Nottingham, talked about mixed reality games. One of the examples he gave was TimeWarp, which was a game that involved players chasing robots around past and future versions of the city of Cologne. Sue Swinburne, a documentary filmmaker, talked about her work with Brisbane studio Halfbrick, who make casual games. And Christy Dena talked about her work, particularly AUTHENTIC IN ALL CAPS, Robot University and her latest project, DIY SPY School.

We broke for lunch then and returned for an afternoon session that was a good idea in theory. It involved a series of discussion groups and workshops with the morning speakers. But unfortunately, there were no organisers to organise these groups and as a result they didn’t flow in unison with each other and there weren’t proper opportunities to move between them. I sat with Christy Dena and Christian Fonnesbech. What I particularly appreciated out of that session was the list of books and games that Dena recommended to us.

The day ended with a keynote from Conor Linehan, a lecturer at the University of Lincoln. He talked about location-based games (of which I believe mixed reality is a subset) and the possibilities they create for audience interaction.

Day two was about authoring and began with three exceptionally strong keynotes from Richard Nash, Joanna Ellis and Mike Jones.

Nash reminded us that publishing has always been about people trying to make books that are cheap and convenient. Jeff Bezos and Amazon have now pushed that as far as it can go. Nash quoted Borges to us, who said that a book is not a static thing, it’s a series of relationships and conversations with a reader. It’s from this realisation that we’ll figure out how to go forward.

Ellis had a similar sort of message as she showed us that what we think of as new in 21st Century publishing actually has a very old history. Virgil was a keen proponent of fan fiction, using the work of Homer. The first interactive book, called a volvelle, was made by a monk in the 13th Century. Agatha Christie’s debut novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles had plans and clues at the back of the book to help readers work out the story, this can be thought of as gamification. And the original of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland shows that it was heavily edited by both Ezra Pound and Vivienne Eliot, so it’s an example of collaboration. Ellis said that there’s always been a disconnect between the creative impulse and the ability of the creator to make money from it. And she talked about the work she does with The Literary Platform and The Writing Platform to help writers.

Mike Jones told us how in a multi-platform world of dispersed audiences, a writer cannot be defined by a medium. He took us through the six steps he said would help us adapt to this writing landscape. I thought his strongest points were about the importance of the storyworld compared to the story and the need to make a minimum viable product. Minimum viable product might sound like awful business speak, but it made absolute sense when he talked about it. What element of your storyworld can you build out first to create interest and trust? Use your minimum viable product to prove that you have an audience and that is how you can get funding to build more of that world.

The panel that followed focused on writing in the age of transformative media. The panellists were Mike Jones, along with Greg Broadmore from Weta Workshop, the novelist Lauren Beukes and Malcolm Neil of Kobo. The panel was chaired by Jason Nelson, who is the current Digital Writer in Residence at QUT’s The Cube. As I was due at the separate Jeffrey Yohalem session on Writing Videogames in the afternoon, I didn’t get to stay for this entire panel. While I was there, all the panellists spoke about their work and it was Malcolm Neil who I thought had the most interesting perspective as he has a business background in ebooks and so is well poised to give us an insider’s view. Unfortunately, we didn’t hear too much from him. He did say that he thought digital won’t reach its full potential for another 10–15 years, but he wasn’t drawn out about this and so it wasn’t clarified whether he specifically means digital books and what he thinks that potential is.

The afternoon was due to be another round of discussion groups and workshops led by the morning speakers. And the afternoon keynote was being given by Tom Uglow of Google Creative Lab. Unfortunately (though also fortunately because it was really good), I decamped to the Jeffrey Yohalem session so I missed the rest of the day.

I didn’t get as much out of Story+ this year as I did last year. A frustrating first afternoon didn’t help. But also, I think the panel discussions were too broad. And they were more about the individuals involved and their specific work rather than ideas. Panellists had different sorts of experience across different sorts of media. But what should have united them were the ideas. What are we doing? Where are we going? Jeffrey Yohalem opened the conference on the Thursday morning asking these questions. But any coherence ebbed away after that. Friday morning also began strongly with the keynote speakers looking at the past and how it reflects on the present and then plotting a way forward. But the panel that followed again meandered all over the place.

I’d like to see Story+ come back next year but I’d also like there to be more coherence across the conference. It was a good idea this year to have a focus around interactivity and another around authoring, but those themes were too broad to stand by themselves. The organisers need to break down those central ideas into a series of questions and then brief the speakers. The panels can then be planned around what those questions are. That way, when we hear panellists speak about their work it’s within the context of the ideas that are being discussed. I don’t want to be too prescriptive. But having a plan keeps you focused on what the point is. I’m also all for taking detours from the plan. I think you can do that once you understand what you’re doing. But elements of this year’s conference felt like detours from the whole point of why we were there.

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Games That Make You Read: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

“Badly written and annoying” were the notes I wrote to myself when I began playing Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney.

