FreePlay: Jump Into the StoryNexus

FreePlay

We discussed one of Failbetter Games’ projects, Machine Cares, a few weeks back, but I think it’s high time we took a look at their major initiative: StoryNexus.

To understand StoryNexus, it’s worth first taking a look at Failbetter’s first title Fallen London, formerly known as Echo BazaarFallen London is a text-based role-playing game, but this isn’t your usual mind-numbingly tedious progress bar simulator like Mafia Wars; no, what we have in Fallen London is, in fact, something much more akin to a tabletop roleplaying experience. You’ll spend relatively little time doing “normal” role-playing things like fighting monsters and crawling dungeons, and instead doing things like attempting to woo the local populace with your magnificent poetry skills, or engaging in some petty larceny.

Fallen London’s gameplay mechanics are, much like Machine Cares, relatively simple. Each game “turn,” you draw cards to represent various different opportunities presented to your character. Most of these cards have a challenge to one of your statistics, a prerequisite or both, and most may normally be attempted and failed multiple times without penalty — your skills gradually improve as you practice them, even if you fail a particular challenge.

Where Fallen London shines, however, is not in its gameplay, which is rather straightforward at heart, but in its writing. The game uses the bare minimum of graphics to decorate its interface, and the majority of the game is presented purely as floridly-written prose describing the situations you’re getting yourself into and the consequences of your actions. Though you only get a certain number of actions per day for free, each one of them is satisfying to perform due to the vividly-composed text.

Fallen London

StoryNexus doesn’t end with Fallen London, however. Once Failbetter Games got their storytelling engine well and truly up and running, they opened it up to the public and let the wild hordes loose on the same tools they used to make their flagship game. The result is a site where you can take a trip into a wide variety of other online authors’ imaginations, engage with the worlds they have dreamed up and work your way through the stories they have composed. Alternatively, if you’re the creative type, you can put on your writer’s hat and start penning your own epic masterpiece. You even have the choice of whether your game follows a completely free or a free-to-play-with-monetization model — if you take the latter approach, Failbetter take care of all the virtual currency side of things and give you a share of the profits.

Probably the best thing about StoryNexus and all the games therein, though, is that it’s free. It’s free to play the games — though some, as noted above, have premium items you can purchase with virtual currency — and it’s free to start creating your own game world. Much like RPG Makerwhich we discussed in our Swords & Zippers column this week, you don’t need to know anything about programming — just a logical mind able to think through the sequence of events that makes up a story, and the way you would like your game to work.

StoryNexus games can work in several ways, and their basic structure is determined by the virtual cards that contain the various “storylet” events. There are two main types of cards — “always/pinned” cards, which always appear to the player if they’re eligible for them, and “sometimes/opportunity” cards, which are drawn randomly from a virtual deck. You can choose to make your game consist solely of one or the other type of cards, or use a mixture of both. For example, you could use “always” cards to advance the “main plot” of your game, while “sometimes” cards could be used to represent chance encounters that provide the player the ability to practice their skills and ensure they’re ready for the challenges ahead of them.

Evolve, one of the more interesting StoryNexus titles, sees you starting as a single-celled organism.

Evolve, one of the more interesting StoryNexus titles, sees you starting as a single-celled organism.

To use a traditional computer RPG model, “always” cards could be plot battles, while “sometimes” cards could be grind fodder — though as we’ve already seen, StoryNexus really encourages authors to come up with more interesting situations than long strings of battles — or at least to do something more interesting with a string of battles than simply clicking “attack” over and over and over again. An interesting application of the system could be an in-depth modelling of a duel between two rivals, with the storylets reflecting how the fight progresses not through abstract representations like HP loss and the like, but through well-written, atmospheric prose.

The possibilities are, as they say, endless. The system may initially seem a little limiting and like a “choose your own adventure” book, but really it can be as simple or as complex as you want to make it. There’s nothing stopping you making a completely linear story in which the interface elements help flesh the progression out with inventory items and status effects; likewise, there’s nothing stopping you making something freeform and ambitious like Fallen London, in which you can go off in any number of different directions to make a name for yourself.

If you’d like to try Fallen London for yourself, check it out here. And to get started on creating your storyworld with StoryNexus or checking out others’ creations, head over here. I’ll see you in your imagination — be sure to let us know if you create anything awesome!

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FreePlay is Games Are Evil’s weekly column about games that cost you nothing to download and get started with, hosted by GrE’s managing editor Pete Davison. Follow Pete on Twitter here.

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