Talking Paper Interview Series: Jon Ingold

Steve Jackson (left) and Jon Ingold (right)

Steve Jackson (left) and Jon Ingold (right)

Jon Ingold is an England-based game designer and writer. Along with friend Joseph Humfrey, he co-founded digital gaming company, inkle, in 2011. Ingold had previously worked as a lead designer at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, meeting fellow console gaming industry vet Humfrey, who had worked on mobile gaming platform Nintendo DS, and interactive gaming tools Playstation Move and Xbox Kinect. The inkle games they went on to produce are aimed at mobile gaming platforms of smartphones and tablets, with a player experience rooted in the interactive fiction-writing approach of Ingold’s own decade’s-worth of award-winning published work. Their first foray was Frankenstein, an interactive novel game penned by author Dave Morris, and adapted from Mary Shelley’s book of the same name. The player is a character in the orbit of young Victor Frankenstein, making decisions that rewrite Shelley’s narrative to form an altogether new tale. Their follow-up was the pirate-themed Down Among the Dead Men, based on Morris’ bestselling gamebook, which let the player adventure across high seas islands to build a ship and crew bent on foiling the plans of nefarious pirate Skarvench. Their next project was another gamebook adaptation of work from one of the format’s most successful authors, Steve Jackson (who I previously interviewed for Talking Paper). His Sorcery! fantasy series was conceived as a four-part adventure wherein readers played as a hero wielding both sword and spells on their quest to retrieve a stolen magical crown. Along the way, they encounter a variety of creatures, traps, and riddles dwelling within dangerous hills, cities, wastelands, and mountain ranges—all rendered in vivid pen and ink illustrations across Jackson’s books. Inkle released Sorcery!: The Shamutanti Hills in 2013, followed by 2014’s Sorcery! 2Kharé: Cityport of Traps, and recently unleashed Sorcery! 3The Seven Serpents on May 11, 2015.

80 Days is heavily steeped in the steampunk genre of storytelling—with players riding Victorian-era airships, rockets, submarines and all manner of other mechanical conveyances on their journey across Earth

The company’s greatest critical success has come with 2014’s 80 Days, inspired by Jules Verne’s book Around the World in 80 Days. Set in 1872, the player is Passepartout, the servant and traveling companion of wealthy British adventurer Phileas Fogg, who has wagered he can circumnavigate the globe before the dawn of an 81st day. Written primarily by Meg Jayanth, 80 Days is heavily steeped in the steampunk genre of storytelling—with players riding Victorian-era airships, rockets, submarines, and all manner of other mechanical conveyances on their journey across the Earth while interacting with an assortment of automatons. Among its many critical honors, the game was Time’s 2014 Game of The Year, was featured within The New Yorker’s Best Video Games of 2014, and the App Store’s Best Games of 2014. It was also nominated for four awards at the 11th British Academy Games Awards, including Game Innovation, British Game, Mobile & Handheld, and Story. A critical part of that last honor is inklewriter, a narrative construction technology used to build every inkle game released to date. It acts as an organizing tool for branching storylines of an interactive narrative and is made available for free by inkle. In 2012, the company organized the Future Voices Anthology to encourage fan-created short interactive fiction using inklewriter—the 11 best of which were then collected into an anthology and turned into an app. Sorcery!, 80 Days, and other inkle games are available for purchase and download to Apple and Android phones and tablets, as well as Kindle Fire. I recently discussed all things inkle with Ingold, who shared his thoughts on co-running a gaming company aimed at making literary storytelling a fun interactive experience.

Jon Ingold (left) and Joe Humfrey (right)

Jon Ingold (left) and Joe Humfrey (right)

