Blood and Laurels gains New York Times approbation

versuA month after its re-launch, Versu, the interactive storytelling platform, gained very positive feedback from the New York Times on Monday July 7th.

In Text Games in a New Era of Stories, Chris Suellentrop, the video games critic at the Times, describes the first title to be released under the new Versu label, Blood & Laurels, as seeming “to herald a new creative template that could be applied to nonfiction as well as fiction,” adding later in the article that it “offers is one of those quintessential video game moments, a first glimpse at something on the horizon.”

Blood and Laurels:  afocal point for a New York Times article on the resurgence of IF games
Blood and Laurels: a focal point for a New York Times article on the resurgence of IF games

The article itself is an examination of the Interactive Fiction genre, both looking back at the early days of text-based adventure games see as the origins of the genre, and at the state of play with the genre today as a medium enjoying a popular resurgence.

As with other reviews of the game, The New York Times piece underlines the feeling that with Blood & Laurels, one is less a reader and more a participant in a piece of theatre in which improvisation – both on the part of the reader and by the other characters – plays an important role in the unfolding scenes and in setting the direction the story may take.

In describing his experiences in reading / playing Blood & Laurels, Mr. Suellentrop also further expands on his comment about the “promise of what might come after it”, noting, “when I replayed the game, I didn’t feel that Marcus had become a different character when he decided to, say, betray Artus [one of the principal NPCs in the story]  rather than execute his commands. Instead, it seemed that I was just learning how he might behave differently under the vagaries of circumstance.”

This potential to offer different perspectives on behaviour within certain situations is possibly where a yet-to-be-tapped wellspring of opportunity may lie for the Versu engine in the future, something possibly reflected in Mr. Suellentrop’s comments about Blood & Laurels offering a glimpse of something on the horizon. Richard Evans himself spoke to this, as I reported back in May 2013, when he presented Versu: A Simulationist Interactive Drama, at the Games and Media Event at the Imperial College London.

Whether or not the Versu team can / will move to expand opportunities in which the engine can be used beyond the IF genre remains to be seen; which is not to say the engine can’t survive without moving away from the IF genre. Far from it; the combination of Versu and Prompter would appear to be opening the doors on broad new opportunities for IF writers.

Certainly, and considering the bumpy road Versu has so far endured, it’s good to see both it and Blood & Laurels continue to gain the attention of the games media with positive reviews and feedback. Long may it continue.

Footnote: Richard Evans will be speaking at this year’s Develop Conference, (Brighton, England, July 8-10th), where he’ll be examining the relationship between games development and AI research.

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Versu’s Blood & Laurels arrives in the App Store

versuFollowing the announcement that a deal had been reached which allows Versu, the interactive fiction engine, to continue after Linden Lab had discontinued it in February, comes the news that, as promised, the much-anticipated Blood & Laurels is now available.

As I noted in my report on Versu’s return, Blood & Laurels is the first title to be released under the new Versu banner, and will be followed in the near future by Bramble House by Jake T. Forbes.

New Versu titles will, for the forseeable future only be available on the iOS operating system and focused on the iPad. As the Versu team has noted, while they would like to have an Android version, resources are such that right now that it just isn’t possible.

So what is Blood and Laurels about? The slip notes provide an overview:

It’s the eight hundred and twenty-first year of the city of Rome, a year of bad omens and unrest. The Emperor is bloodthirsty and watches keenly for anyone who might be trying to overthrow him. The grain dole is running out and the people are going hungry. Romans are beginning to put their faith in foreign cults, as their old gods seem indifferent.

In this dangerous environment, Marcus is concerned with two things: his poetry, and keeping his patron Artus happy. But when Artus sends him to ask a secret question of an oracle, Marcus is forced to get involved, with conspiracies, politics, and a woman he is trying to forget.

Blood & Laurels offers dozens of outcomes for Marcus, his friends, his enemies, and Rome itself. The choices you make for him will decide not only how he ends up, but what kind of man he is when he reaches the end.

A page from Blood & Laurels (via the App Store)
A page from Blood & Laurels (via the App Store)

Blood & Laurels might best be described as a piece of theatre; play is heavily influenced by the evolving conversations as much as by the actions of the protagonist, Marcus the Cowardly (that’s you, by the way, should play the game). As Marcus, you have to steer your way through the complex situations which develop around you, some of which are a direct result of your actions and words, while others may be the result of things you perhaps didn’t do or say earlier in the game. Your interactions with other characters (and their interactions with each other) can be reflected in the changing expressions on their little portraits. In keeping with most intrigue in life, few things go unnoticed and repercussions can be positive or negative.

