The Mountain Lake Now Live on Kongregate

Recently released on Facebook and the Chrome Web Store, The Mountain Lake now comes to Kongregate, a mere few hours before the entry deadline for the site’s Unity competion.

Give it a try here:

The game is a new browser-based 3D action/adventure game featuring a lack of extrinsic goals, a cast of blue people with strange dialogue, and a great deal of mountain climbing.

It’s available for purchase on the Chrome Web Store, and on Facebook.

The game’s homepage is at

Drinking With God At CTFF

Well, this is exciting.

Apparently, the interactive portion of the Connecticut Film Festival will be exhibiting Drinking With God this week. The game also appears to be in the running for one of several awards. Rather an honor.

Or at least I assume that it’s an honor; it’s not quite clear to me if Drinking With God was selected for exhibition, or if all games submitted are going to be exhibited. It’s also not entirely clear to me exactly what being exhibited is going to entail. The best information I’ve managed to find so far is in this blog post, but I’ve found it a bit hard to follow.

And also, one of the of awards that the game is up for appears to be in the category of “Most Buggy.”


Probably rather an honor, but possibly not.

Exciting, though. Definitely exciting.

Unfortunately, I won’t be able to actually attend the Connecticut Film Festival for and learn for myself just what the game’s exhibition is going to consist of. So if anybody reading this is going to be there, and can send me back a description (or, better yet, photographs) of the circumstances, I would very much appreciate it. Thanks!

Back Up and Running


It’s been quite a month, between my computer’s being out of service, along with a week and a half of mysterious back pain that more or less had kept me from being able to sit down.

Things are better now. My computer was returned to me last week after some time away for repairs, and it worked right out of the box! Almost. All I had to do was open up the case and tighten the connection between the power supply and the motherboard. And then go to the BIOS and tell it which drive to look at first when booting up, since they had been connected in the wrong order. And I still haven’t found a way to address this newly-developed problem: the computer now doesn’t wake up from sleep when I press the power button.


But, hey! It turns on! I can move the mouse and type and stuff happens on the screen! And I physically am able to sit down and do these things! This is progress, by any definition.

All of which means that the next Bleating Sheep Theater game is officially back in development. Well, not technically, in that I haven’t actually done anything with it yet. But attitude is everything, right?

You can expect regular blog posts to resume, as well.

So, see you real soon with more uninformed blathering on cinematic interactive narrative than you can or ever would want to shake a stick at.

Not-So-Triumphant Return

After a few days of downtime, Drinking With God is once again available for download. It has no changes or new features whatsoever. Please share and enjoy!

(Nor is this the Mac version, which is still in progress.)

My computer is dead (I am, of course, manually adding the words of this blog entry to the server’s database through the wonders of telekinesis), so for now Bleating Sheep Theater development is pretty much on hiatus. But I hope to be back in action within a couple of weeks.

That’s all for now; flipping bits in RAM DIMMs housed thousands of miles away using only the power of my mind is giving me a headache!

The Perils of Branching

God‘s Own Branches

The main narrative portion of Drinking With God has seven decision points. Assuming there are exactly three directions you can choose from at each one — there aren’t, but assuming there are — you would expect the game to have several thousand scenes. (Or at least you would if you’d read the last few entries.)

Instead, there are about thirty.

How, you might wonder, have I managed this?

Well, if you’ve already played it (and you have played it, haven’t you? Unless you have a Mac — but we’re working on that, honest!), try playing it again, making some different choices as you make your way through it. Have you noticed anything?

The Inevitable Cheat

No doubt when playing the game the first time through, each time you made a choice, you felt empowered. “I can take this story in direction that I want to!” you exclaimed in glee, pausing only to add under you breath, “Except for the infinite number of directions that Yossi didn’t think of, each of which I would have preferred to the ones that he did.” (A comment that I politely ignored, since we’ve already been over this.)

But then you played it again, and when you did, you probably noticed something: no matter what choices you made early on, you eventually reached the same point in the story. All of the branches converged back into the story’s “trunk.”

So much for that feeling of empowerment. “Yossi, you bounder!” you hollered at me when you realized this. “You cad! You cheat! How dare you waste my time with this nonsense?”

The Feeble Excuse

Well, first off, in my defense, you were warned. Drinking With God is described as “quasi-interactive” for a reason, after all. The Sheep even admits to such in his grudging introduction.

