Category Archives: Interactive Fiction

post-comp post-mortem on Unbeknown

So I entered a game into this year’s Interactive Fiction Competition, something that I had done in 3 previous years (2001, 2007, and 2013). It’s a Twine game called Unbeknown, and you can find it here, along with many other fine parser and choice-based games. It ended up placing 28th out of 53 entries. To be honest the Comp this year worked really well as a deadline, and while I’m happy with the way the game turned out, I still think there’s a lot of room for improvement. So these design notes will hopefully dig into what I was trying to do with the game and what can be more fully realized in a revision.


I have always been fascinated by MMORPGs (even though I only play them sporadically at best), but what’s really caught my interest over the past year has been a subgenre of games that are sometimes called “Sandbox Survival.” These include DayZ, Rust, and ARK. Each has a different flavor (ARK uses dinosaurs, for instance; DayZ is more in the realm of a “traditional” zombie apocalypse), but the basic premise is that you’re spawned in the world with nothing, you have to build or forage for everything, and the most clear and present danger–far outpacing the environment, the wild animals, even the zombies–are the other players.

Maybe not everyone wants to kill you, but anyone can kill you, and assuming that will help you stay alive.

One bit of feedback that I got was that calling what happens early in the game “slavery” wasn’t realistic, because one could log off at any time. I’m wondering though whether people know that “slaving” and “slavery” is what it’s called (accurate or not) for the player base of games like DayZ and ARK. Actually one of the quotes about ‘preferring the term compulsory friendship’ vs. slavery is pretty much a direct quote from a Steam thread about, er, compulsory friendship. (Earlier upthread: “So you want to form a team of slavers? XD”)

It’s fascinating because players approach this dynamic very differently–some like to roleplay the experience (at least for a spell), some want nothing to do with it while continuing to play, while others end up leaving the game. There is no one social contract, and in a weird way these types of survival games become a bizarro world libertarian playground, with, of course, lots and lots of guns and sharp instruments.

Personally I find the whole experience chilling, and it’s this disturbance–something that really ate at me about the way people were acting toward one another–that was the genesis of Unbeknown. This gets into larger issues of griefing, online conduct, and what is “play” vs. what is real.

This essay on RPS about DayZ is harrowing, touching on many of those subjects, and started getting me thinking about a survival sandbox game as a setting for one of my own games:

We became expert torturers. We reasoned that to kill was a mercy. Real torturers keep their prey alive, full of fear and uncertainty. We prowled the coast – where the bambis graze – and discussed with hyena laughter what we would do to our next victim. We invented villainous characters for ourselves. I donned a Kevlar ‘Press’ vest and a white helmet and became ‘Esteemed Official of the Free Press’. Alex and Richie became my military escort. They held the next fresh spawn at gunpoint while I ‘interviewed’ him.

“We’ve all lost someone,” I would say. “It has been a hard apocalypse. But that’s a lovely bag you have, very well embroidered. Let me look at the lining of that fashionable bag of yours.”

But of course, others scorn and indeed misogynistically insult people who call out the sociopathy. “Learn to play!” Or as someone else says on another Steam thread about Rust:

‘”Sociopathy” Wow, you guys cry a lot. ♥♥♥♥ing deal with it, grow some balls, and stand up for yourselves, or get walked on like the girl you are.’

I also ended up watching an anime series called Sword Art Online–the first parts of which had some really interesting things to say about gaming and complicity.

Building the World: “if i want to go around shooting naked people, then i’m going to do it”

I figured that a pretty bare bones CSS design would be the way to go–not only because of time constraints, but to highlight the stark, minimalist nature of the main character’s emotional experience. And also to keep the focus on the story itself.

(At around this point you might want to play Unbeknown, as we start to get into spoiler land.)

One of the problems with the beginning, I think, was that I didn’t give players a clear window into what the “rules” of the meta-game were. It couldn’t assume knowledge of survival sandbox as a genre, and had to teach the player that the “rules” here were very different from, say, World of Warcraft.

After your character is captured, and needs to log off, the real game begins: reflecting on what the hell just happened. The foil for this is Able, a character who definitely veered from valuable friend to antagonist as the drafting went on. But Able asks some good questions. Here, I was trying to merge the reflective choices (similar to what I did in Solarium) with the “branch and merge” (or branch and bottleneck) pattern used in many Choice of Games works. Needless to say, this is on a much smaller scale! But there’s a fair amount of states being tracked in mid-game based on the player’s responses. I think I have to find a way to give useful feedback to players further down the road when those stats matter (and also provide further granulation of narrative with if/then statements based on the stats).

