The game Regins (2016) is often mentioned as an example of using “storylets.” While neither it nor its companion term quality-based narrative (QBN) appear or have been used in direct discussions of it original design, it is, nonetheless, an exemplar of using concepts and metaphors within the storylet design space to create a game with the same general effects if not the same terms. Because of this, understanding the design of Reigns (2016) is a great way to introduce how storylets and the more general term “card-based narratives” can work.
History of Related Terms
lexia. Interested in finding the smallest unit of meaning in a textual work, Barthes (1975) introduces the use of the term lexia to describe blocks of meaning and different effects connected it its surrounding parts. Landow (2006) picks up this term to discuss hypertexts. However, in this new context, Landow (2006) calls them “blocks of text” and discusses how they are connected to each other via electronic links to create the experience of a hypertext (p. 3).
storylet. Coined by Failbetter Games in a design diary blog post to describe the project Echo Bazaar (which would later be called Fallen London (2009)) the term storylet is defined as “discrete chunks of narrative that can be played in any order” (Failbetter Games, 2010; para. 3). This obviously shares a strong connection to lexia, and the two terms are closely connected. However, storylets have an addition part of their definition: qualities.
qualities. Introduced in the same blog post as storylets, qualities are described initially as “tell[ing] storylets what to do” (Failbetter Games, 2010; para. 4; original emphasis). Emily Short (2019), in working with Failbetter Games and in her own work, has refined its definition into an easier to understand “prerequisites that determine when the content can play” (para. 3). Put another way, storylets are available to play when their prerequisites (qualities) are met. These conditions are determined by another connected term: state.
state. In programming terminology, state is often explained through the metaphor of a venting machine. When money (input) is first entered, the machine receives this. The user then makes one or more selections (interactions), and the machine produces the items and any resulting change (output). The knowledge of the interactions is its state. The venting machine “remembers” the result of interactions and adjusts its internal values as a result. The state of a digital process such as an application is its values representing or containing information about previous interactions.
effects. When Failbetter Games initially described storylet and qualities, there was an implicit connection between storylets and the values used as part of determining or testing qualities, but this was not quite explained. In the same work to refine stortylet, Short (2019) provides the answer directly connected to storylets. They have “effects on the world state that result after the content has played” (para. 3; emphasis added). The playing of storylets is based on its prerequisites (qualities), which are determined from the state, and are can effect future interactions through changing values.
card-based hypertext narratives. Bernstein (2001)’s paper describing the “sculptural hypertext model” is often cited as the first to connect hypertext with a card-based design. Instead of using links to navigate a document, the experience is based on “cards” (content) selected based on their constraints (preconditions). A card can be played if its preconditions are met and, during its play, a card can contain “assertions” changing existing values. Refined in a paper the year after its introduction, an additional term was added to the sculptural hypertext model: context (Bernstein et al., 2002). Representing the values of the overall experience, a card’s preconditions are based on its context (state) and these values are changed as a result of any assertions.
Collection of values used to evaluate the conditions of storylets and is changed as a result of its effects.
Determining State Values: What are you tracking?
At first glance, it would appear Reigns (2016) tracks four values as part of its state: church, people, military, and wealth. If any of these get below a minimum or above a maximum, the session ends. During the beginning of the game, it calls them “powers,” and the player is warned by the Spirit of the Fallen (Image 1) to keep them in balance to “keep your head on its shoulders” (Reigns, 2016). Yet, a few selections into the games shows something different: at various times text appears and shows items being checked off as part of objectives the game monitors (Image 2).
Reigns (2016), as described by its lead designer, “crush[es] every nuance that a complex subject demands” through its design (Alliot, 2016). The game purposely hides its complexity behind the simplicity of swiping left and right to make decisions. Yet, within this complexity, are some obvious values as part of its state. First, are the powers (church, people, military, and wealth). Second, and as shown in Image 2, are the conditions placed on its storylets. Certain content cannot be played until these objectives happen. When they occur, the game unlocks more storylets. All objectives, therefore, are also part of its state. The game tracks them.
The Settings Screen of Reigns (2016) exposes many of the values of its state. It is tracking 45 possible objectives, the number of deaths (ends of sessions), portraits (characters met), the top four high scores (length of reigns), and the number of cards (storylets) discovered by the player of the 750 possible (Alliot, 2016). During any one session, the game’s state is composed of all of these values — and many more. In fact, Alliot (2016) has discussed how each character also has their own “stress,” too. The more a player refuses a character, the more they will blink at them (para. 20).
