Sunday, September 20, 2009

An interview with Jimmy Maher – Part 2

This is the second part of an interview with Jimmy Maher, the first part of which can be found here. This part will contain several spoilers for The King of Shreds and Patches, so proceed carefully.

Let us talk about some specific changes you made to the original scenario by Justin Tynes. One important change has to do with the representation and implementation of insanity. In Call of Cthulhu, the players have to roll sanity checks whenever their characters encounter something occult and transgressive. Failed sanity checks lead to loss of sanity, and thus, most of the player characters will slowly spiral down towards madness. In your adaption, there are also moments where the main character can become insane; but these are clearly cued and can easily be avoided. In effect, the protagonist is "making" all his sanity checks, and avoids madness entirely. Did you consider the idea of incorporating the RPG sanity system into your adaption, either in its original random form or in some determinstic variant? And if you did, what made you decide against it?

Well, I definitely didn't want the player to see a numerical sanity meter going down over the course of the game – nothing could be more mimesis-destroying. I suppose I might have been able to have a hidden sanity score, and convey Fletcher's declining mental state to the player more subtly, through (his perception of) the appearance of his surroundings, other people, etc., but this would have presented an enormous coding and writing challenge in a game that already had plenty of them for this first time author. Even had I done this, I would not have been able to use the sanity rules as presented in the scenario, because, again, this scenario was written for six players. A single player playing by Tynes's rules would likely be a gibbering lunatic before he got halfway through, unless incredibly good and/or incredibly lucky. And then there's the fact that, as discussed above, a few failed "die rolls" could end up killing the player, and that's something I just couldn't accept.

Emily Short, incidentally, had a very interesting response to the system I did implement, one that never really occurred to me. Check out her Play This Thing! review if interested.

While we are talking about insanity, it seems to me that your adaption puts far more emphasis on physical danger than did the original scenario. What purpose did this shift of emphasis serve?

I wasn't really consciously aware of doing this, but now that you mention it I guess I can see what you mean. Rather than representing any conscious change in emphasis, I think this was really just a byproduct of my fleshing out the scenario. I don't think there's anything in my game that a good GM would not have been capable of and even likely to improvise for his players in response to the role of the dice. Tynes's scenario, for instance, states simply that a "Pilot Boat skill -10% is needed to successfully moor the boat to the pier" outside van der Wyck's shop. I simply extrapolated from there the elaborate and detailed scene in my game, replacing (as always) dice rolls with tests of the player's (rather than Fletcher's) skill.

One change between the original scenario and your game, that you have already mentioned, is that you decreased the number of investigators from six to one. You told us that you believe this to be an improvement of the scenario, since it increases the feeling of spookiness, which certainly seems to be true. On the other hand, the original scenario quite strongly suggests that several of the investigators should die during the course of the game. I quote the passage on the appearance of the King: "If necessary fudge a couple of rolls to allow at least three of the investigators to get out alive." (p. 62). So we can expect that in the final stages of the RPG game, two or three of the six players will have lost their characters and are reduced to passivity, while the others are very much aware of the deadly danger that they face. In your IF adaptation, although the player character can die, this doesn't really affect the player: she will simply undo and play on.

Do you think this significantly influences how the scenario is perceived by the player(s)? If so, do you think there is any way for interactive fiction to mimic the effect of RPGs – in this specific case, and more generally in any case where the irreversibility of choices and die rolls is important to the RPG? For this seems to me one of the big questions when we are talking about the differences between the media.

That's a really, really good question. Eliminating the UNDO/RESTORE cycle is a worthy goal. I think that to go this way IF needs to become much more simulation-oriented. In action-oriented scenes in traditional IF, the element of simulation (read: emergent behavior) is generally nil. The player must rather find, generally through dying repeatedly and trying again, the exact sequence of steps the author planned for her to get through the scene. On the one hand, this can be kind of fun in itself, and even has a tradition in other sorts of computer games, such as platformers that demand the player rehearse an exact sequence of steps to get through a level. On the other, though, it's not exactly realistic, and only serves to pull the player out of the story and cause her to focus on (to use Graham Nelson's terminology) the crossword at the expense of the narrative.

I tried to get away from this in King's action sequences. Each will accept a wide variety of actions at any given point, and while all may not be equally successful, all will hopefully result in a sane, reasonable response. All of these situations are designed to be quite dynamic and responsive to the player, although they can of course all lead to the player's death if she doesn't think and react quickly.

Ultimately, it would be wonderful to create a game where the player is invested enough into the story to accept failures and negative results and keep playing; to create something that feels more like a living, breathing world than a brittle set-piece puzzle box. I think we're getting close to that ideal all the time, and I think IF is the better for it. To continue to progress, though, I think we need to find ways to ease some of the trivial burdens borne by IF authors. (I touched on this in my most recent SPAG editorial.) I'm actually toying with a project that might begin to do that... but the idea is still gestating and not quite ready to share with the world. :)

And again, and for a completely different answer to your question, see Emily Short's Play This Thing review of King. :)

The King of Shreds and Patches takes place against the background of Elizabethan London, a background which has been painted very convincingly. There is a lot of material about the setting in the original scenario, but I imagine that you came across many things that were not mentioned, but which you needed to know because of the medium you we were working in. Could you tell us something about that?

Oh, yes, absolutely... and thank you! As I already mentioned, I was quite interested in the time period and setting before I started writing King, and so – while certainly far from an Elizabethan or Shakespearian scholar – I did already know a fair amount about these subjects. As I worked on the game, though, I found I needed to know much more. Elizabeth's London by Liza Picard was a particularly excellent, accessible resource for learning about daily life of the time. I also had to do some fairly specialized research into printing presses and guns of the period, among other things. And I had to correct one glaring error in the original scenario: Tynes had the Hamlet premiere taking place in the evening. In reality, all plays at The Globe were staged during the afternoon, as lighting a space of that size using torches and candles would have been both impractical and dangerous in the extreme. (As it was, The Globe burnt down anyway, but it probably lasted much longer than it would have if it had been filled with flaming light sources every night.) Then again, I can't really say too much: I also moved John Dee from the historically correct Manchester to Mortlake because I didn't want to deal with an extended voyage out of the city.

