Monday, September 21, 2009

Article in "Wijsgerig Perspectief"

The Dutch popular philosophical journal Wijsgerig Perspectief (in the person of guest-editor Olga Crapels) asked me to write an article for an issue on survival, namely, an article about survival in roleplaying games. I was happy to oblige, and wrote an article called Een spel met de dood, which would translate as A game with death.

Normally, you would have to pay a stiff 13 euros to obtain a copy of the magazine, but it appears that the publisher has decided to put my article up at the website as the free teaser. So you can get it by clicking this link. Absolutely no guarantees that it will stay online!

Of course, you'll still have to be able to read Dutch in order to understand it. For those who don't read Dutch, I will give a very short summary. Stripped to its bare essentials, the argument is:
  • The experience of the fight for survival has disappeared almost completely from contemporary Western life. But we still want to experience it vicariously or as an illusion. (Think of watching Die Hard or bungee jumping.)
  • Most art (including Die Hard) is not very good at giving us the experience of survival, since it follows the convention of the novel, which is that the death of the protagonist, if it takes place, must be meaningful. (Walter Benjamin.) But when we fight to survive, we fight against a meaningless death.
  • Early RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons were uniquely suited for the purpose of representing survival, since they combined meaningful characters and meaningless death, and let the player struggle against this death.
  • But the reality of meaningless and irreversible death worked against the basic mechanic of amassing treasure and going level up.
  • Solution: decrease the chance of death, make death reversible, and so on. (Think World of Warcraft, were death equals a small loss of time, but nothing else.) Thus, the experience of survival was once again taken away.
  • Planescape: Torment manages to put death in the centre again, but... by adopting the conventions of the novel.
  • If we wish to experience the fight for survival, we must create RPGs that combine the meaningless deaths of early D&D with rules that do not work against this. (And we must perhaps wish for this experience, if only because it will allow us to understand better all those people in the world who are still confronted with the struggle for survival.)
If you would prefer to hear me speak about this topic (in Dutch), you can come to Discovery 2009, a festival in Amsterdam next friday the 25th. I'll speak about my article for exactly 400 seconds!

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?

...you 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!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

[IntroComp 2009] Comments

The IntroComp is one of the very few competitions that still have a rule of silence for judges during the competition period. Here's one vote to abolish it, Jacqueline! Anyway, the voting deadline is past, so I assume I can now post my comments.

Gossip

The protagonist is a journalist for a gossip magazine, albeit a "quality" gossip magazine. This is a good premise, and I'm sure a fine game can be created around it--especially if the paradoxes of fame and stardom are explored! The game is also apparently going to feature a clothing system: you can buy different kinds of clothing, and people will react to you based on what you decide to wear. Could be interesting, but I would make it even more central: let me wear different combinations of clothing, shoes, make-up, a hat... and make sure the impact on the people around me is clear. Most useful if the game itself is going to delve into the "fashion" part of the celebrity world, of course. (If the question is just whether you can choose the right dress for the right occassion, I'm afraid it will be a shallow puzzle system. Let us play around with the clothing, and have fun with it, if it's important! Perhaps there can be a party where we might either want to impress or to shock.)

The puzzles need work. The first puzzle was photographing someone in a park. The park was too big and featureless, the person I was seeking too hard to find (and even when I saw her, and she ran off, the game didn't tell me in which direction she ran!), and when I finally managed to take a shot of her I didn't know what I had done right! Fewer locations, more structure.

The party is a little bit better, but doesn't flow very well either. I had to use hints to get through it, and even then, the game wouldn't let me leave the party even after it said that I had enough information? Strange.

So: could be good, but needs more work.

Oh, and I would not put a sentence like this in my game: "She isn’t very interested in parties, because she also has kids." So has Britney Spears.


Obituary

This game was the best of the three. Good writing, though the authors ought to be very careful, because there is a constant temptation (to which they have perhaps already succumbed a few times) to take the style too far. Interesting story, that I would like to see more of. I wonder if it is necessary to start so magically, though? Did the sudden mist and the empty town serve any purpose? Surely, the protagonist can be shot by rednecks even where nothing supernatural is involved. Then again, these things may make more sense once one goes farther into the story.

Because the story is so unclear at this point of the game, it is very hard to say anything more constructive. The dissociated scenes might turn out to be thematically brilliant, or they might not--there is no way for me to say at this point.

