Renga in blue

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Link to new blog

I have been posting in my new location, which is here.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Statistics in interactive fiction

I refer here to Negotis: Book 1, from the IntroComp 2005, and Emily Short's review:

I'm fine with the idea that there are many ways to solve a puzzle, some of which lead to better results than others: that's deterministic, and on careful replaying I could get a good result on my own. There's a kind of fun in this, if I'm in the right mood. But I see no fun in optimizing the success of a runthrough by saving and restoring until I happen to get the dice roll to come out in my favor.

There is lurking here the awkward relationship to variable simulationism that has always been in IF. Text naturally comes off as a discrete medium compared to a graphical game; the character might be standing in room X, not exactly 200 pixels to the right and 500 pixels forward from the entrance. Failure in a discrete medium invites a limited range of responses compared to a graphical one (where the player may be able to choose to run away in a multitude of directions rather than just 'out').

In Negotis, the gameworld itself does is not simulationist enough to maintain a simulationist PC. A discrete task it set before the player: they either succeed or not. A "sneak" skill modelled in, say, Morrowind, would have the sneak fail at a specific location (perhaps in the early first steps, or halfway through, or right as the character is about to reach the exit), meaning even if there is a random roll involved there are numerous ways to fail.

In a human-run RPG, the fun thing about stats is that they *do* give the player a way to customize his experience -- by letting him design a character in advance and thus choose what sorts of experiences he's likely to run into during play. Get rid of the character-design aspect and you've lost a lot of the point of having them.

Computer RPGs have the additional effect of the pleasure of seeing a character build. There are some computer RPGs with minimal character creation that justify their stats merely in that the player can build them up in the course of the story. Robert DeFord might have similar notions in mind, but the arc here unfortunately is not large enough to sustain any real feel of customization. (This is, of course, also merely an intro, so things in this aspect might turn out for the best.)

I also find (in its present state) the sheer process of character building simply isn't strong enough to work here. I am reminded of the "strength building" in Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness wherein if a player was not strong enough to perform a particular task, they found a box and pushed it back and forth a couple times until their skill magically increased.

Computer RPGs can suffer from the same problem, but they do at least give more an illusion of gradual development while possibly adding drama to a repetitive task. For example, the strength increase in Nethack for pushing a boulder requires pushing around 100+ times while the player is danger of being attacked and is running out of food.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Gradation of failure

So, jumping puzzles: ack.

To be more specific, back in the days of Super Mario Brothers, it was ok to fall in holes a bit, because anything bad either killed you or was a step away from death. The system was consistent.

However, that same mechanic was transported to games (such as Rastan) where you had a great deal more "health" and while one could take 10+ "hits" a fall into a pit still killed instantly. It's jarring in this context because the player has to deal with two gradations of failure, one that allows a (relatively) large number of mistakes and one that does not.

To summarize: failure can be swift if a mistake is made (large gradation) or gradual with an accumulation of mistakes (small gradation).

IF (if it has it at all) tends to be focused on instant failure. If something goes wrong
*** You have died ***
rather than the situation becoming slightly more complex or difficult to handle. (Which is essentially what happens if one is "hit" in a platformer -- the character has less health points, or is off balance, or is in an awkward position.)

In the early days of IF, small gradation happened to a degree because of resurrection. Players could sacrifice a number of points for a revival. Once scoring systems because less fluid, UNDO was introduced and players reached for the RESTORE command more, this practice died out.

In modern works with no scoring system, it would be possible to design a work of IF with built-in gradual failure. These failures would essentially be plot branches, perhaps presenting an extra difficulty in a puzzle. For example, a character might set off an alarm while sneaking into a house; rather than sending a *** You have triggered the alarm *** message, the character may just have more guards to deal with later. Of course, one might expect players to RESTORE and rectify the situation, but if the puzzle in question is difficult enough, the player may decide it is worth skipping the puzzle and dealing with the guards instead.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Designing multiplayer puzzles

Let it be said: multiplayer puzzles are hard. Back at my first post I discuss how a puzzle where two players push buttons simultaneously is changed into a natural action.

However, sadly, such a setup is often presented as a puzzle. Surely, multiplayer puzzles can be more interesting than "everyone perform action X in multiple locations". (To be technical, I'll call them symmetrical puzzles.)

The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventure presents some excellent multiplayer puzzle design. A brief overview: the style is 2D action-adventure, like Zelda in the SNES days; there are four characters or "Links", each a different color; each can be controlled by a different player. I find three major principles:

1. Asymmetrical puzzles.
This is similar to the simplistic puzzle of requiring all players to find places and push a button, but in this case different players need to perform different actions (example: one player holds open a section of wall while another shoots through it with an arrow).

2. Uniqueness.
The Links each can carry only one item, so the game has player-selected temporary uniqueness. One Link may be carrying the hammer and another may be carrying the feather; with both required to pass a certain puzzle, multiple players are required.

