Review of two narrative games: Freeq and CodeRunner

When apps appeared I, like everyone else, was very excited that I could have a spirit level on my phone. In my first month I downloaded countless other similarly useful apps which now lie neglected on my iPhone. What I really wanted was to use this incredibly powerful device to have “narrative experiences.” These might be interactive novels, or pervasive games, or hybrid TV/art. I imagined there would be a wave of them and soon new forms of interactive entertainment would emerge. I’m still waiting for the wave, but in the meantime a tiny stream has delivered two excellent markers of what the future could hold.

There may be a few reasons why the wave of new interactive narrative hasn’t arrived. One is that new forms are difficult to market. Is it a game? If so what kind of game? Another is economics. Making a decent product is expensive, how does one fund this kind of thing upfront?

FREEQ ($5) iPhone and Android by describes itself thus:

FREEQ is an audio adventure game about eavesdropping and meddling with the future.The game turns your handheld device into an antenna that can pick up and hijack radio signals from the distant future. Spy on the last society on Earth, interfere with people's lives, and try to solve the mystery of what ended the world.

FREEQ uses a unique storytelling engine that allows players to influence the events of the future by choosing who speaks to whom, and when, and what information is shared with what sources.

Established graphics and video production company Psychic Bunny performed a very impressive Kickstarter campaign to raise the $12k funding. They had only 35 funders, with one person investing $2.5k and two investing $1k. Presumably these people are from the business rather than punters. They used some of this money to pay for known voice-over actors and good audio production quality.

This praiseworthy game is deceptively simple. Fundamentally it is a linear audio drama with players choosing the order they hear the clips. The depth of possibilities has the sensation of being large and there is good use of occasional non-selected scenes which push the narrative forwards. The premise is intriguing and the script is well written and witty. Choosing the scenes is done by tilting the phone. I was doing it in bed which meant I had to sit up each time I made a choice. It’s a fun way of choosing that adds to the game element.

I was never sure how far into the narrative I was. Would this go on for hours, days? I could not be sure how much commitment was required. It was interactive, but I didn’t really have a role in the story. Interactivity was simply about delivering the story in a non-linear manner. I had time on my hands so was able to go through the whole story in one session. In my normal busy life I would have had to do it in several sessions. Would I have gone back, if I’d had to stop? The story was good, but not compelling – by no means a page turner.

I’d be interested to find out if it has been a business success. At over £3 a pop, I’d expect them to have repaid the trust of the investors, but is a one off interactive audio drama a viable form, even when it is disguised as a game? Perhaps the real disadvantage of this form is that it is a single story. Once completed there is no reason to return to the app. Is this a viable model? I’d love to know.

CodeRunner ($1.99) iPhone by describes itself thus:

The walls between fiction and reality collapse around you as your town becomes the setting of an intense alternate-reality, GPS driven spy-thriller where you star as an undercover agent.

In CodeRunner, players participate in the ultimate ARG experience through an espionage adventure with location-based gameplay and real-world riddles.

Very different from Freeq, Coderunner is also worthy of great praise. I really enjoyed playing it and became highly engaged. I returned to it on four or five occasions to complete the narrative. It is very much a game, but it also has a narrative structure and I had a strong role within the drama. As an agent undertaking missions I was constantly wondering if I was really on the right side. When I had to blow someone up with a lethal dose of radiation I got a genuine thrill followed by a big dose of guilt. I was being carried along by events and manipulated by an experienced control officer. Was I going to be able to rebel and address my doubts?

The production quality of audio and video was excellent and the performance of the control officer was top quality. The real creative strength of the app is that it adapts to where ever you are in the world – delivering effectively a localised drama. Cleverly the app combines randomly placed locations with others that have been chosen by other players of the game. In terms of business model an app that localises to where ever you are in the world makes a lot of sense. I think also of Hello Lamp Post a social media game where all the locations and content were created by the players – an incredibly scalable form.

In the case of Coderunner this geocaching element is also a weakness. Allowing players to create dropbox locations is an excellent element of the game, but in Bristol these are sparsely spaced which meant I had to walk some huge distances. I read in a review that someone had played it in less than two hours. In my case it took about five and this was largely down to the distances involved. The randomly generated locations were usually a little too far from where I was standing. Even when they were close, the app would not know that adjacent Bristol streets often don’t have cross streets so I found I had to walk half a kilometre to get to a location just a few metres away in the next street. It also doesn’t know that Bristol is hilly. Uphill locations take much longer to get to than downhill ones. I spent literally hours marching back and forth, often over the same streets, to complete the story. Secretly this may be an exercise app.

This is a great game and RocketChicken have built a great platform for delivering audio and video in localised dramas. It's sold as a game, but it satisfies my own need for dramatic structure. I look forward to more episodes of Coderunner.

This blog was moved in January 2016 from it's original location on where it had received 584 views.

Rik Lander

Rik Lander makes interactive and participatory narratives. Website

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