On the Founding of inkle

My personal background is in writing interactive parser-based fiction, and I’ve been doing that since about '98. There was a small-but-active Internet community of people writing these games, and sharing them with each other—games in the Zork tradition—but then trying things more avant-garde and much more narratively focused. That was a really exciting and vibrant community where I learned a lot, actually, and really got very excited about the possibility of interactive fiction. But the problem with those games was that you couldn’t put them in front of anybody else, because they didn’t know how to play them, and they didn’t want to learn how to play them. So I started to get interested in the problem of "How do you take all the stuff that’s good about these games I’ve been playing for years, and get them in front of people in a way that will make them care?" It’s a bit like being a poet and after a while realizing that most people find poetry quite difficult. So how do you do that? Well, you become a songwriter, and you write poetry for songs, and suddenly you can reach millions of people with the same skills. I wanted to do something in that vein. What’s the equivalent of that? Now, Joe [Humfrey] had really no interest in interactive fiction at all, and had never seen any. He hasn’t really played very much either. I’ve shown him a few things that I’ve written, but he’s interested in games, he’s interested in art, he’s interested in new technology and what would work well on an iPad, and he's interested in the power of telling stories and of interactive media. So one of the reasons that inkle became what it was, is that we both had quite strong ambitions, but they were completely different ambitions, and they fit together really well.

Joe and I worked in the console game industry. That’s where we met, and we were interested in what one could do with narrative in a gaming context. And when we started, we were very much talking about narrative within all game contexts. So we worked on action-adventure titles, real 3-D games. The reason that we ended up working with text is partly because I have a background in writing—I had been writing interactive fiction for quite a long time. But also because it let us actually generate stories with quite a lot of complexity and depth without taking a massive financial risk. So it was really a business reason to start with. We knew that in order to tell good stories we needed scope, scale, and characters. All of those things are very, very expensive to do in a 3-D environment. But we wanted to produce something that was professional, polished, and slick. So when we started working, we took that to working with book publishers, which we did for a while before moving back into the game space with Sorcery! 

On Developing 80 Days Into a Game

Before we worked on Sorcery!, we did a project with a publisher in London called Profile Books, who had a writer who wanted to do an interactive version of Frankenstein. So we provided the engine and built the app for that. Based on the back of that project, which we didn’t write, we got interested in that space of "Can you make games for a literary market?" But one of the problems with Frankenstein was that it had a very linear plot. So we were vaguely thinking about games that might suit an interactive style quite well. Then we started making Sorcery!, and we put in the idea of the map. And at some point, it popped back into our head that 80 Days Around the World was probably a really good literary experience that could be turned into a game. Then I think once we had that idea, which was really just in passing, it kept coming back. Because there’s just so much about it which affords gameplay, right down to the score and the fact the goal of the game is there in the title. So you don’t have to tell anyone what they are supposed to be doing. The resource management layer, the time, money, luggage, and well-being—all of those things are sort of obvious. They are just asking to be made into a gameplay. Then I think the real trigger for it was when we did Sorcery! 2, which was a very large game by comparison to Sorcery! 1. We finally realized that we had a text engine which was capable of writing quite large stories and quite complicated stories and working and hanging together. But we didn’t want to make it our primary focus, because we thought 80 Days probably wouldn’t do that well.

So we hired a writer, and that allowed us to do 80 Days as a side project. We’d work on Sorcery! 3, make that bigger and better than ever, and 80 Days could be our little side project. Then the script started to come back from Meg [Jayanth], and it was really good. We started to build it, and realized that a lot of our simple ideas didn’t actually work all that well, and we had to develop some quite new ideas to really keep the game on track. The more we did, the more we realized that the game had quite a lot of potential. So after a while, we stopped building Sorcery! 3, we put it on hold, and we were full time on 80 Days for about seven months. When I say full-time, I mean really very, very full-time. As a small studio, you kind of have to do everything. So it was astonishingly hard work. Toward the end of it, I had this horrible feeling that no one was going to play this game at all that we had slaved over. But we thought maybe it was quite good. Then a strange thing happened. When it came out, Apple featured it as an editor’s choice, and that was fantastic and very exciting. We had a very good first month with lots of people playing it and enjoying it. Then it went very quiet again. Two months after release, we were shrugging and saying, "Oh well, we better make Sorcery! 3 then." We thought 80 Days was quite good. Then suddenly, it started to pop up in game-of-the-year lists. We’d start to see journalists on really big sites saying, "What’s this game? Why didn’t anybody tell me about this game? This game’s really good." It took quite a long time to generate any attention outside of the mobile sector, which is definitely a smaller sector of the world of games. So it was quite a long and difficult adventure actually, and I think we are still reeling from it slightly. Because you look back on a project like that and you go, "Okay, well, what was it about that that gave it such outreach to different groups of people?" I think it was actually a lot of different things. Everybody asks if we’re going to do 81 Days, but we’re not. We’ll have to do something else. But it was pretty exciting.

