There has been considerable talk, since at least the first PAX IF event, about the desirability of establishing shared worlds for IF.
Of course, IF already has
shared worlds -- the Zork
franchise is only barely a different world from Adventure
, and plenty of subterranean cod-fantasy works have been effectively Zork fanfic. Stiffy Makane
is a smaller (though more perfectly formed) case. But neither of these, it seems, will quite do; they are perhaps a bit too
malleable, a bit too much of a motley patchwork of off-the-cuff jokes and fourth-wall-smashing references. I think when people say shared world
, they mean a setting with a fairly consistent tone, a core set of concerns and attitudes, an established coherence. Zork
are clearly palimpsests; nothing's written in stone, but nothing's ever fully erased. This is by no means a bad
thing, but it's a thing distinct from shared-world. (I suspect that Zork, at least, works better as a subgenre than a mythos or shared world; [url=http://ifdb.tads.org/viewgame?id=cpwktis6qwh9ydn8]Augmented Fourth[/a] makes little sense as Zork fanfic or Zork shared-world, but it's perfectly intelligible as Zorkian fiction.
I suppose that when people say 'shared world' they are thinking in particular of the Lovecraft mythos, or the worlds of SF/F TV series -- almost always the work of numerous different writers, not always perfectly consistent, but sharing a substantial core and making a credible effort to avoid rewriting history. (The major superhero comics are examples of failed
shared worlds; the worlds of Marvel and DC can't really be taken seriously any more -- at least, not in the way that they want to be taken). All of this is an extremely roundabout way of getting to some points which I'm sure are pretty obvious to most of you already: 1) authenticity / canonicity is not a neat true-false quality, 2) people have legitimate preferences for different points of that spectrum.
So, when this conversation happens, a number of things tend to come up about what an IF shared world would need in order to succeed:
1) A SF/F world. Because IF is fond of those things, and if it's not SF/F then we already <i>have</i> a shared world, eejit. We live there.
2) An initial work or works of high enough quality to establish interest, but...
3) Not a work so outstanding, or an author so well-known, as to create a fanfic-like imbalance between initial and subsequent works.
4) Probably unified around worldbuilding or a general set of game mechanics, rather than specific characters. (Character-reliance is a big reason why superhero canon is such a mess.) Possibly some core code could be shared between versions, and players wouldn't have to relearn the gameplay style.
5) At least initially, curated in some manner to ensure a base standard of quality.
4) and 5) hit on the big reasons why sf/f publishing tends to run so hard towards interminable series. First, establishing a living, breathing F/SF setting can take a lot of time. Rather than dump a huge pile of worldbuilding on you at the outset, your sense of what matters about the world is layered over many episodes. Andromeda
has, I think, a bit of a tough furrow to plough on this count; while lots of people found things about the setting compelling
, not many derived a very clear sense of what was going on. (Largely because lots of people never finished it. I still haven't done so.) The original Andromeda doesn't really have a strong interaction hook, but it's definitely about setting and background rather than dominant characters.
As for 5): readers are not very adventurous (or, more charitably, are generally unwilling to read dozens of things they don't like in search of something they do): a series gives some assurance that Book 3 will be much the same sort of thing as Book 1. I'm not sure that this is quite what Andromeda
is aiming for, precisely; but let's see what happens.Tree & Star
, Paul Lee
This starts out in a promising manner: culture-myths in which are embedded a historical narrative. However, this turns out to be more of an opening flourish than a consistent theme. Tree
is a tightly linear story of the PRESS X TO CONTINUE variety; in many respects it feels like a first draft, the minimal-winnable version of a game intended to be fleshed out later. It doesn't credit testers, and it shows. The text has rather more typos than can be excused, and there are a number of non-lethal bugs.
The general plot is presented straightforwardly: your civilisation is confined to a single spaceship, which generations ago was lost due to alien artefact shenanigans. As the first generation faded, it was overthrown by a repressive regime that rewrote history in an it-has-always-been-this-way mode. Now evidence of the past has surfaced, and our heroes must reveal the truth before the conspiracy silences them. I found it a little difficult to work out how this connected to the Andromeda
world, which is probably because Tree & Star
is very up-front about its backstory, whereas Andromeda Awakening
is relatively cryptic.
The game's major issue is that it has a conspiracy-thriller plot: this means that the major modes of activity should be investigation and action. In classic IF mode, the setup shifts the interaction away from action and towards investigation by making the PC the Tech Guy of the group, while his cop wife handles the Action. But the computer-hacky portions of the game just aren't implemented in any sort of mechanical depth; most of it is just about finding the command to continue the action, and diverging from the script often leads to oddly-juxtaposed responses. Now, to be fair, a crunchy simulation of the PC's hacking activities could have been pretty boring, and that's not what the story's really interested in; so this isn't in itself a problem. The ABOUT text declares that "this game is designed with a fairly high granularity; that is, the state of the game often changes drastically based on single commands". And that's fine!
