Greatly Exaggerated

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Brenda Braithwaite posted a very eloquent eulogy for the text parser as a method by which players can interact with games.

I am regrettably forced to announce the death of the text parser. It is a death that I suffer with great sadness and fond memories of its life. I am not sure exactly when it died.

It's really very nicely written, so you ought to visit her site and read the whole thing. I started to write a reply in the comments under her post, but it turns out I have a lot to say on the subject, so I moved it here. For anyone interested, here is my response:

I can't help but wonder what brought on this sudden funereal outburst. Did something happen that causes you to suddenly toll the death knell for text-based games? I'm especially curious because it seems a bit premature - or, at least, somewhat misleading.

All your points stand, and you have presented them beautifully. Text parsing was once the dominant modes of player interaction - at least within certain genres - and now it is not. I do not expect it will ever reclaim that position. The modes that replaced it are, frankly, more evolved. They are better suited to the things that are typically demanded of a user interface, and more accessible to a wider audience. These facts are unlikely to change.

But I hope you're willing to recognize that there is more to gaming than the mainstream. The fact is, today there is a vibrant community of text-based game designers producing interactive fiction. It's not mainstream, but that hardly makes it irrelevant. Modern IF frequently pushes against boundaries that most designers ignore: emotion and conversation models, narrative voice, dynamic plot, emotional agency. Games like Galatea, Photopia, Floatpoint, The Baron, Violet - these are games that all aspiring designers should play, not because they represent the dominant form, but because they demonstrate mechanics and techniques that are commonly absent from the traditional corpus.

I would argue, although this comes down to little more than guessing at future trends, that IF has the potential to be relevant outside the relatively small circle of designers and design-enthusiasts, as well. The audience for games is expanding, and I believe that when all is said and done, it won't be a simple bifurcation of the market into casual and hardcore camps. Art games - experimental games - are now getting more exposure than has ever before been possible. I would place your Mechanic is the Message series firmly in this category, along with a number of the interactive fiction pieces produced in the last five years. I believe the audience for this sort of game is growing, and will eventually establish itself as a significant segment of the games market.

(And Twitter may not be able to revive the popularity of textual interaction as we remember it, but I am far from convinced that we won't see a new sort of text-based game that enjoys success through modern technological trends. These phenomena are simply too new for the possibilities to have been thoroughly tested.)

But that, really, is neither here nor there. My point is that, although the text parser may have passed its heyday some time ago, it's hardly fair to call out its death while talented and hardworking designers are busy iterating against important design problems in precisely that format. To do so suggests that the work being done in interactive fiction today is irrelevant - merely a throwback to the glory days of text adventure games. Nothing is farther from the truth.

Getting in Trouble

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I get the impression that not a lot of people have heard of - let alone played - Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble. That might not be the case for long, though. The WGA just announced their nominees for best video game writing, and DHSGIT took the dark horse spot. I haven't played, um, any of the competition, except a little bit of Fallout 3, but I'd love to see a well-written indie game like this one take the prize.

I certainly recommend that you give Dangerous High School Girls a look, although it isn't by any means a perfect game. In this interview with Rock, Paper, Shotgun, author Keith Nemitz stated that "the story is about the culture of small-minded people and how strong, truthfully educated women can improve it." The writing is charming, funny, and does an excellent job of telling that story.

My reservations about the game come from some of the design decisions. Mostly, it's structured like a standard RPG, with semi-random encounters, experience, and character leveling - although it distances itself from any of that terminology. This structure works really well, actually, except that it doesn't allow the player to do any grinding.

In most RPGs, the player progresses the story by exploring a space and completing encounters. Succeeding in an encounter gives the player's party experience, which eventually causes them to become more powerful. Failing in an encounter, typically, does not give the player experience or progress the story (because, typically, it results in a fail-state, forcing the player to restore a saved game). The player, therefore, gets more powerful as the story progresses; later parts of the story open up new areas where the encounters are more difficult, theoretically matching the player's advancement.

Sometimes, though, the player doesn't level up fast enough. That's where grinding comes in. If the encounters become too difficult, the player can take a step back and play through some additional encounters in an easier area, gaining enough experience to tackle the continuation of the story on better terms.

Dangerous High School Girls doesn't have a death-equivalent fail-state, which I like. At least, it looks good on paper, but in practice, it doesn't always work out well. Instead of having to restart when you fail an encounter, you suffer some form of negative reinforcement and then play continues. At best, this negative reinforcement takes the form of a missed opportunity - a chance to have gained experience or some other bonus, while the story continues to progress. Frequently, however, you actually lose a buff or one of the girls in your party. Which makes it easy to find yourself falling behind the difficulty curve, facing encounters that are way out of your league.

