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Black Crown: hands-on preview

Random House's first venture into gaming is a darkly fantastic interactive novel that's web-based and free-to-play

Random House, one of the world’s biggest publishers, has made its move into gaming with the release of Black Crown by Rob Sherman. A dark work of speculative fiction, it’s built using the Failbetter Games Storynexus web-based gaming platform best known as the back-end to Fallen London. We had an opportunity to play a limited pre-release version of the game which allowed us to explore a couple of story threads.

Like other Storynexus games, Black Crown gives you a limited number of turns that can be spent on various actions. Once spent, your turns are gradually replenished over time. The gaming experience itself is somewhat along the lines of a choose-your-own adventure story. In keeping this its literary origins, you get far more text to enjoy than you’d expect for a standard turn-based web game.

It’s also far more artful. Both the style of prose and the way the passages and descriptions in the game convincingly reference entirely fictional materials is reminiscent of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, and the narrative weaves a similarly twisted path to lead you into its world. As the game unfolds, you’re also given access to images, objects, stories and essays hosted elsewhere. Each fragment provides further depth and insight to a world and game experience that evolves based on your choices.

The premise is simple enough: you’ve been recruited by the mysterious Widsith Institute to help sift through documents and artefacts containing information about a world beyond the edge of the world and the mysterious destruction of a town called Loss. It soon becomes apparent that your research is a far from academic affair as the hypothetical scenarios you’re presented with manifest as experiences that are all too real.

It’s certainly visceral. One of the first situations we encountered, presented as part of a personality test to determine our fitness to work for the institute, confronted us with a maimed and dying animal. Our attempts to put it out of its misery were met with a kind of mocking futility. For our trouble, we contracted a disease, one of many that will come to plague you as you continue your research.

Black Crown - pig

The still images which illustrate the game are in keeping with the narrative’s disturbing atmosphere

Described by its creators as “a story with game-like elements”, Black Crown is an odd combination of casual and immersive gaming. The story and writing style are weird in the best possible way, and will definitely appear to fans of horror and dark fantasy fiction. The depth of the world that’s been created here was obvious for even our restricted exploration of it. The turn limit means that you can’t – under normal circumstances – tear through it too fast. This leaves you with plenty of time to wonder and worry about the story threads you’ve left hanging.

The story is designed to be a unique experience built up of the decisions you make within it. It launches with three months worth of content already in place. That’s a quarter of the total content, with the rest to follow over the course of the next 12 months. Unlike Fallen London, Black Crown is designed to come to a conclusion, although the exact nature of what happens in the end will differ for each player.

We were intrigued by Black Crown, although the enduring depth of its story and gameplay remains to be seen. However, we have some reservations about the its use of micro-transactions. Micro-transactions aren’t a problem per se – the game has to be monetised some way, and this approach isn’t unduly obtrusive. The publisher guarantees that the full gaming experience is available for free, and that micro-transactions will only serve to buy extra turns, unlock events that you’d otherwise have to wait for, and pay for in-game extras, which don’t add to the main storyline but provide extra background information on the world. There’s even some narrative benefit to having to wait and see how events turn out.

However, the purchasing system for Storynexus’ Nex currency is rather hideous. Rather than just allowing you to buy currency, its packed with spammy offers to get free Nex credits by watching videos or downloading versions of legitimate open source software which have been wrapped in installation packages that force adware, browser bars and other borderline malware upon you. It’s not a very pleasant or sophisticated environment and we strongly advise against downloading anything through it, although buying Nex through PayPal works perfectly well.

Black Crown launches today and is free to play. Additional material supporting the game world includes the short story Lincoln’s Bedsheet and the fictional essay Mour, Mour, Mour, both of which are free to download as ebooks.

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