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.

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