However, with that said, the point where the player/character enters Able’s home…that all does lead to the same outcome. There is no way to not escape and meet Temper. What I tried to show with this narrative scene is that, yes, the main character does care about their own self, and their own preservation. The reflective pieces do indeed bottleneck here–they don’t change how you get the hell out of there, but those reflections do lead you to the precipice.

Maybe this is trying to skirt around the dichotomy of agency/no agency.

Unfurling the Story

I wasn’t sure how to end the story. So I kept going. The game world, based loosely on a 18th c. American woodland, had split into two, and the return to the first world seemed like a good stopping point. And yet, it wasn’t–not at all. Not even the confrontation with one’s doppelganger seemed like a fitting conclusion.

So, yes, one more twist of the knife with the ending–or one of the two at least. This is the point where most players seemed to think there was the single consequential choice of the game. Maybe they were correct. Again, more customization based on flagged stats could help a lot to give the player a sense of incremental consequence. But also–this final choice was a reflective choice too; it was just one that (hopefully) had a lot of narrative heft behind it. Curtain #1 or Curtain #2? And this would be based on whether the connection to the player’s humanity seemed like the “real deal” or not. In this sense I didn’t want there to be a “good” or “bad” ending, at all. But, yeah, for better or worse, I do think one ending is more interesting than the other. I don’t know how much that needs to be changed, or whether choosing one or the other is a good impetus to try the game again.

Redeem for an Upgrade

As much as it deals with people doing awful things to each other (or at least their digital ghosts), this is still one of the most hopeful things I’ve ever written. I guess as I get old I am getting more interested personally in redemption. Earned redemption, of course–hard work that, in this game at least, takes decades. The sludgy palette I tried to work with is one of griefing, bad sportsmanship, and antisocial behavior. And, yes, cyberbullying. The lines are blurred because the social contract built by the devs decided they thought it would be more “fun” to leave them blurred, but in a way this makes the emotional perils even more harrowing.

Everyone’s having fun, right? Just have fun. Stop complaining. Learn to play. You can’t play, noob.

These aren’t spaces that allow for any sort of vulnerability.

I’ve never played a sandbox survival game! Uh, spoiler alert. (Except maybe Eve. I think Eve in many ways is the spiritual ancestor of DayZ.) I mean, I get stressed out over bad player actions on relatively innocuous games. Voice chat is terrifying to contemplate.

Throughout Unbeknown, your character is haunted by what seems to be a pretty horrible ghost. The ghost’s memories are your own. We don’t always remember the things we’d like to. Pleasant experiences can feel so fleeting and ephemeral, and torturous seconds can feel like brick walls building around you. How much do memories constitute a person? Is there a way you can sever your own memories from the decisions you have to make? Because, yes, at times the horrible and beautiful things I used to do as a 21 year old do feel like the actions of another person. Sometimes they haunt me–with deep regret for being callous or with warmth from a fleeting, kind word from a friend I haven’t heard from in two decades.

I don’t think that Unbeknown is covering any new ground in this realm, but maybe what I was trying to do with the mid-game stats is to tracking the the character creating new memories and emotional experiences.

Even in that modest time frame in the game, there is an agency in thinking through what happens to you.

And being able to process these accretions just might prove to be a way forward.

Three Small Notes towards a Cartography of Twine

Choice is only important as it relates to the inconsequential. The word consequence has as its root: consequi: “to follow after.” So what doesn’t follow? What’s left out of a choice?

For a poem the core unit of organization is the line. The core unit of organization of a Twine isn’t what’s in the boxes, but what’s outside of them. (1) The lines and (2) the empty space. The boxes form an archipelago on a vast sea. And the connecting lines are not through-ways, but suggestions of currents.

“…if you can imagine the image of a human being disintegrating from top to bottom, and, if you’re a writer, what you’re building up next to you is text, right? So pretty soon you’ll be gone and the text will be left. But there’s a sense of is that experience or is that something else? Is that experience, like going for a walk, or eating, or all of these other things . . . is the time that it takes to articulate your life–is that a good deal? Should you just not articulate it? You know, is it taking your life away from you?” -Jennifer Moxley.

I might argue that working in a tool like Twine allows for the recapture of the residual “loss” that might come from working hard at a text.

small update to Feu de Joie: letter from Martha

You can find it on the main page of the Feu de Joie archive. While small, it reveals a major development in the story that will have lasting implications in the future installments.

