The Next Big Thing

01/10/2011

 
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Harry Potter. The Da Vinci Code. Twilight. I predict that during my lifetime someone will write the new popular bestseller, but it will be digital and interactive.

It won't have a command prompt, but it won't just be CYOA, either. People will read it on their browsers, Kindles, and iPhones (or whatever we use by then), and it may involve graphics, social networking, limited interaction with other readers, but it will read more like a novel than a game. It could be released as a normal series, or open-ended and constantly updated, like Echo Bazzar, and fans will form communities around debating every possibility and ending, each backstory, all secret areas.

Interactivity is this new generation's native language, and I think it's inevitable that the fiction they read becomes individualized, networked, and always-on.
 

Jason Shiga

12/06/2010

 
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I commented on the absence of minorities in GET LAMP, but forgot the brief interview with the one person I actually recognized: Asian-American cartoonist Jason Shiga.

Jason talked about children enjoying CYOA books because they don't get many choices in real life, and there's definitely a child-like exploration and fantasy to many of his works — as well as a vindictive and violent hand of Fate. Also, Jason has a mathematics degree from UC Berkeley, and his mathemagical brain clearly informs the different formats of his interactive comics.

I consider Meanwhile his magnum opus so far. You can read a black-and-white online version of it at his site. I bought the original xeroxed and hand-cut version, but you can apparently only get the commercial full-color print version from Amazon.com now, which I haven't seen. He also created a giant poster of it.

Meanwhile is a brilliant interactive use of the spatial medium of comics — instead of necessarily reading left-right, top-bottom, you follow tubes between panels, which sometimes branch at choices, and often lead off the page on to a tab which you must flip to. The first choice is between vanilla or chocolate ice cream, but you quickly realize that Shiga is able to transcend the CYOA medium with ironically mirrored events, unsettling discoveries, and a story that explains quantum physics even as the tube structure mimics the concepts presented. Here's Jason with a brief explanation of his book:

Check out Jason's site, shigabooks.com, to see online versions of some of his comics. I recommend his interactive The Last Supper, The Bum's Rush, and April Fooled, and his more traditional Bookhunter and Fleep. Unfortunately, another of his full-length interactive works, Knock, Knock, isn't even mentioned (apparently out of print). It's incredibly ambitious: the main character is trapped by a killer in a room full of objects to be interacted with in any order, and all the possible three-choice sequences are drawn out — but only one leads him outside to safety and the shocking reveal.

Here's a video review if you want to see more of Meanwhile. And a 2004 video interview that shows more of his work. If all this makes you want to make your own interactive comic, Jason explains how to fold a short branching booklet (and demonstrates a few of his comics):
And for those who dislike CYOA books because they don't track variables, Jason has Hello, World, a "programmable" comic that tracks inventory choices in a split layer of the book:
 

CYOA Goodness

10/21/2010

 
Choose-your-own-adventure books are often slighted by the IF community for their simple branching structures and lack of true interaction/world modeling. Fair enough, but I think interesting stories can still be told in this semi-static medium, and each of the following games is notable for its presentation or story.

Thousand Dollar Soul
A sci-fi story that is deeper (and creepier) than it first appears. You'll have to play through several of the 35 endings to piece the whole picture together. The interface allows you to back up as much as you want.

Air Pressure
A visual novel about a relationship with a needy friend. Or is it?

The Outbreak
An interactive zombie survival movie. It has the usual limitations of interactive movies, plus horror movie clichés, but does some clever things with a few branches, and dying is as fun as winning.

Dead Frontier: Outbreak
Dead Frontier: Outbreak 2
Two zombie apocalypse choose-your-own-adventures, with music, voice-over, and background graphics. Click to skip through text.

Choice of Dragon
Choice of Broadsides
Choice of Romance
Choice of the Vampire
These are the best written on this list, and mechanically interesting as well. Each game tracks attributes for your character's choices, and the story changes based on your attributes, sometimes in substantial ways. While I'm not usually a fan of the genres they chose, all but Vampire got me hooked. It is in itself notable for the broad scope it attempts, though it ultimately fell short of a good story, in my opinion.
 
 
I'm familiar with several mediums of interactive text, but it seems each is stereotyped by outsiders. In some cases, the stereotypes are fairly accurate of what has been done in that medium up until now. However, I believe that none of the mediums are as flawed as they are made out to be, just that new works in each tends to be like previous works, forming flawed genres within the medium.

Here are the stereotypes as I perceive them:

Choice-based fiction (CYOA). "Adventure or fantasy genre, written for teens. Arbitrary choices, most of which lead to death. 'Lawnmowering' through each choice branch to find content or endings."

