Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Nemean Lion

Emily Short made me aware of a new mini-game by Adam Cadre, Nemean Lion. That second link will take you to a place where you play the game online, and you might want to do so before reading on. It is very short.

Now when I played the game, I more or less typed this: "push rock", "hit lion with club", "strangle lion", "cut lion", "hit king" - and thus missed most of the point. The ideal play-through is (and you might want to try this out if you haven't yet done so) "cut lion", "drink".

So what is happening here? Nothing qualitatively different from what happens in many other interactive fiction games. When "eat apple" automatically leads to the implicit action "take apple", the parser is filling in the details for us in order to make the play experience more smooth. In the same way, the parser fills in the details for us here--but of course, these are a lot of details, and they might be considered more important and interesting than taking the apple.

Most games only automate actions that are (a) obviously necessary for doing whatever it is the player typed, and (b) the kind of oft-repeated actions that players have type again and again in all the games they play. Taking stuff, opening doors, using keys to unlock things - you've done it countless times before, and you're not missing out on anything if you don't get to do them now.

However, as Emily also points out, there are other uses of automated actions. One could implement a difficult machine that the player can fiddle with if so inclined, or just activate with a single high-level command if not. You can either type "play don giovanni", or "take don giovanni / turn on stereo set / press open / put don giovanni in tray / press close / press play / press next track / g / g / g / g / g / sing". When would this be useful? You might be tempted to say that it's always useful, because it allows players who enjoy fiddling with stuff to fiddle, and players who do not enjoy fiddling to get on with the game.

But anyone who knows the first things about interactive fiction understands that things don't work that way. The player who enjoys fiddling is almost guaranteed to type "play don giovanni" and never to find out that he could also have fiddled. The same would happen to the other player, mutatis mutandis. As Aaron Reed once said about Blue Lacuna: every player appears to get the story he least enjoys. (This is not an exact quote.) The problem here is giving the right signals: interactive fiction has a powerful convention that if you can take actions on a certain level of abstraction, then that is the level of abstraction on which you have to do things.

This convention is incredibly useful, because the main problem of interactive fiction is exactly this: to make the player understand the space of possible commands and their effects. The player will have agency in the game exactly to the extent that he can guess which inputs will work (and very few of the incredibly many possible inputs will) and what they will do. In order to give the player this agency, interactive fiction games typically have a set of standard commands with associated standard behaviours. But a game could get away with other commands and behaviours, as long as it introduced the player to them and then kept applying them consistently. Among other things, this would normally mean introducing a single level of abstraction and sticking to it. There is nothing confusing about a game that answers to "cut lion" by describing a whole scene that ends with cutting the lion; but it would be very hard indeed to keep confusion out of a game that treats "cut lion" and "hit lion" as belonging to widely different levels of abstraction.

So I assume that creating multiple levels of abstraction is generally not a good idea, because you will end up confusing the player and thereby taking away his agency, his whole idea of being in charge of the protagonist.

It might be claimed that Nemean Lion is not really about levels of abstraction (cutting a lion is not more abstract than pushing a rock), but about chains of necessary conditions, strings of cause and effect. But the same point applies: unless you understand the chains in advance, confusion must result.

Okay, so I have been quite negative about multiple levels of actions, but Emily is positive about it. She writes:
this kind of multi-level implementation can produce the sense of an experienced protagonist moving easily through a world that is nonetheless deep enough to allow experimentation.
I am not convinced. If your game allows experimentation, but experimentation is not rewarding, you would have been better of not implementing it. If, on the other hand, experimentation is rewarding, why would you write your game in such a way that it discourages experimentation, or at the very least does not encourage it? It sounds like you are trying to keep two different types of gamers happy at the same time, while it is generally a better idea to just choose one type of experience you wish to create and write all of your game with that type in mind. Otherwise, you fall into the trap that so many pen & paper RPGs have fallen into - trying to please all GNS-types at the same time, and ending up by being an incoherent mess.

This is not to say that it couldn't work; but you would have to do some very clever signalling. Don't read my post as a warning. Read it as a challenge.

Of course, you could also accept the confusion that results from multiple levels and use it to your advantage - there is nothing a shrewd artist cannot make use of, as Cadre has illustrated for us with Nemean Lion.



P. S. Why is it Heracles? I can understand Hercules, from the Latin, and Herakles, from the Greek, but where does this hybrid come from?

10 comments:

  1. I do think that there might be a place for a tiered experience in "big" games; it certainly works alright for Blizzard and World of Warcraft. But I agree that small creator-owned games will benefit more from a focused approach.

    And of course, there are no big IF games at the moment. Which is quite a shame, because you'd think the tools were there to make something that people would pay 5$ for.

    (PS: For the same reason it's usually "Socrates": The hard c is the typical transliteration from the greek kappa.)

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  2. Oh, you might want to add some spoiler text to your entry at the beginning, because you give away the answer to the puzzle before the RSS reader cuts your entry off.

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  3. Pliz, let the readers to know you are doing spoiler!!!

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  4. @ Anonymous & tomb:

    I'd say that my second sentence is a spoiler warning, but, more importantly, Nemean Lion isn't really spoilt by a walkthrough. The joke is in the responses to those actions, and could even be enjoyed by reading a transcript. In that sense, Nemean Lion is very different from another short game by Adam Cadre, for which I would post major spoiler space.


    @ Nick:

    Can you tell me something about the tiered experience in World of Warcraft?

    I can see how a game like WoW can allow for different play styles, and also how it can allow for different kinds of exploration - making your own equipment through a painstaking process of research, trial & error and production VS just buying something in the local store or picking it up in an "instance". You could have multiple domains of exploration, and this would work in IF as well (though it's easier to implement with a big team!).

