Finding Authentic Agency in Black Rock City

From: "No Media Kings Updates" <jim@nomediakings.org>
Subject: Finding Authentic Agency in Black Rock City
Date: October 19th 2016

Cover by Trish Lamanna

You're at Burning Man, with six choices to make before the world goes white.
 Choose wisely. Or wildly. The dust storm won't care.
 [ PLAY BLACK ROCK CITY ]

As a linear storyteller, branching narratives have been challenging for me. I usually have a story I want to tell, and in writing choice-based games I often found myself having to write a bunch of branches I wasn’t as interested in, and I always looped them back to converge with the main story. I preferred making parser games because it felt like I was giving the player more autonomy, even when new parts of the story were gated by puzzles.

But upon reading Sam Ashwell’s “Standard Patterns in Choice-Based Games” I liked the idea of trying different structures, and was taken by what he calls Time Cave. In the past I think I’ve regarded this structure as inefficient somehow — inferior because it didn’t reuse writing in a clever way. But seeing a bunch of these typical structures side-by-side in the article let me drop the notion that there’s a “proper” way to do CYOA, and I decided to try the Time Cave. There’s something pretty beautiful about the way it spreads out exponentially. It does need a lot of writing, but I like writing a lot.

Around this time I was missing Burning Man — I went last year and was getting the emails from my camp mates as they prepared. When you’re there it feels like whatever direction you go in, something interesting happens. So rather than picking a story to tell, I chose a possibility space I was excited about. This made a huge difference. I was able to tell a ton of little stories, some with connections to my actual experience and some entirely fabricated. People can explore as their interest dictates. Wander by themselves or make friends. Attend kinky workshops or read tarot. Read a book or do some mushrooms. It actually feels like I’m honouring the choices of the player in a more genuine way. But there are no goals or challenges or ways to win or lose. If you like that kind of thing maybe you can make yourself an achievement for reaching all 64 endings? You can make an “unlocking” sound effect with your mouth.

croppedtree

When I was editing it I’d forgotten half of what I’d written that month and it made me smile a lot, so that’s a pretty good sign. More crunchy notes: at 127 pages and over 10K words this was also the longest piece I’ve written with Texture, the tool I co-created. It worked really well with this structure, as the interface makes the writing front and centre. I did need to create the above chart to keep track of which pages I’d started (pen mark), completed (orange dot), and edited (green highlight). Sticking to a 2-choice per page, 7-page-deep structure made things easy to track. And when betatesters used the first few words to indicate what page (no page numbers!) errors were on, I could open up the page window and just search via the browser search function.

Thanks to the betatesters: David Faulkner, Ellen Steuer, Suzanne Stefanac, Joseph Hobaica, Maurice Grela, Justin Dossett.

A huge thanks to Trish Lamanna, who created the gorgeous cover.



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