But I'll be looking forward to this one.


Selves

You can pick up the shard of glass and cut yourself with it, causing you to bleed copiously and continuously. On the first turn of the game. This is good.

I didn't seem to get noticably weaker as I watched more and more blood drain from my body. This is not so good.

Also, after I cut myself and buried a body, I was transported back to the initial room and couldn't find anything else to do. There were no hints and no walkthrough available. So... was this all there was to do? Was there more? Either way, I can hardly give a good score to a game that I got stuck in after a couple of moves, nor can I say anything particularly enlightening about it.

[Art of Fugue] Fourth puzzle, source

I have partly rewritten The Art of Fugue. In the previous version, the game remembered each action, and simply changed the actor part of the action and tried doing it again. But what I really wanted was to remember each command, and parse that command anew for each actor. (This is very different. In the first case, "x me" would lead to each of the actors looking at Een; in the second case, it leads to each of the actors looking at themselves. The latter is what I wanted.) This significantly cleared up the code for puzzle three, since I had to do a lot of dirty hacking with the apples in the previous system.

I have also added a host of rules that should stop (most) multiple actions, like "take all" or "sing and jump".

I have added a fourth puzzle, which is almost perfect in its simplicity. There is a room with a lamp (currently off) and a single button. Pressing the button will turn the lamp on or off, depending on its current state. Challenge: get the lamp to burn for three consecutive turns.

And I have put the source code online! Consider it released under the GPL 3 or any later version. (But of course I'd appreciate you not forking it at this point in its development. Let's make a working full version of the game first!)

Game. Source.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

An interview with Jimmy Maher – Part 1

The Gaming Philosopher is happy to publish the first part of an interview with Jimmy Maher, the editor of SPAG and author of the recent game The King of Shreds and Patches. We focus especially on the relation between the original RPG scenario and Maher's adaption of that scenario into interactive fiction.

Jimmy, your new game, The King of Shreds and Patches, is heavily based on a scenario of the same name written by Justin Tynes for the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game. Since I am interested in the relations between RPGs and interactive fiction, I would like to know more about why and how you made your adaption, and what you learned from it.

So let me start at the beginning. What gave you the idea to use an RPG scenario for your interactive fiction game? Did you simply like The King of Shreds and Patches so much that you wanted to acquaint more people with it, or did you expect some design benefit from using an existing scenario?



Well, perhaps I should first say that I actually don't have a huge amount of experience with tabletop RPG's – or at least not with modern ones. Like just about every American nerd who grew up in the 1980's, I did play some Dungeons and Dragons, although it was never my favorite; I spent much more time with the old-school TSR games Star Frontiers and Marvel Super Heroes.

That said, I hadn't seriously played or really even thought about RPG's in many years when I happened to acquire a rather wonderful book on interactive storytelling called Second Person, edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan. More than a third of that volume is devoted to tabletop games, and this reignited my interest in tabletop RPG's, not really as a player (although I would certainly like to try again should I ever find enough like-minded folks) but as a source of lessons and inspiration for computer-mediated interactive storytelling. In particular, a couple of articles in the book on Call of Cthulhu led me to purchase some of Chaosium's back-catalog on the Drivethru RPG site. CoC really floored me, both with the depth and sophistication of its adventures and with its subversion of the standard D&D meta-narrative of the player's progression to ever greater heights of power.

The King of Shreds and Patches, which can be found and purchased on Drive-Thru RPG in the Strange Aeons anthology, struck a particular chord with me in dealing with one of my favorite historical periods and involving my favorite writer, Will Shakespeare. (My wife always laughs that I treat my Complete Works of Shakespeare like Christians do their Bible.) Thus, the biggest reason for the adaptation essentially was indeed that I liked the original a lot and was excited by the challenge of bringing it to another medium, in a similar way I suppose as a movie director might read a book and immediately want to film it. King is my first real work of IF, and it's a hellaciously ambitious one at that; I undoubtedly benefited hugely from being able to use the original adventure as my design document. And it suited my own particular strengths and weaknesses; I've never been terribly good at inventing compelling fictional scenarios from whole cloth, but feel like I am reasonably good at evaluating, embellishing, and adapting what already exists. Finally, I knew that if I spent a year or more (and in the end it turned into more than two) working on an ambitious game, I wanted as many people as possible to play it, and thus wanted to appeal to those outside the traditional IF community. (This is a lesson I learned from Peter Nepstad's relative success with 1893; don't "sell" IF for its IFness any more than you sell a book for its bookness, bur rather "sell" it on the basis of its subject matter.) This worked out well; while it hasn't exactly gotten Blizzard shaking in their boots, King has gotten a fair amount of exposure around the Internet, with fans of Lovecraft and Cthulhu and also in other places. I've had about 2500 downloads so far from my personal site, which is likely far more than I could have gotten by appealing to the traditional community alone, and lots of positive comments from people who do not normally play IF at all. Who knows, perhaps some will decide they'd like to play (or even write) some more after my game?



