It is Sophronia who sees the omen.
Sophonia, a heavy-eyed widow, either is Artus’s mistress already or hopes to become so in the near future. Though she is of patrician birth, she imagines herself a soothsayer, dabbling in star-charts and Babylonian numerology.
They say she fed her husband poisoned figs because she saw him wearing ram’s horns in a dream.
Blood and Laurels is a fairly important work of interactive fiction on provenance alone. Its author, Emily Short, is one of the luminaries of the modern IF scene; not only has she made some extraordinarily significant games over the years, but she’s also well known for speaking and writing extensively about all aspects of the medium. In other words, Short knows IF very well, and anything she does with it usually ends up being interesting.
But more importantly, Blood and Laurels is the debut of Versu, an “engine for telling interactive stories about people” that Short herself helped develop. NPC interaction has been one of Short’s chief strengths and interests ever since her debut Galatea–a game focused entirely around a conversation with a single character. Versu is, in its way, the Emily Short Signature Guitar–an engine largely designed to her specifications and geared towards making the sort of games that she’s good at making. Not only is it an opportunity for her to deliver a virtuoso performance, Blood and Laurels is as also kind of a tech demo for what the engine can do.
Blood and Laurels tells the story of Marcus, a poet living in Ancient Rome, who finds himself in the middle of his patron’s plot to overthrow the Emperor. The game itself takes the form of a series of setpieces and conversations. The different characters, of course, have their share of secrets and hidden agendas, and the amount of that which is revealed depends on what you say and do.
The interface is streamlined; there’s the text of the story, icons of the characters involved in a given scene, and two buttons–”More” (the equivalent of typing WAIT in a parser environment) and “Act now”. Possible actions depend not only on what’s happening at the moment, but on your relationships with the characters and on things you’ve learned or decisions you’ve made. Give a character enough reasons to be your enemy, and they’ll act like it. The interface gives a sense of kinesis to the story–something is always happening, whether you’re directly participating or letting it happen around you. It’s effective–the story is about being swept up in events much larger than yourself and attempting to gain control of them.
When it works, it works. There are dinner parties where people will think you impetuous and rude if you talk too much, situations where you can act dumb in order to influence others to drop their guard, times where you have a choice between the same action with different motivations. There’a satisfying amount of stuff buried in the game to talk about, and it’s very carefully designed that you won’t be able to see everything until you’ve done a few playthroughs.
And yet, there are times when the engine might be a little too flexible for its own good. Versu’s site triumphs the possibility of emergent narratives in the game–Short even writes in a blog post about how something she thought was a bug turned out to be the result of two characters gossiping of their own accord. Under the hood, some extraordinarily complicated relationship management is going on, and Versu seems to be able to handle it.
Unfortunately, Versu isn’t at the point where it’s able to make this emergent behavior interesting to read. The most obvious is in the realm of romance. Marcus can form a relationship with any character; some relationships are better developed than others, certainly, but all of them feel fairly perfunctory in execution. Versu was co-developed by Richard Evans, whose credits include The Sims 3, and in fact that’s kind of how Blood and Laurels’s relationships work: You can “Decide to have a romantic relationship” with a character, select a bunch of appropriate wooing options, and find yourself in a romance.
But where The Sims is an abstraction–it’s explicitly designed so that interactions are simply a shorthand for something more sophisticated–Blood and Laurels is more directly representational. For example, the following transcript which occurred in the middle of an otherwise serious scene:
Veronius looks Marcus up and down with very obvious admiration.
Marcus watches Veronius with an interested but somewhat inscrutable expression.
Veronius looks shyly at Marcus and blushes.
Marcus gives Veronius a bright happy smile.
The noises from the street get louder again.
Veronius looks surprised that Marcus can be so cheerful just now.
Marcus squeezes Veronius’s hand encouragingly.
This exchange, in my transcript, goes on for more than a page. All of this is generated, boilerplate text. It feels superfluous, immersion-ruining–and uninteresting to read. I think of a point repeatedly brought up by Short’s contemporary Adam Cadre–passages of text in a work of IF should be rewarding. The vast, vast majority of Blood and Laurels‘s passages–the ones directly under the author’s control–are wonderful. The emergent bits feel like static. In many ways, it isn’t that far removed from Thorin singing about gold.
In general, for all of its focus on social modeling, Versu almost treats its characters like puzzle pieces. The game is divided into two parts; the first presents the initial situation and determines Marcus’s relationship to the various characters; the second part sees those decisions play out. But when beginning Part 2, instead of directly following your Part 1 decisions, you’re given a list of characters with various dispositions depending on the ones you’ve unlocked. And so, I can go straight to Part 2 and decide whether Veronius is going to be my Lover or my Friend (but not my Enemy, because I haven’t unlocked that one yet.) And while, yes, this helps out on replays–instead of going through all of Part 1 again, you can just twiddle the dials to the settings you want and jump straight into Part 2–it tends to diminish the promise of the story a bit. This makes Veronius seem more like a switch than a person. And there’s only so far I’ll listen to the argument that here’s an example of mechanics conveying meaning: This is a story about characters using each other as pawns in order to seize power, true, but this is a very clear reminder that these aren’t people–they’re a bunch of numbers that a computer is putting mathematical operations on. As far as I’m concerned, it fails the Turing test.
But if Versu has a few shortcomings, Blood and Laurels, as a story, does not. Short is clearly having fun in her vision of the Roman Empire. It’s full of lovingly-described feasts, whispered conspiracies, oracles and spirits–it is exactly what you want a story of intrigue set in Ancient Rome to be. The characters–the stars of the show–are vivid and memorable. Romancing them might not be the most interesting part of Blood and Laurels, but I very much enjoyed meeting all of them and navigating my way through their conspiracy.
You can pick up a copy of Blood and Laurels from the iOS App Store, but will need a device that runs iOS 6 or higher. This game is iPad compatible.