Interactive Story App Review: Versu

Versu

This free app — Versu — is very different from The Dreamhold, the interactive fiction app I reviewed yesterday. In the stories in Versu (there are a few free ones and then you can purchase others in a library), the reader makes choices about the dialogue and actions of a character in the story, and those choices shift the narrative. The first story — An Introduction to Society — has a main character, Lucy, interacting with her grandmother as she prepares to meet other members of high society. It’s like an English novel of manners, with choices for behavior and actions.

The story unfolds mostly in dialogue and decisions, and as new characters enter the scene, they are depicted as icons down below. A click on their pictures reveals what each character is thinking at a given moment in the story. While the story is rather highbrow, the choices invite you (as Lucy) to be either very civil (and therefore, boring) or rebellious by having the main character act rude, say foolish things, or be provocative in the way she holds herself. (So, for example, as I had Lucy tell the visitors that her grandmother thinks one of them is a “clod,” I completed one of the story’s achievements: sowing discord. Yes!)

And at some points, the grandmother breaks out of her role in the story to become a narrator to how to play the game (which, to be frank, is slightly odd when it first happens because you think you are still reading the story and you realize the grandmother is talking to you.) While I did find the interface interesting, this is clearly a story that might interest an adult more than a student (and no doubt, it was not designed for teaching interactive fiction).  However, it could work with high school students who are studying English literature.

Oddly enough, I felt less agency as a reader/player with the Versu story than I did with The Dreamhold (which I reviewed yesterday). It was more like a neat diversion piece of reading than a full immersive experience. Maybe this is because you have to choose from a menu of choices provided by the story. But the Versu app is worth checking out, particularly for the way that writers Emily Short and Richard Evans uses character motivations and thoughts as well as dialogue to pace the story forward. The emotional wrinkle to interactive fiction is pretty interesting, and something I have not yet come across in my adventures exploring this kind of story/game.

And I am intrigued by the mentions of players writing their own stories, although I don’t quite see that option yet. (Versu is pretty new, so maybe that kind of writing component will fold out later).

Peace (in the app),
Kevin

PS — here is the promo for the app:

PSS — here is a link to all the posts I have been sharing out around interactive fiction.

 

 

 

 

Interactive Story App Review: The Dreamhold

(Thanks to my friend, Ryan, who shared a few links with me yesterday about interactive fiction apps and sites. I spent a bit of time exploring this one, and then stumbled on a few more, too.)

iPhone Screenshot 1

The Dreamhold is an interactive fiction story that is designed to introduce readers to the concept of exploring story via text only (No graphics. No animation. Only words and imagination). A free app from iTunes, The Dreamhold puts the reader/player into exploration mode, as you wander around a castle of some sort, and you slowly realize that it might be a place of magic. There are a lot of things to like about The Dreamhold. It’s free for both iPad and iPod/iPhone, it has a helpful system of “hints” built into the interface, and it simplifies the experience just enough to allow even the most novice of interactive fiction readers (like me) to have fun and understand the concept.

I like how the app is laid out, too, with a handy place for finding common commands for movement and examination, and how you can save your progress and return to the story later. A map section also shows you a bit of an overview of where you are in the Dreamhold (and reminds you of how much of the story has yet to unfold). All in all, if you are seeking a way to experiment with reading/playing an interactive fiction story, The Dreamhold is a good place to start. (I notice that the company — Zarfhome — has also put out other IF stories that cost 99 cents, which is still a pretty good deal.)

Here’s what I am wondering:  can I get this app onto our school iPod touches and use it as an introduction to IF with my students? (Short answer: yes. Longer answer: we have old generation touches, so what I wonder is whether it will work on all generations of Touches. I think it will. I am going to try it.)

See you in the castle!

Peace (in the interactions),
Kevin

 

Interactive eBook Review: Underground Kingdom

As I explore Interactive Fiction and Choose Your Adventure genres, I realized that I have an app that is all that on my Ipad. I had forgotten about Underground Kingdom, for some reason, and yesterday, I returned to the interactive ebook to see how it might help me think about my students reading and writing interactive stories. Underground Kingdom does a nice job of adapting the old Choose Your Adventure story concept (there are 23 possible endings and you can access a map that shows your path and your dead ends, so you can always jump back into the story at different points).

Underground Kingdom was financed via Kickstarter, and the app (which costs $2.99 at the iTunes App Store) takes advantage of the technology by integrating motion graphics, simple animations and, of course, the hyperlinked tree effect, which allows a reader to jump around the story arc based on choices made. The plot of the book has to do with a black hole at the center of the earth, a strong gravitational field, and a hidden kingdom … of monkeys. Yeah. So, you can get a sense of the fun and adventure that this sort of story brings to an iPad (Underground Kingdom is not yet available for other devices.)