And even with all my research, some things did slip by. Most embarrassingly, I had the Thames flowing the wrong way until it was caught by one of my beta testers very late in the beta cycle (thank you, Sam Kabo Ashwell... boy, did you save me some embarrassment). An artifact of this is still present in some of the released builds which refer to "upstream" where they should refer to "downstream."

For me, one of the best changes you made to Justin Tynes's work was a very subtle one: Tynes has Shakespeare watching Hamlet in the wings. In your version, Shakespeare is on stage as the ghost – as he probably was in reality. I suddenly realised that, shit, Shakespeare is the ghost!, just as Van der Wyck was casting his spell. A very good moment.

But this is merely a sneaky way of introducing a question which I would love to ask even though it has little to do with our official topic. The King of Shreds and Patches suggests, tongue-in-cheek of course, that Shakespeare was influenced as a playwright by his contact with the Cthulhu mythos. But it seems to me, and this made the scenario feel slightly awkward at times, that few writers are as far apart as Lovecraft and Shakespeare. Lovecraft's horror is all about forces greater than Man, transcendent evil, the destruction of the human; but Shakespeare is marvelously non-transcendent, always interested first and foremost in Man, or rather, men – so much so that according to Harold Bloom he has "invented the human". Putting Shakespeare into the Lovecraftian universe thus creates a strange tension, a tension that cannot be resolved within the tale. Since you are obviously well-versed in things Shakespearean, would you care to share your thoughts about the relation between his work and Lovecraftian horror?

Hmm... well. I can hardly imagine a more inappropriate comparison, when you put it that way.

I guess I should first confess that I'm not really a fan of Lovecraft's actual writing at all. Okay, let me be honest... I think Lovecraft is a pretty terrible writer, and not one I particularly want to read much more from. I do, however, odd as it may sound, really like the feel of the CoC game, and really like the Mythos as it's been elaborated by other writers – generally much better writers than Lovecraft. None of this is great literature, of course, but then how much IF really is? If we can manage the occasional well-crafted genre tale in the face of the sheer difficulty of IF development and the fact that none of us are getting much in the way of profit or even recognition out of it, I'd say we're doing pretty well. Perhaps King can at least meet that standard.

As for Shakespeare... Bloom is such a pompous old blowhard that you just have to love him, don't you? I wouldn't go so far as to say that Shakespeare "invented the human," but I do think he had a huge role in shaping the sensibility of the modern Western man. Beyond all that, though, Shakespeare is always, even in the darkest tragedies, all about life. He shares none of Lovecraft's nihilism. He's also, as you point out, no mystic. He's all about man, all about life here on this rock, in all its pain and glory and joy. Joy is particularly important here, I think. It's a shame that kids in school, at least in America, never seem to read any Shakespeare but the tragedies. I love the tragedies – King Lear leaves me a blubbering mess every time I approach it – but why promote the notion that everyone always dies in Shakespeare? Why not show the full picture? How about we expose kids to the joyous ending of Much Ado About Nothing, for instance? "Get thee a wife! Get thee a wife!"

I don't claim to make any profound statements about Shakespeare or his art in King, but I will just point to one thing in the face of the incongruity you've raised: Shakespeare, unlike Croft and Moore and Barker and even Dee and virtually everyone else who encounters the King, has the strength to turn away, to choose life over the temptation of the darkness. Perhaps that says a little something.

To wrap up this interview, let's return once again to the main topic, the adaption of an RPG scenario to interactive fiction. If someone came to you with the question "Is it a good idea to use such a scenario for my next piece of IF?", and you were to answer "Yes, if ...", what would you put in place of the three dots? understand that you are not going to be able to just duplicate the RPG's ruleset in Inform or TADS and port over the scenario verbatum. What works in IF doesn't always (or perhaps even mostly) work in an RPG, and vice versa; even if you rely on a published scenario for inspiration, expect to have to flesh out the story and setting, devise new puzzles and other challenges, and make quite a lot of changes. If the game system is for a more combat- and action-oriented ruleset such as D&D and, well, the vast majority of RPG's out there, your changes will likely need to be even more extensive than mine were, to the extent that your end result may be more "inspired by" than "adapted from."

That said, the RPG scene can be a huge source of inspiration and material for IF writers. I actually think published RPG materials other than scenarios might be even more fruitful to look at. A brief browse around the Drive-Thru RPG site shows tons of resources that could be of real value, from fully fleshed-out worlds and cultures in which to set your game to simple lists of evocative names for your characters to collections of brief, fairly generic story stubs on which to hang a game of your own devising. Obviously you'll need to contact the authors of material that you use extensively to make sure its use in a (presumably free) work of IF is okay, and obviously the quality of all this (like the quality of IF, for that matter) varies hugely, but I do think this is real treasure trove that most IF authors aren't even aware exists.

Will you yourself do more IF adaptations of RPG material in the future?

As I said, the response to King was quite good, sufficient to inspire me to think about doing another game based on another Call of Cthulhu scenario that particularly appeals to me. I've had ideas spinning in my mind for several months now about how I might approach it, but certainly haven't done any concrete work. I haven't even asked Chaosium and the author (who is, at least, available this time) for permission!

So... we'll see!

Well, good luck, and thanks for the interview!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting this -- I was really interested to read Jimmy's take on converting from the RPG.