Feu de Joie is also supported by Patreon patrons–so thank you! If you’re interested in checking out what that entails, here is my Patreon page.

I’m really grateful for Patreon. And there are many other worthy interactive fiction projects that you can support with Patreon! Jason McIntosh, who runs the annual Interactive Fiction Competition, gave a shout out to two other currently ongoing works of serialized IF: 18 Rooms to Home by Carolyn VanEseltine, and Bloom by Caelyn Sandel. Also available to be supported on Patreon!

And finally Twine itself can be supported through Patreon as well.

This kind of ecosystem of support really didn’t exist 5-10 years ago (crowdfunding via Kickstarter is a very different beast) and it’s the flexibility to allow for recurrence in a project that is pretty exciting.

Thanks again.

Feu de Joie: ANEMONE.0 up

If you haven’t started my serialized work of interactive fiction yet, start at the beginning. Work your way down. This one is for those in the thick of it.

It’s technically not part of the Tester’s Archive. This is the first piece that the Tester has had nothing to do with (and where is he, anyway?). But it does lead somewhere that’s at the heart of the story.

You can find a link to it at the Archive, or go right to its hosted page.

Thanks to all who have played and participated. As always.

I’m still also accepting Patreon pledges to help fund its continuation; there are some cool extras available that further the story, so check it out if you are interested in supporting Feu de Joie!

Session 4 of Feu de Joie now online

Continue (or begin!) the serialized work of interactive fiction at

The Tester tries to take matters into his own hands. Meanwhile, the interceder who tries to protect him has to be more secretive. Also introduced: the story of someone long forgotten in the War–whose granddaughter might have the talisman to at last turn the tables on BUCOLIC.

(I don’t want to spoil too much, but this is the first Session that has a major roadblock with a password puzzle. A good chance to work together!)

Also if you think this work is compelling, please consider supporting its creation on Patreon. Though it’s not expected by any means, it’s always appreciated–and you might get a cool (that is to say, vaguely unsettling) postcard or notebook sent by one of the…entities in the story.

Here is the Patreon link. Thank you, and happy reading/playing.

Doggerland design notes

So about a month ago I entered a new Twine piece of mine, called Doggerland, into the Spring Thing competition, run by Aaron Reed. (And there are other great works of IF there that you should totally play!)

This is easily the most autobiographical work I’ve ever written, in any form. With this blog, when I’ve delved into personal matters, it’s usually been in the realm of writing–fears about writing, desires about writing.

But I’ve never really been one to delve into family too much.

The original poem, though, called “Why We’re Not in the Streets”, is one that I wrote with family obliquely in mind (about a year before the twins were born), after a few days I had spent at my wife’s family cabin on the edge of winter. I had posted it on my blog, actually, a few years ago, so you can read it there if you’re interested.

Even though the narrative flow of Doggerland eventually veers far away, content-wise, from the original poem–which keeps it pretty close to the scene of the cabin–I still think that, however imperceptibly, the piece hews close to the original intent of the poem.

Lorine Niedecker’s own Wisconsin wilderness–living almost her entire life in remote rural areas– also looms as an influence in this poem. Besides being one of my favorite poets, Niedecker described her own poetry as a “condensery”:

Poet’s work

    advised me:
       Learn a trade

I learned
    to sit at desk
       and condense

No layoff
    from this


–and I think of her work as a kind of lighthouse for not only what poetry can do, but also other forms of writing can do, particularly ones that can ebb and flow, like Twine is capable of.

Doggerland was in its first draft much more of a (perhaps early 90s style?) hypertext “maze”. That wasn’t working at all, upon much later reflection; I winnowed it down to two branches. It’s still hard for me to “know” how much choice to give to a reader, especially in a piece like this which is so personal. What are they navigating? What would be the purpose of a maze?

Instead of a maze the idea of “dredging” became the primary way to investigate the text, and so the hover replace macro in Twine became my dear dear friend.

I had no idea that Doggerland–the land bridge between continental Europe and Britain–even existed until I started working on this piece. And the historiography of Doggerland, as we understand it now, is definitely informed by climate change. (For example.) Incremental sea rise over thousands of years–with perhaps one giant tsunami giving a nudge–isn’t quite the same what we’re facing now, which is much, much faster and, of course, precipitated by our own actions.

Time is strange. On a geologic scale, even a couple of thousand years is nothing. The climate change we’ve experienced in, say, the last 30 years or so is less than an eyeblink. Yet when in the day-to-day, on a personal, human scale…sure, it can be hard to experience. That is to say, we do experience it, but the mind tangles up “weather” and “climate” all the time.