Jon Ingold (center left) and 80 Days writer Meg Jayanth (center right) on stage together at the Writers Guild of Great Britain Awards, with Meg receiving the award for "Best Writing in a Videogame" for her work on 80 Days 

Jon Ingold (center left) and 80 Days writer Meg Jayanth (center right) on stage together at the Writers Guild of Great Britain Awards, with Meg receiving the award for "Best Writing in a Videogame" for her work on 80 Days 

On Down Among the Dead Men

It was an adaptation of a game book by Dave Morris, the author who wrote the Frankenstein game. Actually, Down Among the Dead Men forms an interesting piece in our history, in between Frankenstein and before we did Sorcery! That’s when we adapted Dead Men. So it was our first go at adapting a paper gamebook into an interactive format. You can see if you play it—it’s got no user interface (UI), it’s got no map, and it’s very much trying to be a story first and foremost. It’s taking a paper gamebook and making it into just the story. Dave’s original book is in that space anyway. He was very interested in telling stories, above having explicit game mechanics. So there’s no dice in the book. That was a really good experience, and we learned a lot. We had our first go at seeing what the pacing felt like and started to realize that you really had to flesh the text of a book out, because there was only so much you could read in one go before making a choice. The more you read, the more text there was between choices, the less it felt like you were actually in control of anything. So Dead Men was almost a dry run. But then, due to various not-very-interesting rights reasons, it didn’t actually get published until after 80 Days came out. Frankly, the success of 80 Days helped the argument for its publication get resolved. So it’s really one from our history. It’s a pre-Sorcery! inkle game, and it’s a step along the design road that we took. In terms of the story, most of that was there in Dave’s book already. We didn’t embellish it all that much. We mostly just made it slightly easier, because the original game could be punishingly difficult. But it was a lot of fun. I’ve got a lot of time for pirate stories. I’d love to do more.

On Steve Jackson and Sorcery!

I wasn’t really a fan of Dungeons & Dragons. Or rather, I never successfully played the game. Every time I tried to, we’d always get sort of bogged down in the technicalities of it, in the dice rolling and the character creation that took hours and hours. It felt like quite a difficult thing to actually get into. You needed to give it a lot of time. But the world I always rather liked. The Fighting Fantasy books were the perfect compromise for me as a kid. Because they are clearly another world, but it feels very solid, and it’s got depth to it. Sort of morals, but slightly different morals. It’s a funny setting though, because it’s not really Tolkien, and it’s not really a mythology either.

I first read Sorcery! 4 when I was about seven. My brother had a copy, and he had a few Fighting Fantasy books on his shelf, and I borrowed and read most of them. But my brother wouldn’t let me read Sorcery! 4, because he told me it was too hard for me, and I wouldn’t be able to do it, so I wasn’t allowed. So at some point when he was out, I broke into his room and I stole it, and I sat in my room and I read Sorcery! 4. Time is hard to judge when you look back into your childhood, because it feels like I was playing that book for about a year, and it probably was only about a week. But I got lost within its pages and trying to puzzle it out. It was very hard, actually. There were lots and lots of riddles to solve. Every time you found your way through something, there would be another thing in your path. You had this sense of really doing battle with a mischievous Machiavellian force. It’s the Archmage in the book, but the reality is that throughout that experience you are doing battle with Steve Jackson. He has no sympathy, but he has a lot of fun at your expense. I hugely, hugely enjoyed it and was very impressed, even at an early age, by all the ways that it twisted and played with the gamebook format, and all the tricks that it pulled. From there, I read most of the Fighting Fantasy books, but I was always impressed by Steve’s ones in particular, because he always seemed to be kind of restlessly pushing against where the limits were. So it was a real treat when we finally met him through a series of work connections. We met him and said we were pretty interested. The timing was right. The Sorcery! license was just coming up. We more or less said, "Take a pump. We’ll do an interesting job. Just trust us on that." I think he hasn’t really regretted it at all. It’s been quite an adventure for all of us, getting the games updated and out there for a totally new audience. It’s been a real pleasure reading reviews from people who say, "Well, I’ve never read the gamebooks before, but this is great."