The game was originally created in Japan in 2001 and is the first in the series of Ace Attorney visual novels. Phoenix Wright is a just-graduated defence attorney and even though he is somewhat naive and fumbling when it comes to practising law, as long as you steer him correctly he manages to win every case. He also has a lot of help from the plot, which is constantly finding unlikely scenarios and throwing them in his direction in a way that eventually proves helpful. His main nemesis and possible friend is the prosecuting attorney, Miles Edgeworth.

Like most visual novels, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is quite light on animation. But what there is is character defining. The animators present to us the gestures and mannerisms each character has, that are expressive of who they are. Phoenix’s show him sweating when he’s under pressure in the courtroom. Edgeworth’s focus on his perceived superiority, which he demonstrates through facial expressions and a wagging finger.

Now that I’ve played an entire game, I can see how clever it is that everything that is presented to us about any character serves only to underline who that character is. It’s not just the way the characters are animated, it’s also what they say and what they do.

But when I started playing, I was very annoyed by the first episode and the character of Mia Fey, Phoenix’s boss and mentor, who has her bra-clad breasts permanently on display outside her white shirt and business suit. I was also annoyed by the way the murder victim in that episode was denigrated in court, once she was found to be an unfaithful girlfriend. And I thought the language was facile and the story exhibited absolutely no depth or sophistication.

I’m not sure why I kept going with it. Partly I think it’s because I hate not finishing things. But also the first episode was quite quick to play, so I think I thought I would finish the whole thing very quickly. But the episodes get longer and longer. I discovered I didn’t mind though, as I progressed further into the game my attitude started to change and I developed a soft spot for it. I’m not exactly sure how or at what point this happened. But it turns out that while it’s true, the game is quite facile on the one hand; on the other hand it’s completely not at all.

The characters are one dimensional. But in that one dimension in which they exist, they can be extremely deep, particularly the main characters. The bit players, who are just there to either help or hinder through the various episodes, uniformly have one particular character trait that everything about them turns on. For example, there is Dick Gumshoe, a recurring character who is very loyal to Edgeworth and whose name, as well as three day growth, shaving cut and loosened tie tell us just what manner of detective he is before he ever says a word. There is also Jake Marshall, a police officer in the final episode, who thinks he is a cowboy but has actually appropriated Native American dress and meanwhile is not adverse to standing in the witness box and shaving himself with an open blade.

Unfortunately, almost all the female characters are depicted according to whether or not the writers consider them sexual beings. And this almost always depends on the age of the characters. Often as I played the thought “maiden, mother, crone” came into my head. Specifically, as it relates to this game, I mean below the age of consent, above the agent of consent and too old to even consider. It’s a sad fact of this game (not to mention a lot of the world) that this is how women are defined and portrayed. And the crone character, who appears in episode three and is past it from the writers’ point of view, is portrayed very unsympathetically.

I’m not sure that there was one defining trait when it came to the men. Power, or lack thereof, played some role but then characters such as Jake Marshall were just there for a bit of fun.

These things aside, I thought the writers were actually very clever. They did a lot with a little. I particularly liked the differentiation between Phoenix speaking out loud (white text) and his thoughts to himself (blue text). His own thoughts are often quite self-deprecating and funny. I loved what they did with Edgeworth, who seemed somewhat malevolent in the first case he was involved in, but was quite vulnerable by the last. I’ve thought about how they did this — it certainly wasn’t through any words that were spoken by Edgeworth, who outside the courtroom doesn’t talk much and doesn’t like to talk about himself. I think it’s in what Phoenix finds out along the way and in Edgeworth’s own particular tortured stoicism about the situations he finds himself in. I would almost like to say we had character development with Edgeworth, but I won’t go that far. I think it’s more that the writers used a very steady hand to reveal his (still one-dimensional) character to us, and in doing so made him seem deeper than he really is.

The gameplay could be a little irritating in the way that the storylines were non-branching and always working to the same end. This meant sometimes going through the same text over and over. Specific pieces of evidence need to be presented at set moments in the text in order to move the story forward and I didn’t think there was always logic about those decisions. I played the Nintendo DS version and the fifth episode in the game was added after the others. It’s longer than the earlier ones and also more interactive. There is an opportunity to look for blood stains, find fingerprints and examine pieces of evidence in 3D.

I didn’t want to start playing the second game in the series Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Justice for All until I finished writing this. Now that I’m done, I’m starting it straight away.

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I think we need to talk about the word “digital”

On Saturday, I was at the Sydney Writers’ Festival and attended a session called New Worlds: Digital Storytelling. This session threw together (almost literally) Cornelia Funke, an author using digital technology as a way to further expand her story world, Inua Ellams, a poet using Twitter as a medium and Kavita Bedford and Connor Tomas O’Brien, two people using the digital space as a way to bring communities together. I think this particular grouping of artists and creators was a bit confused and we need to think about what we mean when we talk about “digital storytelling”.

