Edit, 6/13/16: Storium has been live for months and many of the issues I mention in the negatives section have been fixed, which I will show below. Also, full disclosure, I never did condense my feedback, but most of the issues that could be structurally fixed or that I still see as problems have already been addressed, so I guess there’s not much point in it now. Whoops.
I mentioned a few weeks ago that I had joined Storium, an online collaborative storytelling community. Essentially it’s like tabletop gaming except on the internet and, to my understanding, less complicated (this coming from someone who has never actually engaged in tabletop gaming directly, so I could be wrong in my understanding of the complexity of such things).
ANYWAY, IT’S SUPER FUN.
Let’s talk about why (and a few things that could be improved). But first, a more in depth description (note, this is from the kickstarter campaign, so some of it is just talking about prizes and stuff that won’t affect you).
The fun stuff
The thing about Storium is that it’s kind of a worldwide softball league for writers. You’ve got the beginners who are just stepping out on the field, the people who are there to just have fun and the super hardcore people who are gonna slam every move outta the park. You’ve got some games that are the leisure bracket, some that are elite, some that are mixes of both. Narrators can specify in their game descriptions what skill level, pace, tone, point of view etc. they’re looking for (they can also run private, invite-only games if public isn’t their jam), so the players really do have a lot of control over these kinds of things. Oh, and so far everyone has been super nice.
The sports analogy continues in the fact that these games are also, obviously, a team effort. I’ve always been a little stiff about collaborations to be honest, because typically when I write a story I have very clear ideas about what I want to do with the characters and world and plot and so on and so forth. In Storium however, I do not have control of the other characters or, unless I’m narrating (and sometimes not even then), the plot. In this sense much of the control is taken away (something good for me as a human being, let alone as a writer), which not surprisingly, is incredibly freeing. Having other players also keeps me honest. If I do something that doesn’t make sense, the narrator or other players are going to call me out on it and request revisions. If I start doing something sneaky or vague, they’re going to dig it out. A prime example of this was in the story I’m narrating, Twice Born, in which I opened the floor for in-game questions and suddenly found my NPC (non-player character) inundated with questions regarding details. I’m lucky in that I already had answers for some of them, but for others, I had to mentally expand on the background I already had planned, or better still, figure out brand new answers. As a storyteller, you should always know these kinds of things (How was the prince murdered? How can these people trust their leader?) whether you write/tell/dance/paint/sing/act/etc. about it explicitly or not, and having other people there who will ask to make sure you do is a good way to make that happen.
The other exciting thing about having stories set up this way is that it keeps me agile (the sports analogy continues, see? See?). On a softball field, I can never really be sure just where that ball is going to go. In the same sense, I have no idea what the other players (or narrator) are going to do. I’ve had several times already where I’ve had to rethink my strategy based on the moves of others, and while it can be a little disappointing to have to give up a sweet move I was going to make, it’s often way more fun to have to reassess the situation and come up with something else. It stretches me creatively to have to overcome obstacles that I as a writer would not have come up with myself. It’s also fascinating to be writing with people I don’t know, in no small part because you write what you know and reading posts from people who very clearly have different opinions from me about certain things is supremely interesting.
Another plus to the system is that because it is “live” once you publish your move (and that you can’t edit your move once the next person goes unless the narrator requests revisions), you are forced to really think about what you write. Except on rare occasions of pure inspiration, I very rarely write well in my first draft. I meander and reiterate and waffle and all kinds of things, which is why blog posts take me several hours to write instead of halves and why so many of you heard “One more read through” about seven times when I was reviewing Machine. It’s also why on Storium I have to be very careful about reading and tweaking my moves. Most moves are limited to about 400 words (I think) too, so not only am I not given the time to waffle and roam, I am also not given the space. It’s like writing little bits of flash fiction that just happen to be connected. Amazing.
All of these things have come together to make Storium what I like to think of as (besides a softball league), a writer’s vacation. It’s a lot of fun, it gets me exercise and since these are all side projects instead of major works, there’s a lot less pressure involved. This isn’t to say that I don’t take it seriously of course (I want to achieve excellence in all that I write and as mentioned, much of this forces me to be a better writer) or that my major works are somehow horrible dragging yokes. They’re just different ways to enjoy my passion, both of which suit me well.
Vacations do have their ticks though, and Storium is no exception. On to a few concerns.
