Monkey Island and the Ascent of Point-and-Single-Click

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There’s another Monkey Island game in the works, Return to Monkey Island and we can expect it to be a single-clicker: that is, to resolve all action through clicking on a hotspot, with no ‘look’ action or other verbs. There has been a tendency over the decades for graphic adventure games to involve increasingly streamlined verb selection. This isn’t just a matter of user-friendliness, rather it has an interesting impact on the design space for the game’s puzzles, opening up some possibilities while closing down others.

We can see this by taking a sojourn through the history of verbs in Monkey Island.

Pre-Monkey Island

The Secret of Monkey Island (1990) used the SCUMM engine, which was first developed for Maniac Mansion (1987). Maniac Mansion had the classic wall of verbs at the bottom of the screen, with fifteen verbs. This way of interacting by constructing commands was modelled clearly on existing text adventure game conventions which they might have expected some of the players to already be familiar with.

The game was novel, even by today’s standards, in that it could be completed in different ways by using various combinations of characters who had their own skills or unique interactions with some NPCS. The key verb here is New Kid which switches character: an idea returned to with the more streamlined Day of the Tentacle (1993).

The Secret of Monkey Island

The profusion of verbs in Maniac Mansion is streamlined in Secret of Monkey Island, from 15 down to 12 on the Amiga release, and later 9 for the PC edition.

They were able to strip out Turn on/Turn off and make Walk To the default action for clicking when no other verb was selected. In this way, the Walking verb isn’t removed, but its place in the interface is. Turning On and Off in this game was probably wholly extraneous or could be replaced with Push.

Push and Pull remain and are used a handful of times throughout the game. As the Use verb is always use-something-with-something-else, and object interaction is limited to either using something on the object, or pushing/pulling the object, the puzzles tend towards the use of items in the inventory on elements in the environment.

Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge

The second Monkey Island game (1991) has the same user interface as the first, but it increasingly makes use of a specific kind of puzzle that is afforded by the wall of verbs: the use of a surprising verb to solve a problem.

The first time this puzzle element appears is on the first island, where Guybrush must close an already open door. This action is motivated in the context of a plan the player might form, but nevertheless involves interacting with an object that in a way that wouldn’t normally appear productive. Given that opening a closed door and closing an open door are both the only useful things you can do with it, and the hint about the door’s additional useful property happens when performing the action, this is a puzzle that could be implemented straightforwardly in a single-click game, but it would lack the surprise element as in a single-clicker the player is bound to click on every hotspot.

This approach is later used to humorous effect when the player can use the surprising verb to pick up a guard dog. Dognapping also features in the non-Lucas Arts point and click game Simon the Sorcerer 2 (1995), which has a similar verb table, but streamlines pushing and pulling, closing and opening into a single icon, and introduces a wear verb. Both games recognise that there is something funny about making the active choice to stick a dog in your jacket or hat.

This kind of unlikely taking is a puzzle-element, albeit minor, that can’t be replicated in a single click. Surprise taking can still occur, where the protagonist picks up an item you wouldn’t have thought was takeable, but there the decision is out of the player’s hands.

The Curse of Monkey Island

The Curse of Monkey  (1997) followed LucasArt’s Full Throttle (1995) in ditching the wall of verbs and instead having a verb coin instead. The verb coin streamlined the 9 verbs into three verbs: ‘hand’, ‘eye’ and ‘mouth’. Hand is a general use action, and hovering over it on an object says the verb that the hand will perform: opening, pushing, taking, and so forth. Eye is just the Look At command. Mouth usually performs Talk To, but in some cases may be Eat, Drink or even Blow.

The wheel opens up new affordances, as many more verbs can appear in the game. This allows for more varied interaction with the objects in the inventory or environment than the earlier Monkey Islands. To achieve this, it sacrifices some surprise, as the nonstandard actions with the wheel are telegraphed. The surprise ability to take the dog in the previous game would no longer be a surprise here, as it would be indistinguishable from trying to pet the dog.

The Use and Give actions from previous games are still present: when items are selected from the inventory, they may be carried and used directly on things or given to people in the environment. Like the Walk To verb before it, these actions remain but no longer require their own buttons.

Escape From Monkey Island

Escape From Monkey Island (2000) followed Grim Fandango in having 3D rendered environment, a more cumbersome inventory process, and awkward movement keyboard. It ditched the verb coin and went for a simple three commands: look, use/talk, and pick up/put away.

Despite these changes, the hover text remained, even as the mouse was ditched altogether (perhaps to better facilitate play on the PS2 console port of the game). This hover text appeared now as a series of selectable actions on the bottom of the screen.

The player could cycle through different objects in their immediate vicinity to use items they were carrying with. Surprise as a puzzle feature was by this point mostly eliminated, as the possible affordances of everything in the environment pop up as soon as you get close. Still, like in Curse of Monkey Island, the use of the hover text allowed for more unusual verbs than the first two games. Both games were able to use this to have amusing one-off actions appear.

Tales of Monkey Island

Tales of Monkey Island (2009) was made by Telltale Games under license from LucasArts and is different in many ways to its predecessors. It has a similar 3D rendered environment as in Escape, but returns to using a mouse and a regular inventory screen once again.

In an age of tablets without a right mouse button, and with a desire to remove user experience frustrations, Tales removed the ability to look and ditched the hover text. The all purpose “use” had finally arrived.

The all-purpose use was long a feature of other point and click games such as the Broken Sword series which had double clicking to perform some action, and right clicking to examine. In these games you don’t know what the object’s affordances are until you start double clicking on it.

The Tales chapters aren’t alone in being a single-clicker: The Journey Down (2010), Broken Age (2014) and others would later take the same approach. One major difference in puzzle affordance is that hints have to appear either dynamically or in the descriptions of non-actionable environmental items, rather than in object descriptions. All actions are unknown to the player before performing them. This often leads to a sort of puzzle-box approach to several of the puzzles.