I first had this confusion a few months ago when the Digital Writers’ Festival was on. (Connor Tomas O’Brien is the Director of the Digital Writers’ Festival and that’s what he was talking about at the SWF event.) Because it was called the Digital Writers’ Festival, I thought that meant it was going to heavily feature sessions about literary works conceived using digital technology. That was my thought that when I first heard about it, it was my thought during the program launch and continued to be my thought during almost the entire 12 days the festival was on. But there was something slightly wrong because nothing in the program was particularly about “digital works”, as I understand them. I knew, obviously, that the Digital Writers’ Festival was happening online rather than in a physical place, but as my whole focus is on digital works I continued to engage in a bewildered way with the program until towards the end of the festival, when it finally dawned on me that the “digital” referred to the digital space and pretty much the digital space only.

At this point, it would be easy to say that the confusion is all mine and that when people talk about “digital storytelling”, they clearly mean storytelling in a digital, read online, space. Except that even the Sydney Writers’ Festival got confused and put Cornelia Funke, who has made a digital work (actually, a super impressive digital work) on a panel alongside people focusing on the digital space. This might seem like stupid semantics, but it’s not. Last year I wrote about confusion surrounding the word “interactive”. Now I’ve realised there’s a similar kind of confusion around “digital”. By now, most of us are used to using the digital space. It may be something that’s constantly evolving but from early chatrooms to email to Skype to Twitter to virtual meeting rooms, we’ve been interacting in these spaces a long time. And they hold great possibilities in terms of deliberately bringing communities together in meaningful ways.

But then there’s also the interactive stuff, which is what I get excited about. Interactive and digital are not interchangeable terms. But digital works hold the possibility of being interactive, which I define as the audience — be they reader, viewer or player, or a combination of all three — having influence over a story as it unfolds. This is the kind of thing that can happen in digital works because digital works are about content. The digital space is something different, it’s the online bit. So when we talk about digital storytelling — we need to be very clear, do we mean the mechanics of storytelling in an online space or do we mean the stories we create in those spaces? Personally, I’m not that interested in the spaces by themselves, but am greedy for information about the stories that people are telling in those spaces and how they’re telling them. I wish that the Sydney Writers’ Festival had seen the difference between the two. Next year I hope they do.

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Haunting Melissa

Haunting Melissa

Last weekend, I finally finished watching Haunting Melissa. I say “finally”, because I’d been watching it since last November. And it’s only 11 episodes long.

Haunting Melissa is an iOS app. It’s not exactly a TV show and not exactly a film, but something in between. It’s about a girl, Melissa, who is haunted by the death of her mother. The narrative is delivered to your device in bursts, you can’t download it all at once and you never know when the next episode is coming. This is one of its main points of difference. Neal Edelstein, the filmmaker, wanted to build a sense of nervous excitement and anticipation amongst viewers and that’s sort of what happens when at random times of the day (and sometimes night), your phone lets you know another episode is available by whispering “Me-li-ssssssa” at you.

It worked less and less well with me though. I used to be an iPhone user, but am no longer. Haunting Melissa is not available on my device so I managed to update my battered old iPhone so that I could download the app onto it. But because it’s my old phone, I don’t carry it around with me. Back in November, when I first started watching it, I was impatient for new episodes and I would check the phone often. I wanted to be able to download the whole series at once – that’s what I like to do, get a whole series and then watch it non-stop. But that goes against the central tenet of Haunting Melissa‘s delivery method. A few days were going by between episodes and I felt it was too long. Eventually, I forgot to keep checking the phone. Weeks went by between episodes for me.

I imagine the filmmakers have algorithms working on their server that look at how quickly users are consuming the episodes, once available. I think for users like me, who start to consume the content more slowly, they probably speed up the delivery. But it was too late. My initial enthusiasm had worn off. Haunting Melissa was something I watched when I got around to remembering to check the phone.

But the series is quite good. It builds tension very well and I think that’s what kept bringing me back to it, belated as my check ins were. The last episode seemed a bit of a cop-out but apparently there’s a sequel in progress, so perhaps they will develop Melissa’s story some more.

So, the story is quite good and the delivery method is a bit annoying, but neither of those things is what brought me to Haunting Melissa in the first place. My interest in it was piqued because I read an article that said that if you watched an episode twice, it might change, you might see different things. I was fascinated as to how this could be and how it might progress the concept of interactivity, which I define as a person interacting with a piece of media and changing the story as they go. Clearly, a piece of media changing by itself is the opposite of that, but I’m interested in anything that anyone is doing where the story changes on the fly and so I wanted to experience what Haunting Melissa had to offer.

I’ve since read Edelstein say that they’ve patented this technology and called it Dynamic Story Elements, which sounds quite bland and makes me think of blocks of story being pre-mixed and matched, rather than something quite radical happening as you experience it. And, just to end this on an anti-climactic note, though it’s what drew me to the app in the first place, I haven’t watched any of the episodes a second time. It’s taken me four months to watch the entire series, I wouldn’t remember now if an element in a scene back in episode one or two had changed. And that’s the thing, it turns out that it is only elements in the background of scenes that change. All of the major parts of the storyline stay the same.