Grinding is supposed to provide a way out of this situation. But Dangerous High School Girls takes away lower-level encounters as it opens up new, more difficult areas - or at least, it obscures the lower-level opportunities by putting them in the same space and not distinguishing between encounters of different levels. Add to that the pressure of time continuing to progress with each encounter, whether successful or not, and... well, the bottom line is that I feel like I'm falling further and further behind the more I play, and that my subversive little cadre of girls is becoming more ineffectual rather than more empowered as the story progresses.

Anyway, this post was really just supposed to be a couple of links and a brief review of the game. To sum up, then: worth playing, not perfect, but great writing. You can get a demo from Manifesto, here.

Learning Curve

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For a long, long time I have been intending to recommend Violet. So here's the recommendation: Go play Violet. I discovered it through the recent IF Comp 2008 and it quickly became one of my favorite works of IF. It's a locked-room puzzle, of a sort, with an absolutely charming narrative voice and some really clever writing. If you have any interest in IF, this is a must-play. This post may contain minor spoilers, but will not ruin the game for you.

Let me give a little bit of background. My long-term goal is to get my parents into gaming. I started on this a couple years ago, when it became clear that gaming is more than just a hobby, it's a career. At that point, it became important that the people close to me "get" games and why they're so important to me. Both my parents have been incredibly supportive, and even interested to engage in conversations about games and game design. But neither of them are gamers, so they don't have the opportunity to know the things we talk about first-hand.

I started with board games. The past two years, I've gotten board games for everyone in my family at Christmas, and then we've played them together afterward. Carcassonne, Apples to Apples, Settlers of Catan, Lost Cities, Pandemic - some of them have have gone over better than others, but they've started to give us a set of common experiences that allow us to talk about games differently, more meaningfully, and with a shared language.

So this year, I decided to raise the bar and try for some digital games. One of the major barriers I've encountered is the perception (derived from Pac-Man) that games are fluff without substance - repetitive activities designed to pass the time rather than tell a meaningful story. My parents are busy people with lots of hobbies. They aren't looking to kill time. The traditional route for incoming inexperienced gamers - Bejeweled, Snood, Diner Dash - isn't going to do it for them. They want complex, mature, interesting stories, and they want them right away.

So interactive fiction seemed like an obvious choice. Modern IF is on the cutting edge of interactive storytelling. There's no complicated interface to come to terms with, no twitch gaming to worry about. For the most part, games are short - designed to play in under two hours. It's also about as unlike Pac-Man as you can get, which might help toss those preconceptions out the window. To be honest, I picked Violet because I had played it recently and liked it so much, and because it seemed to make sense. It's a touching story told in a beautiful narrative voice, without robots or spaceships or violence. It's simple; you don't need to draw maps or navigate conversation trees. It only took me 45 minutes to play. It has a built-in hint system. It won the IF Competition. It seemed like a great idea.

It wasn't a great idea. It was a terrible idea. My mother and I spent almost two hours going through a sixth of the game, and eventually quit in hopeless frustration. She made a heroic effort, but she didn't connect with the game even a little bit. She was confused. She was discouraged. She wasn't having fun.

In retrospect, it's obvious that jumping into Violet this way wouldn't turn out well. I thought that the lack of interface would make the game more accessible, and it did, but it couldn't make up for all the things she was expected to know a priori in order to properly relate to the game. I expected some of this; we had a couple conversations beforehand about how text input works and what to expect from the parser. But I obviously didn't put enough thought into it, because I substantially underestimated the amount of pre-existing knowledge required to play this game.

Here are some examples of what I'm talking about. These are very basic concepts that we take for granted the player already understands. There are probably others that apply, as well.