In Chapter 1, there is the seizing of the Screaming Narwhal and the strapped-in-the-seat scene, and in Chapter 2, there is a fight with a pirate hunter, Morgan LeFlay. In all these scenarios, there are a number of repeatable events that are triggered by clicking on specific objects in the environment. These puzzles are solved by working out what those events do (e.g. hot coals are poured on the deck; a monkey is given a banana; a seagull is roused from its perch) and then clicking on objects in the environment in the correct order to gain the desired effects.

These puzzles can be quite satisfying, in that they give the player a series of repeatable elements to experiment with until they figure out the sequence that will get them what they want. The player can never take an ingenious action, because they will perform all actions possible with a single click, but they may still exercise their ingenuity in devising the correct order.

Single Clicking

From Maniac Mansion’s fifteen verbs, Tales of Monkey Island has three: Walk (by using the keyboard), Use (inventory object) and Do Literally Anything Else. From Curses onwards, the Monkey Island games have introduced various situational verbs, allowing for a wider range of potential action, but in paring down interaction with the world to a single button, the game puzzles become less about choosing the right action and more about choosing the right order of action or dialogue options. Interacting directly with the environment is longer done through deliberate verb selection, but rather speculative selection of hotspots. That said, the core item + environment puzzle dynamic remains and is still one of the main ways the player can enact plans and potential solutions.

Tablets aren’t going anywhere so single clicking is probably here to stay. And that may be no bad thing. It is worth remembering that the most memorable puzzle in The Secret of Monkey Island was Insult Sword Fighting: a purely dialogue driven puzzle the likes of which have appeared in all subsequent games. But it does give a very different ludic feel than when we were going about putting dogs in our pockets.

Nothing Is True, Everything is Permitted?

Making sense of the assassins’ creed

Some years ago I met with an old friend from sixth-form college who I hadn’t seen in a while and I noticed that he had a new tattoo. It was a tattoo of the maxim of the assassins in the videogame series Assassin’s Creed:

              Nothing is True; Everything is Permitted

I remarked at the time that if nothing were true then that very maxim couldn’t be true, it was self-contradicting. I think he thought I was deliberately missing the point to make a joke, but I was quite serious at the time. On the face of it, what is really meant by this maxim is something like:

              Moral codes have no content; therefore all acts are morally permissible

Or perhaps, given the nature of the game-world as an illusory projection into the past that makes up the frame story of the videogame series, perhaps it means:

              Nothing is true about the world; therefore everything is permitted

We might question whether the conclusion follows the premises in this formula but regardless, something like that seems like sense in which the motto is intended. The order of assassins must kill and to allow themselves to kill, they tell themselves that killing is permissible and it’s permissible because either moral order or the reality of existence has no truth to it.

More cynically, we might say the game writers weren’t intending to create a coherent philosophy justifying assassination, but rather they used an existing formula that sounded deep enough for their setting, whether or not it held up to scrutiny. Indeed the phrase doesn’t come out of nowhere. In Sartre’s Being and Nothingness he (apparently falsely) attributes the following phrase to Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov:

              If there is no God then everything is permitted

I.e. if there is no God to create a moral order, then any act is permissible (or more accurately, no human action can be either permissible or impermissible if there is no ultimate authority to do the permitting). It’s not hard to see how this now well known phrase was modified (perhaps unwittingly) into the Assassin’s maxim.

Looking into the game further, it seems that in the fiction there are characters that ascribe a meaning to the maxim like so:

              “To say that nothing is true, is to realize that the foundations of society are fragile, and that we must be the shepherds of our own civilization. To say that everything is permitted, is to understand that we are the architects of our actions, and that we must live with their consequences, whether glorious or tragic”

But none of this strictly follows from the maxim. Perhaps in some contexts, “nothing” can mean “no society” and “true” can mean “is stable”, but only insofar as we can use language metaphorically and employ synecdoches. We might be tempted to say that this kind of exegesis of the maxim is the only kind that can make sense of the phrase.

We could end the discussion there, and in fact those were the extents of my thoughts on the matter for the last decade or so.  However, after reading Frege’s Logical Investigations, I have some new insight into how we might make sense of the maxim.

Frege makes the argument that truth is a property of thoughts, and not of things. The table before me is a table, it is neither true nor false; but the thought that “there is a table before me” is either true or false. Truth doesn’t belong in the world, or our sense impressions of the world, but in the realm of thoughts or claims.

Now you might ask, what about illusions? Are they not false rather than true sense perceptions? Indeed, on certain readings, the entire world of Assassin’s Creed is an illusion. It’s illusory in the fiction, insofar as the past is presented as a very rich VR simulation; it’s also illusory insofar as it’s a work of fiction, a non-factual videogame.

But the falsity of an illusion is in false claims we make of that illusion. Let me unpack that. If Altaïr sees a building in the distance, but it’s not actually a building but rather a VR simulation of a building, then it can be said to be an illusion only if he takes it to be real. An illusion once pierced is no longer illusory. (Actually we might want to say something a lot more couched than that, as certain visual illusions still work on the senses even if we know them to be false.) A building or a fabrication of a building are both like my table, they are just things that may be potentially experienced. The falsity that arises from an illusory building is the false thought “there is a building”.

We can return then to the first part of the maxim: what is the “nothing” that is true. Most trivially it’s “no thing”, i.e. no part of the world:

              No thing is true

This then is trivially true, as things belong to the world while thoughts are claims about the world (at least if we’re agreeing with Frege’s on truth).

This interpretation has the benefit of being neither self-contradicting, nor requiring us to take it in a purely metaphorical sense or extrapolate some further meaning not contained but perhaps hinted at in the maxim.

What then of the second part of the maxim?

              Everything is permitted

We can give ‘everything’ the same treatment as ‘nothing’:

Every thing is permitted

I.e. every part of the world is allowed. Allowed by whom? The assassins aren’t a specifically religious order it seems, and so “allowed by God” is probably not the natural interpretation; rather we should perhaps take it to mean “permitted by the Order of Assassins”. This is a more charitable interpretation than taking it to mean:

All acts are morally permissible

This proposition is either obviously false (clearly some acts are not permitted by some people), or it is meaningless, as if everything is permissible and nothing is impermissible then permissibility just isn’t a feature of facts about the world.