 

I had fun reading/playing this story, although I wasn’t all that overwhelmed by the graphics and the story is still pretty text-heavy. Still, the plot moved at a rapid pace, and the use of second person narrative making choices was effective. I liked that when I hit a dead end, I could venture back to the story map and keep going in another direction. In fact, after 25 minutes of reading/playing, I still seemed to have a long way to go with the story.

It makes me wonder if there are other Choose Your Adventure stories out there in ebook/interactive format. Do you know of any others?

Peace (in the paths),
Kevin

 

Bringing Choose Your Adventure Novels to the Classroom

My sixth grade team got an email the other day from our school’s administrative assistant, letting us know that we still have some money in our grade level supply fund and, she urged, we better spend it before the district takes it back. We didn’t even know it was there, so that kind of email is like a holiday cheer for a teacher. My first impulse: let’s get some new books for the classroom. As it turns out, I was starting to go through the application process for Donors Choose to ask for a collection of Choose Your Own Adventure novels as part of my inquiry into Interactive Fiction (I’ve been writing all week about this topic. See my post from yesterday.). I want to use the Choose Your Adventure books as mentor texts and then shift my students into writing their own multiple ending stories with Twine or some other technology platform.

There is another motive here, too, which is to vary the kinds of texts my students are reading. We recently referenced Choose Your Adventure stories, and I read part of one aloud to the class as we collectively chose various story paths, when we were studying Narrative Point of View. It’s not easy to find an accessible second-person-narrative story that works, but Choose Your Adventure stories fit the bill perfectly, and I had a lot of students intrigued by the story. It turns out that this generation of kids haven’t really been exposed to these stories. In the past, I’ve had kids who devoured the Goosebumps series, so they had some understanding of the reader as protagonist. Not many of my students had read Goosebumps, and very few knew about Choose Your Adventure stories. Which is sad, really, since they offer such a different kind of reading experience and interaction.

So, I saw the email, dropped out of Donors Choose, and got to work on Amazon, finding books that I could suggest we order for our students. Bingo! I am hoping the plan for a collection of new books is now in motion and my collection of Choose Your Own Adventure books will be coming soon.

Wish me luck …

Peace (in the endings),
Kevin

 

Composing Interactive Fiction 4: Resources, Ideas, Possibilities

(Note: This is part of a short series I am sharing about trying out Interactive Fiction as a writer. On Sunday, I shared out the overall experience. On Monday,  I shared out the first story that I wrote, and well as provided some advice on how to play it. Yesterday, I went in another direction, using a free software program called Twine. Today, I will share out resources that I have discovered and maybe get you to tinker with some other Interactive Fiction possibilities yourselves. – Kevin)

I’ve stumbled on a fair number of resources around Interactive Fiction that might be helpful if you, like me, are wondering what it is all about and whether it has a place in the classroom as a writing experience. I apologize if this post seems more like a stream of consciousness than a coherent presentation of ideas. (Maybe I should have created it as interactive exposition?)

First, I have to share out again Jason Sellers post at NWP’s Digital Is site. Jason’s post got me started down this path. Here is a video of his presentation about the project at a teaching conference recently:

This video is a great piece about the art of video game storytelling. I like how it broadens the view of what writing can be.

Playfic is a neat site for creating, sharing and playing Interactive Fiction games. While there is a learning curve, one can also creatively “steal” the code from other stories and then revamp them. Here is a handy cheat sheet of commands for playing the games/stories at Playfic.

IF Shortcuts

A more advanced tutorial on using Inform 7, the software that Playfic runs off, is here, too, although this is more heady stuff.

Twine is a free software program for creating hypertext stories, which are different from the typical Interactive Fiction, but in the same vein. (Which reminded me of this article that I read a while back about non-sequential narratives. It’s pretty fascinating.) Chad shared out a few resources that were helpful to me, including this quick tutorial on the basics of Twine.

By the way, Eastgate is an online journal for hypertext projects and you can easily get lost in the mix there. There’s some nifty poetry, media projects and stories that pushes the boundaries of our conceptions of writing in a digital space. I am sure there are other hypertext journals out there, too. If you know of more, leave me a comment, won’t you?

Jason had his students head to the 2012 Interactive Fiction Competition (who knew?) to play and vote on some stories. It looks like a nice range of stories that can be played online as well as offline. They might work well as mentor texts.

Hypertextopia is another site that allows you to build/construct hypertext stories. It’s been some time since I have explored it, but when I did use it for a story collection, I liked it.