On Artwork in the Sorcery! Series

In terms of the art, it was a really interesting process, especially in the first book. Because we had the original John Blanche illustrations from the book, and they are a quite crazy style in some ways. They are weird, but they are not overtly comical. They are kind of gruesome, but they are not overtly horror. They are quite strange. That coupled with the writing really gave us a sense of what this world was like. So when we hired Eddie Sharam, who did the character art for the first book, I remember we sat down with him and said, "Well, basically what we need is more illustrations with the characters from these books. So here’s an illustration in the book of the Sightmaster Sergeant, and we’ll need three attack poses for him." And Eddie was looking at these characters going, "Well, how on earth do I draw that?" It makes sense in that image, but what does that character look like when it turns around? Or when it attacks? Or when it runs or does anything else? They are such weird creatures. In particular the Sightmaster, he has this crazy helmet, and this long sort of spiky staff, and he’s covered in scales. I think it took four or five times longer than anything else in the game to get that one to look right. But Eddie did an awesome job of both capturing the weirdness of John Blanche’s stuff, but also grounding it a little bit. So it doesn’t look too abstract in the fight scenes. You can read it, you can work out what it is, and what it’s a picture of.

In the wider art style of the app, we wanted to make something that was quite colorful, but also had a reasonably Apple-ish feel to it. At the time, Apple was very skeuomorphic, and it’s all textures, and surfaces, and materials, and that kind of approach. So for that, we drew a lot on what Steve had said about the Sorcery! books being inspired by his time in Nepal. So we tried to go for a slightly East Asian flavor to it. Not too much, because there isn’t really any East Asian content. It’s quite [Dungeons & Dragons]. It’s quite western fantasy. But we wanted to inflect it with that, so we had elements like the prayer flags at the top of the screen. The last piece of that was Mike Schley, who’s our cartographer, who does the maps. We gave him quite a lot of style direction and ideas, but we mostly just let him go away and find a style that worked for him. We are really, really pleased with what came back. So in a sense, there’s lots of disparate art coming together. There is this sort of medley of the UI layers, the textures, and there’s Mike’s art, and there’s Eddie’s art, and there’s John Blanche’s art. Then of course there’s Steve’s writing, and my writing on top of that. Somehow, they all just get polished and aligned together in such a way that we feel they gel quite well. Or else I’ve just looked at it for so long that I can’t tell what’s wrong with it anymore.

On Writing New Content for the Sorcery! Series

The battle scenes are almost entirely original content. In the original gamebooks, it really is just instructions to roll the dice, and count some numbers, and you’re done. So the idea of narrating a combat in a blow-by-blow way, that came from us, and the technology to do that did as well. When I was doing the first book, it felt like quite a fun idea. Then by the third book, I must have written about 100 of these combat sequences now, and they are actually quite a pain. But the effect is really cool. One thing that we’ve been a bit surprised about in some ways is that not very many of the reviews and comments on the game have really pointed to the fact that it is genuinely procedural text. It’s genuinely using algorithms to describe in a non-repetitive way the blow-by-blow encounter, the story of the fight. It’s certainly the most involved use of procedural text in a game. But nobody talks about it, and I think that’s because we’ve done a pretty good job, and it doesn’t look like procedural text. It looks like just part of the story. But they really are driven from a database of fragments. The rest of the writing I did was actually just expanding the original content of the book. Because since Sorcery! 1 and through Sorcery! 3, we’ve been adding quite a lot of additional material that wasn’t there at all. Either following plot threads, expanding things, or just building the world to be bigger. Because people need a little bit more content in a digital device than they do in a paper book.