Let us take a step back and consider what it means for something to be permitted. Frege argues that judgement is the acknowledgement of the truth of a thought. We might say that moral judgement is the acknowledgement (or denial) of the permissibility of an act. Permissibility is like truth then, it doesn’t exist in things, but rather as a property of our claims about the world.

If Altaïr fatally stabs someone with his wrist-blades, most ordinary onlookers would consider the act of murder wrong, or impermissible. “It’s impermissible for Altair to murder that man” is a moral claim that is either true or false, but the permissibility isn’t found in the act itself. No atoms of permissibility or molecules of impermissibility can be found in the point of his dagger or the intent in his mind. Permit is not a feature of the world of things but a feature of judgements about human actions. It is either true or false that an act is permitted, and for any permission there must be someone who permits.

All of this to say, while assassination is clearly not permissible by the standards of ordinary onlookers, or any given religious or political authority, it is permissible by the standards of an organisation whose primary method and core identity is assassination. More broadly anything an assassin does in the course of their business furthering the aims of the organisation might be ultimately justifiable. There is no specific means that cannot be justified in pursuit of their ends. This is born out in the gameplay, insofar as the main moral tenet of the assassins (concerning not killing the ‘innocent’ is apparently often breached in the furtherance of their aims). So on the final analysis, we might make sense of the phrase as:

              No thing is true; everything is permitted (by the Assassins)

This doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, and there’s no evidence of the game writers or the in-fiction characters taking the first part in this Fregean sense. Rather, on reflection I want to return to my initial assessment of the maxim but with a new appreciation of its role in the fiction. The maxim is really best understood as a fake-deep thought-terminator, but one that makes sense in the context of the ideological aims of the assassins.

By “fake-deep” I mean, something which sounds like it has a deeper sense, but is either trivially true or requires so much additional exegesis that it could mean any number of contradictory things. A common hallmark of a fake-deep saying is that it rests upon a repetition of a some words, often used in two different senses. For example:

              Dreams have only one owner at a time. That’s why dreamers are lonely.

Here “dream” in the first sense is meant as the experience we have when we sleep that is only ever owned by one person; “dreamer” here is meant in the second sense of dream, as someone who has an aspiration that goes beyond their current circumstance. Clearly, dreams-as-aspirations can be shared. It’s literally false but use of the phrase can act as a justification for a certain state of affairs (in this case, feeling justified in being alone with one’s aspirations).

The assassin’s maxim fits this pattern with the pairing of “nothing is” and “everything is”. The one statement doesn’t follow from the other and the only interpretations are clearly false, or trivially true but unintended, or only metaphorically true after some tortured exegesis. But the purpose of such a maxim isn’t really to guide thought but to end it. We might reframe the maxim more accurately as:

              Don’t worry about the truth or falsity of moral claims; our organisation allows anything

And what better maxim for indoctrinating new assassins into not reflecting too deeply on what they are doing! It’s not something I would recommend getting as a tattoo… but as a fake-deep ideological mission statement, it makes sense in the context of the fiction of the Assassin’s Creed series.

