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New Narrative Structures

By Failbetter, August 8, 2010 · Tagged with

A steaming tray of fresh content turned up a few days ago. This update boasts some sparkly new narrative structures that we’ve not used before. Alexis has described the whole Echo Bazaar project as an expedition into the narrative jungle for specimens. So, here for your edification and delight are a fresh batch of twelve-eyed beasts straining at their cage doors. Today we have the Midnight Buffet, the Carousel and the Grandfather Clock! If you’ve not come across our narrative structures before, you might want to have a look here.

The Midnight Buffet is a variant on the Midnight Staircase. That probably helps nobody, so let’s recap. The Midnight Staircase is a structure where a single storylet with a large number of branches gives various options for raising a progress quality. So, if you’re training for a fight, all the ‘do some exercise’ and ‘spar with a partner’ work is increasing the same ‘getting ready for a fight’ quality. Once the progress quality is high enough, options start appearing to use the progress up to various ends. The fight training progress might be used to duel an easy mark or a fearsome opponent. Some of the options require more preparation than others. This is where the ‘staircase’ comes in. A player is heading up the stairs, but chooses which floor to get off on.

So, that’s the staircase, which has been seen in the wild for a while now. The Midnight Buffet is slightly different in that there are a number of progress qualities, instead of one. Rather than just ‘preparing for a burglary’, there might be ‘casing the target’, ‘preparing tools’ and ‘hiring villains’ as separate qualities. The easy option (‘burgle a half-blind widow’s savings’) might only require one of these progress qualities at a set level, but a more ambitious storylet (‘raid a bank’)  might need three or four of them at that level. So, the player’s choice is, rather than how far up the staircase to go, how many plates to load up on before they sit down to eat.

The Carousel is a bit simpler. There’s a timing quality like ‘the passing of the Society Calendar’. Every storylet in a chunk of content increases the timing quality, which represents time passing. This rises and rises as the player goes through the content. As the timing quality rises, some content is locked off and other stuff opens up. This leads up to the final set of storylets for the content chunk. Any of the final storylets resets the timing counter to zero. This resets the Carousel, and allows the player to see the early content of the Carousel again. To let players see most or all of the content, they get to go around the Carousel a few times before going to other content. We used the Carousel to represent time passing in a term at the university, but I can see it being used in other places where there’s a repeating calendar and different things can happen at the beginning and the end. The Carousel was an interesting one to write. It’s a very concentrated form, with a lot of storylets for its ‘size’. It also makes significant use of implied storytelling. I’ll be fascinated to see how it is received.

The Grandfather Clock is a fairly straightforward structure. There’s a significant narrative in a simple chain – one storylet, then the next. But, to move along the chain, the player must build up a progress quality. This is done with a multi-branch storylet like in a Mignight Staircase or Buffet. Whenever the progress quality gets high enough, it is reset to zero and the player moves along the big chain one step. This is called a Grandfather Clock because the progress quality is like the minute hand of a clock, and the main chain is like the hour hand. The progress quality whizzes about at speed, but the big narrative moves more sedately. As it happens, we complicated the form immediately. The first Grandfather Clock in the game actually has two independent hour hands. That’s how we roll.

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Mark Bernstein on Hypertext Narrative | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling Apr 28, 10:38am

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Anke Sep 9, 12:32pm

Just wanted to drop a line that the "Carousel" is my favourite format (of those I've tried, I've been on the Watchful and Shadowy track, for the most part). I think the main reason is that with the "Midnight Staircase/Banquet"-formats, you repeatedly do things that don't pay out anything. Sure, the payoff is usually high at the end, but to me saving up in smaller increments every time I spend an action is more attractive. The Midnight Buffet is a bit confusing. There are rather many storylets that show up. The storylets that raise "making use of..." at the bottom, with the other storylets raising required qualities at the top, when to me it seems like logically they should be all in one place. Then there's not knowing if raising any (combination of) the four qualities higher than 5 would unlock more things, because "Increase your [quality] to 5 to begin unlocking options" [i]might[/i] imply that at higher values there's more, but if I try a wrong combination, I'll have wasted quite a few actions, since I lose all of the quality in question when I play a storylet unlocked by it. (It does seem not that likely, given that it is quite a chunk of content already, but, yeah.) Anyway, I had a lot of fun in the University - the "everything's repeatable" is another definite plus for me! - and the only reason I'm not playing there currently is that I maxed out Watchful. ;)

Andy Aug 14, 1:05am

Wow, that's fabulous! Echo Bazaar is one of the most innovative takes on interactive media that I've seen in a long time. I really like how you've given names to different storyline forms, to link the stories together in unique ways.

purpleshinyecho Aug 14, 12:14am

I do find the combination of the Grandfather Clock fascinating challenges and the "trade in favors every time you return" aspect of the court to be annoying--I'd like to bounce between wooing and dabbling in other, more entertaining things, since the Grandfather Clock narrative is getting to be rather tedious. I've determined which Fascinating-boosting action is the optimal one for me right now, so it's a matter of grinding that action over and over and over for 12 Fascinating levels for what feels like a tiiiiiny bit of plot advancement. I'm curious what the logic was behind making the first lock-in location (that I've seen, maybe there are others) also be the home of relatively drawn-out and grindy content--I would've been much more content with being locked into the University, for instance, with its constantly changing variety.

