Exploring New Pathways with “Waybinder”

Last weekend I launched my first entirely-self made project. Entitled Waybinder, it is a work of interactive fiction which I developed over the course of a few months. Just as with the other games I’ve worked on in the past 10 years, the process has been educational. But as well as being in a genre which is new to me, this endeavour has given me a lot to think about in terms of project scale, working with narrative, and even new angles on self-publishing.

The Project

It would of course be remiss of me not to suggest that one can discover what Waybinder is about by playing it. I released the game for free/donations on Itch.io, and because it is browser-based, it can be played on whichever device you’re using to read this article.

But to summarise: I describe this as ‘an interactive novella’ given that Waybinder is text-based, and much more narrative than ludic. The ‘game’ aspect of it comes through in the choices you make, and in a lightweight set of encounters with the Scots Gaelic language. Its overall plot culminates in a ritual which has variable outcomes.

Building Small

I would be lying if I said that Waybinder was built to any solid sort of plan. Above all it was intended to be a novel (and fun!) experiment, and as such I wished to leave myself enough room to work out how to write. I wrote it in Twine, much as I do for any other game projects — in iterations:

  • I started out with a few rough passages written in freeform style, to establish the protagonist and understand the tone I wanted to strike. These included the train journey into Baile Arainn (pacing), meeting the city’s Director (character interactions), and the train crash at Arkillen (action). By this point I already knew that the project would skew heavily towards prose, and that interaction would be facilitated by buttons containing short dialogue and actions.
  • Having now referred to a number of locations in this rough draft, I looked to a transit map I’d drawn up for the Metrowitch project. This formed the basis of a more detailed map, which I would draw alongside writing the game over the next few months.
  • I identified key locations I’d want the player-protagonist to visit over the course of the game, establishing what events might happen there and how they might be connected. This is also where I began to get some idea of possible mechanics, motivations and forms of ritual to be played out.
  • What followed was the bulk of the work: alternating between cartography and narrative design, making use of flowcharts and copious notes. I explain this in more detail later.
  • Finally, there was about a month of proof-reads, bug-fixing, story polish and UI work on the game’s presentation in HTML5. I worked to a checklist of features, either implementing them or crossing them off after realising they’d require a more substantial re-write of Twine’s engine than I was willing to commit to.

Shifting My Understanding of Narrative Design

Though I have worked narrative design before, most of the games which called for it were much more mechanical in nature than Waybinder is. In A Planet Wakes, for example, the narrative drives players from one terraforming site to the next and makes the effort feel more intense each time. But the game and environment still tell the game’s underlying story, even when this narrative is removed.

From the beginning of this project, I wanted to try making interactive fiction specifically because plot and character interactions would be much more prominent concerns. In games of this type, the experience is not (typically) broken by imbalanced obstacles or resources, but instead a more loose, organic type of flaw in the way words are arranged. My biggest challenge with Waybinder was, therefore, plot-holes and logical consistencies. Amongst the challenges I’d set myself:

  • paths when characters have either already met, or have not yet done so
  • actions which occur differently depending on the items you’ve found, or prior conversations you’ve had
  • maintaining player agency whilst striving not to write a passage for every street corner
  • constructing what is essentially a single ending, flavoured by the singular path taken up to that point

As mentioned before, I used plot notes to manage much of this — not least those which describe the game’s variables. I also considered a flowchart, but at first this presented me nothing more than an intimidating blank canvas. It was at this point I realised I could incorporate ritual into the game’s design as well.

Design by Tarot

Flowchart with four branches, leading to a single conclusion.
Fearing that even these few story beats might spill over into a much larger game, I designed what would turn out to be 80% of the final game as the first of at least two ‘acts’.

I began with the rough draft of Waybinder‘s story, which established one possible path. I based other branches upon four tarot cards, drawn at random. The imagery from these is what’s shown on the game’s UI, and one particular branch (The Magician) is directly referred to by one of the game characters. Each of these was drawn with only one goal in mind — to put the player in a particular frame of mind (hopefully the same as my own) when they would come to perform the ritual at game’s end.

I subtly re-interpreted these four cards (I: Magician, Queen of Pentacles, Page of Pentacles and Queen of Swords) in order to establish loose ‘moods’ for each branch: pro-activity, focus on details, and warding one’s self and others. The path I’d already laid out focused on character interactions, and an encounter from the protagonist’s past; this seemed a good fit for the two ‘warding’ branches. The other two branches would engage more with the world and events happening within it.

It’s here that I also devised the idea of using artefacts for the actual ritual. These would act both as a focal point for the player, and an easy means of tracking which path they had taken. This would prove useful for later, diverging conversations.

Real-world examples of artefacts found within the game: a chair screw, railway token, sprig of heather and wild thistle.

