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The nature of IF - Three difficult questions

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Postby djchallis » Fri Mar 06, 2009 4:00 am

I'm aware that much of this post is going to be very similar to revgiblet's thread about the writing style of IF, but I figured I had a lot to say and several questions to ask and it'd be cleaner to just start a new thread.

As I've been working on Project Clocks it's evolved into quite a complex story. I know I'm not the only one who likes epic stories in games (revgiblet and I seem to be MGS fans), but his thread raised a number of questions in my mind and I'd like to hear people's thoughts. Sorry for the epicly long post, but hopefully somebody will find it interesting!

1) Author control.
In static fiction you have an awful lot of control over how you write a story. A plot can be fantastic, but it's the writing style that makes it a great read, and the author can use their control over certain elements to make the story a masterpiece. But some of this vanishes with IF. For example, you can control the pace of the story, choosing when to relax and have description and long conversation, and when to speed up with action and plot twists. In IF the flow is at the mercy of the player. They may plow through certain sections you wanted to spend longer in, or investigate a potted plant when you want to keep them focused for a quick bit. Similarly, in static fiction you can choose how you use your words to make sure they're the most effective, but in IF the player chooses what they want to hear about and you're forced to comply.
My question is: Do you have to go along with this lack of control, or can you steal some of it back? Has anybody experimented with varying the pace within a game manually? You could have variables and the alr edit the text of the entire game based on the mood. In a fast-paced scene you could have the descriptions short and to the point to keep the player moving and vice versa. You could even go so far as to change the order of the puzzles (maybe including omitting some) or how they're solved in order to fit better with how the player's playing the game.
People in revgiblet's thread seem to think that the text in a game should be more functional that flourishing. The advantage of bare-bones functional text is that it outlines what effects the game very easily, but on the other hand there's something about the logical sameness of IF (the same responses every time you perform basic commands) that ruins good prose. Could you try to alr everything differently to make it read like a story, or would that make it too hard to tell what was actually relevant to the puzzle in hand?

2) Appropriate story
When I write any kind of fiction, I like to write a good story. Project Clocks has very definite characters with relationships and a complex plot-line. But I've heard some things to suggest that people don't want that so much. revgiblet and I may want to watch every second of video in MGS, but many people wanted to get on with the action. If Project Clocks is laden with very large blocks of text from time to time, who'll relax and enjoy the story and who'll demand to get on with the puzzles and skip the story? Do people want a good story or do they want a game? I often liken IF to point-and-click games. I played many of them for the complex puzzles and cleverness, but I came across Hotel Dusk for the DS, which basically guides you through the entire game by the hand, with little or nothing that required much puzzling thought. It was basically a visual novel, but it was so engaging that I loved it, despite it's lack of puzzles. But am I in the minority?
In revgiblet's thread Lumin suggested that static fiction is character based and IF is object based. Maybe a story with lots of characters, conversations and (to borrow a video game term) "cut-scenes" isn't appropriate for this medium. Maybe a more abstract story is in order, a story told by the puzzles and how the player solves them. This leads nicely onto my third question.

3) The player character.
For a few years now I've been writing everything in first-person, ever since I discovered the power of the monologue, when used correctly. It allows for one point-of-view character to be explored deeper and to give a steady, interesting insight into the rest of the story. After I entered I Am the Law into the OddComp I received a couple of complaints about my choice of first-person. People said they wanted to think what they thought about the characters, and complained when my character told them what he thought. It's been said by some drifters that if your player character has a personality then first-person fits best, but if they're a blank slate for the player then second-person fits best. But I get the impression that players don't want to be told what to think anyway. My issue is that in Project Clocks the player character has to form relationships with other characters and have conversations with them. I reason that I have to do it in first-person because second-person would be projecting a personality onto the player. But will the player still rebel if I give them control of a character with his own thoughts and feelings. It's not an issue in video games, am I just making up the issue for IF?
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Postby Duncan_B » Fri Mar 06, 2009 3:49 pm

Any response to this is going to take a while, I think. Several assumptions are made which it may be worthwhile to address.

Whilst awaiting response, why not give this related article a read? I plugged it in an earlier thread, but didn't post a link. It's called Screw the Grue.
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Postby Duncan_B » Sat Mar 07, 2009 10:08 pm

By way of response, two more related articles for anyone interested.

The first is Greg Costikyan’s “Games, Storytelling, and Breaking the String,” followed by a direct response from Monica Evans entitled “Beyond the String of Beads: More Systems for Game Narrative.” Please note that I disagree with Costikyan’s presumption that “text adventures have real flaws both as games and as fiction” & with his definition of “stories” as belonging to linearity and as necessary opposites to “games,” but that I do think his definition works well for the sake of the argument he presents, which I found quite informative. His real grip & attention seems to be on the definition of games.