The not so fun stuff
First things first. Gamer dropout. Because you are playing with people you don’t know, because of differing schedules and because, let’s face it, not everyone is going to be hardcore about this, it’s really easy for them to disappear. Because I am being a big ole nerd about this, I check Storium several times daily. I choose games that interest me, make characters that interest me and being relatively impatient, get upset when games don’t move. Sometimes it’s just that one player who doesn’t go very often (especially frustrating when they’re the only one who can still play any cards to advance the story), sometimes it’s a narrator who doesn’t continue the scenes (especially sad when I like the story) and sometimes it’s a character who flat out doesn’t show up once the game starts (especially upsetting if the game needs a certain number of players or moves to continue). It’s troublesome because it’s not like you can just text your buddy to see what they’re doing. You have no idea if they’ve lost interest, if they’ve had a personal tragedy, if they’re super busy, if their computer broke or any other number of reasons. Sometimes they’ll be nice enough to say they’re going out of town for a while or that they’re busy and are hoping to hop back on soon, but sometimes there’s just the empty internet void and no communication at all. I’d like to see some kind of system to avoid this happening (perhaps a suspend option for characters [not just games] or a rating system that could help you avoid those prone to dropouts), but am not entirely sure how that’d work itself out. [Note: There is now a vacation setting for those who temporarily leave, 6/13/16 ] I know players can retire characters if they’re going away completely or die, but I also know that of all the games I’ve played, not one of the dropouts I’ve had has done this. There’s also not any mechanic for if the narrator leaves. I’d love to see an option for passing the game to a different player to be narrator if the original wants to quit (also just if you wanted to switch it up for any other reason), but so far that’s not a thing [Note: This is now a thing, 6/13/16]. In the meantime it’d be nice to just have people tell you when and for how long they’ll be gone when they can.
As a second point, I’ve also noticed a rather sharp drop off in pace once a game gets going. Usually the first few moves go pretty fast as everyone introduces themselves and then…not so much. This is frequently due to someone dropping out, but thus far I’ve only had one game keep moving after that initial rush (it is slower now and in fact had two dropouts, but at least it’s still going). To be fair three of the eight games I’m involved in (seven as a player, one as narrator) are still young enough to be in that initial rush stage, but of the other four besides those, one is suspended, one is waiting for a missing player to come back, one is waiting on a super busy player, and one is waiting for the narrator to continue. As you can see, keeping these things going is a bit tough. As someone who takes not only their writing but also the characters they’ve created very seriously, this is obviously a keen frustration. Not really a problem with the Storium system itself, just something I’ve noticed.
On to things that are directly related to the game system, Storium, though exceedingly flexible, does have a few snags. The first of these is that as a narrator, you don’t have a way to edit your moves after the next person has moved. Narrators can request revisions to player moves regardless of who might have gone after if they see something amiss, but there is no way for a narrator to change something in a similar situation if they’ve made a boo boo. This is difficult because first of all typos are irritating (yay for proofreading, I suppose), but also because if a player wants you to change something you’ve written about their character (“Godmodding” seems to be the phrase used for writing about characters you aren’t playing), but someone else moves before you can change it, you’re out of luck. Whatever the narrator said has now become canon. Godmodding seems to be a thorn in the side of many people on the site (I don’t really care if other people use my characters [in fact I think it’d kind of weird both pacing and storytelling wise not to in some cases] as long as they’re true to them), so this can obviously cause some pretty serious friction. Seems like a simple fix though (and something relatively easy to avoid if you just ask permission before writing about someone else’s character), so I’m not holding it too hard against them. [This issue has since been fixed. 6/13/16]
The second game play problem I’ve been facing is that you can only play three cards per scene (note, moves are unlimited. Cards are just what’s used during moves to work towards completing challenges). I understand why that rule is there; it’s to keep people from hogging the story. I find it disconcerting to have to be so cautious with rationing my cards, however, because I don’t want to use them all on the first challenge in a scene (the stories are split up like movies or books by the use of scenes and chapters) lest something else of greater importance come up later. For me it sometimes makes the story unnatural because I feel the need to hold back on certain moves for the sake of my cards when as a character I’d let myself fly. The problem could be rectified from a narrator’s standpoint by starting a new scene everytime a new challenge is presented, but as challenges sometimes overlap instead of following a strictly linear order, this isn’t always a logical fix. Nor does it always allow for a smooth story. An easier fix might be for the Storium creators to just allow for more cards to be played per scene (or maybe give the narrator the option to decide how many can be played on a scene by scene basis), but that’s just my thoughts. When dealing with something as fluid and varying as storytelling, there is rarely a cover-all solution. Side note: One cool thing I’ve seen is narrators presenting scenes (or entire games) with no available challenges to play on. This is particularly useful when the focus switches from action to character development and I like it very much.
Lastly, (and this is nitpicky) the comments section is not very well setup. It’s a very narrow sidebar so any time you write more than a sentence it makes you feel like you’re hogging the whole thing with a novel, and to the chagrin of many a writer, there’s no way to edit if you make a typo.
Fascinating side note unrelated to pretty much anything else
Something that has struck me while exploring this system is how much delivery has to do with pace. It’s not just the pace of a story as it’s written, it also has to do with the pace of how the reader reads it. This has never been more clear to me than while getting these stories at their strange, player based paces. Certainly something to consider.
Despite a few kinks to be worked out (it’s still in beta after all), Storium is an incredible idea and platform. I am so excited to get to tell stories with incredible people and writers around the world and would not miss it given the chance. Storium will be going public hopefully in November. I’ll be sure to keep you posted on updates about it and when it goes live. I may even try bringing some elements from the Nothing multi-verse into the stories I’ll be narrating on there so I’ll let you know about that. At the very least I’ll post links to all the stories I’m in/narrating for your browsing pleasure, so be sure to check it out/join when that happens. Oh, and as a beta tester I will be giving this feedback to the Storium people directly once I condense it to a reasonable size. I’m not just saying things on the internet.