With the plot arcs now in place, I was free to write whatever might come to mind for the characters and the world. I did so whilst populating a much more detailed flowchart. This in turn ensured that if a character, object or piece of knowledge entered the story at any point, I could cross-reference that with the more granular flowchart presented by Twine itself:

From Release, Onwards

All of this has happily led to Waybinder‘s completion and release. I kept it a small undertaking, making use of Itch.io’s platform with a smattering of promotion via bespoke Twitter and Instagram accounts. I have also begun submitting it to relevant games festivals in the hopes I might glean wider feedback, but also to see how play-testing is likely to be different.

I’m conscious (in theory if not in practice, yet) of the ways in which a piece of interactive fiction could succeed or fail at engaging its players, keeping them entertained, and bringing their time and effort to a satisfying conclusion. These factors are true for all interactive media. This is, however, by far the most ‘authorial’ project I’ve made. Its interface and play sessions also call for a different level of engagement, as it’s not a piece of work which could easily or satisfactorily be demonstrated within 1 or 2 minutes.

My basic hopes are that Waybinder is entertaining, and that the lessons I learned (and can now demonstrate) from its making may continue. I certainly intend to incorporate more narrative design into my generalised game design toolbox. Waybinder has, however, also served its initial purpose: to help realise an imaginary world which I intend to keep exploring. My next solo project began before this one: a 3D adventure, set some hundred years in Baile Arainn’s future. Having never before had a game world I could explore from multiple angles, I look forward to whatever lessons come from that as well.

Here’s to that journey.

Panoramic poster of a coastal scene, entitled "discover Bàgh Ceònomara". A line below reads "Hillcrest line 14, 28 mins from Central". After 5 seconds the graphic glitches, and briefly reveals Swedish text laying underneath before returning to normal.

Radio Play

A recent submission to BigThink has gotten me to thinking about the possibilities of interactive radio, or audio gaming. I hesitate to call this ‘interactive audio’, because that particular term has come to signify art installations and the likes of Rez and Music 2000. However, to take the “video” right out of video games and present the player with an interactive, audio-only experience.. would that be possible? Has it already been done?

Here’s Jad Abumrad’s video, on how radio creates empathy through co-authorship of an imagined experience:

I have to confess an obstacle to my usual lines of research, given that there are already slews of interactive audio games and software, and so-called ‘interactive’ radio stations. If there are any audio games already out here, I’m finding it very hard indeed to spot them.

Radio is, of course, already a fairly interactive medium, best expressed in talk shows. Through telephones and with the advent of email, text messaging and Twitter, these shows have allowed their listeners to put their views across and so change the course of discussion, with similar interactivity to be seen in many music shows. Never do I recall seeing the radio equivalent of an RPG, though; a radio play in which the listener can choose which direction the protagonist should take.

I think the closest I’ve gotten is a board game named CD Adventure: Search for the Lost City, which is an audio-reliant board game. Most games which incorporate sound do so simply to replace the rolling of dice, or they do as this game and Mall Madness do, and direct players towards certain tasks. In CD Adventure, certain squares on the board ask you to take a card, which in turn asks you to skip to a certain track on a CD. Because each card corresponds to a location on the board (swamps, rapids and so on), these tracks can then set a proper scene, with sound effects and character actors to deliver instructions to the player.

The actual gameplay could be accomplished just as easily by reading the instructions off the card, but CD Adventure was designed so that characters from within the game would seem to come to life. By doing this we remove the common act of a player reading aloud from a card, in which they are the deliverer of information to everyone else. Instead that duty falls to an apparent external entity; an agent whose actions influence everyone else on the board. It’s a powerful tool for uniting each player on the board, rather than having them constantly compete. Atmosfear is another game which does this to great effect, albeit through a linear video rather than a stack of audio files.

My friends and I developed a particular hatred for one character whose name I cannot now recall, whose smarmy voice could often be heard sending my token back to the beginning of the board. This creates a far different social experience to that of a player whose own roll apparently dooms them or grants success, where they’re left blaming merely chance or the card in front of them for their misfortune. Other board games in which instructions are read from cards do not have this element of theatre to them, and so do not have recognisable characters. Yet we do develop exactly this sort of relationship with the animated – and often vocalised – citizens of our digital toyboxes.

At a basic level, I wonder what could be achieved by having ‘make your own adventure’ books available on audiotape, or creating horror games in which players may be startled into wakefulness and led down new paths in a story, similar again to the video board game, Atmosfear. At a more egalitarian level, I wonder at the possibilities for developing games for the blind.

One imagines that a truly rich audio gaming experience would have the capacity for spoken feedback, and this has been within our technological grasp for years now. Considering we can command our Xbox 360s to play media, and our iPhones to invite friends to our parties, surely we can ask Kinect to equip the lit torch, or direct Siri take the left-hand turn down a steampunk alleyway?