But, you are no doubt wondering, why cheat at all? The simple truth of the matter is that once I’d decided to create a branching narrative experience, I didn’t really have much of a choice. It was either that or create the thousands of scenes that I described earlier. I wanted to finish this project within my lifetime, so there you have it.

Remember those CD-ROM Interactive Movies from the 1990s that I’ve been going on about? They didn’t really have much of a choice, either. They were also built on the concept of branching narratives, which, since they had to be created within real-world production constraints, inevitably means that they also relied on the concept of folding narrative branches back into a trunk. This could be one of the reasons that they didn’t really take off — when people began to understand the cheat, they lost interest.

But does it have to be this way? Aren’t there ways to create Interactive Movies that don’t involve branching narratives?

That’s what I’ll talk about next time. See you real soon!

For more on branching narratives and their problems and perils, see Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling.

On “Interactive Movies” — Part 3: User Agency

For Those of You Just Tuning In

In my last few posts, I’ve been talking about the CD-ROM interactive movies of the mid-1990s. They are said to have been, for the most part, commercial and critical failures, and I’m exploring the reasons why. I’m making this up as I go along, doing minimal research and with virtually no direct experience with the subject — but, hey, that’s why this is a blog and not a university research paper. (University research papers are my wife’s department.)

Insufficient User Agency

Today I’m going to turn my attention to the problem of user agency. There’s a principle in the design of interactive entertainment (and interactive systems in general — that’s where the “interactive” part comes from) that the user should have the ability to influence the experience, rather than just sit back and be influenced by it. When you’re playing a video game, you want to be playing it, not to sit back and watch it play itself. And you don’t want your word processor to type your documents for you, leaving you with no say as to their contents. (Well, some people might, but let’s forget them for the moment.)

Similarly, when playing an interactive movie, you should be able to influence the movie’s content and direction. Not completely, of course. You’re not making the movie yourself; you’re just playing it. But you should be able to influence it to at least some extent, and probably to a greater extent than allowed by any interactive movie thus far created.

The Branching Problem

Why is it that the existent interactive movies have tended to do such a crummy job of offering user agency? Well, as I explained last time, the most common means used to provide it is branching — at certain discrete points in the story, the player is offered a certain number of choices, and each choice branches the story off in a different direction. The problems here are (at least) twofold.

You Can’t Think of Everything

First, no branching scheme can offer a sufficient number of choices to make every user happy. Let’s say there’s a scene in which the character with whom the player, is, uh, most strongly associated is told that her darling baby boy was just eaten for dinner by her next-door neighbor. (All a terrible misunderstanding, you see; the neighbor had misplaced his glasses and was under the impression that he was defrosting a ham.) So we offer the player a number of pre-scripted emotional or violent responses that he or she can choose on behalf of this poor and distraught (though mercifully fictional) woman.

Let us further posit, however, that our theoretical player here is the sort of individual commonly referred to in polite society as a fruitcake. Upon contemplating the scenario with which we have presented him, his thoughts run like so: well, if this were to happen to me in real life, clearly my response would be to lick the nose of the person delivering this gruesome message. His decision made, he enthusiastically searches the list of choices which we have made available, seeking the “lick nose” option.

Instead, however, he finds only the choices that we have actually made available: “burst into tears,” “pound on the wall in mournful anguish,” “shoot self,” or “wipe brow with relief as she didn’t really enjoy the company of that particular small child anyway.” Naturally, our player would find this list of choices to be rather frustrating as, to him, none of these choices are plausible responses to this scenario. “How could they have left out nose-licking?” he cries, as he pulls the CD-ROM out of drive, tosses it into the trash, and swears off interactive movies forever.

More Branches Than You Can Shake a Stick At

There is very little that can be done about this problem with the state of the art, even using story-generation techniques that aren’t based on branching, which I’ll discuss further on down the line.

So, fine, we’re stuck with it. But say that you, enterprising interactive-movie-maker that you are, not one to be held back by a few minor problems here and there, concede to offer a fixed number of choices to the player at each branch point, even though you’re fully aware that it won’t be enough to please all of the people all of the time. Say, further, that the fixed number of choices that you decide on is three. (Sound familiar?)

The problem here is that, by the time the player is only six choices in, you’ve already got seven-hundred twenty-nine branches to keep track of. And, unless your interactive movie is about as long as the typical You Tube video, you presumably want to offer the player far more than six choices through the duration of the experience.

Since you don’t have the mental capacity (let along the time, patience, actor longevity, and budget) to film several million scenes, what are you going to do instead?

Why, rely on foldback schemes, of course.

