The Dutch Frame in “Black Crown”

Moments Lost

“Moments Lost” is a blog series where I deconstruct a single moment from a narrative game, of any vintage, and talk through how and why it works.

The Game: Black Crown (sometimes called The Black Crown Project) was a 2013 text game by Rob Sherman, built with a modified version of StoryNexus (best known for driving Fallen London). The game went offline in October 2014, and has not been playable since. To assemble this article I relied on contemporary reviews and screenshots, my own notes from playing at the time, and recently released source files and partial reconstructions of the game; see the bottom of this article for these links.

In the game, you arrive, disoriented, at a place called the Widsith Institute. It is not clear what is really happening and what is merely hypothetical:

\\\\Clerk!////
We apologise for this final, niggling question. It has just occurred to us.
\___PLEASE CONSIDER:___/
You are in the cleanest room you have ever seen. Every surface has been polished to a jewel’s hum. On a chaise longue in front of you is a pig. This creature is dying.
There are several things that you could do here, if you were any sort of person at all.
Screenshot courtesy Rock Paper Shotgun

The world at the institute is queasy and surreal. You are given choices whose outcomes are unclear — ignore the pig? kill it with the only implement at hand, a pen? stroke its head to soothe it as it passes? You discover you are wearing a thick rubber suit you cannot remove, called the Dutch Frame. You are weak, clumsy, and hot inside the suit. You can only see the world through a narrow strip at the eyes. You learn you are to be a Clerk at this Institute, but not, at first, what that means.

As you introduced to your new role, along with other rubber-suited figures you assume are (also?) human, you are given strange tasks centered around excavating buried histories. In between these assignments, you surreptitiously try to uncover details of your own identity and the people around you. Your body is constantly failing you, easily catching diseases or becoming injured, and every action saps your strength. The world is filled with things that are dying, decaying, infected, and deformed: soon enough, yourself included.

You try to remember when you last closed your eyes and did not feel everything acutely. It has certainly not been since you arrived at the Institute. Ever since you tried to ignore that pig, it has felt as if a lining of fingers has been stroking at you, gently, at those bags hung like mobiles inside you, which are not used to being touched.
Who could turn over and sleep with such an orrery inside them?
Black Crown landing page, circa early 2014.

While many reviewers praised the game’s dark and dreamlike writing, its effectiveness came also from a deep connection to the medium in which it was presented: the unique affordances and limitations of StoryNexus.

The Moment: At some point during my time with the game in 2013, I became suddenly aware of an acute parallel between the story of Black Crown and the way I was experiencing it. StoryNexus, designed to encourage players to keep returning each real-world day, limits by default the number of actions that can be performed in one sitting. Rather than offering direct input as in an adventure or parser game, actions are taken by choosing from “opportunities” that randomly become available, some of which are gated (or can only by successfully accomplished) by a random test against your stats. Some options can be unlocked by paying real-world money for them, but there’s rarely any indication of whether this content will be substantial, useful, or of interest, leading to stressful decision paralysis even for those opting to pay for the experience.

Opportunities in Black Crown.

Like Black Crown’s pitiful protagonist, I too could accomplish little each day with my available energy. We were both ineffectual at making progress. As the protagonist worked to excavate disconnected fragments of a buried history, I struggled to piece together a complex world and backstory, a process made difficult by mechanics ensuring I’d only ever see a few pieces at a time, and never enough to get my bearings. We both found ourselves in circular ruts, unsure if we’d seen this bit before, unsure if we were making progress towards anything, presented with dubious opportunities, strangely compelled to keep going regardless.

StoryNexus has many ingenious formal innovations, and I don’t mean to throw it under the bus. (I will in fact be writing more about it later in Changeful Tales.) But what made Black Crown memorable for me was the way its fiction fit so neatly into its platform’s limitations and frustrations. They thrummed together.

Playing the game was disorienting, frustrating, disturbing, and also a unique and unparalleled joy. There’s been no other game like it, before or since: the author once described it as a “rather excessive, microbial, non-epic, cough-em-up, text adventure shenanigan,” which only hints at its singular idiosyncrasies. Rather than helpfully illume, as the functional text in interactive stories generally does, Black Crown’s writing as often as not obscures. In one set of sequences, the Institute tries to discourage Clerks from escaping by prompting them to imagine an escape that goes horribly wrong, regardless of what choices you make. Author Rob Sherman points out:

“So much of what the player does is imagining, because they are so disconnected from the world. You know, they have very limited physical ability, which I suppose is another thing that is different from most traditional games. … You cannot run, you cannot jump, you cannot do any of the things you do in a videogame. You can barely see anything; you even have to imagine your own body because it is enclosed in the rubber suit. The Escape-storylets have that element of being hypothetical, but they also reinforce the fact that there is this huge landscape just outside the glass of your visor, but you cannot really ever experience it…”
Screenshot courtesy The Atlantic.

Every interactive story, of course, embeds its player in a Dutch Frame. In art, a frame in the Dutch style is one which rejects gilding and ostentation in favor of a simplicity that highlights the picture itself. Would that we had such interfaces for storygames! Every text adventurer struggling to guess the right verb, every dialog tree that doesn’t include the thing you most want to say, and every fat finger that slaughtered a merchant instead of haggling with him speaks to this. We see story worlds through obscure windows and operate them via awkward waldos. Even VR is still seen through a screen door, and its stories can barely be operated at all.

Crown leaned into this Frame, this disconnect, and asked whether it’s really an obstacle to be overcome or a barrier protecting us. Do we really want more emotional involvement with our military shooters, or augmented reality horror? The protagonist comes to live in constant fear of all the things outside the suit that might cause pain, of rips and tears, of inundation or penetration by anything external. “[It] was all about quarantine, stymy, barrier, regulation, distance and membrane,” the author has said. Each of its thousands of sentences worried in one way or another at the dangerous border between us and its storyworld, never allowing us to entirely forget it, never allowing words to become purely functional, always striving to touch something more visceral, more dangerous, even in its most straightforward descriptions:

The corpses of something primeval curl over the last of the boulders through which the river squeezes. It spills out onto a thick pebble beach, and massages its way down to the saltwater in flirtatious little courses.

Or this one:

Your lungs feel like a set of keys that you are trying desperately not to drop into your own drain.
Icons from Black Crown.

Black Crown is no longer playable in its original form, and may never be again, another casualty of the ephemeral web. But its deft weaving together of theme, content, and platform left a mark on many psyches that will not be easily forgotten.

Additional Reading: There is a criminal lack of scholarship about Black Crown. The archived homepage reveals little of the squirming labyrinth that was once inside. Some launch announcements give a sense of the hope for the project and its commercial entanglements, but there are few full reviews (here’s one). Fans of the game documented their playthroughs, gathered on social media, and assembled a Black Crown Wiki, all invaluable resources for looking back on it. Author Rob Sherman has also done several interviews about the game.

However, more recent developments have pulled the game back from the brink of being entirely lost. Last year the author released all the game’s content on Github under a free, non-commercial license, including all text, images, and metadata as well as early drafts and design notes. Turning these thousands of pieces back into a playable game (or perhaps a different playable game) is an exercise left to the reader: at least one attempt has already appeared.

The author’s most recent endeavor is Project knole.