We’d have to rethink the genres we could port to audio gaming though, and we’d probably have to invent some new ones. To propose an audio-only shooter is ridiculous, but imagine the possibilities of an interactive detective story, or a strategy game which is played as though you are Mission Control, receiving communicae via radio from your moonbase. The latter could still be done using a screen, but what changes would we see to the drama behind a game which doesn’t involve an aerial view and flashing green placement grids?

I’m confident in one aspect, though: radio has proven that audio can be a powerful tool for evoking empathy. Games have made huge strides in the past decade, towards achieving the sort of richness which books and film take for granted. Could a push into audio gaming show us a new path?

Genre Genre

Returning once more to the subject of genre: just where do we – or indeed can we – draw the lines?

I’ve recently had cause to sit down and tame a very elusive beast: the video game genre. As a serial cataloguer and self-contradicting fan of labels, I’ve often sorted my games out in my own head. Putting them into various piles based on their stylistic category for the benefit of others, however, has gotten me thinking.

I started by looking at other examples:

There is some common ground, and Wikipedia – perhaps as is to be expected – covers the most. Because its purpose is not to sell games effectively (necessitating clear and concise categories which even the most inexperienced gamer might grasp), and its format is that of an article rather than an open database, the custodians of this article have narrowed games down to the following types:

  • Action
  • Action-adventure
  • Board & card game conversions
  • Music
  • Party
  • Programming
  • Puzzle
  • Role-playing
  • Simulation
  • Sport
  • Strategy
  • Trivia
  • Vehicle simulation

The article also lists genres according purpose, notably including adult and casual games. The debate about whether a casual game is a genre or not is – to my mind – deeply misguided, since most of the casual games I’ve played have fallen under the role-playing or simulation umbrella. Adult games are an interesting one however, and a good example of the ‘meta-genres’ I observed in my own list of genres (I’ll return to this idea in a moment). Adult films and erotica are, of course, quite well-defined genres within film and book media. Unlike sci-fi, horror and fantasy, the adult genre refers to both a demographic and the type of content – irrespective of whether the book or film may exhibit other generic traits.

It’s because of quirks like this that I realised my own list should be split into three meta-genres, or ‘types of genre’, if you will. I’ve named them demographic, inherited and mechanical genres.

Demographic Genres

This rather small category of genres is a repository for those works whose content is overwhelmingly guided by the target audience. Adult games – just like adult films and books – fall into this category because they exist to provide erotic entertainment. Most or all elements of the game are geared towards providing that experience.

Although they make for disturbing bedfellows, lifestyle and childrens games work on a similar principle. I would concede that they could be weaker genres in this context; many a childrens’ game would also be considered an action or puzzle game. Again the demographic does dictate much of these games’ makeup though, and it’s fair to say that their being classed as a lifestyle or childrens’ game is what helps consumers to pick them out from the shelf. Just why the adult genre is better-defined is surely the topic of another blog. It could be because erotic entertainment is a simpler principle to understand, or a result of the stigma attached to pornography. Perhaps it’s also because some mature gamers enjoy ‘childrens’ games’ – who knows?

Inherited Genres

This is where I started, having written before on the way I felt some historical games should be classed as just that, rather than coming under the ‘first-person-shooter’ bracket wit the likes of Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath and Halo 3. These games have no thematic similarity with the earlier Call of Duty games, beyond the presence of guns and a ruleset inherited from its mechanics.

Borrowing heavily from existing media (hence these being ‘inherited’), I devised the following list:

  • Action adventure
  • Crime
  • Educational
  • Fantasy
  • Historical
  • Horror
  • Humour
  • Sci-fi
  • Sport

Despite my persistence however, classifying the likes of LittleBigPlanet, Angry Birds and even Sonic the Hedgehog in this way is plainly impossible. Sonic games could at least be classed as action adventures, and while it sounds more like a mechanic, I believe that games of this type have come to form their own narrative and plot structures.

Though one would expect an element of (inter)action from a game anyway, there is some unique feedback between the player’s involvement and the adventure within the story which manages to define them as a whole. Action films like Die Hard, Sucker Punch and Terminator offer a similar experience, but because of the passive nature of film, the ‘action’ element comes to the fore and the ‘adventure’ becomes implied.

Mechanical Genres

These genres were the ones I’ve most tried to avoid, but had to concede as worthy ‘types of games’. Mechanics can definitely define the game and the type of player that they attract, so why should they not sit alongside the established genres listed above? I feel a need to stress the importance of that ‘sitting alongside’, since the medium has matured to a point where the narrative in a game has just as much allure as its mechanics. Gone are the days when most gamers would play games simply to test a high score – instead we long for rich experiences, and so I feel we deserve to filter horror out from history, and humour out from sports.