Alexis Kennedy Aug 13, 1:22pm

@Sinope, @Greg - it's interesting to hear that people are leapfrogging content in that way. We had the idea a very small minority of players were doing it, but hadn't dug into the data. (We *have* now been digging into the data on this and other things - probably expect a blog post on that soon.

Alexis Kennedy Aug 13, 1:20pm

@Jason - no, indeed, it's just that 'structures for stateful atomic interactive narrative' has less zing as a blog title. One thing I said originally in the talk that kicked this off (http://blog.failbettergames.com/post/Echo-Bazaar-Narrative-Structures-part-one.aspx) is that we aren't trying to develop a pattern language for story in general, we aren't even trying to develop a pattern language for interactive narrative in general - that'd be a pretty ambitious goal. We're developing stuff that's useful for us, and sharing it in the hope that people doing similar things might also find it useful.

Jason Aug 13, 12:24pm

I'm having a hard time at the moment buying into the new content as "narrative structures", rather than "cool rulesets specifically for games like EB." For all that they're cool ways to play this game and work with the mechanics EB already has, do they have any applications in novels, comics, movies, TV, campfire stories, pen & paper RPGs, or physical choose-your-own adventure books? I suppose episodic TV with season arcs might resemble a "Grandfather Clock" if the episodes are sufficiently repetitive...

Greg Aug 11, 5:12pm

For what it's worth, Sinope, I did skip the black ribbon stuff (using ridiculous hats) but I agree that it was a little painful. Perhaps it should be - but it feels like a slight rules abuse at the moment, what with it telling you that you've met Mr Inch before, and etc?

Greg Aug 11, 5:07pm

For what it's worth, Sinope, I did leapfrog the Black Ribbon stuff (with ridiculous hats and the spider storyline), but it's a little painful, I agree.

kylee Aug 11, 4:10am

I'd like to second Sinope's opinion of the Wit and the Beauty storylets! Something I disliked about the early 'fascinating' storylets (though of course I loved them just for being there) is that they tended to build up so slowly and end so abruptly. The Grandfather Clock structure solves both problems, I think, letting me feel like I'm getting to know the two over time with significant moments interspersed throughout a gradual courtship. I've also been enjoying the narrative possibilities that the 'two hands' of the clock present -- you can set back one at the expense of the other, make amends the next time around, switch up approaches, and so on. It's fun stuff.

Sinope Aug 10, 8:47pm

@nigel ("<i>not all Dangerous content has to be about killing things</i>") This is an excellent point, and I wonder about implementing it further. It's basically impossible to get higher than a certain point in Dangerous without joining the Black Ribbon society, which is something that my Magnanimous character found rather distasteful. (I'd have to do the math about whether it would even be possible to gain enough levels through artificially lowering my level, then leapfrogging up to the Hunt Is On storylets. Another alternative would be to do the practice for the Black Ribbon, to gain levels, but never engage in lethal fights.) Of course, this is to some extent unavoidable; you're also not going to get very far in Shadowy without a willingness to break the law. Still, it'd be nice to be able to get strong without automatically making that decision. On a different note (spoilers!): I've spent the last few days engrossed in my simultaneous courtship of the Wit and the Beauty. (I'm crossing my fingers for a Vicar-and-Sister outcome possibility. :-) ) It's a really excellent storylet, and what makes it good is the depth you've put into the incidents in the advancing story arc. They're real rewards for progress; I feel like my relationships are advancing in a narrative sense, not just a numerical one. Well done!

Nigel Aug 10, 1:09pm

As ever, this sort of thing goes to ebbugs@failbettergames.com

Jen Aug 10, 4:26am

I love the idea of these, but I have a question. In the Carousel/University storyline (spoilers, I suppose!), I ended up snubbing both the Principle and the Provost because my Watchful wasn't high enough for me to want to risk addressing them directly and I wanted to continue the story ASAP. My Featuring in the Tales of the University progressed to level five, but suddenly I have no actions I can take! Have you just not added any more to this particular plotline or did I screw myself over? Apologies if this is not the appropriate place to ask this question.

