Bryonie Bickford’s Histrionic Positronic Habiliments

Develop an interactive narrative: a series of text and images (or audio segments and images). There must be some degree of programmed interaction, although this can be as simple as having the user click through the images or text. The narrative should be the main way in which meaning is conveyed for the experience.

–Project Briefing, Anne Sullivan

This project was an assignment for the fall 2018 Computer as an Expressive Medium course in Georgia Tech’s Digital Media program. This was a four-week project. Joining me were classDans_Pygmalion_(Carrogis)mates Charles Massimo Denton and Jatin Arora.

In the initial brainstorming we began with a focus on mechanics. Early concepts included an abstract mad libs narrative in which multiple players would try to communicate after independently defining terms, as well as a sort of neighborhood simulator, where the player would select neighbors based on mutual likes and dislikes. Both were computationally interesting, but neither seemed to have a high degree of narrativity. That realization lead the group to refocus on stories rather than mechanics, which lead us to the subject of mythology.

Pygmalion and Galatea are a useful cipher for game developers. After all, when you put a project’s worth of time and effort into making a story seem natural, believable, and life-like, the meta-narrative urge to shout “It’s alive!” like some procedural Frankenstein is natural. Emily Short’s “Galatea” was an early point of comparison, but our ambitions were humbler. The earliest design involved a depiction of statue and sculptor, with player decisions causing both to change. Slavish devotion to the project would result in a beautiful statue and the deterioration of the sculptor, while apathy would result in the opposite: a monstrous statue and a remorseful sculptor.

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We quickly discarded the structure as dogmatic.  It is not much of a journey if the player has to make decisions along the lines of, “Night one: [Work] [Don’t Work].” Our early notes state, “How much work you put into it and how much you care about it living well are up to you.” Such a fable might be easy to write, and perhaps even visually appealing, but no one likes an ending that bludgeons you over the head with obvious morals.

Still, there was something in the Pygmalion myth with enduring appeal. The question was how to transform that appeal into a more sophisticated narrative?

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The next meeting was a secondary brainstorming session. What other adaptations of the Pygmalion myth were out there? My Fair Lady and Frankenstein were at the top of the list, while the Norse myth of the Sons of Ivaldi offered an alternative mythological theme for the hard-working craftsman. It wasn’t until we slapped some gears on our story and called it steampunk, however, that we managed to find inspiration.

Suppose that some hard-working inventor developed a clockwork theater? A director would only have to sit in the audience, place a positronic helmet on their head, and watch as the automaton actors faithfully performed exactly as commanded. With notions of reader-response criticism and creative control in mind, we had a setting and a theme. The next challenge was to understand our platform.

From day one we knew that we wanted to use Twine. This was a narrative assignment after all, and Twine was purpose-built for digital narratives. As none of the team were especially familiar with the platform, it became a key moment in project development when we actually went in to see what kind of stories the software could offer.

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Title image from Bravemule’s “Beneath Floes

The unsettling sound design and imagery, black-and-white horror aesthetic, and clever status-tracking of Bravemule’s “Beneath Floes” proved to be a major influence for our project. It was also a useful education in the affordances of Twine itself. We found ourselves asking “how did they do that” at multiple points, which gave the team its impetus to dive into Adam Hammond’s “A Total Beginners Guide to Twine 2.1.”

The question still remained, however, of how to actually structure the narrative part of the narrative. For that we turned to “Standard Patterns in Choice-Based Games” by Sam Kabo Ashwell. None of his patters worked perfectly for our purposes, but the ability to see the literal shape of stories was enough to point us in the right direction. Compare the “Gauntlet” structure below to our final iteration.

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Diagram from “Standard Patterns in Choice-Based Games” by Sam Kabo Ashwell

The resulting Twine game, “Bryonie Bickford’s Histrionic Positronic Habiliments,” puts the player in the shoes of the Director. Cast as a frustrated playwright tired of watching other people “ruin” their work, the Directory has spent their fortune to purchase a fabulous new theater, complete with the latest scientific apparatus of the inventor Bryonie Bickford.

The story structure is intentionally linear, meant to represent the obsessive and controlling nature of the Director. The first visible choice (below) represents an initial encounter with the “automactors,” infected with a bit of the Director’s own consciousness after the first night of rehearsal. Whether that encounter comes in the form of a drunken hallucination or a literal dream is the player’s choice, but the scene plays out much the same way in either case.

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The second visible choice works on much the same principle. Faced with debtors, a truncated production schedule, and a high-pressure command performance from Her Majesty, the Director can address the concerns of one of three automactors: the unsettling Camillo, the anxious Valentine, or the villainous Eglamour. Again, the scenes only differ superficially: the same information comes through regardless of the automaton in question.

The final choice of endings in more interesting, as it is not a CYOA choice at all. Throughout the story, the player is given access to a device we’ve called the “emotion wheel.” Rather than moving the player to a new section of narrative, it simply rotates a short list of adjectives, allowing the player to select whether the Director is feeling anger, fear, or anxiety. The weight of these decisions determines the nature of the climactic mental breakdown on opening night, with appropriately angry/fearful/neurotic results. In other words, like the automactors forced to dance to the Director’s tune, the player’s narrative-level decisions do not matter. How they feel about these goings-on is the more important question, and those feelings have the more important impact on the game’s meaning.

Images were sourced from Wikimedia commons. These eerie visuals as well as the sepia tone overlay was intended to provide a sense of the story’s Victorian aesthetic and horror overtones. The soundtrack was intended as a simple duality: inside and outside of the theater. The interior scenes conveyed a sense of monomania. The Gothic harpsichord represents the director’s meticulous obsession, while Beethoven’s #4 in C Minor is a more stately and sociable offering, representing a release from the Habiliments.

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