On Swindlestones

The original idea for adding a gambling game came from Steve. He was keen that we add in some features to Sorcery! 2. There is a gambling hall in the gamebook where you can play a variety of small simulated games. We thought that was quite a good idea for the character of Kharé as a city. It’s the sort of place where people would be addicted to this gambling game. But I think one thing we’ve always been interested in doing is avoiding mini-games, and rather making sure that all the gameplay is narrative-first and narrative-focused. So the combat is really about the story of your fight with a monster, and the combat is a place to describe monsters, and give them personality and have dialogue with them. A goblin can threaten you, and a serpent can curse you, and that kind of thing. Similarly, the spell casting is there to produce interesting narrative effects. So we weren’t happy with the idea of a gambling game where you just played a gambling game for a while. You see that in a lot of games. Assassins Creed has its board games, and Red Dead and Rockstar games all do. But they feel like things you do a couple of times, and then you have no reason to go back. We didn’t want to do that. So the idea of mixing the Swindlestones mechanic with a conversation mechanic, once that popped into our heads, it just seemed like a really interesting way to go. Hopefully it’s a set-up which means we can encourage people to make bad Swindlestones decisions, because they want to make conversational decisions. That’s something we are always returning to. Our goal as storytellers in games is often to make players commit unwise decisions. That was a really explicit instruction to make: "Your job is to lead players astray." Because if we don’t do that, then the game feels very functional, and it should be an adventure. Part of an adventure is having calamities, and accidents, and disasters. We can do that. But the more times that we do that and it’s the player’s fault, the more fun they’ll have. That’s something we do in Sorcery!, and it’s something we do in 80 Days. It’s a nice little trick. It gets people involved in the action.

Our goal as storytellers in games is often to make players commit unwise decisions. That was a really explicit instruction to make: “Your job is to lead players astray.” Because if we don’t do that, then the game feels very functional, and it should be an adventure. Part of an adventure is having calamities, and accidents, and disasters. We can do that.

On the Soundscapes of the Sorcery! Series

The soundscape is all done by Joe, who’s the art director, and he also does all of the coding on Sorcery!, and is also our kind of audio director too. So he’s somewhat multitalented. We had this sense that we wanted some ambient sound, but we had to be really careful with it. Sound has a knack for getting repetitive, annoying, distracting, or just plain wrong. So we took a few iterations to get it right, but we found that basically a less-is-more approach was definitely the way forward. It’s just the gentle sound of the sea lapping on the shore or the wind in the trees was all we really needed just to give a little bit of animation to the game. One of the problems with Sorcery! is if you don’t do anything or don’t touch anything, then nothing moves, which is quite unusual for a game. Most games have ambient animation. They have something to prove that the game hasn’t crashed yet. In a sense, that’s what our audio is there for. Just to make sure that there’s something telling you that the game is still going, it’s still listening. We were particularly pleased with the music for Sorcery! 3. It was done by the composer Laurence Chapman, who wrote an amazing theme for 80 Days. It really blew us away, so we immediately re-hired him to write some more music for Sorcery!, and we loved that too.

On the Steampunk Elements of 80 Days

From the very first time we mentioned the idea between ourselves, we knew we wanted a player to be able to go anywhere they wanted around the world. If you do that in 1872, the game doesn’t work. There is only one way to get around the world in 1872, if you’re historically accurate. In fact, it’s not quite possible, because the train line isn’t finished yet as Verne’s plot is about. So we introduced the steampunk element, because it was an in-keeping way of solving a design problem. Verne was sort of a steampunk, sort of a sci-fi writer. He was very grounded in reality, but he was interested in the fantastic. When people think of Verne, they think of rockets, and they think of submarines. So [those elements] seemed like a very natural way to solve a design problem, and to make sure that people could go anywhere in the world. Then of course we started to realize that if people could go anywhere in the world, and it was a steampunk world, then those places would be more interesting to visit, because you wouldn’t know what to expect. I think we only really realized that when we sent Meg a writing test. We said, "Okay, well, it’s a steampunk version of the world, but we’re not quite sure what that means yet." She wrote a story about going from Suez to Jeddah on the back of a mechanical camel. Both Joe and I read it, and just went, "Mechanical camel? Genius! That’s it! That’s our game in two words. Our game is 'mechanical camels.'" We hadn’t thought of it, but it captured it perfectly. I think the thing that Meg saw, that we hadn’t realized, was that there was an opportunity to take steampunk out of London—as steampunk is normally associated with British, with Victorian, with English, with top hats and mustaches. And while we’ve got that, we’ve also got, "What’s steampunk like in Cairo? What’s steampunk like in India? What’s steampunk like in Russia? What’s steampunk like in China?" That really brought the game to life. That really made everywhere in the world worth visiting, because there was something genuinely new to be discovered there, and that was really exciting for us.

