Versu's Epilogue: How an Interactive Fiction Pioneer's 15 Year Project Ended Up in Limbo at Linden Lab
When Linden Lab discontinued its interactive fiction platforms dio and Versu not long after Ebbe Altberg took the reins as CEO, it seemed like most people understood why. For some, these two products were a bit too far removed from the Lab's wheelhouse. Others were relieved, assuming that by trimming the fat LL would be refocussing some of its energy on Second Life. In Altberg's own words, it was just "clean up". "There’s some things that are not as aligned," he told Hamlet during a recent interview.
However there's a particularly sad tale tied up in Versu's fate (literally) and it's why you won't find me applauding this clean up any time soon.
Versu was co-developed by acclaimed interactive fiction writer Emily Short, and for over a year most of the stories she's made have been strictly for Versu. The unfortunate result of this is that Linden Lab now owns these stories as well as the platform itself, including titles that were developed but had yet to be released. That library includes Blood and Laurels, a story that Short had been working on in one form or another for nearly 15 years.
"This is a story premise I thought of back in the early 2000s," Short told me via email, "and I then tried several times to write it in various IF languages (Inform 6 and 7, and ChoiceScript). None of those engines were well suited to handling the amount of social interaction involved." She continued, "I wanted a big sprawling piece with lots of plot, but in which in each individual scene it mattered how you treated the other characters. I couldn't really make it work until I tried it as a Versu project, and it was finally possible to build it the way I wanted to."
It seemed like Versu and Blood and Laurels were a perfect fit, but when Linden Lab shuttered the platform, her masterpiece had yet to be released. It had only been seen by a handful of people, and rewriting it for release outside of Versu with LL owning the rights just isn't a possibility.
Initially, Short had hoped to buy Versu and related IP back from LL. In fact there was more than just Blood And Laurels on the line, as she'd also been pushing for Versu's use in education. As she wrote on her blog:
Aside from wanting to see our hard work out there, I’m concerned that people who had started working with the Versu toolset in academic environments continue to be able to use that toolset and, ideally, have a way to publish their work for others to play with. I may not be able to make that happen, but it would mean a lot to me to be able to do so.
Linden Lab later denied her request to buy back the code and IP... As is their right. Short herself has said that without Linden Lab's early support, Versu likely wouldn't have come together at all. Even so, their choice to sit on something they don't want is a disappointing one to say the least, especially for Short and fans of her work... Myself included.
The handling of both Versu and dio never did sit right with me. Released within only a couple weeks of each other, at the time it all seemed a bit much. At a time when interactive fiction and visuals novels are experiencing a resurgence in popularity thanks to the DIY gaming community and programs like Twine, neither platform seemed like it was being given a fair chance.
All said, Short herself is still optimistic. In response to a comment on her blog, she said, "This is definitely not the end of my trying to build more socially-focused IF, and we did learn a huge amount about how to make that work, not just in terms of a technical engine but in terms of authoring approaches." Even beyond her own projects, the surge of interest in interactive fiction and visual novels is heartening for Short. In our email exchange, she told me, "I think that's all extremely exciting: there's so much going on at the moment that it's difficult for me to keep up with it, and I spend a lot of time in this area. It's wonderful to see so much interest in interactive storytelling, and so many different approaches to it. There are still, I think, some tools I'd like to see that don't yet exist, but we'll get there."
Even if I never get to read Blood and Laurels for myself, even if every piece of Versu is caught in corporate limbo indefinitely, I'm looking forward to seeing what Short will do next. Her forward-facing attitude and the lessons learned during Versu's short life will no doubt lead to more exceptional work in her future.
Iris Ophelia (@bleatingheart, Janine Hawkins IRL) has been featured in the New York Times, and has spoken about SL-based design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and with pop culture/fashion maven Johanna Blakley.