Interactive Fiction Resources

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I maintain a list of interactive fiction resources for the IF facebook page. It’s a bit a big list but even still it’s meant to be more useful than exhaustive. As I just updated the list I thought I’d repost it here. Let me know if there are any obvious omissions!
WHERE TO FIND IF:
http://ifdb.tads.org/ : huge database of works, with links to download or play online for most entries. Also has a rating system and lots of recommended lists.
http://textadventures.co.uk/ : Play text adventures in your browser, with discussion forums and free hosting for any html-playable IF game.
SOCIAL PLATFORMS
https://twitter.com/dswxyz/lists/intfiction
https://twitter.com/TheRealDominia/lists/if : There are quite a number of IF developers and players on twitter.
https://www.reddit.com/r/interactivefiction/ : Interactive fiction Reddit group.
https://www.ifmud.port4000.com : The MUD, more a IRC-style chat space than an actual MUD.
intfiction on FreeNode : IRC channel about IF.
http://www.discord.gg/reJbMUB : Interactive Fiction discord channel.
https://www.facebook.com/groups/int.fiction/ : Interactive Fiction Facebook group
FORUMS
http://www.intfiction.org/forum : General interactive fiction forum. Great for Inform coding help. Also the place to find upcoming game jams and competitions.
http://forum.adrift.co/ : Forum for the Adrift text adventure platform.
https://forum.choiceofgames.com/ : Forum for Choice of Games.
http://twinery.org/forum/ : Good place for Twine technical assistance.
HOSTING & MORE PLACES TO FIND IF
http://ifarchive.org/ : Interactive fiction archive. This is where you should send your game so future generations can enjoy it.
http://philome.la/ : Free hosting for Twine games (now Read Only)
http://ifiction.net/lib.php : Hosting for (Russian) AXMA games.
http://playfic.com/ : You can write Inform7 games in your browser and host them here and play other people’s games.
https://dashingdon.com/ : Database and free hosting for games made in choicescript.
https://itch.io/ : General indie game hosting and finding. You can monetise your games through it as well.
http://www.delron.org.uk/adrift-games.htm : Comprehensive list of Adrift games.
http://www.intudia.com – Interactive stories.
https://autorol.es – Spanish Choice games
REVIEWS, DISCUSSION, THEORY
http://planet-if.com/ : Planet-IF is a blog-roll of interactive fiction blogs. If you have a related blog you can have it added it to the list.
http://ifwiki.org/ : The IFWiki has links to reviews of competition games, theory articles and author information.
http://www.ifreviews.org/ : Extensive review site for interactive fiction.
http://xyzzyawards.org/ : The XYZZY Awards champion the best of each year’s IF. There’s some good in-depth analyses of games here.
http://www.brasslantern.org/ : Has some great classic articles on IF, not recently updated.
https://ifwizz.de/ : German IF-Database with many reviews (including reviews of English-language games).
ENGINES FOR MAKING IF
https://docs.google.com/…/1-B1yKIateTpwTdRNT9W…/edit… – This is a grand list of engines, including several which are now defunct.
Here’s some of the most popular:
–PARSER–
http://inform7.com/ – Inform 7, natural language programming primarily for parser-based IF. Great documentation. Can export to a webpage. Built on Inform 6, it’s the most popular parser language.
http://tads.org/ – TADS, more programmer-orientated text adventure language. TADS games can be played online.
http://www.adrift.co/ – ADRIFT is a parser-game engine in which games can be created entirely with a GUI, without programming.
http://www.generalcoffee.com/hugo/gethugo.html – Hugo is a less commonly used engine which has great support for including multimedia. E.g. music, windows for NPC portraits, room depictions.
http://textadventures.co.uk/create – Quest is an engine for creating browser-playable IF, without requiring any programming skills.
https://adventuron.io/ – Adventuron is a parser game creator with support for having a location image screen.
–CHOICE–
http://twinery.org/ – Twine, passage-based choice fiction engine using simple but powerful markup language. Probably the most popular engine for hypertext-fiction.
https://github.com/idmillington/undum
http://raconteur.readthedocs.io/en/latest/ – Undum, and the wrapper layer, Raconteur, is a way of making beautiful-looking sophisticated hypertext fiction. Bit more of a learning curve than with Twine.
https://www.choiceofgames.com/make…/choicescript-intro/ – Choicescript, easy to learn scripting language for making Choice of Games-style games. Possible commercial route for IF authors. There is an IDE available: https://choicescriptide.github.io/about/
https://texturewriter.com/ – Texture, the novel thing about Texture works is that there’s text and then you drag keywords onto the text, which reveals what can be interacted with. This allows the player to read before having hyperlinks drag their eye.
http://textadventures.co.uk/create – Squiffy, using the same underlying engine as Quest, is a way of making choice-based works using markup text.
http://www.inklestudios.com/ink/ – Ink, markup language behind Inklestudios commercial games Sorcery, Around the World in 80 Days. Open source, and integrated with Unity, good for using as the choice-component of a graphical game.
https://chooseyourstory.com/ – CYOA-style storygames with forum community.
PODCASTS
https://rcveeder.net/clash/ – Clash of the Type Ins
http://adamcadre.ac/audio/ – Radio K
http://monsterfeet.com/grue/ – Eaten by A Grue
https://soundcloud.com/inklestudios – Inklecast
https://letsplaypodcast.com/ – The Let’s Play Podcast
https://narrascope.org/category/podcast.html – Narrascope
COMPETITIONS & INSTITUTIONS
https://ifcomp.org/ – The Annual Interactive Fiction Competition. There are prizes! Deadline every September.
https://www.springthing.net/ – The Spring Thing – Annual unranked competition encouraging longer interactive works.
http://introcomp.org/ – IntroComp – Annual competition for game openings. Cash prizes on game completion.
https://iftechfoundation.org/ – The Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation maintains various projects above like the archive, and helps run the IFCOMP.
CONVENTIONS/CONFERENCES
https://narrascope.org – Annual narrative games conference
http://adventurexpo.org/ – Annual adventure/narrative games convention

Can Red Herrings Be Elegant?

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This includes minor spoilers for Monkey Island and Golf Peaks but they’re worth it.

In 2018 Tom Hermans wrote up an excellent primer on elegant puzzle design, with the following principles:

  • A good puzzle should explain itself
  • A good puzzle shows all puzzle pieces
  • Use the smallest amount of space and puzzle pieces for the puzzle to work
  • Understand possibility space
  • A good puzzle wants to teach the player
  • A good puzzle (game) should be ambitious

I’d like to talk briefly about the third criteria and what it means for a puzzle to be elegant. Tom writes:

A red herring is a puzzle element that seems relevant, but isn’t required to use to solve the puzzle. It’s clutter, and thus unnecessary. A better idea would be to place objects that seem useless initially, but are actually used in completely new and unexpected ways, making them relevant.

There are adventure games (including graphic and parser) that obey this restriction with regard to inventory items: everything that the player can pick up is eventually necessary, even if it isn’t necessarily obvious at the time. Part of the puzzle with these objects is overcoming the belief that they are useless and finding where they fit.

The Red Herring item in the first Monkey Island game does this admirably. At first the player may pick it up thinking it a joke item but later they realise that it is exactly its status as a red herring that makes it not an actual red herring.

Let's Play The Secret of Monkey Island - Part 5: The Lucas Troll ...

But sometimes genuine red herrings can be elegant. A red herring can be more than just clutter. A red herring can be an almost fully realisable alternative solution. Overcoming false paths can be part of the puzzle itself.

To look at these false paths, I’ll use Golf Peaks as an example. Golf Peaks is an excellent game of logical experiment where you play a series of cards in order to move a ball to its hole. There are no superfluous cards: every single card must be played in a specific order to complete any given puzzle. This is an early puzzle which demonstrates this principle:

1-10

You can move the ball one space, two spaces, and three spaces in any ordinal direction. There is only one order in which you can successfully move the ball. This takes you down the left-hand path. The right-hand path is the red herring here, as at a very first glance you might think it possible to take the ball down that side. If there were nothing on the right-hand of the puzzle-board, there would scarcely be a puzzle: just a single clear route for the ball and a number of cards to navigate that route.

Thus, in Golf Peaks, the challenge isn’t just in discerning what cards to use to overcome each obstacle, but in discerning the one true path through the puzzle-board. Long after playing, one particular puzzle from Golf Peaks stayed with me, and it immediately came to mind on reading Tom’s writing about red herrings, as the puzzle is almost entirely comprised of the scarlet fish.

9-9

This is late in the game where the player has mastered overcoming many different terrain types:

  • Ice, which slides a ball which rolls onto it
  • Jump pads, which launch a ball with sufficient momentum across a gap.
  • Corners, which send a ball with momentum at a right angle
  • Holes, which relocate a ball to their corresponding holes, coming out the other end in the same direction of movement
  • Water, which causes the ball to be reset at the position it was last in before it went into the water
  • Sand, which can be rolled over but not stopped on.
  • Mud, which halts all momentum of anything rolling onto or off of it (necessitating the chipping movement cards.