Meg doesn’t work in our office. She’s a freelancer, so we wouldn’t see it happening. I know she did a very, very large amount of research—really, a huge amount of research. We have a massive shared folder of a terrifying number of documents and articles that she read through. So I imagine that took quite a lot of time. But one of the nice things about our inklewriter system that we use to write the games is that, once you start writing, you can just write the content as you want it to appear. You can pretty much sit down and just write. So there isn’t too much technical faff in building what you want to build. Then when you’ve built it, you can go through and expand it, and edit it quite fluidly. So we don’t waste too much time on actually building content and getting it to work, which is really nice, because in most games that’s a real pain, and it really gets in the way of the authorial process. So we hope we have a tool where Meg or myself, when I was writing, could come up with an idea and then just get it down, get it working, and try it. So the reality is Meg did a ton of research. She might have done almost two, three months-worth of solid research for the game. That’s probably the largest single time sink there is. Otherwise, there are a lot of words in the game. There’s half a million in there written mostly by Meg. I wrote about 20 percent of it, maybe. And typing all those words, that takes some time. But it’s not quite as bad as writing the entirety of The Lord of the Rings. The interactive format does mean that you’re writing several versions of every story, which is definitely easier than writing completely new material all the time. That really helped us in generating it. But generally, it was quite a lot of just getting it done, almost like being a pulp writer. Just get it written, get it written. But there was quite a long editing process afterwards to make sure that everything was as good as it could be. There are still a few sections in the game which haven’t been edited quite to the same standards as others. There’s a few journeys you can go on where the text is a little bit longer than we normally make it, or there’s slightly fewer choices. But in a game this size, I don’t think it matters too much.

On Designing Games to be Replayable

Where we started from originally was an idea that we’d make story games that people played once, but their play-through would be very much theirs, and their decisions and their choices of the branches would help them to own that play-through, and really make it their own. That’s roughly the structure that Sorcery! 1 has. Then in Sorcery! 2, Steve had a mechanic in the book where you had to find four parts of a key to open the final gate. You know, a very classic adventure game design. But in a gamebook, if you miss something, then you’ve missed it. You can’t go back and explore. You can’t backtrack and find it. So we got to the end of making Sorcery! 2, and we thought, "Well, this game’s a little bit unfair." Because you can play through it with the best will in the world, miss everything, get to the end and fail. That’s not very fun. So if you’ve played Sorcery! 2, you’ll know that we introduced a sort of looping mechanic there, so you can go back and have another go. We put that in, and we didn’t really know if it would work very well, or technically how feasible it would be. We quite liked that it let you see a little bit more of the content. We found that worked really, really well, and people really enjoyed it, and really liked having the narrative choice at the end of, "Do I just call that a day, and call that my game, or do I go and explore more in a way that gives me more in return?" So when we came to 80 Days, we knew that we wanted to make a game that really encouraged people when they got to the end to start again immediately. We wanted people to almost have left London for the second time before they realized that the game was over. A lot of that is built into the way the UI flow works. It’s built into the way that the story ends with folks saying, "Well, let’s go again." That’s very much there in the text of the game, and was quite important to us. I still feel that if somebody wants to play 80 Days, and play it once, then that’s okay. That’s still a perfectly good use of the content that we wrote. Because as they’re going around, they’ll see the other players on the map having adventures in different places, they’ll see all the places they didn’t go. Just having those places—and knowing that if you had gone to Cairo there’d be an adventure there, but you didn’t—means that an adventure you did go on has more value. It’s precious, because it was only there because you happened to find it. And if you find something interesting and exciting that really, really interests you on your adventure, then it’s precious because you found it in amongst this huge globe full of adventures, which is nice, because it’s like real traveling. When you go somewhere and have a great experience in some part of the world, it’s valuable because you had to go to that place to find that thing. You were lucky to get it. But then if people want to play it again, and have another experience like that, we tried to support 3–4–5 play-throughs in terms of the amount of content. Because we thought that was about the number that people might want to do. There are, as it turns out, some people who have played the game 20–30 times, and have probably  seen everything. But that’s okay, because they’re having fun, too. So it’s not a problem. The game isn’t necessarily designed for that kind of playing, exactly, but I think it supports it. We had this idea that maybe 2–3 play-throughs would be about the right number.