I’m still interested in what Edelstein will do with his dynamic story elements, but so far I think my excited anticipation of them suggested more than what they could actually deliver.

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Where games and movies cross over: Beyond: Two Souls

little jodie

I’ve now played Beyond: Two Souls. It’s the story of Jodie Holmes (Ellen Page), a young woman who has an unbreakable connection with an “entity”. The entity is an unpredictable being with no corporeal form. His name is Aiden (pronounced Eiden) and he and Jodie share a mental link. He behaves a bit like a poltergeist except that he does Jodie’s bidding. So on her behalf, he moves through walls and other structures, opens locked doors, throws items around, takes possession of people’s bodies and gives her a link to the memories of the dead. (These last two things may not be typical of poltergeists. But he has a certain malevolence about him, which is. And the only noise he makes is like a soul lost in hell.)

Jodie grows up as a kind of lab rat, but one that is looked after by fatherly professors (one of whom is played by Willem Dafoe). As an adult she is handed over to the CIA so they can use her as a weapon. Later, when she escapes from them, they hunt her. But none of this happens in chronological order so we have to piece the story together. I like this narrative device.

The whole story is about Jodie, so David Cage (the writer/director of this game) has had to develop a solid, believable, well-written female character. And he has. In a number of episodes we see her as an 8 or 9 year old and I grew very attached to that little girl. I would play a whole game around little Jodie. I’ve tried to understand what it is that I’m responding to – I think it’s the way she talks, the way she walks. The expressions on her face. What she says. She’s so serious and so full of longing. And wise in ways she shouldn’t have to be. (So I’m responding to pretty much everything about her then.)

I don’t have the same reaction to adult Jodie, though Ellen Page is fantastic. I think the difference is we see a lot more of adult Jodie and in a variety of situations, some of them really quite random and not particularly well written.

When Heavy Rain, Cage’s previous game, came out, he spoke about believing in emotion in games and said that that experience could be generated by following someone’s everyday life. He seems to have stepped away from that idea somewhat because this game has a good amount of running, shooting and fighting. But as well as that, you also deliver a baby, busk on the street and cook a meal and tidy up your apartment in preparation for a date. I enjoyed all of that more than I enjoyed the shooting and fighting, though some of the running away (particularly on a motorcycle) was quite good.

But some of these episodes were random. Jodie ends up homeless. In terms of the story, I can understand why that happens, but it’s in that episode she busks on the street and delivers the baby. I’ve just said I liked those things, and I do, but in terms of a cohesive overall storyline, they’re quite random.

At another point, she’s hitch-hiking in the middle of the desert and ends up staying with a Navajo family. This doesn’t have to be random, but it is. How did she get to the desert? Why is she there beyond needing to be there for this particular story? It turns out these people are being tormented by an entity, which is rather convenient. There is a grandmother living in the house and she has not spoken for 30 years. So of course, on cue, the grandmother will find her voice and remember the words of a ritual to rid the family of the demon. Deus ex machina. I don’t want to see the hand of the writer at work in the story. I want to believe the story.

The random stories don’t help the overarching narrative. Everything needs to be firmly connected to advancing a combination of the plot and characterisation, which will also hopefully illuminate some central themes for us. If I’m in the middle of playing one of the chapters and I’m asking myself “why is this chapter here?” then it’s not doing its job and shouldn’t be there. In this context, the more actiony stories that make sense are the ones that involve US or other governments building hardware to access the entity world (called the Infraworld) and Jodie needing to help when something goes wrong. I think it’s good we see Jodie on a CIA mission, though the one they’ve chosen is again, just random. It was a missed opportunity to have her interact with entities and their world in a way that would turn out to be threatening to herself and Aiden, because that’s something we don’t see. But having Jodie need to leave, and then be chased by, the CIA after the mission does make sense.

The stories that lie at the heart of the game are the ones about Jodie’s everyday life. These stories all make sense, pretty much by definition, because they’re helping us understand who she is and what her life is like. We see her as a child and a teenager first at home and then in the lab. We experience her trying to fit in with other kids her age and then later the first freedom she has when she gets her own apartment. I wish there were more of these, particularly when she’s a young adult. The chapter where she found her mother was a stroke of brilliance. But I am undecided how I feel about the homeless episode. I think it could have fit better if it had been positioned better into the overall storyline.

As I said, fighting and shooting have been added. But Cage doesn’t believe in Game Over so Jodie can’t die. Not until the end anyway. So when the CIA parachutes her into their random mission (going into Somalia to kill a warlord), the fighting is really boring. There are very well-mannered soldiers who keep their back turned to her so she can jump them and gunmen who operate in a predictable fashion so she can kill them. She might get captured but she’s never going to die. And that’s fine, I don’t want her to die, I don’t particularly like Game Over either. But then the story needs to stretch itself. Can she get hurt so badly she ends up in a Somalian hospital? Or do the CIA have to rush in early and get her out? What else can happen as a repercussion from the fighting going badly or well? Otherwise it’s boring. It’s very boring.