All these element appear in a dizzying assemblage in 9-9. The player by this point can clearly see that there’s no possible playthrough that will use all of the jump pads but their existence leads the player to look for solutions using some of them. The obvious solution seems to be to take the path down to the hole, appear at the top, take the jump pad onto the mud, then chip onto the ice. Like so:

9-9-1

This is only the ‘obvious’ solution because the player anticipates a unity of elements. They think the correct solution will use the most unique aspects of the puzzle-space. It turns out that the cards will almost allow this solution, but the player comes up one card short. They fall off the ice right by the final straight to the hole, with no more cards to play.

Aha! They think, perhaps the shorter route is correct, and that the teleporting holes are a diversion. So they try taking the first bridge, doing a loop and trying the whole thing like so:

9-9-2

But again, they will find themselves exactly one card short! So then they think, perhaps the bouncing corners are a diversion and they think they can do that route again but bypass the quicksand in the middle instead of going up to the jump. Like so:

9-9-22

But, again, the player will find that they get to the ice exactly one card’s play away from the final hole but with no more cards to play. Eventually it turns out that all the jumps, holes and corners are red herrings and the only possible solution is to cut through the middle like so:

9-9-3

Indeed, the main game concepts the player needed were:

  • How does a ball move on ice?
  • How does a ball interact with water?

The first concept is the theme for all of the 9th Stage puzzles. The second concept is an idea that was introduced several stages back, but here occurring for the first time combined with the ice. I wouldn’t be surprised if each of the puzzles were designed to showcase a unique combination of the game’s various board elements and cards.

The 9-9 puzzle could very well have been built without the extraneous elements, but it wouldn’t have been as good. Or indeed as elegant: the elegance lies in the perfection of its three false paths. Each false path leads the player exactly one card from the finish, enticing and frustrating them, taunting them with how close and how far they are. Here the red herring is brought to a fine art of multiple misdirection.

We could say that elegance is not the only virtue worth heeding in puzzle design. This is true but also we can see that elegance in a puzzle isn’t the same as having the maximum minimalism of elements. If a puzzle has red herrings, these misleading elements can be developed to their fullness as part of the puzzle rather than as mere superfluities.

Again, I recommend you read Tom Hermans original article, as he explores more puzzle design principles there. I also invite you to read my Embedded Puzzle Manifesto which explore how puzzles in narrative games can be embedded in their stories .

Collaboration & Cragne Manor

Here’s some thoughts about Cragne Manor in the context of earlier experiments. Cragne Manor is a game written by 84 people as a tribute to Mike Gentry’s Anchorhead. Each person wrote a different room without seeing any of the other rooms (except for the two organisers, Ryan Veeder and Jenni Polodna). (I wrote the penultimate room and designed some aspects of the game’s meta-puzzle. I’ve also played the game to completion.)

cragne

In group projects, structure is key. Ryan Veeder gave Cragne Manor constructed a matrix of rooms and puzzle sequences in which all the content could slot into, as each part hadto meet a small set of specific requirements (room exits, input or output items, only one room). Within these constraints, writers could expand as much as they fancied. Jenni Poldna and Ryan did a great job at wrangling people to conform to this structure so everything would work together.

With some (notable!) exceptions, the game is remarkable consistent in tone: with each player being give the names of the rooms, and most having a feel for what Anchorhead is like, the locations believably fit together.

In Cragne Manor there are a number of separate puzzle tracks (object trading, information trading, book collection, room unlocking etc.) which leads up to a final combination of all the end items and information. Participants could choose whether they wanted a room with a puzzle or somewhere purely atmospheric. This helped tie everything together, but did add to an extraordinary profusion of junk objects and arbitrary constrictions. While it’s a rich experience to play, and the meta-structure is solid, there arises a lot of questionable design. For instance, there are at least four separate and non-interchangeable cutting objects. For this to have been avoided the game would have required more interventionist organising (unfeasible given the already heroic effort involved in wrangling so many contributors), or a property-based puzzle structure (which may have been too prescriptive for the authors and a lot more work to design).

Despite the wild inconsistency of plot, back-story and character, Cragne Manor was a more coherent game than the most equivalent project, that of IF Whispers. In IF Whispers, authors receive the last written room and the game emerges out this Chinese-whispers-like process. In all but the last IF Whispers game, the participants had no access to earlier rooms beyond the one immediately preceding their own. This means that there is no over-arching continuity in the end result. The enjoyment then is mostly for the participants.

The exception was 2012’s IF Whispers 5. There were only 5 participants: Chris Conley, who organised the project and wrote the start & finish; Marius Müller, who along with Chris and myself also contributed to Cragne Manor; Tom Blawgus; myself, Joey Jones; and Porpentine. Chris wrote the end and the beginning and knew what was happening, so he could guide things towards making sense. Each of the rest of us wrote two rooms each, written in a circular, with each player only having access to the previous room. Each person could also add extra constraints or rules to the project as they went (like, “The cat will not die.”, “Yourself has a need called silence.”) The result was one in which there could be bizarre sequences, but everything tied together in the end. Like Cragne Manor, sticking within the horror genre allowed the bizarre or incongruous to gel better together.

Other structures have worked well for these kinds of loose mass collaborations. Alabaster is a conversation game in which ten different people contributed conversation threads without seeing each other’s work. The start was written by Emily Short who also edited it for consistency afterwards. As such it hangs together well.

Where authors continue to be interested in taking part in these kind of projects, there remains much space left for further experimentation.

 

 

Embedded Puzzle Manifesto

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Here follows some statements on puzzle design. I was prompted to write this by the ongoing manifesto jam. I recommend reading some of the other manifestos people have come up with.

EMBEDDED PUZZLE MANIFESTO

A puzzle is a problem with a nonobvious solution.

A satisfying puzzle is multistep: the solution to the problem requires solving a different intermediate problem.

Creating puzzles is easy: your protagonist wants something, problematise them getting it. And then problematise the problem. Repeat until sufficiently complex.

