Virtual Stowaway

“That Dragon, Cancer” Review

TDC3This week sees the release of That Dragon, Cancer, a new game from Ryan and Amy Green. The game has already received a good deal of press coverage from outlets like The Verge and Kotaku. My own review is now up at Gamechurch. The game tells the story of Joel Green, who was diagnosed with cancer at age one; he subsequently passed away when he was five years old. The Greens invoke their faith throughout the game, and my review examines how their beliefs are integral to the story.

Read the review here.

Gaming with the Victorians: 2016 Course

Assassin's Creed: Syndicate's Jacob Frye

Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate’s Jacob Frye

UPDATE: The completed course website for Gaming with the Victorians is now available here.

This is the preliminary course description for my Spring 2016 ENGL 1102 course at Georgia Tech. I’m still trying to figure out how to insinuate Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, which releases later this month, into the syllabus.

Gaming with the Victorians: Narrative and Play

This course will facilitate the continued development of multimodal communication strategies by engaging with both nineteenth-century literature and video games that adopt nineteenth-century and/or Victorian settings to tell their stories. In order for students to hone their WOVEN (written, oral, visual, electronic, and non-verbal) communication, the projects throughout this course will allow participants to design and create artifacts that examine manifestations of nineteenth-century literature and culture in video games.

Espen Aarseth has described video games as “integrated crossmedia packages” that combine a variety of narrative forms into a whole that gets metonymically flattened by the term “games.” Drawing on this understanding of video games, this class will explore how the literary and historical heritage of the nineteenth-century in general, and the Victorian period in particular, have informed a number of contemporary games. Andrew Stauffer argues that “time and technology make plain that our Victorian period will […] always be a simulation,” and video games offer some of the more compelling simulations of the nineteenth century. By highlighting the immense cultural, economic, and technological changes that occurred during this century, such video games encourage us to trace the nineteenth-century’s lasting influence on the present.

Games will include Sunless Sea, Amnesia, and 80 Days, among others. Readings will include nineteenth-century short fiction and poetry; expect to read from authors such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Dickens, Robert Browning, Christina Rossetti, and Elizabeth Gaskell. In addition to a semester-long blog project, students will write a multimodal essay, develop a branching video game narrative, and code a text-based adventure game as a collaborative project.

The Literary Heritage of Sunless Sea at Kill Screen

sunless sea
My summer composition course focused on nautical narratives and nostalgia. As part of the final unit, my students encountered a variety of narratives from non-textual media, and the videogame Sunless Sea really seemed to capture their imaginations. Many of them chose to focus on the game for their final projects. Here’s an article that I wrote for Kill Screen on how Sunless Sea draws on its literary heritage to offer a compelling vision of sea narratives.

Read the article at Kill Screen.

Coding Interactive Fiction for Students

Zork Opening LineThis semester, I’ve been team teaching a composition class themed around narrative and video games. My co-teacher, Joshua Hussey, and I decided to have our students create an interactive fiction game for their final project. We considered both Twine and Inform 7 for the assignment; Twine has a low barrier to entry, as it is user friendly and allows content creators to almost immediately begin building their projects. But Twine’s level of interactivity is somewhat more limited as it is mostly built on a multiple-choice style of interaction, in which reader/players are given a list of options from which they select the next path in the story. Zoe Quinn’s well-known game Depression Quest was developed with Twine. Inform 7, on the other hand, has a much steeper learning curve. As a naturalistic code language, the code that it produces is very readable; even someone with little to no coding experience could probably make some sense out of a simple Inform 7 project without too much assistance. However, this naturalistic language can be somewhat deceptive to an unsuspecting novice, as it can make it seem as if Inform 7 can understand whatever English you throw at it. Nothing could be further from the truth; while Inform 7 eschews the brackets and braces that adorn other coding languages, it is still very much a language with clear and specific rules that users must learn and follow. However, Inform 7 allows users to create interactive fiction games in which reader/players have a far greater degree of control over how they interact with the story space. These games are the progeny of Zork and the genre it created.

The basic Inform 7 dual-paned screen, with code on the left and the "skein" on the right.

The basic Inform 7 dual-paned screen, with code on the left and the “skein” on the right.

Considering these two options, we settled on Inform 7 as we felt that the challenge it offered and the creative opportunities it provided would be best for our students. But I had not done any significant coding since high school, and so in the weeks leading up to the beginning of the unit, I created a small game for our students to play. The experience was a chance for me to learn some of the basics of Inform 7, but also to think about puzzle design and spatial dynamics in a textual form. In this case, I thought it would be fun to make the assignment sheet for our students’ Inform 7 Project the “prize” for completing the game. Drawing from our class discussions of textual space and branching narratives (one of the puzzles requires the player to consult Borges’s story “The Garden of the Forking Paths,” which we read early in the semester), I wanted the game to allow students to explore a small text environment while also providing them with an example of what they could accomplish using Inform 7. In all fairness the game is pretty haphazard, but I wanted to share it nevertheless.

In the end, the game may have been too difficult, not because the puzzles themselves are impossible, but because building great puzzles is also about providing the right kind of clues and directions to players. Judging from my website’s metrics, most of the students at least attempted the game, but only a fraction made it all the way to the assignment sheet at the end. Furthermore, the puzzles in my game were really a hodgepodge because I was trying different kinds of functions in Inform 7. Still, when a student says that playing an interactive fiction game was the most interesting way they had ever been asked to find an assignment sheet, I count that a moderate success.