Aiden’s abilities are crafted according to the needs of the particular storyline you’re playing. Therefore, they are riddled with inconsistencies. He can move away from Jodie, but only to a certain distance. I can’t tell you exactly how far that is though, because in one story it could be about 500 metres, but in another it could be 50 metres. When you want to access him, you press the triangle button on the controller. Theoretically, you can do that at any time. Unless the story doesn’t want you to at that particular moment. And while he has the ability to possess people, it’s only some people – the ones the game has decided you need.

There is very little freedom in this game. Everything has been prescribed in advance. Even when I walked into a room, I would discover that I had access to only part of the room. Cage does not make open world games. Heavy Rain imposed limits on how far I could go in any given environment. But Beyond: Two Souls further reduces the space in which I have to move. And that dramatically decreases my agency as a player.

Cage has said there are 23 endings to the game. But these endings are just about who is left standing. And whether Jodie winds up with a companion or not. When I played Heavy Rain I felt that I had minimal control over the storyline, but it wasn’t the case. In Beyond: Two Souls it is the reality. This game is much less like a game than Heavy Rain. And so, even though overall I enjoyed it more than its predecessor (thanks to playing Jodie), it’s a backwards step. That crossover place where games and movies meet should be a true hybrid of the two creative forms, where they bring out the best in each other. It’s not meant to be mostly movie and not very much game.

As a fortunate coincidence, I read Ian Bogost’s thoughts about Flappy Bird on the same day that I finished Beyond: Two Souls. He gave me much to think about when he said

“Games are encounters with squalor. You don’t play a game to experience an idea so much as you do so in an attempt to get a broken machine to work again.

In this way, games are different from other media. Sure, a movie or a book or a painting can depict squalor, can attune us to the agony of misfortune. But unlike film and literature, games do not primarily depict human events and tell stories… We don’t watch or read games like we do cinema and novels and paintings, nor do we perform them like we might dance or football or Frisbee. Rather, we do something in-between with games. Yes, we “play” games like we do sports, and yes, games bear “meaning” as do the fine and plastic arts. But something else is at work in games. Games are devices we operate.”

I think Beyond: Two Souls forgot that it was a game.

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Where games and movies cross over: L.A. Noire and Heavy Rain

heavy rain

Last year, I wrote about how I believe that “books, films and video games [are] going to meet somewhere in the middle. The lines between them [will] blur and interactive storytelling [will] be the result”. I then proceeded to write a number of posts looking at meeting points between books and games but not really thinking about film.

At the time I was playing L.A. Noire, which is a cinematic game, but I found it so repetitive that most of the time it made me feel worn down. So it never occured to me to write about it. But on reflection, L.A. Noire does have something to contribute on this subject.

In the game you play Cole Phelps, a detective working in 1940s L.A. Each time he goes to a new crime scene, he has to gather clues and find and interview witnesses and suspects. Sometimes they’re willing to talk, other times they have to be chased down. Depending on their attitude and what they have to hide, they may tell you the truth, part of the truth or none of the truth. Cole has to figure out whether they’re lying or not. He has a list of clues he can consult to help him determine this.

When the game came out, it was much touted that Cole could also look at suspects’ facial expressions to work out whether or not they’re telling the truth. Facial expressions didn’t seem particularly helpful to me when I was trying to work that out. And they certainly can’t be used to back up your claim when you tell someone they’re lying. But regardless, the interviewing is interesting. At the conclusion of the interview you find out how many questions you got right (though not which ones). Without having seen direct evidence of this, my presumption is that this then can affect the game, because if you haven’t found out the right info, you don’t go to the right place next.

Also, I once put away a man both I and Cole knew was innocent, because I’d messed up the interrogation at the police station. I was playing two suspects off against each other and did it ineptly. And the game didn’t give me the option of fixing my mistake. I liked that about it. Actions have repercussions.

The execution of the interview scenes didn’t always quite come off, and particularly during the murder cases they were a bit repetitive, but in general they were the greatest source of my narrative pleasure in the game. (Though I also did like working out the serial killer’s clues.)

I played L.A. Noire because I thought it was going to change my life and all our lives with its melding of cinema and game. But it didn’t. It had interesting ideas but too many cut scenes (scenes that you watch but don’t play) and too much repetitive game play. And then I played Heavy Rain. I had no expectations of it beyond that it was supposed to be cinematic in some way. I deliberately didn’t read anything about it before I played it.

This meant that I didn’t know it was by David Cage.

David Cage, on paper, should be my best friend. He believes in the melding of video games and cinema to create something that is not quite either. He thinks games can be and should be more than first-person shooters, platformers and whatever the word is for games where you solve puzzles (complex puzzles that can come in narrative form, not just Tetris). In fact, in a speech he gave a year ago, he proposed a new name for the sort of game he is talking about — digital entertainment. I think this new name needs rethinking as it is so bland, innocuous and ambiguous as to be almost non-existent, but I’m also with him because he is describing the same space that I’m talking about. The only difference is, in my vision, books are also going to be part of the picture.