A puzzle is nonobvious. Using a key on a door is not a puzzle. Finding a screwdriver to unscrew the hinges might be a puzzle. Using the butter knife as a screwdriver to unscrew the hinges is a puzzle.

There is no necessary distinction between a narrative game and a puzzle game: puzzles should reveal the narrative.

Puzzles can be dramatic. A puzzle and a dramatic situation are both impediments to the protagonist’s goals. The solution to a puzzle, like the resolution of a drama, tells us something about the protagonist’s character. “Really good at sliding-tiles” isn’t an interesting character facet. “Prepared to steal and lie” might be an interesting character facet. “Will destroy gifts made by loved ones in order to finish this thesis” is an interesting character facet.

Moreover, a puzzle can serve the role of gating narrative until the player understands the dramatic situation. For instance, if they need to know the name of a suspect in order to look them up in the phone book. Or they need to have visited a place or spoken with a character as a part of a puzzle-chain, and those places or people, or the items they had to pick up or disturb, are later narratively important.

It is clear how to make puzzles conflict with a narrative. Here’s how:

1. Encourage the player to perform unmotivated actions because they know its a puzzle and puzzles must be solved.
2. Include elements at odds with the setting because of a need to include puzzles.
3. Include solutions that require out of game knowledge.
4. Rob the story of urgency by encouraging the player to wander between multiple locations repeatedly in search of a solution.

Thus, it is clear how to make puzzles cohere with a narrative. Here’s how:

1. Bound the actions available to the protagonist’s motivations.
2. Embed puzzles in the setting of the game.
3. Contain solutions in the setting of the game.
4. Ensure that the intended player experience is the one that you are enabling.

To unpack:

1 – Motivation

The protagonist’s actions should be motivated by their goals in-the-fiction, and as such what the player can make them do should cohere to these motivations. In some games fiddling with everything is motivated by a quest for greater understanding. But in most games, the character has specific desires and it makes no narrative sense for them to solve nearby problems just because they look like puzzles. In real life and in stories, we don’t try to break into the liquor cabinet until we want a drink.

2 – Embeddedness

Unembeddedness is rampant in games with puzzles. There are anachronistic elements introduced in a spirit of zaniness. There are machine systems or locking mechanisms that closely resemble classic puzzles like pipe-turning games or the Tower of Hanoi. These aspects are artifacts of arbitrariness. They take the player out of the fiction, and force them to experience the game as a puzzle set by the game creator.

Embedding a puzzle is about making the difficulty that faces the player believable in the setting while not boring or trivial. A rope across a door is an unbelievable impediment; a locked door is a boring impediment; a snowed-in door that opens to a wall of snow is a believable and interesting impediment.

3 – Containedness

The player shouldn’t need to know the rules to baseball to proceed in your fantasy cavern crawl, or know specific English idioms in your futuristic platformer. If they do need to know these things, they should be contained within the setting of the game. If you need to search a haystack to find a needle you didn’t already know was there, then a character somewhere in the game needs to use the phrase “like finding a needle in a haystack”. And even then, this would only work in a fairytale setting where objects were expected to be placed by idiomatic logic.

What might seem obvious to you as a writer may not be obvious to someone from a different culture or educational background. Moreover, it better serves a narrative if the player is using knowledge their protagonist is supposed to have, rather than knowledge the player must have. Puzzles shine when they act also as a mechanism for ensuring that the player knows what the protagonist is meant to know at that point in the narrative.

4 – Experience

Unless your intended game experience is “frustrated wandering”, implement hints or dynamic events such that the stuck player is recognised by the game and guided before they’re encouraged by the game design to try everything with everything everywhere. An expected flow for an adventure game might look something like this: the protagonist has a problem; the player recognises a number of sub-goals that must be achieved in order to solve this problem; the player directs the protagonist towards these sub-goals; they work on one set of problems whenever they’re temporarily stumped on another set and in doing so usually find a hint that helps them elsewhere. In this expected flow, the problems are nonobvious (i.e. not immediately solved) but the player is rarely bottlenecked and always has something that they can be working on while even they’re stuck elsewhere. The desired flow will look different for a platformer or a JRPG (random menu combats can be dynamic puzzles when well-formed).


Often we see developers decry puzzles. They don’t want players to leave their game and look up a walkthrough. Or they make puzzles so easy (but often narratively arbitrary) that the player is going through the motions to pad out the game. But there is no need to leave puzzles out of our toolbox. We should not be afraid to create difficult puzzles if they are fair and can be broken down into progressively less difficult steps. When implemented well, puzzles are satisfying, further the narrative, tell us something about the characters and are fun to solve. Let us embrace embedded puzzles!

 

Concepts in Cybertext 4 – NPC Agency

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I want to talk about ways of implementing romanceable NPCs in games like CRPGs, gamebooks, visual novels and so forth. There are three main models for romantic subplot that we normally see, and I’ll be talking about two other ways of approaching romances that put greater emphasis on NPC agency. These include a model used in Sunless Sea, and the model I used in my own cybertext recently published by Choice of Games, Trials of the Thief-Taker. For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll be using the following definition:

NPC agency: The sense that other characters in a game have their own life and do not wholly revolve around the player character.

The Gift Model

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Give the object of your affections enough gifts to raise their romance meter high enough to unlock the romance option. This can be gamified by having gifts worth different things to different subjects (as seen in Fable), or adding a randomised chance of rejection in any given interaction (as seen in The Sims). This model has the benefit of being easy to adapt into a mini-game. It has the drawback of reinforcing the toxic idea that romantic relationships are a deserved reward for gifts and acts of kindness.

The Conversation Model

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In a conversation or series of conversations, say the right things to unlock the romance options. This is the most common way of implementing romantic subplots in rpgs and can be seen in everything from Mass Effect to Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden. On first blush it seems like a good implementation: the romantic partner chooses to submit to the player character’s amorous advances based on what they have to say. But functionally, the player knows that they are unlocking a romantic path (except in those awkward cases where the player stumbles into a videogame relationship just by choosing the most friendly or sympathetic conversation options). This foreknowledge transforms the interaction into an act of manipulation. The player is tailoring their character’s responses in order to win the conversation by presenting themselves in the way they believe the NPC would best respond to.