  • Progressive Examination of Scenery - Look at everything. Start by examining your surroundings; then examine every object mentioned in that description. Keep doing this until you're confident that you've examined everything that's visible. Do this first, before you do anything else.
  • Implied Significance of Objects - Everything has a purpose. If you find a key, expect that there will be a locked door later on. If the author tells you there's a wad of chewed-up gum in the trash bin, expect that gum to be vitally important to the story later on.
  • Kleptomania - A corellary to the Implied Significance of Objects: take anything that isn't nailed down. If you find something that is nailed down, keep your eye open for a way to pry it loose. You're going to need it before you're done.
  • Puzzle Recognition - Understand the formal elements of the puzzle that underlie the narrative elements applied to it. In Violet, for example, the underlying structure of the puzzle involves eliminating all the distractions so that you can finish your writing. That's why you aren't permitted to just buckle down, ignore distractions and write the damn thousand words.
  • Implicit Reward in Multipart Puzzles - Sometimes, especially in adventure games and especially in locked-room puzzle games, you have to do a lot of things in order to accomplish a goal. It isn't obvious that you're making significant progress toward your goal by doing these things, especially if the game doesn't give you points for each thing you do, unless you realize that, in this type of game, doing things is progress.
  • False Dead Ends - In an adventure game, when you think you've discovered the solution to a problem, your first attempt at implementing that solution might fail. This doesn't necessarily mean that you're on the wrong track. The solution you identified might be correct, but maybe you need to do something else before it will work, or have something else, or approach something in a slightly different way. Don't lose interest in a potential solution just because your first attempt didn't work out.

Some of these are specific to interactive fiction, or locked-room puzzles, or adventure games. But the phenomenon is pretty universal. And as far as I can tell, there is a direct relationship between the the barriers to entry for playing a game and its potential for complexity and substance. Bejeweled, Snood, and Diner Dash are accessible, but not that interesting. That makes sense, at least to some extent. Games have developed a language - a set of common references, understood meanings, and shared expectations. By building on these building blocks, developers can create experiences that are more complex, more subtle, and more satisfying.

Complex, subtle, and satisfying in terms of gameplay, at least. But is it necessarily true that games as a storytelling media are restricted in this way? Is it possible to create a complex, subtle and satisfying interactive narrative that is accessible to people who, like my parents, have no experience with digital games to build off of?

I suspect that Violet was a particularly bad choice for the introductory work of interactive fiction. Next time I get to spend time with my parents, I'm going to try again with Photopia or The Baron - other favorites with strong narratives that are at least a little less puzzle-oriented. That might help - they might prove to be the right balance of substance and accessibility. But this issue is certainly something that I'm going to be devoting some thought to in the coming months.

Turning the Tide

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I apologize for my absence. Grad school has been keeping me somewhat busy.

I'm on break, now - home for the holidays - and still recovering from the semester, but hoping to make some substantive entries before the next few weeks are past. This is not one of them, however. Today, I merely want to link you to a story that made me smile. Hopefully, it will do the same for you.

Perhaps you heard, a couple weeks back, about the data released by the Pew Internet & American Life Project? I'm talking about the study showing that more than half of American adults play video games. Culture is sometimes slow to shift, but it's only a matter of time.

Interesting Interactions

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"Interesting Interactions" is a term that Jamie Antonisse coined last year - or, anyway, one that he used that I haven't heard anywhere else - and it's something that has stuck with me for a long time. It's a description of what modern mainstream video games don't do well. He was talking about Bioshock in the original context, but it's an industry-wide issue. And it's something that I come back to a lot when, for example, I read this article about the survival horror genre on Sexy Videogameland.

Leigh Alexander has had survival horror on the mind the last few days, which makes sense, I suppose, since she's been playing Silent Hill: Homecoming. I never really got into survival horror, as a genre, in games or cinema. I played a bit of Fatal Frame on the Xbox, and it was interesting, but it didn't really stick with me. I do love Shawn of the Dead, but that's really less a zombie movie than a romantic comedy with zombies. I did just buy a copy of Last Night on Earth, the board game, which I am super excited about trying out. But with few exceptions, survival horror is just not really my cup of tea.

So I didn't get particularly excited about Leigh's initial post about Silent Hill. (Although I admit I perked up a bit at the part where she talks about redefining genre labels, for survival horror games and role-playing games.) And I haven't even read her review of the game on Kotaku. But her follow-up today did catch my eye. Apparently, Leigh attributed some of the mechanics of the survival horror games of the early nineties more to technical limitations than deliberate design decisions, which inspired a response from producer John Tynes, of Microsoft Game Studios. Mostly, Tynes addresses this particular issue, stating that 3rd-person combat is a hard problem, but not for any technical reason. "We weren’t waiting for better chips to enable third-person action; we just had to keep iterating from game to game until we got somewhere that worked."