    But what I was talking about in this post, actions on different levels of abstraction - I'm not quite sure how that would work in a game like WoW?

    Now you are probably right when you say that multiple levels will work better in a large game. In a large game, you can gently "train" the player, until she becomes familiar with the idiosyncracies of your piece--including its use of multiple levels of abstraction.

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  5. To go into a little more detail about what I was thinking:

    It's not always possible for an IF player confronted with a new bit of machinery to know at what level to operate it. We expect implicit actions to work for some things (going through doors, perhaps) that are already well-established, but what are the atomic actions for working a 1940s phonograph (Shelter from the Storm) or an Elizabethan printing press (The King of Shreds and Patches)? Our protagonist knows, but we ourselves might not.

    Players faced with the strange machinery don't always go about it in the same way. Sometimes they'll type the abstract instruction and hope for the best (PLAY RECORD), but sometimes they'll try to fiddle with the machinery because it's implemented or simply because they're interested in learning about this object. Of course it's possible for the game to refuse to play along at one of the ends of the scale ("You'll have to be more specific" in response to PLAY RECORD, say, or "You can just PLAY RECORD" in response to attempts to fiddle with the needle). But as a player I generally appreciate it when the game is willing to go along with the level of interaction I first attempt: perhaps prompting me that a more abstract command is available, but not absolutely preventing me from exploring the object as a toy.

    However, as you say, this approach probably isn't appropriate for everything, especially a highly narrative game in which ten minutes of teaching oneself about period machinery will significantly detract from the pacing.

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  6. The problems go a bit deeper than merely influencing the pace of a narrative game.

    Would you appreciate being able to tinker with the printing press if the only thing you could achieve by that would be creating whatever it is you'd create by typing "USE PRESS"? Surely what makes exploring a complex machine rewarding is that at the end you know how to achieve different things with it?

    If you knew that the printing press could be operated in detail, would you not expect to be able to use this at some point of the game? Wouldn't you even expect it to be necessary, especially in a puzzle game?

    Perhaps we can see the dilemma most clearly by imagining three players: player T, who loves to toy around with stuff; player N, who loves to explore the narrative possibilities of the piece; and player G, who loves to solve puzzles, or at least get to the best ending by using his wits.

    Now if you implement a detailed printing press in order to please player T, you will have to ensure that you can actually do some things with this press. Create different kinds of print, for instance. If you can only follow the steps towards a single outcome, the press isn't much of a toy.

    So now we have different possible prints, but of course, the fun for T will be much greater if you can actually see the effects of the difference in situations in which you could use them. But here is the dilemma. If the different prints have an effect on the story, player N will want to have them as well! If you just allow him to "USE PRESS", thus barring some of the possible narrative developments, he will feel cheated. If the different prints have an effect on the puzzles or other gamist interests, player G will want to have them as well. Again, if you just allow him to "USE PRESS", he will feel cheated out of some of the content.

    So if we meaningfully integrate a detailed printing press into the story/game, we will have forced player G and player N to toy with the machine. But if we don't meaningfully integrate it, it isn't much of a toy.


    On top of this, there is the big problem of signalling. "You could play with this machine, and it is fun, and you'll learn something about Elizabethan printing, but don't expect it to have any influence on the story!" is not easily conveyed through subtle hints, nor are any of its alternatives.

    If you do manage to convey such a message, implementation in multiple levels might be a positive thing. But this is not easy, and the implementer should be aware of the dangers.

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  7. (PS & Nick: I would have thought it is "Socrates" because this again is taken from the Latin. But on the other hand, the English do write "cacophony" where the Dutch write "kakofonie", so I suppose you are right that the kappa is transliterated into a "c" in English. A strange choice, given that the kappa looks like a k, and presumable is the actual ancestor of the Roman k.)

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  8. You can just enter "get skin"... I would think this is sufficiently more abstract than entering "cut skin".

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  9. Now if you implement a detailed printing press in order to please player T, you will have to ensure that you can actually do some things with this press. Create different kinds of print, for instance. If you can only follow the steps towards a single outcome, the press isn't much of a toy.

    Well, yes and no. This assumes that the only interesting outcomes from the toy are success outcomes. But what if the toy is fun to fail with?

    In Savoir-Faire, I know some players found it amusing to combine liquids into appalling recipes or to break things deliberately. Those were often counterproductive actions from the point of view of the gamer or narrative player (except inasmuch as they possibly helped the gamer to understand the simulation better in order to manipulate it more effectively).

    I don't think The King of Shreds and Patches actually allows you to make bad prints -- you either succeed in working the machine or you don't, as I recall. (Maybe I just didn't work it out right, though.) But I could imagine an implementation in which the player can produce various suboptimal outcomes that would be interesting and toylike while not at all undermining the value of USE PRESS.

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  10. Hm, okay.

    I don't think the Savoir Faire example is too convincing in itself, since here the level of the actions is dictated by the puzzles, and the fooling around takes place on that same level. So we do not have a multi-level design, and we do not have the potential for confusion that such a design would entail.

    But the point it makes is that some players like to try out many different ways to fail, and don't expect these failures to have a further impact on the story/game. Fair enough. You'd still have to signal to the players that they don't have to fool around if they don't want to, and won't miss out on any story / advantages, but otherwise it will simplify the design problems considerably.


    I love engaging in a thematic story, and I love gaming a system (though I like the standard IF puzzles of thorough exploration and quasi-logical association less), but toying with stuff just for the sake of toying leaves me quite cold. So that may make me blind to some of the pleasures that multi-level design can give other people. :)

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