The Self-Improvement Model

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From what I understand of dating sims, it is most common to discover what stats your romance option values and then grind them until you meet their exacting standards. Some games hybridise this with the other approaches: in Dragon Age, you can improve the romance meter by giving gifts, saying the right thing, and acting the right way in front of your chosen one. In a certain sense this respects NPC agency as it shows that other characters have their own tastes and interests and will only accept a romantic partner that meets their conditions. On the other hand, because the player knows this, they are able to change their character into what they imagine the NPC desires. They play-act as what they think is their target’s ideal partner, engaging in a bad faith masquerade where their improvements are purely instrumental.


The most common models of romance in games are all terrible insofar as they follow the pattern of terrible mistakes in relationships. Whether that be expecting sex in exchange for gifts, or proceeding just by saying what you think the other person wants to hear, or transforming your whole self, Sandy-in-Grease-like, to meet someone else’s ideal form. The above three models are most common but also most prone to a sense sleazy manipulation. What can be done? Here are two other possibilities:

The Quest Model

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Some games, like Sunless Sea, require you to go to some extreme length before unlocking a romance option. Sailing to the four corners of the ocean to piece together the various MacGuffins in Sunless Sea takes time, thought and will. This forces the player to commit to their decision to pursue an NPC in a way that stockpiling silver necklaces doesn’t. Having the knowledge of what it would take clearly presented to the player allows them a sense of there being options. Some NPC agency can be added here: the NPC has their own goals and furthering your relationship with them is only possible to the degree to which you accept taking on those goals as your own, often to your great inconvenience. Functionally though it’s not particularly dissimilar to the Gift Model especially in that often you’re getting actual stuff for the NPC. Perhaps this is defensible as all you’re unlocking is a characterful tryst.

The Already Too Late Model

What if romance in games was a bit more like how it normally is in real life? By the time you have the opportunity to be in a relationship with someone, you’ve already become the person that you are and unless you engage in chameleon self-deception there’s nothing that you can say to the other person to convince them that you’re actually the sort of person that they desire if they don’t already desire you. This is more honest and less sleazy, but it’s not what people who play games for romance subplots really want. It’s the approach I tried to follow in Trials of the Thief-Taker, which I’ll now discuss.

In TTT there are three possible romance subplots: the rival thief-taker Nia Maddox, the burglar and serial escapee Jack Cyrus, and the social climbing lady of court Nancy Featherbrook. Maddox and Cyrus are both antagonists at the beginning of the game but they can be befriended. By the time the player who does befriend either of them realises that there is a romance option, they have made dozens of unrelated choices that have set in place their personality and place in the world. If the player at that stage isn’t what Maddox or Cyrus are interested in, or if they have committed acts that the other finds completely unacceptable, there is no romance possibility and only when it is too late will the player know what they did to shut off that avenue. This is the Already Too Late Model.

The romance with Featherbrook is similar but works a little bit differently. Featherbrook is very forthcoming about what she wants in a partner: she is interested in marrying into the nobility. The player of course only learns about this after they have already chosen their gender and social standing. At this stage though, the player character has the choice of lying to her if they aren’t the son of a baron or if they are the daughter of a baron in disguise as a man. They can jump through the other hoops of presenting themselves well at the masquerade ball and so forth until the proposal scene where their lies are undone (for, of course, Featherbook must eventually meet the family). The player is given a final chance to succeed in the relationship by presenting their establishment credentials as a replacement for nobility. But of course, by that stage it’ll only work if they have such credentials. They only know what they need to do when it is already too late.

In this subplot, the manipulation is blatant and the player knows that their character is engaged in a deception (and indeed there are many such characterful opportunities for lying in the game). While they may be consciously deceiving another, they are not deceiving themselves. Here the player knows that their character is acting dishonestly, whereas the norm in game romances is for the player to roleplay someone who is deceiving others while deceiving themselves that they are acting in earnest.

Commercially this model, at least as I implemented it, is a failure. As far as I can tell from very brief app store reviews, most players didn’t realise that there were romance options, and most of those that did realise still found it impossible to unlock them. It may have been honest and less unintentionally slimy, but it isn’t what the market wants. Most gamers have quite straightforward demands revolving around wish fulfilment. Such are the waters we swim in!

Next up… expectations of agency.

Concepts in Cybertext 3 – Parsimony

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There’s a problem that can happen in cybertexts but also more broadly in videogames and tabletop rpgs. Where the player is given a resource to spend, if the use value of that resource isn’t adequately communicated then often they will engage in extreme frugality, in parsimony. They’ll hoard the money, the ethers, the tms, the scrolls, the tokens, the favours indefinitely.

Let’s define parsimony for our purposes like so:

Parsimony: When a player hoards a spendable resources because they think they might need them more later and in doing so fails to make the most interesting use of that resource.

In a cybertext with stats (I’m explicitly thinking of gamebooks like Sorcery and Choice of Games) there’s can be great reward in using an in game resource: new scenes, different outcomes, different risks. In writing them we want to encourage players to use their resource (often a Wealth stat). It’s more interesting to get several additional unique moments throughout a game than, say, an achievement for hoarding at the end of the game.

One design goal of the game writer is to enable and encourage the player to make interesting choices. For a choice to be interesting, the alternatives must be at least roughly equally tempting, or rather that depending on player goals, for each choice there is a player who would genuinely want to take that choice.*

Here are some solutions for parsimony that I know about. Please tell me which ones I’ve missed:

Numenera Cypher Method

In the sci-fantasy tabletop roleplaying game Numenera, players can pick up Cyphers: one-use gadgets that offer unique abilities. You might pick up a telepathy implant, a gravity-nullifying spray, an x-ray viewer or so forth. To counteract the players’ inclination to hoard these items until the perfect moment, Cyphers are incredibly abundant and the player has a limited carrying capacity. You’re sure to pick up a few in any given session, but each player starts off only being able to safely carry two at a time without risking adverse interaction effects. In this way there’s both a carrot and a stick encouraging resource use: use it and you can get more resources, don’t use it and suffer.