You were impressed by the Call of Cthulhu RPG, and I think I understand why. At the same time though, reading through the original scenario for The King of Shreds and Patches makes me cringe occassionally. Even accepting the fact that the players are simply along for the ride – which is perhaps less forgivable in a tabletop RPG than it is in interactive fiction – it still seems as if the Call of Cthulhu system is working against the design goals of Justin Tynes as often as it supports them. Take the many locked doors in the scenario. The story simply cannot go on if the player characters don't get past them, because they'll miss vital clues and cannot continue the investigation. So what happens when everyone fails their lockpicking rolls? Or take some of the hidden stuff that the players simply must find. What happens when everyone fails their perception rolls? Again, from the point of view of the story, failure is not an option; but the system cannot guarantee that failure will not take place.

There are even a couple of points were the rules explicitly encourage the Game Master to fudge the dice! If there is a clear sign that a system is not doing what it ought to do, it is that people tell you to fudge the rolls.

So I would venture to guess that the scenario's and setting for call of Cthulhu are far better than the underlying system. This is true for a lot of RPGs that were created in those decades, by the way, GURPS and the Vampire / Werewolf games coming to mind immediately.



Yes, I know exactly what you mean. I had the same response to all those skill and ability checks. Only one of the pre-generated PC's has the Locksmith skill, and that at only 40%. What happens when – as is possible, indeed almost probable – this player fails his Locksmith rolls both at Croft's front and back doors? "Sorry, folks, you fail to get inside the house and London gets eaten. See you at next week's game!" And all through absolutely no fault of the players. Or are the players supposed to be allowed to roll again after failing? I searched absolutely everywhere for an answer to this basic question, and came up blank. And if they are allowed to just roll until they succeed, what's the point of having the skill check at all? Either way, the whole situation seems rather ridiculous.

The whole Call of Cthulhu design seems way too dependent on the luck of the dice, which may simulate the unfairness and irrationality of the Lovecraftian universe or something, but doesn't seem much conducive to a satisfying game. So, yeah, it's the sophistication of the settings, stories, and themes that appeal, not the actual ruleset. Which is probably at least part of the reason why I decided to throw said rules completely overboard for the IF adaptation. Were I to run CoC as a tabletop game, I think I would be likely to go with Trail of Cthulhu, a new ruleset by Peregrine Press that advertises that it assures the players find the clues they need to find when they look in the right place for them, regardless of the dice. I understand that ToC has fairly extensive notes on adapting classic CoC scenarios to its new, saner (ha!) system. (All of this comes by word of mouth, however; I haven't sprung for the system myself.)



Let's go back to your game. It might seem to those who have never tried as if the process of making an IF adaption of a roleplaying scenario is pretty straightforward, but I suspect that in practice there are many stumbling blocks and unforeseen difficulties. If I'm right about that, could you tell us what the major stumbling blocks that you encountered were?

It's not as straightforward as you might think. Certainly not as much as I thought going into it. :)

I think that Call of Cthulhu scenarios are actually uniquely suited for adaptation into IF, in that they tend to involve investigation and intellectual sleuthing more than they do combat or other forms of action. I can't imagine trying to adapt a typical Dungeons & Dragons dungeon crawl into IF, nor even most of the modern independent RPG's; not the former because it's all about combat and (your work on an IF combat engine aside) IF currently sucks at combat, and not the latter because it emphasises so heavily interactions among players, which is a real problem when you only have one player.

That said, plenty of changes had to be made even to King. An obvious one is that four to six players had to be condensed down into a single PC. I simply chose the pre-generated PC from the original scenario that I found most interesting, and then enhanced his two- or three-sentence blurb into a full backstory while also giving him a few necessary skills and connections his companions had in the original. I actually think that a Cthulhu scenario works better with the player as the lone investigator; would Croft's house have felt as spooky if five or six people were crowded about the man's bedroom? In this sense, at least, I will humbly (?) claim that my adaptation may work better than the original.