Cage believes in emotion in games and thinks you can get that from the kind of interactivity where you control a character’s day-to-day life and in effect, live that life with them. And that’s what you do in Heavy Rain. In the opening scene you learn how to control your character. How to make them move around a room, open a door, sit down on a bed. Each room or environment you walk into has different kinds of interactivity associated with it. There are clues on the screen to let you know what you can and can’t do in any given space.

But it’s not just about going through the routine of someone’s life. Heavy Rain is the story of a father whose son has been kidnapped, and what he does to try and get his child back. There are four playable characters — Ethan, the father, and also a journalist, a private detective and an FBI agent. You don’t get to choose which character you play, the game nominates when it’s time to move onto someone else. Each character has their own narrative arc, but the minor stories are all there to advance the main storyline.

Something that I like is that Cage wanted to get rid of the idea of Game Over — that moment when your character dies and you have to start again. So for the greater part of the game, your characters can’t die. What that means is, if you make a bad decision you don’t realise. It was only in my post-game reading that I discovered that small decisions in the game can drastically affect the ending that you get. I would have liked to have known this as I was playing it, because most of the time I felt I had only the most banal amount of control over the story. It seemed to me that the storyline was already set and that I was only allowed to tinker at its edges or at unimportant details in the middle. It’s exciting that this is not the case and if I had liked the game more, I would play it again to see what would happen next time.

But I didn’t really like it. There are two main reasons for this. The first is my annoyance with the way Madison, the female character, is written. I was so happy when I discovered there was a playable woman. And then so annoyed when all she did was play guardian angel/nurse/bringer of food to Ethan. She’s a journalist, apparently, though I only found that fact out in an incidental way towards the end of the game. And I never saw her at her workplace or doing anything remotely journalistic. But I did have to make her do a striptease to get information out of a fellow, though I hit him over the head before that could get very far.

I don’t think Cage knows very much about women. He appears to think we don’t play games. And then, he thinks the reason we don’t play games is because it’s too hard for us to understand how to work the controller.

(And don’t get me started on his Kara project, an android that can look after the house, do the cooking, mind the kids, organise your appointments, speak 300 languages and be entirely at your disposal as a sexual partner.)

The other reason I didn’t like the game was because of the writing. It’s badly written. At the end, Madison had knowledge about something she hadn’t seen. Knowing now that there are multiple versions and endings of the story, it makes sense that the reason she knew that was that she found out in another branch of the game. But not in any of the branches I played. So that piece of dialogue shouldn’t have been there. Norman, the FBI agent, was addicted to some drug. I don’t know what, I don’t know why. It affected his actions in the story and was clearly there for a reason, but that must have been hidden in another branch of the story that I never came across. Those are just two examples, but the game is littered with these kinds of problems. It’s admirable to take on four characters with different story branches that affect each other and that can change. But only if you’re going to do it properly and make sure that each narrative strand makes sense.

So, Heavy Rain. A cinematic game in which the cut scenes are mostly interactive (quick time events) and the decisions made in the interactions actively affect the rest of the story. And it’s made by someone who believes that games should give us different types of experiences, more than just running and shooting and jumping and puzzle solving. He believes in emotion in games. He thinks he’s creating something that is not a game and not a film but a hybrid.

I got what I wanted, but then I discovered I didn’t want it because the writing is bad. The writing has to be good otherwise there’s no point.

Cage’s next game after Heavy Rain is Beyond: Two Souls. It came out just last October. I thought I’d get around to playing it eventually but now I’m curious. I’ve ordered it and will play it next.

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Why interactivity: a response to Pepi Ronalds in the Killings blog

the holy grail

Last month, Pepi Ronalds wrote a piece for the Killings blog called “Why we’re still curled up with the book”. In it, she talks about how as readers we have a resistance to interactive ebooks because of our history with the physical book. She begins by identifying a problem with the word “book” and the way it’s used to describe both physical and electronic reading platforms (yes, I have just called the printed book a physical reading platform), even though those can be very different things. I see her point, but it’s her use of the word “interactive” that I had difficulty with and that’s what I’d like to explore here. But first, to respond to the crux of her argument.

Ronalds quotes a novelist and lecturer called John Weldon, who says that even though we don’t realise it, we have internalised a schema for reading physical books that enables us to immerse ourselves within them. But ereaders, even though at their simplest they mimic the book, have a different schema and it’s one that we’re still learning. Ronalds quotes her own experience of not being fully engaged when she reads books on her Kindle. Weldon says that it’s because she’s aware that she’s reading on a device rather than a printed book and her brain is preoccupied with processing that fact rather than becoming immersed in what she is reading.