The complexity of Blood & Laurels is staggering: 240,000 words of interactive content, a branched, two-part storyline and a large cast of dynamic characters. All of this adds up to a piece in which a player is only likely to encounter around 7% of the content in any given play through.

Alongside of the launch, the Versu team also issued a teaser video of movie-like quality and presence.

Blood & Laurels can be purchased from the App Store for $2.99 / £1.99.

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Note that Emily Short of the Versu team, and the creator of Blood & Laurels, will be featured in a Drax Files Radio Hour interview on Friday June 13th. Also, coverage of the “new” Versu and Versu titles in this blog can now be found under the Versu category or via the menus: Pey’s Travelogues > Other Worlds > Versu.

Versu is reborn!

versuOn Friday June 6th, Emily Short announced through her blog that Versu, the interactive fiction engine she and Richard Evans developed while working at Linden Lab, and which was cancelled as a part of the Lab’s product review in February 2014, will now continue, and that Blood & Laurels, the interactive novel she has been working on for 15 years, will be launched on June 12th.

Following the announcement of Versu’s cancellation by the Lab, many of us speculated whether it  might be allowed to live on separately to the Lab’s involvement, and Emily herself confirmed she was talking to the Lab on matter of IP. However, hopes this might happen seemed to have been completely dashed in March, when the Lab said no to any idea of selling the IP involved. However, they’ve since had a change of heart.

The notification that this is the case came in the form of a blog post which first appeared on the  new Versu wesbite, and then reblogged on Emily’s site, which is where I came across it.

The announcement reads in part:

Versu was lauched to considerable acclaim prior to being cancelled by Linden Lab. Now it is set to continue (image from the Versu website)

Until February of this year, the Versu project had its home at Linden Lab, exploring the possibilities of interactive storytelling with advanced character AI by Richard Evans (Sims 3, Black and White) and dialogue modeling by Emily Short (Galatea, Alabaster), as well as work by authors Jake Forbes (Return to Labyrinth) and Deirdra Kiai (Dominique Pamplemousse).

When the Lab decided to refocus its offerings and cut support for Versu, the project was only three days from launching a Roman political thriller called Blood & Laurels. Blood & Laurels represented a significant step forward in complexity and depth from previous Versu stories: a large cast of characters, a richly branched two-part storyline, and over 240,000 words of interactive content — of which a player is likely to see only about 7% in a given play through. Character behaviour and relationships were modeled with at least as much fidelity as in earlier examples, but in a context with much higher narrative stakes. What other characters think of you affect whether your character lives or dies, thrives or fails — and those relationships are driven by both large and small decisions.

After Versu’s cancellation, it looked for a long time as though neither the underlying technology nor the finished stories had a future. However, we are delighted to be able to announce that Linden Lab has negotiated a new arrangement that will allow us to release these stories and explore a future for the engine.

The Versu blog post reveals that Blood & Laurels has been made possible by a language called Prompter, which is used by Versu and has been designed by Graham Nelson of Inform fame. Graham is also now a part of the new Versu team, joining Emily and Richard Evans.

Emily Short and Richard Evans are joined by Graham Nelson, the man behind the Inform IF language, and the creator of the Promptor language used by Versu
Emily Short and Richard Evans are joined by Graham Nelson, the man behind the Inform IF system, and the creator of the Prompter language used by Versu

Blood & Laurels is set to be followed by Bramble House, an interactive fantasy story written by  Jake T. Forbes, the author of Return to Labyrinth, a four volume graphic novel sequel to the Jim Henson film Labyrinth, and the English-language versions of the best-selling manga series Fullmetal Alchemist, Fruits Basket, One Piece and others.

Bramble House focuses on the character of 15-year-old Penny, who is “bound in service to the witch Stregma, forced to deal with everything from mundane dishwashing to evicting monstrous guests”. In it, the reader takes on the role of Penny, progressing through various situations and events in two stories set within the Bramble House world.

There is no publication date available as yet for the title.

Blood and Laurels (due June 12th) and Bramble House will be the first two titles released under the new Versu banner
Blood and Laurels (due June 12th) and Bramble House will be the first two titles released under the new Versu banner (from the Versu website)

The new titles will be appearing on the iOS platform. At the time of writing, it is not clear as to whether there are still plans to make Versu and its titles available for the Android platform; the website only goes so far as to state, “While we would like to support Android, we do not currently have an Android version available.”

This is excellent news for all with an interest in or passion for interactive fiction. Congratulations are extended to Emily, Richard and Graham with the launch to this new venture, and kudos, as well, goes to Linden Lab for reversing their decision on the Versu IP and allowing the project to continue.

Be sure to listen-in to an upcoming edition of the Drax Files Radio Hour interviews, when Drax will be talking to Emily Short about interactive fiction, Versu and more!

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