Not that it matters, but in my own opinion the defining feature of a story is plot, which I think is best loosely defined as simply “a series of events.” Evans’s idea of a multi-level narrative [i.e., personal & embedded narratives] feels incredibly attractive to me.

Obviously, any thoughts on the subject are welcome.

Without further ado, links to the articles:

Greg Costikyan, “Games, Storytelling, and Breaking the String.”
http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/firstperson/storyish

Monica Evans, “Beyond the String of Beads: More Systems for Game Narrative.”
http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/firstperson/storyishrip

I sincerely hope these are helping in some way.
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Postby alsnpk » Mon Mar 09, 2009 12:37 am

Gah, the browser crashed twice when I was trying to respond to this. So here's the third version of it.

1. Author Control

That would be simply amazing if your game took into account and changed how it played based on the player's style of playing. Very hard on you as the author, but amazing.

I think if you've got a more static/linear-type game in mind, you should take back some of that control so that it can follow your vision. I don't think it could work very well otherwise.

On the other hand, with a more fluid story, you could work with the possiblities to your advantage, and that would be great.

2. Appropriate Story

Interesting characters, plot, etc., are good. I just don't like being swarmed by text when trying to play a game. And cut-scenes tend to get old fast. It's not even necessarily that I get bored of the story... it's more that I'm playing a game, and if I'm seeing what's going on, I, as the player, am obviously there, so should ideally be given the option of either letting things run their course OR trying to interrupt (and possibly even the choice of how to interrupt, sometimes).

I'm fine with being led by the hand in games as long as it's done well. In fact, sometimes I like it better. It depends. Whichever way makes it more enjoyable, I guess.

I think games can focus on whatever you want them to focus on, it's just easier to accomplish certain things in certain types of games than in others. I'm a fan of trying things 'cause they're interesting even so. =)

3. The Player Character

What you'll need to do for it to work best is to have it be like the player is providing suggestions for the Player Character. The PC should consider what the player says and usually go along with it, or have extremely good personal motivation not to.

Just try to make it be reasonable (or at least in line with how the PC is = that's what matters most) for the PC to think/do what they do. Make sure they ARE distinct from the player's commands. If you succeed at that, you can craft your PC and players won't feel like you're trying to project the PC's personality onto them.
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Postby alsnpk » Mon Mar 09, 2009 12:44 am

djchallis wrote:People in revgiblet's thread seem to think that the text in a game should be more functional that flourishing. The advantage of bare-bones functional text is that it outlines what effects the game very easily, but on the other hand there's something about the logical sameness of IF (the same responses every time you perform basic commands) that ruins good prose. Could you try to alr everything differently to make it read like a story, or would that make it too hard to tell what was actually relevant to the puzzle in hand?

I'm not sure what you're asking here; the only thing I can think to say is it could go either way because it depends too much on the type of puzzle whether it would work or not.
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Postby Burblesnot » Tue Mar 10, 2009 6:01 pm

I believe that people create a form in their mind that Interactive fiction *must* be about puzzle solving. Programs like Adrift and Inform allow people to create text based virtual worlds. Unlike the static model of a novel where the pace is set not by the author, but the reader's level of interest, these programs can be used to force a player to travel at the author's pacing using timed events and the wait commands, or simply to present a set world that the player may travel through and experience as they wish. In a novel, the player is presented with a single description, then depends on the author to expand on subjects, rather than being provided to opportunity to explore the created world on their own, and decide which part of the story that they choose to focus on. For example, if a player is satisfied with the base descriptions of a room and has no desire to examine objects or backround elements, they are free to skim through the virtual world. If they enjoy a more in-depth look into the storyteller's creation, they have every opportunity to seek out those details, as long as the author has accounted for this possibility. It is dependant the skill of the writer to prepare for the player to test the limits of his or her creation, or to control the pacing through various story-telling elements. The player's interaction is something that cannot be accounted for, as everyone chooses to play a game in their own manner. Some players are unable to even grasp basic commands, or become frustrated with GTV situations, and may simply give up on the game entirely, while in a novel or linear story approach, there are no conflicts between author and reader beyond perhaps dislike of the writing style or disagreement with the material. The author controls the world implicitly, despite what the player may think; everything that exists still exists because the author wills it so, and everything the player can possibly do is still bound by the confines of the game. If a player refuses to read descriptions, and thus is unable to open a locked door, that is a failure of the player to agree with the contract they have made with the author to interact with the piece of fiction. They choose to ignore the format and act as if the game is an FPS or RPG. It is not. It 'is' a virtual world, but a world with a specific intent created by the author that the player should be ultimately aware of. There is no skipping to the end of this kind of book to see how it ends, because the author has complete control over how the player arrives there. The author can treat the player as a silent observer, a main component of the story, or a side character that assists in the progression or facilitates the main characters.
Basically, it depends on the abilities of the author to control and direct the world they've created. If a player does not take into account that they are placed at the mercy of the writer, and not the other way around, of course there will be difficulty. this is the same as a novel, where the player cannot chose how they interact with a story beyond putting it down and not reading it anymore. Even when considering 'choose your own adventure' stories, the player is still operating within the confines of the author's creation, their 'choices' are made for them by the author and the results are already predetermined. In interactive fiction as well, the author may choose to end a story in multiple manners, but it is still up to them how a player reaches those endings, and what actions they must take to reach them.
Writing a story, any story in any format, that does not call for an actual interaction between real people, means that the author holds total control and weilds this control however they please. Even using random variable to dictate an ending is still a result of the author's imput and intentions, and the player is dependant on their understanding of the author's world.
Programs like adrift, with it's ability to account for multiple commands and odd player behavior, give the author the opportunity to create a virtual world where they control everything, even the player's interest. If your sotry does not interest the player, they will stop, because you have stopped them. If that are attracted to what you have written, you control that as well. It is the development of story-telling, not the program, that is the key component.
Or at least, that's what I believe, and I'm some guy that lives in a box.
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Postby Lumin » Wed Mar 11, 2009 3:30 am

