November 17, 2005

Opening Book and Volume

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 1:40 am
nTopia

I’m pleased to announce the release of Nick Montfort’s new interactive fiction: Book and Volume.

It’s been more than five years since Nick burst on the IF scene with the release of Winchester’s Nightmare (1999) and Ad Verbum (2000). His new piece, which I’ve had the privilege of playing in pre-release versions, is an addition to the field that will appeal to veterans and newcomers alike.

As a sysadmin in Book and Volume‘s nTopia, it’s easy to know what to do. Your computer, your pager, and your boss are constantly telling you. And you must spend your Sunday night running around rebooting servers whether you like it or not (there’s a big demo coming up!) or get fired. But there’s more to B&V than what the voice from your pager commands. In fact, part of what this story and game explores, over time, is the potential for performing actions beyond those made available most obviously.

This is Nick’s first full-length IF since the publication of his scholarly book on IF, Twisty Little Passages. Given this, I’m sure I won’t be alone in finding myself thinking about B&V in terms of that book’s most influential formulation: seeing the structures of interactive fiction as analogous to those of the long tradition of the literary riddle. And, in fact, this angle reveals a particularly elegant view of B&V‘s design. For while satisfying its early demands is much like puzzling through a riddle that is asked outright, delving more deeply into the work could be seen almost as a process of finding a formulation for a riddle implicit in the work’s shape but never directly posed to the reader. And, having not yet succeeded in finishing Book and Volume myself, I can say that it’s a non-trivial process that doesn’t quickly lose its intrigue.

Book and Volume is the second release from [auto mata].

13 Responses to “Opening Book and Volume


  1. words’ end » misc. Says:

    [...] en I grow up, I want a hidden door in my house. Speaking of labyrinths, Nick Montfort has released another interactive fiction piece, his first in a while, called Book [...]

  2. andrew Says:

    Congrats Nick! I’m looking forward to spending time with the final version — and Noah’s hints about its deeper structure are tantalizing.

  3. nick Says:

    Many thanks – post-release life has been treating me pretty well so far. We had a small release party here in Philadelphia on Friday, at a coffeehouse where much of Book and Volume had been written. And I’ve only gotten two very minor bug reports, which I quickly dealt with, leaving Book and Volume at release 3 now.

    From various sources of online chatter, it seems that some people are playing and enjoying the game, which of course delights me. I’m looking forward to hearing what people have to say about the piece.

    Also, Book and Volume is slated to be featured in an issue of The Iowa Review Web that will be out early next year, one that GTxA’s own Scott Rettberg is editing. The issue will include an interview about the piece that Jeremy Douglass (of Writer Response Theory) did.

  4. john Says:

    I enjoyed it to a point, but I got stuck after completing 10 of 10 tasks and having absolutely no clue of how to move forward, and to be honest, no motivation to do so, because the story lacks drive after the tasks run out, and there’s nothing to motivate the character beyond exploring for the sake of exploring.

    And random, timed death with absolutely new clue that was coming is no fun. I have no idea whether I have to restart the game from scratch or if I can continue from a saved game. And if I did either, I don’t have a clue how to proceed to the ‘end’ because I don’t have a clue what an end might be, or whether what I’m doing is moving towards an end. I like the idea of there being a game behind the game, but it’s just, imo, a little too subtle.

  5. Ian Bogost Says:

    I wouldn’t say there’s no clue john. Did you notice all the strange things going on around you in nTopia?

  6. Jonathan Blow Says:

    This seems like one of those games where the only way to win is to play it over and over, dying again and again until you figure out the exact set of objects to manipulate in order to get the winning condition.

    [Spoilers in this paragraph]: I have no idea what the helmet does except for letting me read that message in F9, no idea woh to talk to about evacuation, no idea what that button does in the Cave or what pressing or holding it does, what to do with the floor lifter (I lifted the floors in all the server rooms (I think), and looked, nothing there, was hoping I could find a coin to play the arcade machine but didn’t.)

    I think that in order for the player to be motivated enough to bang his head against the wall again and again to work out the solution, he needs to have already had some fun with the game, so that he feels a certain trust, that the author has him in good hands and that this is going to be worth it. I don’t have that feeling, since the earlier gameplay gave me no real agency and no puzzles to solve or anything. It was just, do these things within the allotted time (and we don’t tell you how long that is, or really where the objectives are even though your character is supposed to know them, so you have to stumble around, contradictory to your character’s established fiction… take too long doing that and you get fired, sucka!!!)

