Yesterday, book publisher Random House made its first foray into games with the release of free-to-play title Black Crown, written by debut author Rob Sherman.
The title harnesses the interactive storytelling framework StoryNexus, made by UK studio Failbetter, which has been designed to help bring fiction into a new era of interactivity.
But can a new wave of interactive fiction and StoryNexus open a new chapter for the text games of old, fit for the modern gaming and reading audiences?
We sat down with Failbetter chief narrative officer Alexis Kennedy, author Rob Sherman and Random House digital publisher Dan Franklin to discuss the opportunities for developers in interactive fiction, and whether a renaissance in text gaming is alive and well.
How did StoryNexus come about?
Kennedy: I was a financial software developer, which is very boring, and I wanted to do something with writing and something with games. I wanted to build something that allowed people to put interactive fiction in small chunks on the web.
As soon as I started building the StoryNexus framework I realised from a software development point of view that building a framework without specific cases is bonkers. So we built Fallen London as kind of a test case, something that was going to help us build the framework and help fund it. And we just got carried away building Fallen London, because it turned out writing content is really good fun.
And then we finally got back years later to building StoryNexus and putting other projects on it. So there were two things. One there was this twined-enthusiasm for game and story. And two, I was an English teacher before I was a financial software developer, and had a William Morris-esque enthusiasm for wanting to see people see the fruits of their own creativity.
What can developers do with StoryNexus? How far can devs and authors take it?
Kennedy: StoryNexus involves almost no actual coding. It’s a series of little tiny state machines that you build with drop downs and write in copy. So it’s very easy to build these little three axe structures with a bunch of choices, and then to connect them together by tracking their outcomes and saying okay, these other stories appear based on those outcomes.
So the core StoryNexus experience doesn’t change, it’s set up, choice, result. Ok you’ve got some other set-ups, choices and results. You can customise the look and feel, but you can’t customise the core experience.
So it really only tries to be that one thing of a looser, more fluid form of choice-based interactive fiction to choose your own adventure.
It’s much more like Inform 7 than it is like Unity. It’s less versatile than Inform 7, but it is much easier to use as an author rather than a programmer.
Rob Sherman: I think definitely, in terms of archs and structure, and how you would structure putting out content, the fact that there is so little barrier between the writing process, the publishing and showing it to the public, it allows you to put things out very quickly.
I’ve played interactive fiction, and I think there were probably a couple of aborted attempts when I was a teenager to try it out, because I found it very difficult.
It’s very difficult to consider narrative archs when you’re not sure when and at what point people are going to be coming into it. It’s much harder to create pacing in things like that. It’s a challenge rather than anything else, but it’s a different way of telling any story.
The fact that it’s a framework means it can be used for anything. It could be used for something that is very realist, or post-modern or something like that. I mean a lot of the stuff that has been written for it has been sci-fi fantasy because that’s the kind of people who use it.
Kennedy: The core constituency of StoryNexus was for Fallen London players, and for Fallen London players who like a Victorian fantasy game.
And generally interactive fiction tends to attract people more interested in genre because it has this necessary gaming quality. But as Rob said, it doesn’t have to.
Sherman: No it doesn’t have to, and that will be interesting to see how people react to it and whether those people are already interactive fiction fans or genre fiction fans or coming at it form a different perspective.
But it is just fundamentally an interesting way to work as a writer. It’s a very different way and a challenging way. I think it could put a lot of writers off because of the extra work you have to put in, it’s not just the writing, it’s working out the pacing, it’s working out every possible contingency.
This is much easier to use that a lot of other interactive fiction software, and I think that lowers the barrier for entry.
Kennedy: I’ve said in the past that there’s two problems. When you’re writing interactive fiction you have two reactions, one is ‘How the hell do I get started?’, and the other is ‘Oh my god what have I done?’, and StoryNexus helps a lot with the first and somewhat with the second. So that’s the very low barrier to entry that Rob was talking about.
The other two things it allows that came back kind of accidentally as really core strengths are, firstly, that it’s very real-time in how it works.
So there are ways to restrict the degree to which you can publish instantly, but you can literally edit in the front-end. You can be looking at the story and if you’ve got admin rights, you can click on the page, edit stuff, add effect, add consequences, change text, click save and then that’s live to people who are playing it right now.
The other thing is because it’s an online experience and because there are social elements, you can have other people participate in stories. Not just in the traditional social gaming viral sense, you can do that, but you can say 'Would you like to participate in this story with me where we're going to fight a duel over my lover?', or 'Would you like to assist me with this burglary?'.
But that again, if nonlinear interactive storytelling is to linear storytelling kind of squared. Then the social element makes it cubed. There’s that level of complexity, so it’s that much harder to write, but it’s a step more experimental.
Would it be wrong to look at titles like Black Crown as games?
We’ve been round and round this game vs. story thing and sometimes we call Fallen London a game and sometimes we call it an interactive story depending on who we’re talking to.
We did a piece of audience research, we had about 5,000 respondents last year, and we asked people whether they thought of themselves primarily as readers, gamers or whether they really couldn’t decide and were passionate about both.
I think it was something like 15 per cent said gamers, 36 per cent said readers and everybody else said both.
Dan Franklin: I think for me, I use this term it’s a narrative experience or a narrative gaming experience, and I just think that the fact is anyone coming into it expecting a game has got to do a lot of reading.
And the joy of it is in the prose and letting yourself take the time over the writing as well. And going back to game books, the immersion in Rob’s prose is such an important part of all of this.
But it’s at the intersection, and it’s an interesting space right now because as a publisher we’re exploring it and games companies are exploring it and marketing companies are going on about storytelling all the time, just as they were talking about games a couple of years ago.
So it’s everyone converging, and the key question is, what experiences can you create out of it and what new types of brands you can create?
Is this like bringing the text games of old into the modern age?
Kennedy: It really is. The word I keep hearing around this is renaissance. You know, we’re never going to be at the point again that we were with Infocom. It’s never going to be the case that text games are the mainstream of games. Because games with exploding helicopters have always been more compelling.
But there is a lot of really interesting work being done in this space. It’s a very energetic space at the moment.