On Attracting Customers to Text-driven Mobile Games

Although the games have sold very well, we have no idea how many people looked at them in the App Store and then decided not to buy it. We just don’t have that number. So whether there have been a million people who looked at it and said, "Oh, reading? I’m not doing that." Or whether everyone who gets to our page goes, "Oh cool, that looks fantastic," we genuinely don’t know. My feeling is that people want different things at different times. Pretty much everybody has at some time curled up with a book or a magazine about something. People do read. Almost everyone can read. Almost everyone gets why reading is pleasurable. Though not everyone reads novels. So it’s actually very accessible; it’s very universal. I’d say it’s more universal than a game like Candy Crush, which if I put that in front of my dad, partly he’ll be put off by the fact that it looks pointless. But partly, I don’t think he’d be able to work out how to use it, because he’s just not interested. It’s quite an odd idea, sliding things around, and things exploding and flashing. Some people are used to it, but some people really aren’t. Whereas with text, everybody knows what it is, everybody knows how it works, everybody knows what it’s for. But at the same time, a lot of people have preconceptions about what kind of experience they are going to get with text. I think something that we struggle with is game players saying, "Oh, because what’s happening is described in words, it’s not real." Whereas if it was happening in 3-D graphics, if it was happening in a cutscene—well, then suddenly it’s real, which is interesting. I guess it’s really about production values. It’s the same as watching an old episode of Dr. Who where the sets fall over, and comparing it to a new episode of Dr. Who where the sets are beautifully computer-generated and saying, "Well that one’s better, because it’s got more money behind it." I think there is an element of that. But we do find generally that people are pleasantly surprised by how much immersion the game can actually give. I think people have an expectation that because it’s text it won’t really be gripping or interesting, and then they are surprised when they find themselves finding that it is actually quite gripping and interesting.

I put that mostly down, partly to the quality of the writing—especially in 80 Days, Meg did a great job—but also to the interactivity. People don’t really expect interaction in text to make a gripping experience in the same way that interaction in a 3-D game makes a gripping experience. But actually, it really does. Having that quick, frequent, detailed, rich interaction with the text that always pushes the story forward and always makes choices interesting is actually much more compelling than I think people realize. So one of the things we’d love to do, really, is to try and expand our demographic a little bit and get people just to try it. I have this feeling that there’s a lot of people out there who wouldn’t normally play a game at all and perhaps people who would normally see themselves as more traditional gamers. We’ve had success in both those markets. These people, if you could just get them to sit down for five minutes, they’d suddenly realize that it wasn’t quite what they thought it was from a cursory analysis. But it’s very difficult to do that, because there are so many things competing for everyone’s attention.

On Recreating the Look of Paper on Screen in inkle Games

It was two reasons, really. The first one is, especially when the iPad was new, it was this really beautiful glassy object that felt like a portal to another space, and you really wanted to reach in and touch it and those detailed material textures. They feel quite quaint now, almost. Sorcery! looks a little bit passé. We’ve all moved toward a much more sort of Google Metro-style blocks of boxes of colors look on tablets, and that’s the modern thing. But a couple of years ago, that idea of really seeing a material inside a computer screen was quite exciting and felt quite rich. We are very proud of the visual design of both Frankenstein and Dead Men, especially. They have a very material aesthetic to them. The other reason, actually, is to do with simple usability and the reading flow. One of the things we’ve really cared about in all of our work so far is making sure that reading is an easy thing to do inside the app. So there’s this flow where the option appears on the top of a piece of parchment. You choose that option, and that’s the piece of paper you get to see. It really says to people, "If you had chosen the other piece of paper, you would have seen some other text. But that’s gone now." So then up comes this new piece of paper, and it flows into place and carries your eye to the right place to start reading, and then you read back down to the options again. So we wanted to make sure that the input of the options was really solidly linked to the output that you generate. Rather than click a button here and get some text appearing over there, we wanted to really show how those things were connected using the same piece of paper, even though there’s no paper there in reality. That really helped tie the experience up and made the game a lot more easy to read. Even 80 Days uses that same concept—even though the paper is gone—of the options turning into the text that you read. It really helps to sort of drag people through the flow of the text and keep it paced and easy to read so that it doesn’t feel like clicking through a menu of screens; it feels much more integrated than that. I think that grew out of the material aesthetic.