What really surprised me was just how many genres I felt I needed for this category. Though I’ve decided to leave behind the markers of the retro era (like ‘jumping game’, ‘dungeon game’ and so on), it seemed foolish to ignore the specific appeal a turn-based strategy game might have over real-time strategy, or the changes in narrative and plot which a first-person perspective brings to a shooter, compared to a third-person one. There are many gamers who will ignore a whole experience if it does not fit their preferred mechanics, and so I bowed to democracy:

  • Adventure (point & click and text-based)
  • Board game
  • Card game
  • Driving
  • Fighting
  • Hack ‘n’ slash
  • Music
  • Online world
  • Party
  • Peripheral
  • Platform
  • .. and the list goes on.

There are, of course, some games which fit purely into a mechanical genre: digital versions of Monopoly, the Mario Party series and Virtua Fighter to name a few. Many of the best-known contemporary titles fit into one or more of these and an ‘inherited genre’ as well though, and that fact got me to wondering if there’s a direct correlation.

The Mix

Take for example the Halo series, Portal and World of Warcraft. All are prized for their well-executed mechanics, but also for their plots and themes, which in turn generate a fierce fandom. Halo leans very heavily upon action, being a first-person shooter, but it distils solid science fiction through its cliffhanger narratives and enigmatic teaser trailers. Portal too combines a subtle plot with stellar mechanics, all the while ensuring that GLaDOS sits right up there with HAL and the T-1000 on a list of memorable sci-fi nemeses.

My intention with this article was not to come to some sort of conclusion based on generic appeal, but this has been a hard result to ignore.

Cyberpunk and Raypunk

I was recently invited to explore my reasons for liking cyberpunk – that particularly dystopic blend of sci-fi which deals with a near-future dominated by cybernetic technology. I’ve studied it before in projects dealing with visual design, but I’d not looked upon it as an idea this deeply before. Doing so led me to some startling discoveries, and also shed some light on why I enjoy games design so.

Blade Runner

The genre we’re actually dealing with when talking cyberpunk is a cross between ‘gothic’ and ‘science fiction’:

  • Sci-fi is a genre in which stories are heavily influenced by realistic-sounding scientific advancements: humanity touches the cosmos with warp engines; society communicates with electronic cyberbrains; and so on.
  • Gothic is a genre which holds a distorted mirror up to what we perceive as normal, in order to shock or otherwise provoke: wealthy aristocrats who emerge only during the night; men who transform into terrible beasts; and so on.

Cyberpunk combines these two by showing us quite alien worlds, of cyborg implants and widespread drug abuse which echo the fears of a modern age. Viruses and hackers are the folk devils of a gothic genre, just as demons and bloodthirsty killers were in more religious times.

I don’t enjoy all cyberpunk though. As futuristic genres go, I far prefer retro-futurism – hence naming my website “Raygun Gothic” – but cyberpunk did give rise to the likes of Ghost in the Shell, The Matrix and other such tales of virtual worlds in which identity is questioned and appearances may be deceiving. People become something other than themselves, and often face struggles in a world which is hostile to them. Those themes speak to me on a personal level, and doubtless play a huge part in my calling to design video games.

The problem I have with cyberpunk is that it is innately depressing. Sci-fi’s purpose is to ask “what if?”, and cyberpunk is one of science fiction’s bleakest answers. It tells us that human nature will doom us all, and its stories uniquely feature anti-heroes for the odds are stacked so high that it takes a rebel to even try for resolution. Often the end is not a happy one.

But is retro-futurism any better? Raygun gothic is a genre in which technology grants humanity its prosperity: ships transport us across the cosmos, robots attend to our every whim and magical energies grant us control over the elements. It’s also an incredibly dated genre, very worthy of the term “retro-futurism”. ‘Raypunk’ (as I call it) is a vision of a future that never was: the year 2000 as envisioned from the 1930s and 40s.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

Cyberpunk and raypunk are two sides of the same coin. Both allow us to imagine a future supported by technology, but one is dystopic, one is utopic. The sad thing is that while cyberpunk is a “what if”, raypunk is an “if only”. The fact that we don’t have jetpacks and lycra space suits puts us far closer to embracing a cyberpunk world, and while I long for worlds and identities to escape to, raypunk serves as a reminder of what we don’t have.

I have no conclusion to add to such thoughts; they are what they are. Comparing genres like this does highlight where my moods may take me, though. I can fool myself into thinking that raypunk can work, or I can look upon cyberpunk as a lesson in things to avoid. I can also see raypunk as a missed opportunity, or embrace the integrated sea of information within cyberpunk as something glorious to aim for. Either way technology is involved somewhere in the making, and the meat vessel I inhabit in the real world is excited by moulding both in games and online worlds.