Inklewriter is an online space for making linked make-your-own-ending stories that Ryan shared with me on a comment this week. I have not yet tried it (although I have had it bookmarked for a time now) but Inklewriter looks pretty intuitive to use, along the lines of Twine but in an online space (for easier sharing, right?).

I have used wikis with my students for those kinds of branching story projects (which Twine might replace this year). I even created this resource for other teachers thinking about how to help students make their own make-your-own-ending stories with online tools. As I think about the role that Interactive Fiction might play in teaching writing, that lesson plan will be my starting point. I even presented about it once at a regional reading conference. (Note to self: dig up those files.)

Finally, all this reminded me of a video series that I made to experiment with annotations in Youtube, using the ‘choose the path’ concept for choices made by the viewer. I used this tutorial to understand a bit about how to use the spotlight/annotation feature in YouTube. I admit: I have not used this with my students, but I would love to do it.

Peace (in the paths),
Kevin

 

 

 

Composing Interactive Fiction 3: Story Choices and Twine

(Note: This is part of a short series I am sharing about trying out Interactive Fiction as a writer. On Sunday, I shared out the overall experience. Yesterday, I shared outthe first story that I wrote, and well as provided some advice on how to play it. Today, I went in another direction, using a free software program called Twine. Later in the week, I will try to share out resources that I have discovered and maybe tinker with some other Interactive Fiction possibilities. – Kevin)

IF FictionPage

I found Twine, a free software program that allows you to make Interactive Fiction, from my friend, Chad, in one of his comments at my blog this week. (Twine is also the name of the new Twitter video app, but they are different programs altogether.) Twine is a program that allows you to map out choices that a reader might make in a story, and then it moves them along various story arcs via hyperlinks. It’s a sort of Make Your Own Ending program.

Here is a map to a story that I created, called Here There Everywhere. I like the visual element of story construction and Twine uses that interface as its main element of design of writing.

Twine

Twine is very different from Inform, which is the software unpinning of Playfic, which I used earlier this week.

In Playfic, the reader/player needs to know the commands that will move you through an environment. It is very language-based. With Twine, you just need to make a choice and follow the link left by the writer. In terms of true Interaction Fiction, I think Playfic is the better choice because it becomes more of a game than just a story. In terms of ease of use, Twine wins hands-down, although it is less of game and more of a story.

And as I think about how to bring this idea of Interactive Fiction into my sixth grade classroom for a writing experience, Twine takes the cake. If you learn just a few simple steps, you can be writing a story within minutes. (But Playfic might be a logical extension activity for some students who “get it” and want more. See my story — What To Write With When You Are Writing story as my own example from the other day.)

A nice thing about Twine is that it resembles an HTML editor in a lot of ways, so you can embed video, images, audio, etc, as long as they are hosted somewhere online. You can then embed the code right into the story. I did that with my story by adding a video intro and outro to the my story, just as an experiment, and it worked like a charm. One issue with Twine (but not with Playfic) is that the program lives on your computer, so if you want to share your story with the world, you need to host it online. Twine does its part to make it simple, though, by creating your story in a single HTML file.

Here’s an easy way to host your file. Use the new Google Drive feature. (Essentially, you create a public folder and pop the HTML file in there, and share the preview link.) That’s what I did with my Twine story. It’s a relatively simple and pretty effective way to host a HTML file. The guy who developed Twine has also developed a bunch of easy-to-follow video tutorials and Chad pointed me to another post that has an easy walk-through of the basics of Twine.

Check out my story: Here There Everywhere.

Let me know what you think of the story and my reflections. I’m sorting this out as I go, inspired by NWP friend Jason Sellers post on NWP’s Digital Is about Interactive Fiction.

Peace (in the storybuilding),
Kevin

 

Composing Interactive Fiction 2: Playing My Story

(Note: This is part of a short series I am sharing about trying out Interactive Fiction as a writer. Yesterday, I shared out the overall experience. Today, I want to share the first story that I wrote, and well as provide some advice on how to play it. Later in the week, I will try to share out resources that I have discovered and maybe tinker with some other Interactive Fiction possibilities. – Kevin)

(Click on the image to get to the story, but I suggest you read my post first.)

I named my Interactive Fiction story What To Write With When You Are Writing because my initial idea was to create a story where the player needs to choose a writing device, and the end result would be to make fun of technology and end up with a pad of paper and pen. Things did not quite go as I had planned, though, and I ended up simplifying the idea considerable.