Interactive fiction. "Ugly text. Funky command line interface. 'I don't understand that command.' Examine everything, pick up everything, try everything."

Graphic adventures. "Over-clever dialogue and descriptions, self-referential or in-joke humor. Illogical puzzles. Fetch quests and favor trading. Examine everything, pick up everything, try everything with everything."

Tabletop RPGs. "Fantasy genre. Lots of dice. Nerds in their moms' basements, arguing about whether a Level 14 Elf Mage could actually go two weeks without pooping if he ate only lembas wafers."

MMORPGs and MUDs. "Same as above, but in leetspeak."

Video game RPGs. "Fantasy genre. Unite the 12 Lightshards of the Everglow to defeat Horribus McDarknasty. Fetch quests and favor trading. Grinding. Menu-choice dialogue, and people standing around saying '...' to each other."

Hypertext. "Artsy-fartsy 'literary' writing. Passages joined by link spaghetti. No progress or ending."

Visual novels. "Visual what?"

Video games. "BOOM! BOOBS! THREE DIFFERENT ADRENALINE-DRENCHED ENDINGS!"

Most of these could be lampooned indefinitely, but I think that generally covers it. Comment if there's a medium I left out.

Obviously, I stereotyped these so as to make my point, but I do think most people's objections to an interactive text medium lie with the genres it has become associated with, not with the medium itself.

Fans of IF might complain that CYOA has no world model, only a pruned branching structure, but I think if an interesting story with developed characters were written as a choice-based novel for a good reason, they could appreciate it as much as a static novel (still wouldn't scratch their IF itch, I understand). Similarly, it's not that IF outsiders aren't interested in fiction set in a fully-modeled text world, they just aren't interested in ones about "you" having to pick up everything, etc. (and maybe not interested in learning the command line interface, though I argue IF can be defined more fundamentally than that).

Many complain that mainstream video game titles are just carbon copies of each other with the newest graphics and hardware. But the truth is, each kind of interactive text is almost as locked into their genres and types – and the game engines and input methods haven't updated since the 70s.

I think each of these mediums could learn and borrow from some of the others to create an attractive experience for new readers and players. Some examples already attempting this: Jeepform RPGs like A Bitter Aftertaste that create a literary narrative, similar to improv theater; Sweet Agatha, a book that is physically taken apart and told interactively to a listener; and Choice of Games CYOA stories, written in several unusual genres, with interesting informed choices and personality stats that affect gameplay.

Not everything will work, but if what we're doing now isn't as successful as we'd like (for whatever definition of success), it's time to try something new – and why not start with popular elements from other mediums?
 
 
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I got really sick once as a kid, and my folks bought me a choose-your-own-adventure book. I loved it and checked more out from the library, but soon saw a pattern: the choices presented rarely gave me any idea of their outcomes, too many choices ended in me dying, and others led to the same place and so were no decision at all. That lessened it for me, and since all I could find were adventure CYOA books, I soon got sick of them and read other things.

About a decade later, I discovered interactive fiction. Ditch Day Drifter was one of the first, and I really enjoyed the puzzles and exploration. However, after playing a few titles, I found that I was punished with unsolvable roadblocks if I didn't methodically explore and probe everything, but I was also punished with "I don't understand" and "You can't do that" messages if I experimented too much. And who ever read a story with the sentence "There is a box (empty) here"? Or one that made me type "kaleidoscope" correctly 17 times to read to the end? Or told me there were seats in the car, but when I tried to LOOK UNDER SEATS told me I could see no such thing here, and after I realized I needed to look under one SEAT, said "Which do you mean, the seatbelt, the driver's seat or the passenger's seat?"

I still play IF, of course. But I'm not surprised that few people are attracted to it these days, and are content with the cliched interactivity of video game plots or CYOA books. At least those don't talk weird and interrupt the story all the time...

Recently there's been a lot of talk about attracting new readers to IF, especially given the huge markets of casual readers (print and digital) and casual gamers.

Is the solution to change IF itself? If so, how? Just mention modifying the interface, and IF diehards act like you're going to hack into ifarchive.org and remove the command prompt from every file.

What about some sort of hybrid to bridge readers from CYOA to IF?

Or is there a more fundamental solution? In
1975, the creator of Adventure ingeniously designed around computer processing and memory limitations to create an enjoyable experience. These days we're no longer limited by hardware – our constraints are the tastes and habits of today's readers and players. With the expertise of 35 years since Adventure, can we start from those limitations and create a new enjoyable experience? One that's as fun as reading a book, as familiar as browsing a blog, but as robust as exploring Ditch Day Drifter?