For my kids, though, it might be a different story altogether.

Finding PDFs of Barron County, Wisconsin topography maps: finding just how close the cabin was to the edge of the glaciers. Really close.

geological map of Barron County, WI

Choices winnow down when you’re in solitude for a few days. When you have children, they pretty much explode. And bringing this explosion of choice into our lives was…also a choice. At the same time, you make that choice having no real idea of what you’re getting into, and, frankly having every possibility of failure (the figures for IVF are readily available for any clinic. You are playing the odds.)

I think about my childhood all the time–how much is life as a child replicated in life as a parent?

There are no easy answers to this.

There’s more than one Sand Lake in Wisconsin, but I like to think that Niedecker had made this note-poem when coming across the Barron County lake she may, or may not, have visited in her travels and included in her Superior Notebook:

I’m sorry to have missed
   Sand Lake
My dear one tells me
   we did not
We watched a gopher there

Feu de Joie: Session 3 now online


Good news, the third Session of Feu de Joie is now online.

The rabbit hole is deeper. You as a player now have a chance to partially influence the course of the story–obliquely and cryptically, true. But this is the point of this experiment where I need active audience participation to figure out some of the aspects of what happens next. (I know that is itself oblique.)

Follow the story, investigate the clues, and help the Tester–start here. (And someone else is waiting for you…)

And thanks for those who have supported Feu de Joie on Patreon. It’s never expected but always appreciated, and I’ve had lots of fun sending out (very strange) postcards to some of you patrons. On behalf of BUCOLIC, of course! Of course.

Feu de Joie: Session 2 now online

This is a bit belated, but I’ve uploaded Session 2 to Feu de Joie (

The walls start closing in a bit on our Tester.

If you are interested in supporting the continued development of this serialized interactive fiction project, check out my Patreon page ( Thank you!

Feu de Joie (new serialized interactive fiction project begins!)

So for the last few months I’ve been hunkered away getting a new project started, and the first installment is now live.

It’s a work of serialized interactive fiction, with regular installments (give or take a little leeway considering I have three year old twins and a full time job). Here’s the description of Feu de Joie:

“A freelance QA specialist has started archiving an unusual project online that he has been working on. A mysterious company named BUCOLIC ehf, a “digital literature publisher”, is developing an interactive version of Lord Dunsany’s collection of essays about World War One, Unhappy, Far-Off Things. (Lord Dunsany is probably best known as the fantasist who was an early influence on Lovecraft.) Each essay in the collection is being tested as a “Session.” But something is not quite right with the first one.”

So I’m really excited about this as it gets off the ground, working with a completely different cadence (both creative and publishing) than I’m used to.

I’ve also started a Patreon to help support this project. It is the first project that I’ve done where crowdfunding seemed to make sense, and Patreon seemed like a perfect fit for episodic content like this. It also gives a way for supporters interested in the project to deepen their involvement with it in some cool ways. Check it out if you’re interested.

[IFComp 2014: AlethiCorp]


by Simon Christiansen

Interactive fiction can create a sense of spatiality with a minimum of ingredients. It doesn’t have to be literally about a big space with lots of rooms. Rather, a sense of an entire world outside the game space (the “magic circle” as someone once called it in a different context). Parser-based gaming can be exceptionally well-suited to this; Porpentine’s their angelical understanding from last year’s comp had an uncanny bigness to it that never let you rest or get comfortable.

AlethiCorp on the other hand, basically creates a company intranet that you inhabit.

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[IFComp 2014] Icepunk


by pageboy

What has impressed me most about this year’s comp is the variety of forms the games have taken. Even from a cursory glance I can see that authors have come from diverse places in thinking about interactive fiction, and what they want to do with their work, and how they present it.

What’s exciting about this is that people have a greater variety of tools to customize their interactive fiction in a way that makes sense for them and the story.

Icepunk is a superb example of this.

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[IFComp 2014] Inward Narrow Crooked Lanes

Hey, so I’m going to try to review works of interactive fiction for the 20th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition. I don’t plan to be thorough or comprehensive, or even do things in randomized order. I’m going to look at games that either (a) seem intriguing right off the bat, even if flawed or (b) by authors who I have a certain level of narrative trust with. (I might play and judge other games though too–this is just a time constraint based on my life right now based on writing.) There might be mild spoilers too, though if anything major needs to be said, I’ll try to signal it.

Oh, you can judge too! And write reviews!

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