What you need to know to play the story (that sounds so odd, doesn’t it?):

  • You navigate by using compass directions. In this case, writing “go east” or “go west” will move in that direction.
  • If you there is an object (such as, oh I don’t know, a key, maybe?), then you need to “take key” in order to have it in your hand.
  • To open a door, write “open door.” Unless it is locked, then you need to “unlock door” before you can “open door.”
  • Once a door is unlocked, you need to give directions again on which way to go (east, west).
  • The same thing is true with a locked box. You need to “unlock box” before you can “open box.”

I think all of these hints will help you navigate my story, which ends in a cloud of ideas (you’ll see). Let me know how it goes, please, and what you think. Even in a small, simple story like this, the amount of thought and planning that I did was pretty intense. I had this whole visualization of the hallway and rooms, etc, and creating that experience for others was tricky and challenging (in a good way).

Peace (along the paths),
Kevin

 

Composing Interactive Fiction 1: Writing with Frustration and Exhilaration

(Note: This is part of a short series I am sharing about trying out Interactive Fiction as a writer. Today, I am sharing the overall experience. Tomorrow, I will share the first story that I wrote, and well as provide some advice on how to play it. Later in the week, I will try to share out resources that I have discovered. – Kevin)

I’ve had the idea of trying out Interactive Fiction on the back burner for a long time — at least two years. I even bought a large resource book about Inform (the software built for Interactive Fiction) and did a little bit of research on text-based gaming adventures, but then lost that thread of interest. I can’t say why. I was/am intrigued by the use of writing and language in a gaming system that is not visual, which is such a difference from the video games kids are playing now. Interactive Fiction reminds me a bit of Choose Your Own Adventure stories, mixed with a Dungeons/Dragons map idea and computer programming thrown in (you don’t program code, but it can feel that way at times.) But wrapping my head around the concept was difficult.

Then, I saw this post over at the National Writing Project’s Digital Is site by Jason Sellers, explaining how he brought Interactive Fiction into his English classroom, and I got intrigued all over again. While Jason’s high school students are older than mine, I began to wonder what using Interactive Fiction might look like in my sixth grade classroom. Could it work? On the surface, it seems a nice fit: writing and technology and critical thinking, plus publishing for authentic audience. And Jason’s post turned me to a site called Playfic, which is built off the Inform platform, but seems easier to use.

Or so I thought.

The reality is that I needed to dive in myself and figure out what composing Interactive Fiction is really all about. The result was a lot of frustration and then intense exhilaration, and yet, I am still unsure of how I can bring this into the classroom. The frustration began with my story construction. I had this idea of a story in which the player has to choose which writing device to use for getting an idea down: a Tablet, a PC computer or paper and pen. Each device is in a room off a hallway. I drew out a map (see above for a version of the map) to help me think it all through, and then read/played a few stories on Playfic (including Jason‘s). I thought I had the concept down.

I was wrong.

But each time I tried to build my story, I got error messages from Playfic.  Lots of error messages. The messages, by the way, are very helpful, on one hand, because they are written in a way that feels as if a guide is sitting next to you. I appreciated that. But for an inexperienced IF writer like myself, there were a few messages that I just could not make heads or tails of, and it was no doubt a reflection of my lack of background knowledge in the structure of the Inform code that Playfic is built upon. Later, I was reminded  of a message on the homepage of the site, which tells the writer that:

Writing Playfic games may look like English, but it can be confusing.

You got that right.

I thought I was doing it correct but I apparently wasn’t, repeatedly, and I could not for the life of me figure out what was wrong with my writing. Was I missing a word? A punctuation? Was that sentence phrased right? Was it my syntax? It was a bit of a feeling of getting a research paper back in college where you were told you had done it wrong, but the advice to make it better was undecipherable.

Looking back, it is clear that I had not grasped (and maybe still don’t) the nuance of the language of Inform/Playfic, and how specific words have specific meaning/power. I almost gave up on my story at that point, and then I was struck with a better idea. Why not use Playfic’s option for looking at the code of other stories, grab someone else’s story, and then rebuild it off the basis of that?

So, I did.

I became an Interactive Fiction thief, which is acceptable practice at Playfic (every story comes with a link to the “cheat code” so you can examine what a person did to build a story to learn from that experience). And it worked, and when it worked, I felt this wave of triumph that comes from hitting a wall and then finding a way to scale that wall (even if you use the ladder left behind by the person in front of you). My story worked. (And I will share it out with you tomorrow.)

The larger question: could I bring this to my classroom? I don’t yet know. It seems like I would need to plan for a simplified process that allowed students some success early on, and then have them emulate (steal) coded stories to build their own. That runs the risk of every story reading the same, though. Still, I remain intrigued by the possibilities and appreciate that Playfic has built a site that opens the door to experimentation. (and thanks to Jason for his post)

Peace (in the fictional paths),
Kevin