A Time of Tungsten, analysis, enrichment, ifcomp, interactive fiction, replayability, Tentaculon, Thaxted Havershill And the Golden Wombat, This is My Memory of First Heartbreak, To The Wolves, Which I Can't Quite Piece Back Together, Yes, my mother is...
Here I’ll be looking at replayability, enrichments and dead ends in seven games from the 2016 Interactive Fiction Competition. I’ve been playing the web games in reverse alphabetical order (to counteract the misweighting the alphabetisation gives to games early in the order). I’ll give the parser games a playthrough next. The games under discussion are (in order of mention) Yes, my mother is…; To The Wolves; This is My Memory of First Heartbreak, Which I Can’t Quite Piece Back Together; Tentaculon; A Time of Tungsten; Take Over The World; and Thaxted Havershill And the Golden Wombat. I am only talking about structural elements, so you can consider the following basically spoiler-free. There is more I could say about the plots, characters, themes, quality of the prose etc. but that will have to wait for another day.
I’m calling text-based choice games played on screen ‘cybertexts’. Games with minimal or no branching and state-tracking are ‘gauntlets’, either friendly (with only asides) or unfriendly (with deaths), as per Sam Ashwell’s standard patterns. I’m calling all the text that appears between making a choice a ‘chunk’, while scenes that can be revisited after going off to various asides are called ‘nodes’. When the game tracks stats or items about the player, that’s ‘state tracking’.
Skarn’s Yes, my mother is… (henceforth YMMI) is a game in which you play a therapist for people who don’t have in a near future setting. Els White’s To The Wolves (henceforth TTW) is a coming-into-powers fantasy story following a child sacrificed to the forest to ensure a good harvest. The two games are dissimilar in subject matter, though both broadly could be said to be games about children coming to terms with the actions of their elders. More than that, both share a very similar structure in that they are short cybertext which have state-tracking for each choice, within a largely linear structure that can branch to multiple endings. Both games save a list of unlocked endings so the player can see how many they have reached and decide whether to pursue them all. TMMI has five endings, TTW has three, and they both track personality stats behind the scenes (Rebelliousness/Maternal Closeness/Understand Others and Savagery/Candescence). The expectation in both games is to replay until the player has seen as many endings as they’re satisfied with. In both cases, more facts about the setting can be discovered by choosing differently, rounding out the games through successive playthroughs.
Given that both authors anticipated their games to be replayed, they both employ strategies to reward replaying, beyond the existence of multiple endings. YMMI has a number of in-world documents that can be unlocked through play. These flesh out the background and give context to the protagonist’s actions. These can be read in between any of the self-contained scenes, but explicitly need not be read (they don’t have an mechanical effect) on replaying. TTW in contrast offers the player achievements for bringing the game to certain states. These don’t really add anything in themselves like the documents do, but rather indicate that there are interesting avenues to take in the story that you might not have realised. Their names, like ‘A Singular Hunger’, and ‘Devotee’ hint at how you might come to these paths without spelling them out. In both, the mysteries of the speculative fiction settings are rewarding to unpack, though being lengthier YMMI is able to seed in more questions the player wants an answer to.
The chunks are quite long in YMMI, often with several pages of dialogue. Some of it varies on replaying if you make different choices both at the time and delayed (the conversation with Bull can play out quite differently if you take a violent approach with the skinhead), but there is a lot of merging of branches even within scenes, so most of the text is the same on replaying. TTW employs shorter chunks, often with small variations that have a mechanical effect as well as giving different descriptions. There is more branching within scenes in the later chapters. Further, the choices available to the player at the end of game vary due to the player’s end-state. Through this, the player is encouraged to roleplay different approaches on replaying. In YMMI, the repeated scenes and length of the chunks mean skimming text is inevitable, lending replays a thinner experience than the first play-though.
Ultimately, the motivation to replay in YMMI is to unearth new details about the setting that can shed what you’ve read in a new light and enrich subsequent playthroughs. The difficulty of reaching more than the default ending makes this sometimes a frustrating endeavour (I played through three or four times with different choices but reaching the same ending before resorting to the walkthrough). The motivation in TTW is more to roleplay different variants of the same character, sometimes more savage and vengeful, sometimes more furtive and lonely. The clearly contrasting approaches mean reaching different endings and side-branches is much more straightforward than in YMMI, and the shortness of the piece overall makes for more successful replaying.
This is My Memory of First Heartbreak, Which I Can’t Quite Piece Back Together (henceforth Heartbreak) is an fully illustrated chain of memories about a failed relationship. Evidently made created by a small team, the story, art, & UX design was by Jenny Goldstick, with development by Stephen Betts and Owen Roberts. The only text in the game is dialogue and choice labels, the rest of the story told through the pictures, sound, and animation. The cybertext consists of six scenes, the middle four of which can vary, in which the next scene is reached by clicking a labelled object on the screen to trigger a new memory. The intention is to replay to see most scenes, as each give only a very fragmented picture of the relationship. Like YMMI and TTW, Heartbreak employs some different strategies to encourage replaying. Interestingly, it doesn’t really have different endings: there are some variants, and they’re apparently random or perhaps weighted by the order of the previous scenes, but the ultimate outcome is always the same. This is appropriate, as the whole thing is framed as a memoir. Rather, it has a great deal of variety. It’s possible (and desirable) to play three times and see four entirely different middle scenes each time. The scenes are short, but can be manually skipped, and are visually and sonically rich, the illustrations encouraging the spotting of hitherto-missed details. On reaching the ending (which is lengthier and cannot be skipped) the game automatically starts up again from the beginning, pulling you back in again.