This works well for unique resources, but what about generic resources like money or reputation?

Mother’s New Car Method

When you make it in Choice of the Robots, you can splash out on a new flying car for your mother. In my Trials of the Thief-Taker after your first pay out you can buy a new outfit or waste the lot in a long weekend of debauchery (or be sensible and save). The point here isn’t just to give the player something interesting to waste resources on, but a way that they can express their character through spending a resource.

This is a great way to appeal to player’s desire to roleplay, but the more mechanically minded or risk averse player might still be tempted to save just in case.

New Batteries Method

After trade shuts down between the US and China in the run up to the war in Choice of Robots, if the player has decided to make their robot with light and versatile Chinese batteries, they’re faced with the choice to shell out some of their income to carry on using the batteries through a more expensive source, or move to a much less elegant power source. The player by this time is already invested in having these kind of batteries as they fit with the idea they have about their robot (especially if they’re going for a graceful machine). They’ve signalled to the game that this is something they value. And so paying to keep what they already value is a clever use of a resource mechanic.

Games like Morrowind do the same where the player must pay money to repair their damaged equipment. The more they value the use of a piece of equipment, the more it gets used, the more they’ll have to pay to keep using it. This works on two levels, because it’s the use of a generic resource (money) to upkeep a relatively unique resource (equipment). Either the player spends their money or they spend their equipment. They can’t be purely parsimonious.

Upgrade to Studded Leather At The First Opportunity Method

Perhaps the most typical way to encourage a player to use an in-game resource is to pitch the difficulty such that the game becomes functionally unplayable if they don’t. This is often the JRPG approach: you’ll fall behind if you don’t upgrade your equipment at each town, you’ll often drink all your potions, use all your revives. The trouble with this method if the difficulty is too high then it removes the tactical interest: you either get through the battle or restart; if the difficulty isn’t high enough the parsimonious player gets to the final battle with 85 ethers.

You Can’t Buy All The Puppies In The Store Method

When you can pursue multiple goals or rewards in a game one way to make them more or less exclusive goals and force a dilemma on the player is to for all the choices to require resources. The player is less likely to resent having to spend because the goal is freely chosen. This method requires you give the player ample opportunity to earn, and perhaps works better when they have knowledge of these goals to work towards before making the final choice of what to spend on. You get this in Bioshock where Adam is a limited resource and the bio-augmentations to spend it on are all appealing.

Saving For A Ticket Method

To pick my favourite videogame example again, most rewards from selling ill-gotten gains and performing quests in Morrowind are eaten up in tickets on the boat, teleport and silt strider networks. Like the London commuter, your hard-earned loot disappears into the transport nexus while you’re pursuing stratagems for earning more of it. In order to get to the next town, the player will either need to walk the long slog or more appealingly spend a bit of time trying to raise cash by looking out for money making opportunities. Notably in this game there are unusual things that can happen on the road, so the player can be rewarded with interesting content if they do decide to forgo spending resources, but there is also enforced boredom of the long walk. In this way, the some control over the game’s momentum can be given to the player.

Acceptance

Finally, the writer can just accept that some players are irredeemably parsimonious and just try to make that as an interesting a choice as possible. There can be interesting pay-offs at the end of the game, or there can be unique opportunities where they are forced to sacrifice other things to maintain that resource and so forth.

Next up… NPC agency.

 

 

*Aside: this is why high-level CCG and MOBO play is tedious because for any set of cards or characters there tends to be a narrow band of optimal choices such that the player isn’t mechanically encouraged to use their creativity and ingenuity, rather they are encouraged to pick the community-established best builds.

Concepts in Cybertext 2: Momentum

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Every time a player moves onto a new screen in a cybertext and they are faced with a choice, the pace of the work slows down. Where there is no choice to be made, the pace is still slowed but to a smaller extent: where the player can only click on link, they needn’t normally take time to deliberate. This is not just reading pace, but the pace of time in the whole work itself: every time the player pauses to consider, the cybertext freezes in that moment. When telling stories that proceed forward through time, a choice crystalises a moment. Too many choices without moving time forward stand to bog down the momentum of a story. We can define it like:

Momentum: The pace of experienced time in a cybertext.

Too many character creation choices in a row rob a cybertext of momentum. Especially if they happen before the player has reason to engage. If it is a story where choices are supposed to have consequences, momentum is especially important. A consequence necessarily occurs later in time than its cause: slowing down or freezing time through too many choices that don’t move on the story acts to delay the payoff for those choices. A slow experience of time in the cybertext removes tension.

Slowing momentum can be desirable: players often don’t want to speed through a work, but rather take time to soak in the setting, develop relationship, get more story payoff for their decisions. Rather than giving longer passages of text (which might, in any case, be skimmed), we can enforce the reading of text and slow down the pace where necessarily by inserting additional momentum lowering choices.

Next up… parsimony.

Concepts in Cybertext 1: Cybertext

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I’ll be writing a short series of mini-articles about some concepts we can use when thinking about cybertexts. I’ll start with my prefered nomenclature:

Cybertext: An interactive digital work primarily formed of text, where an active reader proceeds through the text by manually interacting with it (clicking links, dragging text, selecting radio buttons etc.). Interactive fiction that isn’t a parser game, walking simulator or a book.

I prefer cybertext to CYOA because that’s a copywritten term and not all of these works are adventures. It’s a bit less clunky than choice-based fiction, and leaves open the possibility of nonfiction works. By de-emphasising ‘choice’ it isn’t prejudiced against linear works. By including ‘cyber’ it rules out hardcopy choice-fiction (i.e. traditional turn-to-page-7 CYOA) which is fine as creating books requires different craft considerations due to being constrained by a physical medium.

It’s marginally preferable to hypertext because, although the term broadly covers the same terrain, interfaces like ChoiceScript and Texture show that a cybertext doesn’t have to include hyperlinks.

I don’t expect particular uptake for the term, though it is used in a similar sense in some academic circles.

Next up… momentum.