Note: I have tried to keep this review relatively spoiler-free, but if you would prefer to play through it first without any previous knowledge, then the TL;DR version of this post is to go buy the app. However, please come back after you have played it, because in my unbiased opinion, you should read my review anyway.
I mentioned Versu a while ago in one of my posts, but it had sort of gone away because of some issues with Linden Labs. I don’t know the full story, but apparently Versu is back, in the form of a new interactive story called Blood and Laurels written by Emily Short.
When I learned of the app, I immediately downloaded it and played through both parts in one evening. I was very impressed with it for many reasons, and I would like to share some of my thoughts here. If you are interested in interactive storytelling and own an iPad, I recommend you download Blood and Laurels.
Blood and Laruels is an app for the iPad, but it is almost completely text-based, save a few illustrations that show the characters and a few locations. Each new sequence of the story is printed at the end of the previous sequences, which persists throughout the story. This way you can go back and read through your entire story at the end, or to just refresh your memory. The style is similar to other Interactive Fiction; present-tense, third-person perspective. The choice of third-person rather than second-person may seem strange to IF fans, but I think it was the right choice for this story. The room descriptions are short and focus on what is important to the story. Like IF, some objects can be observed in greater detail, and these descriptions go into a little more depth.
Dialogue is printed similar to a play script, rather than a book, for example:
Marcus (Showing Annoyance): Why would you do that to me?
Below the main text of the story are the portraits of any characters in the current scene. This area is at least occupied by the player’s character, but could include several characters if need be. If the portraits are tapped, a short description of the character’s mood appears above their head. This is useful when the player want’s a character to like them, or perhaps dislike them; they can figure out their status with the character and then try to affect their mood.
At the very bottom of the screen are two buttons: Act Now and More. I will describe these more in the next section.
The Act Now button allows the player to choose an action for their character to perform. The button is not always available, for example during long sequences of description, but most of the time it is. When pressed a menu appears with possible actions for the player.
The actions are organized into several sections, for example:
- Your Mood
- Your Observations
- Have a Snack
- Artus has paid you a complement
All or one of these sections could be available at any one time. Conversation, for example, is available when you are talking to another character. Your Mood allows you to change your character’s mood by smelling flowers, drinking wine, etc. Relationships allow you to be rude or friendly to other characters in an attempt to make them dislike or like you.
The last section, though, “Artus has paid you a complement,” is more interesting. At certain points in the story, a character may do something towards you that you can react to. For example, a character could threaten you. A section stating that the character has threatened you will become available, with the options to “Act fearless” or “Cower.” The characters will respond to how you react to them; every little choice makes a difference in the story.
Certain options are more generic; for example, at almost any time, your character can “shrug.” This is a simple way to move through a conversation without really doing anything, but it does affect the other characters.
The More button simply allows you to continue on with the story, without actually doing anything. The other characters will act and talk, while your character sits and watches. Occasionally, action will be demanded of your character, for example if a character asks you a question.
During my first playthrough of any game or interactive fiction, I try to role-play as the character, but also consider what I would do as that character. My character is generally a nice character, who doesn’t lie, cheat, or steal, unless the circumstances are extreme. Sometimes my characters will lose their tempers and punch someone in the face one too many times, but I feel these outbursts make the character more real.
Playing as Marcus for the first time, I made him a slightly cowardly poet, who doesn’t want to lie, but also doesn’t want anyone to hurt him. Playing Blood and Laurels this way maybe wasn’t the most interesting path, but it felt the most natural, and my character survived the entire story with a fairly ideal ending where most of the characters liked him, and he was engaged to be married.
The writing itself was fantastic; I would expect nothing less from Emily Short. The story isn’t exactly what I had imagined, but that’s what I love about Emily Short: she manages to find something new to write about in a world full of cliches. Even when writing about Ancient Rome, she focuses on the less-known aspects to create a world that is familiar but also fresh and new.
I don’t really care for the fact that Blood and Laurels is only available on the iPad. Yes, the iPad is a great device, but limiting Blood and Laurels to one device doesn’t do much to make interactive storytelling more accessible to the masses. Hopefully someday the Versu technology will be available for the web, or a downloadable desktop version, and if so, I will retract this critique.
Now speaking to the iPad’s strengths, I do think it’s an ideal platform for Versu. Most of my time spent on the iPad is reading, and there is a lot of that going on in Blood and Laurels.
When I first opened up the app, it took several minutes to apparently do some AI preprocessing. It was a one-time deal, though, so loading up the app now is much faster. However, I did notice that whenever I made a choice, there was a slight pause before the text appeared. I’m sure this is because the app was calculating all the AI, and I should mention that I was running it on the iPad 2.
I noticed a few small glitches in the text of the story, probably caused by forgetting to add a variable instead of static text, but these were few and didn’t detract from the story at all.
I’m being a bit nit-picky in this section, so I must be clear that I was very impressed with the AI. The story seemed to adapt almost perfectly to every choice I made, and I think you could read through the entire transcript of a playthrough and think it was a linear short story. There are a few hickups every once in a while, such as a character reacting twice to one of your actions. I think this has to do with the way Versu organizes your options; for example, sometimes you will have two choices that are pretty much the same, but they have been displayed for different reasons. One option could be under the “Gila looks scared” banner, and one could be under the “Moods and relationships” banner. Generally I picked the option that was under the banner I was trying to follow, but I’m not sure if that made any difference.
Overall, I think that Versu and Blood and Laurels is a very large step in the right direction for interactive storytelling. Emily Short is a fantastic writer and storyteller, both of which are very important when writing for a platform such as Versu. I would recommend Blood and Laruels for both the impressive technology, and the writing. You will not be disappointed.