What’s a foldback scheme, you ask?

Tune in next time to find out.

(But, sneak preview: They’re not nearly sufficient to solve this problem adequately. This I can tell you from personal experience — but you should play Drinking With God anyway.)

On “Interactive Movies” — Part 2: Why low production values?

All a Bunch of Lies

One of the great things about writing for the internet is that you can just make stuff up, cite no sources, and pass off your idle speculations as undisputed fact with complete impunity. This is just what I plan on doing in today’s blog post.

In my last post, I claimed that one of the several reasons that the so-called interactive movies of the mid-nineties were (pretty much) all critical and financial failures is that they possessed low production values. Here I’m going to offer some theories on why this was the case — without doing a bit of research to substantiate them. I have no information about the production of these titles — heck, I (pretty much) haven’t even played any.

So! Here goes nothing.

Filmed Video

To the best of my knowledge, virtually all of the mid-nineties interactive movies were created using filmed actors and sets. Certainly all of them were created using pre-generated video, rather than real-time graphics; real time 3D of sufficient detail to reasonably depict characters was in its infancy during that area.

Because the content in video files is not dynamically generated, video allows for far less flexibly in conveying a dynamically-generated narrative than does real time 3D, a topic that I hope to discuss in more detail in a future post.

The use of filmed video does not contribute to mediocre production values in and of itself, but is a factor when coupled with some of the other issues discussed below.


For the most part, interactive movies were probably targeted at existing computer game players. (This was probably a mistake for several reasons which we’ll save for another day.) What kinds of stories do computer game players like? For the most part, the answer is probably big, sweeping epic stories of science fiction, fantasy, and horror.

Which means — lots of characters, lots of fancy sets, lots of special effects, and lots of opportunities for your reach to exceed your grasp (or your budget) and cause you to end up with something that looks and sounds pretty cheesy. If these people had decided to make a romantic comedy about a couple of friends in a small apartment, maybe they could have handled it.

Branching Narratives

Ever read a Choose Your Own Adventure novel? Or, for that matter, have you played Drinking With God? If you have, then you’ve experienced a branching narrative.

In a branching narrative, you’re presented with a scene and then a list of choices. You make a selection from the list and are brought to another scene. This continues until you reach the end of the story.

There are many issues with branching narratives (these are touched upon in a fair amount of detail in Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling, and I expect to visit them in later blog posts, as well). The one relevant to this discussion, though, is that the number of scenes you need balloons out of control pretty quickly.

Say there are three choices after each scene. So after the first choice, you need to have created three scenes. Then nine scenes after the second choice. After the third choices, twenty seven scenes. After the fourth choice, eighty-one scenes. Then two hundred forty-three, and after six choices, seven hundred twenty-nine.

The typical big-budget Hollywood movie probably has about fifty to one hundred fifty scenes — and these interactive movies were probably being produced with far smaller budgets. So something’s gotta give.

(Incidentally, it is my current plan that future productions of Bleating Sheep Theater will not use branching — I have some other ideas for interactive storytelling up my sleeve.)


I already touched upon this in the previous few points, but to summarize — a big, epic story with a ton of scenes in the form of filmed video is going to cost a lot of money to make. Presumably some of these projects were big-budget compared to the typical video games of the time, but probably most were not — and probably all of them cost a fraction of the budget of a typical feature film. Creating these sorts of titles takes a great deal of time and talent — both of which, usually, cost a great deal of money, when considered in tandem.

Creator Expertise

Presumably, most people are not going to do that great a job on their first time creating either a film or an interactive experience. Because interactive movies hadn’t been done before, their creators were missing a vital background in either one or the other areas. You might know how to design a great branching narrative, but do you know how to direct actors, light a set, and edit shots together for proper visual continuity?

Moving Right Along

I mentioned two problems with the mid-nineties’ Interactive Movies in my last post: low production values, and insufficient user agency. That’s that for the production values discussion; next time, I’ll talk about the second of these.

Still out here!

Apologies for the lack of blog activity as of late; I’ve been pretty busy. More regular posts should resume shortly. In the meantime, some items of possible interest:

  • I’ve uploaded a new installer for Drinking With God, with a later expiration date.
  • There’s a Mac version of Drinking With God in the works! I’m hoping that it will be ready within a few weeks.
  • Work is still progressing slowly and (more or less) steadily on the next Bleating Sheep Theater title. I can’t project a release date as of yet, though I’m hoping that it will be within the next half year.
  • Thanks for reading!