Ronalds’s experience does not echo mine. A couple of weeks ago, I read a couple of books on my ereader in quick succession. At one point, I caught myself trying to turn a non-existent page. Earlier in the year, I had the opposite experience. I had picked up a physical book and found myself trying to swipe the page, rather than turn it. Clearly my brain does not make much differentiation between the two formats. They are interchangeable to me, both sources of narrative pleasure that have my complete engagement.

The argument about the schema is the overriding message of the Killings piece. It is set up at the beginning and explained in detail at the end. But in the middle of the writing, there is a dismissal of interactivity. Ronalds talks about a publisher of enhanced ebooks, who is stopping production because of poor sales. She says that magazine publishers have been abandoning interactivity, though doesn’t say what that interactivity was. She mentions Weldon’s novel Spincycle and the facility he created to allow the reader to communicate, via visits, comments and emails, with the main character. He says this has not been well taken up. His argument is that people prefer to read the story on the page rather than follow it elsewhere. Weldon also says that collaborative writing, where the audience become co-contributors, hasn’t been embraced by readers.

A lot of different types of interactivity are grouped together in this argument. None of them are interactivity as I would describe it but I will come back to that. The evidence used to dismiss all of them is the theory of the schemas. While I can understand this logic when applied to books vs simple ebooks i.e. those with digitised text only, and I see how the argument could be stretched to enhanced editions and transmedia, I don’t follow how it can also be applied to collaborative writing.

And so to put the other side for these different types of interactivity. While enhanced editions may not have been commercially successful so far, David Wilk has argued that “the platforms that reach the largest number of readers either don’t support media at all [most Kindle devices] or their makers don’t promote their color devices for reading in the first place [Apple on their iPads and iPhones as they don’t pre-install iBookstore by default]”. Therefore, we don’t know whether there is a viable market for these types of products. Personally, I’ve read a number of literary apps and enjoyed them all. I particularly loved Faber’s The Waste Land because of Fiona Shaw’s filmed performance of the poem. I was transfixed as I watched her. Hearing a poem read gives a completely different perspective on it. Especially if it’s spoken by someone who is skilled in delivering the lines. This is the benefit of encountering the poem through the app rather than the printed page.

The Kills by Richard House, which I have not yet read, is an example of a transmedia novel that is commercially successful (and also critically acclaimed). Though, I admit I do not have a strong argument here because I do not have a list of other successful transmedia novels that I can reel off. The Kills may be the exception to the rule or it may be the first of many to come, if it’s a sign that publishers have now worked out how to do a transmedia title.

Naomi Alderman, literary novelist and video game writer, wrote earlier this year about audience participation being one of the exciting developments in the digital space. She was one of the writers involved with Exquisite Corpse, a collaborative thriller project run this year by London’s Southbank Centre. The novel was crowd-written over Twitter, with a different writer to edit the project over each of its 10 weeks.

It’s worth noting that in the article mentioned above, Alderman also wrote about digital writing allowing for increased immersion in a story. This is the opposite point of view to the schema theory.

Ultimately, I read Ronalds’s piece as her worry about the Future of the Book. But to me the discussion about books vs ebooks is irrelevant. The digital book is evolving. At the moment it is mostly a literal interpretation of the printed book. There is some squabbling over formats and devices but in the end the public will decide whether they want Amazon’s proprietary ebook format or one that is open standard, and whether they prefer an e ink or a backlit screen. This will be a temporary solution as the technology evolves further. Already, Sony are said to be trialling a digital paper notepad in some Japanese universities and that will again change the nature of our ebooks.

Meanwhile, we’re focusing on this and overlooking the interactive digital works that are being created that blur the boundaries between books, films and video games. This is what our digital future will bring us and it won’t threaten the physical book because it will be doing something that the printed page can’t.

When I use the word “interactive”, I’m not referring to either a standard or an enhanced ebook or transmedia or a collaborative work. I mean interactive in the sense that the audience – be it reader, viewer or player, or a combination of all three – will have influence over the story. It was on behalf of this sort of interactivity that I read Ronalds’s piece with a sort of bristling puzzlement.

I acknowledge though that there is confusion over the wording. Ronalds identifies difficulties with the word “book”. Wilk talks about the problematic nature of the term “enhanced ebooks”. He says that “enhanced” can refer to the ability of the reader to move through the book via a live table of contents but it can also mean the inclusion of audio and video, which is the definition I would use. He goes on to say it could also be used to describe other forms of user engagement. And that’s where we might be getting into the territory of what I consider to be interactive. At the moment, these words mean different things to different people.

I was hoping to be able to illustrate my point with a discussion about interactivity in the new iPad thriller The Craftsman. It’s claimed to be part book, film and game and if this is true it will be my holy grail – a meeting point of these three forms of entertainment. The creators say that no two readers/watchers/players will have the same experience interacting with it. However I’m unable to give my own assessment as this app is not due to be available in Australia until Christmas.