The problem is that IF lacks (and, in my opinion, sorely needs) good standard mechanics for meaningful interaction at large granularity. Or, <i>the larger the scale of your decision-making, the less those decisions ultimately mean.</i> This seems to be entirely the wrong way around, but it's the state of affairs we've got. Tree & Star
runs headlong into this problem: most of the time there is really nothing significant to do except wait, talk to the plot-advancing person, walk in the plot-advancing direction, perform the next Hacking Action.
This approach, while pretty disappointing, can be salvaged by excellent writing. The prose here is by no means <i>bad</i>; granted, there are some bits here and there that are sub-par, and much of the rest needs a little more editing, but there are some better moments too, and in general it's serviceable. But its net effect is close to neutral; it doesn't compensate for the on-rails interaction.
This bit was one of the clunkiest parts of writing. Worse, it kicks in during a dramatic denouement scene: the focus should be on the twists of the action, not distracted by prose quirks.
The blond-haired female Militia Investigator groans faintly as she points her gun at the tatooed female Militia Investigator. Tears collect at the blond-haired female Militia Investigator’s eyelids.
Yeah, calling someone 'blond-haired female Militia Investigator' once
is awfully clunky, but this is just ridiculous. It also leads to problems like this:
> hit investigator
Which investigator do you mean, the tall male Militia Investigator, the tatooed female Militia Investigator, the blond-haired female Militia Investigator, or the black-haired male Militia Investigator?
> tall male
That doesn’t make any sense.
> hit tall male militia investigator
That doesn’t make any sense.
> hit tall
That doesn’t make any sense.
> hit male
Which male do you mean, the tall male Militia Investigator or the
black-haired male Militia Investigator?
is one of the only adjectives in English that takes a gender. Women are blonde; men are blond.)
Generally speaking, the characterisation was sort of enh. I felt that Veritas (the naming is less than subtle, here) was the biggest failing. My general feeling is that if two characters have a special relationship of some kind -- and marriage should really be one such -- then that relationship needs to be treated as a major character. I'm not saying that the story needs to be recast as a relationship story; I'm saying that, if there's only space for a few hints about the nature of a relationship, those hints should not be generic. If you have limited sapce, don't tell me things that are true of most
moderately good relationships: tell me what's special about this
So what are we shown about Rood and Veritas? They have been friends since childhood; they work long hours; they like one another, they are affectionate, he finds her attractive; they don't communicate as well as they might, but they trust one another; she doesn't entirely take his conspiracy-theorisin' seriously, but is cheerily supportive anyway. This doesn't feel like a real relationship; it feels like a template.
There are places at which there's an attempt
to depict chemistry between the characters, but it doesn't work too well because, well:
She stares at the encrypted characters for a long moment and then shrugs. "I have no idea," she says, looking at you with a smile, "but I’m sure it’s something interesting, maybe even something that will hold significance for all Travelers. I’m trusting you to find out." She winks.
So there's the idea that some mild flirting is going on here, which is well and good, except that because Rood partakes fairly heavily of the Affectless PC nature, it feels as if the flirting's totally one-sided. When a woman's shown cheerily flirting with a man who doesn't ever respond, it implies that something's not quite right. Here, it summons up the nasty old meme that it's the woman's job to make herself attractive to the man, and the man's job to take care of Serious Business. I'm sure that that wasn't the intention here (Veritas gets a more active role later in the plot), but it does throw off the feel of the relationship.
So in that context, consider this:
> talk to veritas
You and Veritas discuss the likelihood that you will ever have a child.
That's a default response for talking to her, including at various points of the plot where this comes across as, uh, somewhat darkly ironic. But, even under the best of circumstances, this is conspicuously generic. What's worse, it's an emotionally charged discussion but described in totally affectless terms. I find myself thinking of this conversation from Nemesis Macana
I then explain to her that I am not opposed to children being born, although I consider the "being born" aspect of it rather disgusting and an irrational way of going about it. It is only intercourse I object to, and since it has become technically possible to achieve fertilisation without having sex, there is no reason we cannot have children. I conclude by saying that if she really wants to, we will go to the hospital.
Most often that is when she starts to cry. I hug her tightly, for let it be known that I do not object to hugging, when practiced with moderation.
(I should stress that it isn't anywhere near that
bad, but it definitely summons up some of the same vibes.) And then again, there's a moment where, if I'd had a bit more invested in the Rood-Veritas relationship, my stomach would have lurched; as it was, my reaction was more 'well, obviously'.
Very well, then, you might say: but there are plenty of stories where the relationship is just a placeholder, and while that's not great it's not always a problem
. Granted; but everything in Tree & Star
falls under that general category. It runs the gamut from perfectly adequate to grudgingly acceptable. If there was something awesome that this was all in service to, this would be less of a concern; but none of the potential awesomeness ever quite comes through. My feeling was that there was too much focus on delivering the core story, and not enough on identifying and enriching the things that make the story compelling