Burblesnot wrote:lots of words

I just read this entire post waiting for a penis joke or some other ridiculous thing that did not appear. I don't know whether to be impressed or disappointed.

Anyway, those are some interesting points. (even if I am pretty tired now and the lack of spaces between the paragraphs is making it a little difficult to take it all in...)

I can see the appeal in both the games where the author is going 'this is my story and you must earn the right to see the next part by solving these puzzles' and the ones where it's 'this is my world, have fun poking around' though the overwhelming majority of IF seems to be the former, probably for the fact that it's simply easier to write and not as likely to run into the problems djchallis mentioned with the author losing control of the pacing, etc...though honestly my opinion is that the author is always in control - the tricky part comes in giving the player the illusion of freedom while still holding them firmly by the hand and guiding them where you want them to go.

Of course anyone who's ever tried to write a game understands that the more complex your world becomes the more difficult it is to try and anticipate every move the player might make and cover it with a custom response, so I really have no problem with cutscenes or other types of railroading in an IF where the whole point is to keep the player on the track of the plot, though I think this is MUCH less intrusive when the character has an established personality of their own - that way it's okay if they do something YOU would never do in a cutscene, and when you get a message about not wanting to get off the road by pushing through the hedges you're not sitting there swearing at the computer because of course you wanted to or you wouldn't have typed it, you're just rolling your eyes about the character not wanting to tear their clothes or whatever. (note: this has nothing to do with the second person POV, I have no problem at all with being told 'you think blah blah blah' as long as it's been made clear that 'you' is not me and has an agenda of their own, if that makes any sense...)




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Postby Tech » Fri Mar 13, 2009 8:10 am

Lumin wrote:
Burblesnot wrote:lots of words

I just read this entire post waiting for a penis joke or some other ridiculous thing that did not appear. I don't know whether to be impressed or disappointed.

Disappointed. When you become known as a T. Mulkerrins, you are expected to always act like a T. Mulkerrins. *sigh* Good Times.
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Postby Burblesnot » Tue Mar 17, 2009 10:51 pm

Please, enjoy new interactive stories. As simply satisfying to indulge the continued orature compressed kindly within, it's literally leading you continuously onward, consciously kindling fables and realistic tales, something hindered in these ambiguously neutral, unsettling surroundings. Perhaps unintentionally simple symbols you see, excepting modern equations now, cause unintended needless troubles. Perhaps if someone stressed fundamentally undeniable consensus, kindred with any new kind of formative fundamental, judging and correcting known intellectual territories, people eventually now integrate seamlessly the idea that it's deemed important, often true, systematically.
The things I've seen...Clthuluths attacking Neko warships off the coast of Japan, the deadly twinkle of board raids and thread sages deep in the black of night. All these things and more. And now, time. Time to *FAP*

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Postby djchallis » Wed Mar 25, 2009 4:51 pm

My apologies for asking lots of questions and then not sticking around for the discussion. My life's kinda busy with end-of-year Uni stuff. Thanks to everyone who's contributed so far, I look forward to replying to all your ideas when I get a chance!
Game in the works - Project Clocks - on hold for a bit.
Game finished - I am the Law for the OddComp. Looking forward to finishing Clocks so I can show what I can really do!
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