    Because I don’t have that “I’m in good hands” feeling, after the game has killed me about 10 times, my response is “Whatever.” and to stop playing.

    It’s a bummer, because I like the writing style, and it seems like there’s an interesting fiction here. But I couldn’t really explore the fiction becuase the clock was ticking all the time… I tried to find different ways to interact with all the apparitions, etc, but after my first play-though when I got punished for that by being fired, I stopped.

    I was never rewarded for doing any “non-mandatory” task, but I was often killed for doing non-mandatory tasks. So I stopped trying to do them. This seems to be in direct conflict with your stated game design goal, so I really think some reflection is in order there.

  7. nick Says:

    Jonathan, thanks for your comments, and for giving Book and Volume a try.

    I did intend that people would start over a few times in Book and Volume; I guess it doesn’t bother me to do so when I play. I know several good games, from Deadline to Varicella, that ask this of the player. It’s rather difficult to simulate an urgent situation, and to simulate a city at different times of day, without simulating the passage of time in a meaningful way.

    My hope was that I would create something fun and meaningful, not something that was overly frustrating or frustrating in a way that didn’t end in fun. I do understand that people approach IF in different ways – some players, I know, have explored exhaustively, and weren’t prevented from doing this by the ticking clock, but I can see how this could irk you and others.

    There are some hint requests and hints flying on rec.games.int-fiction, if your interest in the Book and Volume is reawakened. Thanks again for your take on the game.

  8. Ian Bogost Says:

    Interesting objections, Jonathan. I had very much the opposite feeling playing B&V. At first the tasks occupied me completely and the peripheral activities served as a kind of curiosity, telling me that there was more I wasn’t experiencing. As I achieved more of the tasks more rapidly, I won back time to interact with other parts of the environment. I found this process of essentially learning to do the player-character’s job quite appealing, if subtle: the job became something I could do by rote. Once I completed B&V I felt even more pleased to have developed a real prowess in my virtual job. As I became an expert virtual sysadmin, I felt that layer of the game peel away, and I believe that peeling is actually quite central to the work. To avoid spoilers I’ll not say anything more about it yet.

  9. nick Says:

    So far, the reaction has certainly not been on the scale of Façade‘s, but for an all-text computer program, I suppose it hasn’t been too bad. We did have a good time at the small-scale release party last Friday here in Philly.

    I’ve gotten several bug reports (mentioning minor bugs, which I’ve since fixed) and other emails from people who completed the piece. One person wrote in email that he spent 8-10 hours exploring, mapping, and solving it, which is about the amount of time I had estimated people would take. (Players who are more dogged about winning and less interested in exploration might finish in as few as 6 hours, I suppose, and with hints, it can take less time.) Some people have already been seeking and receiving hints on rec.games.int-fiction and on ifMUD. Brian Kerr, who completed B&V, writes on his blog, “I’d recommend this game to anybody, although it is fairly dense and telegraphic.” Greg Lastowka wrote about B&V on Terra Nova, and the Turbulence networked_performance blog picked up the news from here.

    Some people have told me that they’ve put Book and Volume aside to look at when they have more time or when they’re traveling and will be on a plane or train for a while, and I appreciate that – this type of thought indicates an awareness that the piece is not something to be briefly clicked and glanced at.

    If you have delved in already, thanks, and I hope you enjoy the piece. If you haven’t, and you’re looking to reflect on consumerism (and other matters) during Buy Nothing Day today, I’ll invite you again to open and occupy Book and Volume.

  10. nick Says:

    A further update, which should partly make up for Grand Text Auto trackbacks being wacky (or broken) right now:

    Ian blogged about Book and Volume on Water Cooler Games, offering some welcome insights – Ian was one of only four testers to finish the game on his own.

    N. B. Horvath writes about Book and Volume: “interesting plot structure … well-fleshed-out city setting with a distinct atmosphere, like in A Mind Forever Voyaging only goofier … you have to fiddle with tons of things in order to make progress.”

  11. nick Says:

    Richard Bos put together a very nice partial map of Book and Volume (without any spoilers) and a complete (and spoiler-laden) map as well.

  12. Jill Says:

    Oh my goodness, I love it! Thank you Richard Bos! I lost my scrawled-on-a-napkin semi-map and sort of struggled to continue playing without a map. I’m printing the spoiler-free version and hanging on to it. I’ll write in my own spoilers :)

  13. nick Says:

    Book and Volume garnered some coverage on Gamasutra and Joystiq.

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