Another major mechanical difference between tabletop RPG's and IF is in the relative emphasis they place on PC versus player skill. When the group encounters a locked door in a CoC scenario, they generally figure out whose PC has the highest Locksmith skill, and this player then attempts to open the door by rolling less than that number on a die. She may not know anything about locks herself; she relies on her avatar's in-storyworld knowledge entirely. All of the details are abstracted for her into that percentage chance of success, which is all she cares about in the end. When a player encounters a locked door in an IF game, on the other hand, she starts looking around for a way to get past it, which generally involves solving a puzzle herself. The more abstracted tabletop RPG approach feels unrealistic and unsatisfying in an IF game, just as the detail-oriented IF approach would feel tedious and unworkable in an RPG session. Thus, I had to convert all of the "choke points" of the original scenario where abilities and die-rolls come into play into other sorts of challenges (generally puzzles) for the IF adaptation. In the original scenario, then, entering Croft's house for the first time requires only a couple of successful Locksmith roles; in the IF adaption, it requires solving a few puzzles. My game actually does not model any of the CoC rules at all. I could likely have made the adaptation without even having access to the main rulebook.

Those were probably the two major, obvious changes. Beyond them, though, I had to do a lot of my own invention in fleshing out the scenario, which was written in quite general terms in many places. Several characters are completely my own invention, as are several other quite major elements of the game. All the stuff about the printing press, for instance, was inspired more by a visit to the Gutenberg museum in Mainz, Germany, than by anything in Tynes's scenario. To use another movie analogy: a screenwriter adapting a novel must do much more than simply transcribe the novel's scenes and dialog into a script; the two mediums are simply too different to allow that. The situation was similar here.


The second part of the interview is online as well.

Monday, September 14, 2009

[Art of Fugue] First three puzzles

So, today I'd like to present an alpha version The Art of Fugue, which you can download here. The Art of Fugue is strictly a puzzle game--do not expect any story at all. In fact, it's a sequence of puzzles, and you can type "next puzzle" and "previous puzzle" to switch between them, and "restart puzzle" to reset a puzzle you think you have made unsolvable.

These are not standard interactive fiction puzzles, though, as will be apparent as soon as you play it. All of the puzzles are based on the same system, and the aim of the work is to explore this basic system and present the player with a sequence of puzzle of increasing complexity.

The reason that I am posting an alpha version with only three puzzles is that some of you might be not only interested in solving puzzles I have thought up, but also in thinking up new puzzles within the system of The Art of Fugue. If so, if you think you would like to design one or more puzzles, either on paper or in code, send me an email or leave a comment. Collaboration would be very much appreciated!

Of course, comments on the system itself or the three puzzles already created are also appreciated, and can be posted here.

My email address is victor /\ lilith.cc, where you have to replace the /\ with the usual at-sign.

[Inform 7] Multiple actors per turn

Suppose you wish your game to state, every turn, what several people are doing. This is not a problem if you have, say, NPCs that only walk around, and you only want the game to say where they walk to. Here, you'd just write a message within the routine that governs the walking.

But if you have NPCs that can take a wide range of actions, and ought to be given replies that are equivalent to the ones given to the player's actions, you are in for a nasty surprise. Inform 7 handles player actions very differently from non-player actions, especially where it concerns printing messages about them. Changing the rules in the standard library so that they also display messages when the action is taken by an NPC is simply too much work.

Instead, install the Custom Library Messages extension. Now, before each NPC gets his or her turn, change the gender and person to whatever is appropriate for this NPC, and make the NPC the player character. Don't forget to change it all back before the next prompt appears. This allows you to "fool" the game into thinking that it is responding to the player's command.

Will that solve all your problems? No, because you will probably want to rewrite all library messages that do not mention the actor, e. g., "That's inedible." That must be changed in something like "[The actor] find[-s] that [the noun] is inedible.", or whatever, because otherwise your output becomes an unclear muddle. Still a large amount of work, but not altogether impossible.


By the way, I'm using this for a WIP that consists of a sequence of puzzles. I'll probably put it online once I have polished it a bit more (and maybe added one or two additional puzzles), to see if anyone is interested. It would be very easy to collaborate on a project like this.

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?