On inklewriter

inklewriter the website isn’t actually the tool that we use in-house. We have an off-line scripting language. Because the kind of work that we do is very, very large scope, and I wouldn’t want to use a web tool for something with half-a-million words in it. It gets a little bit slow and fragile at that point. You want to use source control and that sort of stuff. But the website is quite a good introduction in some ways into the way that we actually think about narrative in games.

... we try to build systems which allow narrative, if not to emerge procedurally, to emerge from a space which is so complex and big that no one can really plan it out and get a full scope on it. I think that’s one of the reasons that it’s quite attractive to players. They come into a space, and it feels complex, rich, and full of secrets and hidden meanings.

So, when you start writing on inklewriter or when you start writing in our scripting format off-line, everything is broken into very small chunks. You are encouraged to branch early and branch often. Any decisions you make can be carried forward into the future of the story whenever you want them to. inklewriter the website has a curious missing feature, which is that you can’t really make a graph of your story. There is a map button, but it doesn’t really work. That’s not an oversight; that’s a conscious idea. A lot of stories in games are, I think, held back by the attempt to design them from a top-down perspective—like you would building a SimCity level. Actually, what the player wants to be able to do is just explore in all directions and have interesting things happen to them. You wouldn’t ever attempt to graph the game of chess. It would be a ridiculous idea. If you made a version of chess that you could graph, it probably wouldn’t be as interesting. We take that approach to narrative. So we try to build systems which allow narrative, if not to emerge procedurally, to emerge from a space which is so complex and big that no one can really plan it out and get a full scope on it. I think that’s one of the reasons that it’s quite attractive to players. They come into a space, and it feels complex, rich, and full of secrets and hidden meanings. And one of the things that’s been really nice about working with the Sorcery! books is that they have that sensibility, even though obviously they are printed on paper format, they are obviously deeply mappable. They don’t have that many sections in them. The last Sorcery! book has 800 at most, and Sorcery! 1 had 8,000 options in it. But even then, they are pushing the boundaries in terms of knowledge that you pick up in one paragraph will affect the gameplay in another in a subtle way or a cunning way. Steve [Jackson] was always playing with ways to break outside of the fixed format of the game book, and we are very much following that tradition of trying to make the story much, much bigger than people expect, and really create a space that people can explore. So that sensibility is right there at the heart. Whatever we do in the future—who knows, in 20 years time we might not be making text games, we might be making Skyrim-type games—I hope that sensibility of wide story spaces in which time is constantly moving forward will stay with us, because that’s the heart of what makes us special.

On the Future Voices Anthology

That was quite an early thing for us to do when the inklewriter site was new. We had a couple of reasons behind it. Partly, we thought, "Well, if interactive stories are going to be interesting, then people need to be able to try and make them, as well as just read them. It’s difficult to get people to buy into a new idea if they can’t get stuck in and try it." Also, we were interested to see if there were some really good writers out there that we could work with, because I think we’d been interested in that for a long time. Eventually, we did find Meg. Not quite through inklewriter, but through a very similar open writing platform called StoryNexus made by Failbetter Games in England. We haven’t done another Future Voices competition. The first one didn’t generate quite as many really high-quality entries as perhaps we’d hoped for, and it took quite a lot of time to do. And it’s a free app, so it was something we were doing for the love of it, really. I’d still love to do another. I would love to be able to offer that kind of service of getting people to write stuff and have it published—I think that’s wonderful. When I was a young sort of failing writer myself, before inkle was founded, I would have killed for an opportunity to get something out into the world like that. I’d love to be providing that for other people. So if we can find the time and the space to do it, I want to do more of that. Partly it’s engagement with inkle but partly its engagement with the art form. I genuinely think that interactive storytelling is interesting and has a lot of things to say, and I want to promote that. But luckily, right now there’s a lot of other people who think that, too. The Twine community is massive. There’s a lot of places for interactive fiction to get noticed now. So in a sense, we don’t need to run the Future Voices competition anymore. That’s good too, because it lets us get on with other things.

Interview by Christian Niedan
Nomadic Press
Niedan is a New York City-based writer and television producer. He is the creator and manager of a film website called Camera In The Sun, which looks at how people think of the places and cultures they see on screen.