But I can mention Emily Short’s First Draft of the Revolution. Short is a renowned writer of interactive fiction and here she puts the reader in control of how the story is written. There are a handful of characters in this narrative set in a kind of parallel universe of pre-Revolutionary France and they communicate with each other via letter. You are presented with the first draft of each of their letters and are unable to press send until you do a bit of rewriting. This gives you the opportunity to determine what information the characters reveal within the letters as well as set their overall tone. You don’t change what happens in the story but you do change how it is told. It’s a narrative game – a point where books and video games have met in the middle. I’ve written extensively about these sorts of blendings over the last few months and you can find them in my Reading in the Future posts.

Disclosure: I originally pitched this idea to the Killings blog. But after my first draft they preferred it to be more about the business side of epublishing and the general public’s attitude to ebooks and I preferred it to be more about interactivity. I have since rewritten the piece substantially to rebut Ronalds’s argument on a more micro level and I have reduced the examples I gave for interactivity so as not to repeat material I’ve already covered on this site.

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Reading in the future: interactive fiction and chatbots


I’ve recently been reading the work of interactive fiction writer Emily Short and discovered her story Galatea. I was happy to find that the story was powered by a chatbot engine and I wondered if this was a whole genre within interactive fiction. To my initial surprise, I discovered that there seem to be very few stories that rely on the use of chatbot technology. But once I thought about it, I decided that given the volatility of a lot of chatbot responses, it isn’t surprising that they haven’t been more widely used in interactive storytelling.

Before Siri, chatbots weren’t widely known. And Apple don’t call Siri a chatbot, so the term might still be unfamiliar. But Siri does what chatbots do. She understands questions and remarks put to her on a pre-defined range of topics and can respond with appropriate information. When she’s asked something outside what she’s been programmed to know about, she can give an intelligent response though it’s also generally going to be one that doesn’t answer the question.

Siri is a tightly controlled chatbot. Apple don’t want her to give unpredictable responses. But there are other chatbots that can speak to a much wider range of subjects. They do this by learning from what people say to them. While this improves their subject knowledge, it can also make them quite random in what they say and how they respond. An example of this type of bot is Cleverbot.

While I’ve been in Sydney, I’ve done a lot of work for a company that makes chatbots. And the types I’ve worked on are mostly the tightly controlled ones. It is possible to make these bots have a very large knowledge area but it requires copious amounts of time and effort. And then plenty of ongoing maintenance.

The company I’ve been working for has a proprietary platform and I’m not familiar with all the options available for people looking to create their own chatbots. I can understand that the looser types of bots would destroy anything that a creator might be trying to do within an interactive fiction.

So I’m unsure what the programming is behind Emily Short’s Galatea. But it’s sophisticated and given that she wrote this interactive fiction back in 2000, I think she was far ahead of her time.

The background to her story comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In Book Ten, Pygmalion carves a statue of a woman and falls in love with her. On the feast day of the goddess Venus, he goes to her shrine and prays for a real-life woman who will look just like his statue. When he returns home, he kisses the statue and discovers that she comes to life. The statue made flesh is unnamed in the poem but in later retellings of the story she was called Galatea.

When Emily Short’s interactive fiction begins, we find that we are at an exhibition and Galatea is on a pedestal in front of us. To progress the story we must speak to her. And the things that we think we can assume e.g. that the exhibition we’re at is an art exhibit, aren’t necessarily so.

I have spent a number of hours talking to Galatea and I am fascinated by her complexity. Depending on what you say to her, her mood changes from bored to sad to happy to hostile and these moods affect the answers she gives you. She also has a sympathy level towards you that changes as the conversation progresses.

Emily Short has provided a number of walkthroughs. They show the astonishing depth to this character and the vastly different endings it’s possible to trigger. The only flaw I can see in the work is that a number of questions have only one answer. It would be great if some of the most common questions you can ask Galatea had alternate answers set to trigger randomly. That would vary the experience I had through many of the opening gambits. Though, this was only a problem to me when I doggedly went through every walkthrough. But I highly recommend that you don’t do any walkthroughs until you have exhausted every single thing you can think to ask Galatea.

There are two other stories that I’m aware of that have used chatbot technology. One of them is Façade, created by Andrew Stern and Michael Mateas in 2005. Façade functions something like a video game in which you can interact with the characters in a free-form way. In the story, you go to visit two friends who are having marital troubles. Beyond that, I don’t know very much as the developers are no longer updating the game and it won’t play on my computer.

The other is something that Christy Dena spoke about when I was at the Story+ conference in September. She wrote a coming-of-age transmedia story a number of years ago called The Villager Girl and the Teenbot that took the reader from the page to interacting with a chatbot and then back to the page again. Unfortunately, it’s not available online at the moment.

Clearly, I’ve not presented an exhaustive list of chatbots used in interactive fiction. But I’m at the limits of my research and so would be very interested to hear about any other stories that have relied in some way on the use of chatbot engines.

I began by saying that after some consideration, I can understand why chatbots haven’t been used more often in interactive stories. But conversely, Galatea all by itself shows the richness and complexity available to writers who choose to use this technology. Perhaps all that is missing at the moment is the right platform.

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