The really good stuff comes at the end, though:

The fundamental problem here is that videogames have not evolved past combat as their primary form of interaction. The branching-tree dialogues of the BioWare games is the only popular alternative route we’ve found to deliver meaty, game-defining (and game-filling) interaction. The evolution of the survival horror games towards a more action-oriented approach is for that reason: you can solve environmental puzzles, or you can have long, rambling conversations with agenda-defined NPCs, or you can kill things. I would posit that survival horror is not enhanced by long branching conversations with NPCs, so that leaves puzzles and combat. That’s all we’ve got so far in our toolbox for these kinds of games.
That, of course, is embarrassing. There are experiments in other directions, as with Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy. But for now, what console games do well is killing things, and when you look at the survival horror genre, it’s clear that its biggest weakness – without stepping outside the problem set they’ve defined – is in crappy combat. They’ve solved that now, and in the process have exposed the real failure: we don’t know how to make moody, atmospheric games that last 10-20 hours without stuffing them full of killing things. We have to step outside of the initial problem set of survival horror and ask how we can give players meaningful, game-filling interaction in a moody, suspenseful environment without resorting to combat. We have a long way to go.

I think this is a great quote. And I agree with Tynes: violence is old hat. For whatever reason - because it's simple, because it's intrinsically high-stakes, or because it's a form of fantasy fulfillment - combat is the form of conflict resolution that modern games have focused on, more than any other. We've collectively put a lot of cycles into the problem, we've gone through a lot of iterations on various approaches, and we've come up with some great solutions. That's fantastic. But it's not enough. Conflict is broader than violence; drama is more subtle.

(I'm reminded of the character Michael Scott from the American version of The Office, who said on his approach to improvisational acting: "What is the most exciting thing that can happen on TV or in movies, or in real-life? Somebody has a gun. That’s why I always start with a gun, because you can’t top it. You just can’t.")

We need to spend some of that energy developing solutions to the unsolved problems, the harder problems: compromise, debate, passive aggression, perseverance, leadership, wit, lateral thinking, personal growth, politics, love. These are all types of conflict resolution that haven't been explored nearly as much as combat. These are all interesting interactions. (And, to be fair, violence isn't the only sort of interaction that's been popular amongst game designers. Economic simulation has also been iterated on quite a lot, as have competitive sports - though combat seems to be explored the most, by a wide margin.)

Just to be clear: there are a lot of game designers out there who have experimented with interesting interactions, in independent games and in mainstream games. People have done great work in these areas, and are continuing to do great work. But we have to remember, as Tynes says, that we still have a long way to go. I'm not calling on anyone to stop putting violence in your games. But keep in mind, when you're designing, that there's a lot more than combat out there. Ask yourself if you're including an interactive element because it's the best thing for the design, or the easiest, most familiar thing for the designer. Sometimes it's good to get reminders about the more interesting interactions, so that we can work on solving those problems, too.

Over at my IMD blog. Link.

Story is King

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Yesterday was the first day of the ACM Siggraph conference in Los Angeles, and the first of several keynote talks that will be given this week. Ed Catmull, President of Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar, talked about managing creative environments. One of the key points he made early in his talk had to do with the wisdom he came upon early in his career: "The story is the most important part of a movie." This seemed like an important truth to have discovered, until he gave it a little more thought. Movies ARE stories, he realized. Saying that the story is the most important part of a movie isn't wisdom, it's a tautology.

Immediately after Catmull's keynote, I attended another very interesting session, a panel presentation about the production of the movie Kung-Fu Panda. One of the panelists who spoke about his experience on the film was the director, John Stevenson. While talking about production schedules and character design, he prefaced himself by saying that story is king. He said it in an offhand manner, as though it was so obvious that it barely rated mentioning. Story was the first thing and the last thing that they worried about, the most important consideration governing all aspects of the production from beginning to end.

Listening to these two men talk about their medium and share a perspective that relates moviemaking to storytelling in such a profoundly fundamental way, I couldn't help but think about the video game industry, where story is so often treated as an afterthought. Of course, games are not movies, as we well know. But, as a proponent of games as a storytelling medium, I have to ask myself: is story in games the same kind of tautology as story in movies? Or are the differences between the media such that story will always be something extra that must be added to a game in a fundamentally different way than to a movie?

Hearing Stevenson talk about the process of developing the movie's story at the same time as the character models, environments, and technologies was something of an eye-opening experience for me. When I think of movies, I usually think about a traditional live-action development pipeline where the script is written and pretty much set before filming begins. Modern CG animated movies, clearly, are a different beast. More than anything, this reminded me of a talk I saw given by Ken Levine last spring at GDC. At the time, I was shocked at the way he talked about the story in Bioshock evolving and changing in significant ways until very late in the production cycle, even within a couple months of the ship date. Bioshock, at the moment, is one of the industry's most important examples of story in games, so the fact that the game was not built around an already-fully-developed story was somewhat disconcerting to me. Thinking about it in relation to Kung-Fu Panda, however, makes it seem more reasonable. In both of these media, this sort of process occurs because it can: unlike actors and live-action footage, digital models, environments, and technologies can be re-scripted and reimplemented as the scene evolves and changes. In the blockbuster environment in which Dreamworks and 2K operate, overlapping the writing and production is cheaper than having a distinct writing stage. It also allows the writing to be integrated into the iterative design process, which is something I hadn't considered before, but could be an important point in developing interactive media.