Determining Storylets: Where is the content?
In Reigns (2016), all in-game content is composed of what it calls cards. These show four things:
- Text of the card
- Character presenting text
- Binary choice
- Effect of each choice
Through moving left or right with the player’s finger (or cursor on desktop platforms), the shape of the effect of the storylet is exposed. Different sizes of circles appear over the powers and show how much of a change will happen as a result of picking the choice. However, what the cards do not show is what direction these circles will change the values. A larger circle indicates a larger change, but not if the choice will have a positive or negative effect. These are left up to the player to guess and eventually learn when storylets repeat in future sessions.
Before each reign (session of play), Reigns (2016) also shows three current objectives to the player. These exist as conditions for certain storylets. In order, for example, for the Doctor character to appear, they must be first be recruited and the corresponding objective fulfilled (Image 5). This creates meta-goals for the player, letting them know certain outcomes can be achieved, while also exposing how new storylets will enter play: once the objectives have been met.
A reign ends in Reigns (2016) when any one of the powers exceeds its ranges. When this happens, the choices presented to the player will be the same: “What…” (Image 6). After the player makes a choice, the next screen shows the death of the ruler and which power caused the death along with the length of the reign (Image 7).
Determining Effects: How are values changed?
The effects of a storylet occur when a player make a choice. Based on the preview of the effects (Image 8), the player can see the shape of the possible outcome. Based on the size of the circles above the powers, the corresponding amount will be either added or subtracted from the current values. Initially, the player must guess as to how the powers will be affected. However, as storylets reoccur in future sessions, the outcomes become easier to predict and control for the player.
Whenever the player achieves an objective (Image 2), the game updates its values and opens the possibility of more storylets being added to play. Assuming the player does not achieve the objective upon their death, this happens immediately during play as the game unlocks more storylets and adds them to the current session.
Mapping storylet design in a game can be often determined through finding the answer to three questions based on its definition:
What is the game tracking?
Starting with determining the values tracked by its state can help give insight into what the game cares about. For example, Reigns (2016) clearly cares about three main aspects of its design as illustrated by its Settings Screen (Image 3): objectives (What has the player done so far?), characters (Who has the player met?), and deaths (How many reigns has the player played through so far?). Branching off of these are other details such as how many cards the player has seen (as connected to the objectives and characters).
During a session, the game tracks four powers (church, people, military, and wealth).
Where is its content?
Storylets are composed of content. Finding where this is presented is a major step to mapping out how a game uses storylet design. Connecting first what values the game tracks and then how it presents choices to the player helps in finding where these storylets occur within it.
How are values changed?
The playing of storylets can affect the state of the game. Knowing what values it is tracking, where and how its content is presented, and then finally how values are changed as a result of decisions closes out the three-part definition.
Alliot, F. (2016). How we mixed Tinder and politics to make a premium hit on mobile. Polygon. https://www.polygon.com/2016/9/15/12927968/reigns-mobile-pc-ios-royalty-tinder
Bernstein, M. (2001). Card Shark and Thespis: Exotic Tools for Hypertext Narrative. Proceedings of the 12th ACM Conference on Hypertext and Hypermedia, 41–50. https://doi.org/10.1145/504216.504233
Bernstein, M., Millard, D. E., & Weal, M. J. (2002). On Writing Sculptural Hypertext. Proceedings of the Thirteenth ACM Conference on Hypertext and Hypermedia, 65–66. https://doi.org/10.1145/513338.513355
Barthes, R., & Miller, R. (1975). S/Z: An essay. Hill and Wang.
Failbetter Games. (2010). Echo Bazaar Narrative Structures, part two. Retrieved from http://www.failbettergames.com/echo-bazaar-narrative-structures-part-two/
Fallen London. (2009). Failbetter Games.
Landow, G. P. (2006). Hypertext 3.0: Critical theory and new media in an Era of Globalization (3rd ed.). Johns Hopkins University Press.
Reigns. (2016). Nerial.
Short, E. (2019). Storylets: You Want Them. Emily Short’s Interactive Storytelling. Retrieved from https://emshort.blog/2019/11/29/storylets-you-want-them/