Heartbreak is very compelling and a pleasure to replay. Through the title, it’s upfront about not being a straightforward narrative. The scenes are connected only by strands of memories, and although each of the flashbacks appear chronologically, even all taken together the player must do a lot of interpretive work pulling all the different strands together. This is fitting, given that this is precisely what the protagonist does after the heartbreak, making this a case of the game-structure fully fitting and enriching the themes of the work.
There may be a better or prior-established word for it, but I’m going to call all those extra-textual elements in a cybertext enrichments. By this I mean, the sounds, colours, moving or delayed text. Everything that is possible on a screen but not in, say, a multiple-choice adventure book. By this I don’t mean the choices, or placement of the links, or structure of the chunks. The most basic format for a cybertext is to have the same background colour, font, and no sound or images throughout. YMMI and TTW both follow this model. Tentaculon (by Ned Vole) is a mystery horror cybertext with puzzle elements that improves on the basic format in a few different ways. There is at least one image, a humorous book cover. There are also various text delays for dramatic effect. There’s a recurring moving-text puzzle, with requires the kind of dexterity and timing skills not normally required of an Interactive Fiction reader. This can be forgiven, as the action of poising and catching is relevant in the story and the activity is both forgiving in it retries and easily winnable through perseverance. The attention to enrichments in Tentaculon is somewhat undone by the (at the time of playing) broken story structure. The game is set up as a series of nodes, often expressed as locations which can be (re)visited. When returning back to a node, often the whole scene would replay, delays and all. The conversation with the co-worker can be replayed without tracking states, different (contradictory branches) of the conversation could all be expressed.
Heartbreak is almost all enrichment. It’s possible to imagine the dialogue standing on its own, but the choices would make no sense outside of the context of the illustrations. In contrast, A Time of Tungsten (by Devin Raposo) has enough text to stand alone as a short story. Tungsten is a science fiction tale which has basically no state tracking, other than the helpful removal of already-explored links from nodes when revisited. The setting is richly developed, though I couldn’t really believe the frame-story dialogue as genuine dialogue from people in the future given their use of idioms and frames of reference over a hundred years old to them. What distinguishes it from a short story are its enrichments, of which it has many. Like Heartbreak, it has a persistent soundtrack and sound effects which accompany moments in the text. Unlike, Heartbreak, it requires a great deal of clicking, as snippets of text on the screen (often dialogue) appear on at a time as the player clicks, taking a very granular approach to pacing. While the story structure is mostly a series of linear nodes, the player is encouraged to explore the side thoughts around the main push of the story, and they are rewarded both by the development of the setting and characters, but also by the richness and appropriateness of the audio-visual shifts. For instance, during some brief and optional thoughts about life on Mars, the screen takes on a deep red tone. You can hear the sound of doors opening and shutting as you read people entering a room. These elements are polished, giving the whole a well-tested, professional feel. In a way, these enrichments help shore up the prose by continually reaffirming your faith that the author knows what they’re doing.
Take Over The World by Marie L. Vibbert is a short supervillain comedy based in East Cleveland, Ohio. Visually, it’s classic SugarCube Twine, with a black background, white text, blue links and a sidebar. The comedy is heightened by the vibrant cartoon images, drawn by the author. They’re just plopped down inline where appropriate, and while not intending to be masterpieces of perspective or palette, they’re all charming in a goofy way. Moreover, as a reward for finishing, the player gets to see all images in the game. As the game has several different pathways, this is a good way of ensuring all players get to see the drawings, but it also works as a strategy for encouraging replay, as the player will want to go back through to find out how to arrive at one of the endings implied by images they didn’t see on their initial run.
While Heartbreak is mostly a friendly gauntlet with no fail-state possible, a few of the other games allow the player to reach a dead end. Tentaculon for instance has several death-states, but these are no problem as the game can always be undone, and are perhaps necessary for the sense of the danger of the creature to work. In the late game, the state tracking seems to break, allowing you to replay flooding the corridors until you get things right, without apparently undoing at any point. Unlike most cybertexts, the game often requires the use of the back arrow rather than a textual link to backtrack. Unfortunately, this lends the initial appearance of a dead end to side sections. Much of this I expect could be fixed in a later patch.
In sharp contrast, to the cruelty-free dead ending in Tentaculon is Andrew Brown’s Thaxted Havershill And the Golden Wombat (henceforth Thaxted). Thaxted is an unfriendly gauntlet Twine comedy. It has minimal enrichments beyond some questionable colour choices for the text and background. There are several choices which end in a dead-end and the game cruelly restarts in its entirety, forcing a full replay each time. While some of the text is amusing (I liked the aside about the history of the castle) most is too jokey to be tolerable on a re-read which doubles-down on the frustration of replaying the same content. Further, picking the correct choice in every case is wholly arbitrary, including one instance of the dreaded unmotivated direction choice. Thaxted consciously tries to recreate every poor aspect of choice making in old combat-based choice games, including most unforgivably an openly arbitrary choice at the end which just involves clicking a word. Most charitably, this exercise could be said to be a send-up of the old way of doing choice-based stories, but in the medium you would struggle to find a lower hanging fruit. The walkthrough jokes about its paucity of decisions, saying, “Is it me or are all TWINE games like this?”, to which the answer is surely “No, none are this viciously anti-player”.
Finally, Take Over The World takes an interesting approach to in-game failure. Rather than reaching a death and having to undo (as in Tentaculon), or forcing the player to restart everything (as in Thaxted), if the player reaches a point at which they would fail, the game gracefully lets them move back to the previous stage and it updates the initial page to indicate that that branch was a dead-end. This option allows for choices which are unsuccessful without breaking the flow of the story. It also allows the player to see more of the content, and because of the absurd nature of the story these flirtations with catastrophe don’t particularly break immersion.