Note that uniqueness can be intrinsic (that is, permanent uniqueness), in the same way different characters in an RPG have different "powers" that make up a team. In Four Swords this is done in a fairly simplistic manner by matching certain devices with certain colors (so only the player of the right color can use them).

3. Dependency.
Uniqueness can create a condition where two Links are cojoined in proximity; to be specific, sometimes one Link needs to carry another. (For example, the Link with the feather may need to carry the Link with the hammer to get to where the rock should be destroyed.) These moments create a greater sense of teamwork (since if one Link falls, the other does as well).

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Missing history

Quiz time: what game is being referred to in these quotes?

In essence, the animals would do to each other anything that they could do to or with you. So we would constantly have animals interacting in ways that had never been progammed or envisioned.

Also . . . you could interact with the animals in ways we'd never thought of. So people would constantly be writing to us telling us they'd done things that we never thought of, and didn't realize the game was capable of.

STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, perhaps? Or possibly The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion?

Nuh-uh. These quotes are from Veronika Megler in an interview on the site L'avventura รจ l'avventura.

They are referring to The Hobbit, first published in 1982.

It wasn't a poor seller (over half a million copies sold in Europe). However, it seems to have fallen out of the gamer consciousness.

Certainly, if one pokes about at the various histories, Beam Software (the developer) and Melbourne House (the publisher) make it in. However, most details I've seen (on those companies specifically and in general) tend to be on the companies themselves, rather than innovations in game mechanics. There's a lack of material on the actual content of games, so a student looking for a particular element needs to start from scratch; there's an intimidating number of works to plow through if someone is searching for a mechanic rather than a plot theme.

I find a real need for the sort of history work done with art and music history, with details about content that go past "in the old days, there were more mazes than there are now" so a future scholar can pick out that obscure game from 1980s that advances his or her point.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Telling ambiguity

So, as Sean Barrett points out in my last post, I botched considering the possibilities of TELL in the ASK/TELL system to break out of conversation as a mere series of questions.

Adding TELL makes conversation a series of nouns, but it's an improvement. However, there's a deeper problem with the verb, and it's the ambiguity of, say,

What are you saying to Lester about the knife, exactly? That it exists? That it was found as evidence in the bedroom? That his fingerprints are on it? That you claim his fingerprints are on it, even though they aren't?


Is it supposed to be a compliment or an insult?


Is this about how much money it cost, or how good it looks, or the location?

With ASK, assuming the player meant to say "tell me everything you know about topic X" doesn't cause many problems. The limit of information given is defined by the NPC. TELL is trickier to parse; since the information is inside the PC it should theoretically be the player specifying where to begin and stop. The player briefly loses control of the PC (moreso than with ASK, at least).

Sometimes context makes it obvious what the PC should say, but if the author means to allow a great deal of TELLling, there's going to be nonobvious cases as well.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Conversational cutscenes

A long-held charge against conversation menus is that they are modified cutscenes of sorts -- infodumps where the player will pick every choice given to avoid missing anything. Take the following, for example, from Andrew Plotkin's review of The Longest Journey:

And that means each conversation is a cut scene. It is not interactive. I can't put it more clearly than that. You sit back and listen to the pre-scripted dialogue, occasionally clicking a menu option to hear the next paragraph. You could skip some options, or leave early, of course -- but why bother? You're just going to come back later and listen to the rest. It's the shallowest kind of interactivity.

However, I contend that the ASK/TELL system can contain the same problem -- only even worse.

Consider the average static NPC with information. The standard behavior with ASK is to try every reasonable term that comes to mind, with the difference that a.) everything the PC says is a question, so there's not a great deal of dialogue variety from that end and b.) half the responses are "I don't know anything about that."

Now, one might argue ASK/TELL is superior in it requires more ratiocination (and it does) but it also contains the two flaws I just mentioned. It is a tradeoff. In a mystery, I'd say the thinking process of ASK/TELL is more important than the possibility of hitting unknown topics; in a game where the characterization of the PC is vital, the story benefits from expanded dialogue options (so Guybrush Threepwood from the Monkey Island games always has a selection of jokes to choose from).

I'd say the problem in general is not with the system chosen, but the static infodumping NPC in general.

There are alternatives:

* Galatea is interesting in it has a "mood maze" where the same question may receive different responses depending on what occurred before.

* Other NPCs react relatively dynamically to events and will respond differently to the same question based simply on situation.

* Dialogue options can be mutually exclusive, and can be actions that affect the plot -- the choice of gilded words versus an insult, the choice to lie rather than tell the truth.

I'll make a deeper examination of these tactics in the future. Any of them can reduce the cutscene effect, with both dialogue menus and ASK/TELL systems.


As a postscript, let me also add: even with an static NPC's dialogue menu, the experience isn't quite the same as a cutscene. A cutscene essentially makes the game a hybrid -- whether with a novel as in text games (like The Legend Lives!) or with movies as in graphical works (like the Xenosaga series). The mere act of choosing what to say next serves to break the information in chunks, and maintains an illusion of player control of the PC (however rudimentary).