Play my Inform 7 game, “Meaningful Instructions and Where to Find Them”

For more information on playing interactive fiction games, consult Emily Short’s Introduction to Interactive Fiction

Sunless Sea and the Long Voyage

Alone at sea

Steaming into the Unknown

Over the last week, I’ve lost at least five captains (maybe six) to the dangers of the Unterzee (a term that I imagine being pronounced with an absurdly harsh German accent). One ran out of fuel just off the coast of Fallen London and was too incompetent to successfully escape from the derelict vessel. Several have been sunk by pirates. One perished in an engine fire that was the result of a whim (how fast can this boat really go?). These are the few harrowing stories that have already developed from my time with Failbetter Games’ recent release Sunless Sea. What I’ve found remarkable about the game over the first week and half of playing is its unique capacity to communicate the precarious nature of lengthy nautical voyages.

Sunless Sea defies traditional game genres, and offers players a mashup of the top-down perspective of an RTS with the text-based narrative of interactive fiction. Sunless Sea is set in an alternate Victorian history in which London has sunk into a massive cavern called “The Neath.” According the game’s complex lore (which ties in with Failbetter’s web-based game, Fallen London), the “Traitor Empress,” sold the city to save her husband’s life. Readers of The Chronicles of Narnia will immediately recognize resonances with The Silver Chair, in which the children and their marshwiggle companion journey underground to find a civilization on the shores of a great subterranean lake called, you guessed it, the Sunless Sea. The video game’s interactive take on a subterranean ocean has all the magic of Narnia (there is one island on which warring clans of guinea pigs and rats are locked in a desperate conflict) with all the fantastic technology of steampunk literature.

Now, Young Captain, You Will Die

The game begins with a curious word of encouragement, which states matter-of-factly: “Explore. Take risks. Your first captain will probably die. Later captains may succeed.” This statement is quite true, as my introductory list of untimely deaths indicates. Sunless Sea‘s entire approach to nautical peril is encapsulated in this opening text. A famous phrase from Joseph Conrad’s The Mirror of the Sea appears in the opening as well, “The sea has never been friendly to man. At most it has been the accomplice of human restlessness.” However, I think a later line in Conrad’s book offers a better encapsulation of how Sunless Sea creates its sense of ephemerality, “As if it were too great, too mighty for common virtues, the ocean has no compassion, no faith, no law, no memory.” In either case, Sunless Sea presents ocean voyages as both dangerous and foolhardy.

Sunless Sea and the Abbey

At the same time, the rhetoric of the game works to alleviate the typical associations between death and failure. Indeed, the Steam version of Sunless Sea includes achievements for the numbers of successive captains a player has lost, making such losses goals to aspire to. This combination of constant danger and constant pressure to venture further captures an aspect of the economic and industrial development that typified the nineteenth century. Industrialization in Britain was a powerful force that both revolutionized commercial development while also serving as a breeding ground for some of the most destructive labor environments. Likewise, for players of Sunless Sea the consequences for losing a ship draws our attention to the sea’s paradoxical position as a site of both financial bounty and financial ruin, while mitigating the human cost itself. While each steamboat can be outfitted with more personalized officers, the majority of the crew are represented only numerically–making their positions not unlike those of faceless factory employees.

The Sea is Vast

The world of the Unterzee is remarkable for its scale, and also because the supernatural aspects of the ‘Neath include islands that move. This means that the map is randomized each time a captain dies, leaving players with a knowledge of what islands they might encounter, but all knowledge of their specific locations is lost. This particular design choice (which was introduced while the game was still in development and available to play as an “Early Access” title) increases the sense of uncertainty and despair that could accompany a long voyage. Travel has always been an area where video games have had to cut corners, temporally speaking, so that players stay engaged with the game. It wouldn’t work for a voyage between two islands to take hours (or days!), so times and distances are often compressed in video game worlds.

The Map in Sunless Sea

But how can a game place everything closer together without making players feel like they’re just playing with toy boats in the bathtub? Sunless Sea‘s map randomization offers a compelling solution to this problem. My exploration of the map has progressed farther with my current captain than any of his predecessors. But if tragedy strikes, then I’ll be reduced (once again) to a map of complete darkness. Chris Breault recently wrote a nice breakdown of maps in video games over the last year, and Sunless Sea also provides a helpful model for using a predominantly utilitarian device (the map) as a way to elaborate on deeper concepts that the game raises. Maps are typically indicative of progress and exploration–to place something on a map is to give it a static position relative to other known locations. Furthermore, maps are a vital method of transferring knowledge.

But because the Sunless Sea map is always contingent on the lifespan of the player’s current captain, its transactional value is eliminated. The last map is completely lost, with all its detail. As a result, each successive voyage actually feels longer than the last, precisely because players must fight against all the information that they had gained with their previous steamboat. The game’s penchant for asking players to find certain islands becomes even more challenging if islands cannot be reliably charted. The darkness of the enormous cavern that contains the Unterzee is replicated not only in the typical “fog of war,” the black shroud obscuring the map that players must uncover, but also in this constant reversal–returning the map to a state of veiled uncertainty. For a game that is ultimately about driving a small steamboat around a subterranean lake, the reversion of the map imbues the Unterzee with a sense of vastness that other nautical games struggle to simulate.