Nigel Aug 10, 2:45am

@allandaros The latest set of Dangerous storylets are more about bringing them back alive, rather than setting Rapacini or the Regretful Soldier off for some murder. We also wanted to emphasise that not all Dangerous content has to be about killing things.

Allandaros Aug 9, 1:27pm

Could you expand on why the new Dangerous storylets didn't use the Running Battle... quality, and instead went with "The Hunt Is On!"? It seems like the only practical differences are the feeling evoked by the names and the increased difficulty of progressing in The Hunt Is On (no use of Regretful Soldier or the existing Running Battle cards). This seems odd, since (for example) the Rapacini's poison seems a bit more thematic for the new Dangerous storylets, as opposed to the previous end-level content; the former is an ongoing process, while the latter seemed to be discrete instances and less conducive to a Running Battle challenge.

Leshia Aug 9, 10:03am

I started off with the Grandfather Clock, and so far it's not bad. A little tedious, but there are enough little branching off things and a ton of additional storylets around to keep my interest.

lucedes Aug 9, 6:55am

I adore the Carousel, and I admire the way you relentlessly innovate and explore forms. It's become a much more mature game, in terms of structure, since the beginning, and I appreciate that greatly. I haven't left the University since I started it, though. :P

Alexis Aug 9, 3:54am

@Daniel - Take a look at the 'built with S#arp Arch' link at the bottom of the page - it'll answer a lot of your questions. For security reasons we tend not to discuss internal architecture in much more detail. @attheelephant - we'd very much like to do something like that, when resources and balance issues allow. @sinope - this is an excellent point and at the heart of some of the discussions we've had about structuring content. This post, elsewhere, is worth a look - http://bit.ly/5AEUVw - she doesn't come to any conclusions, but I like her terminology.

Daniel Aug 9, 3:44am

I love these articles on the narrative structure of EBZ, but would also love some posts on the technical structure behind the game. How are the narratives supported by the game engine? How is game state calculated in a efficient manner? What kind of hardware and software runs the show? Keep up the good work!

Vixy Aug 8, 10:52pm

I am SO DELIGHTED with the University carousel. I never want to get off. :) Interestingly, and I've commented about this to a couple of friends, the University plotline actually kind of captures the feel of life on a university campus-- the way that campus life becomes your entire world, all-important, and the world outside of it begins to seem less real. I *had* other long-term goals in the game, and since starting on the University carousel, I haven't done *anything else*; the rest of Fallen London has sort of receded for me, the way the real world recedes when you're wrapped in the cocoon of university life. Not that I won't get back to the rest of the game eventually. But it's fascinating to me that there was this unexpected parallel of the *feel* of a university experience.

Sinope Aug 8, 10:07pm

I've been playing with all three, and I utterly adore them so far. The one issue I've been pondering is the question of non-repeatability. On the one hand, some of my biggest past frustrations happened when I went through a non-repeatable storylet and regretted my actions (or the result of my actions wasn't what I would have expected). On the other hand, structures like the Carousel take away a bit of the pressure for self-definition; it doesn't matter which side I commit to, because I can always try something different next time. Anyway, you're all doing something Important and Great. Keep up the excellent work!

sungazerphoto Aug 8, 10:01pm

Just wanted to express my appreciation for the complexity - but even more so, the content within the structure! The new narratives have been quite enjoyable.

attheelephant Aug 8, 10:00pm

Might the Midnight Buffet be applied in a multi-player fashion? For example: I initiate a "Grand Heist" venture; I allocate the several preparation elements (Case the joint [Watchful] to myself, Incite a Distracting Mob [Persuasive] to a charming friend, Incapacitate the Guards [Dangerous] to a more sturdy associate); the venture ends after, say, five days, and everyone gets SOME reward if they did anything, and better rewards if we all did. I'd love to see a little more interaction with my fellow denizens.

Lils Aug 8, 9:44pm

Fascinating read - all of it. I have to say I've gone past the point of dreaming about ebz (mentioned in part 3) and gone so far as to name my character and create a design for them as well. I even have thoughts about their personality as well based on the various actions I've chosen while playing. I think you guys have succeeded quite well in making this game enjoyable even in the grinding.

jillheather Aug 8, 9:33pm

I haven't seen the Grandfather Clock plot -- I assume it's a Persuasive or Dangerous challenge -- but I absolutely adore the Carousel/University storylets. I really enjoy the repeats, and the way you get one shot at an ending, but can try all the endings eventually.

Nigel Aug 8, 9:31pm

Well, I'd say what we're doing is closer to engineering than science. Rather than testing hypotheses, we're trying to build stuff that doesn't immediately fall over or explode.

Herm Aug 8, 9:21pm

If we're the test subjects for your wild narrative theories, I've never so enjoyed being a guinea pig!