Don't look for any real in-depth analysis of these ideas here; I'm still in conference mode and my brain is stuck in an intake-cycle. But I'm eager to hear any thoughts you have to contribute to this conversation, if anyone is interested in taking these ideas further.

Negligence

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Gosh, it's been a while since I wrote anything here, hasn't it?

I haven't been writing because I've been busy working on other projects, including a number of interesting games that are now in various stages of the development process. Hopefully I will be talking about some of them in greater detail soon, although I'm well aware of my track record when it comes to making promises about future posts.

I do plan to pick up on the writing schedule here on Softcore Gamer, though. Among other things, I am beginning classes at USC in a couple weeks and I have been given a new blog over at the Interactive Media Division. For the time being, I plan on cross-posting relevant content on both blogs, but regardless of how things shape up I will continue to post here on an extremely irregular schedule, just as you're used to.

In sadly related news, I've heard nothing out of HardCasual in quite a while. Hopefully those guys are going through a similar period of productive non-writing and will eventually return, because I really enjoyed their take on game culture and the industry.

Just Links

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I've got a couple good posts planned to follow up on Photopia, but in the meantime, I just want to point out a couple of things that you may or may not have seen floating around the Internet.

  • An animated (in Yahtzee-esque fashion) video about sexual content in games, or rather, the lack thereof. The argument, which is basically the same one I would make, is that the seeming inability of game developers to incorporate sexual themes in a mature and artistic manner is detrimental to the medium. Honestly, there's nothing here that I found groundbreaking, but Daniel Floyd does a great job of summing up the issues in a clear and entertaining way.
  • A fantastic post by Emily Short about the structure and process of writing IF by breaking a story down into scenes of distinct types and intents. If you have any interest in interactive fiction, as I increasingly do, this is definitely worth a read.
  • A very funny post by Leigh Alexander that lays out what Hillary Clinton needs to do if she still wants to win the nomination. (Hint: Agents are go.)

Hope you enjoy those links; sorry there's not more by way of analysis here. I just needed to break back into writing a little bit, because it's been so long. Hopefully the first Photopia post will be coming shortly.

I was skimming through Kotaku this weekend and this post on the top ten video game emotions jumped out at me. It's over at Only a Game, and it's based on a survey of around a thousand gamers. The results are interesting, plus I learned a couple great new words: fiero, the sense of triumph over adversity, and naches, the feeling of pride in the accomplishments of a student. A cursory analysis of the survey data seems to suggest that casual gaming is big; a feeling of triumph is great, but softer emotions like curiosity and amusement are even bigger.

I'm also pleased to have seen this because I was unfamiliar with Only a Game. But scanning through their archives, it seems they've worked on some very interesting things.

I'll give you the basic run-down here; for an actual analysis of these results, check out the original article.

10. Bliss
09. Relief
08. Naches
07. Surprise
06. Fiero
05. Curiosity
04. Excitement
03. Wonderment
02. Contentment
01. Amusement

And the emotions at the bottom of the list were

20. Sadness
21. Guilt
22. Embarrassment

I have a couple problems with this study, although I'm thrilled so see research being done in this area. My major concern is that the survey's scale seems to conflate two distinct ideas: the effectiveness of emotions in games and the desireability of emotions in games. There is no room on the scale to describe, for example, an emotion that I would like to feel, and which I actively seek out in games, but which is not effectively presented. I'd also like to see a better breakdown of what emotions players recognize as being present in the games they play, independent of their effectiveness. Do the respondents mean to say that they don't like feeling sad, or that games are bad at making them feel sad?

The author notes that this is only a preliminary study. There's an enormous amount of potential here; quite honestly, this article leaves me with more questions than answers. I'd love to see a follow-up that addresses trends within demographics and even within individuals - do the same people who seek out fiero also seek out curiosity, or do these emotions represent two different types of gamer, the acheiver and the explorer? How does a person's reaction to negative emotions in games relate to their reaction to similar emotions in other media - do people who enjoy tearjerker movies also seek out sadness in games? I'm also curious about how these players go about seeking out their emotions of choice, and where they find them. Which genres, and which games specifically, give them the emotional high they're looking for?

Very promising research. I'm hoping to see a lot more of this sort of thing in the future.