Saturday, December 9, 2023

Applying and Improving 3 Types of Narrative Choices

Picture of a hand placing papers labeled "bad" and "good."

I'd like to preserve some information that’s at risk of being destroyed by capricious billionaires: Ryan Kaufman's brief list of narrative choices.

Choices to access content 

Extreme versions are just “choose ‘yes’ to continue.” (See also: Dragon Warrior’s infamous “But thou must!”) 

Less extreme versions gate off side content — something like asking the player if they would enjoy a game of chess. Kaufman noted that most players don’t get much value from choosing NOT to do something. 

Instead, these choices can become opportunities to provide an "active no" that reveals additional details about a story and its characters: 

Tweet from Ryan Kaufman that reads "Consider changing this to an active No (if you must) by reframing the choice as a role-playing moment? Choice 1: Sure, I'd love to help! Choice 2: Card tricks are demeaning to magic! This allows you to follow up on both choices with a personal or emotional reaction from NPC X."

Choices to express an opinion

I’m ambivalent about reflective choices — asking players how they feel about things — because I can’t think of any times when they improved my enjoyment of a game. Cat Manning has explained that it takes an awful lot of work to do them well

On Twitter, Kaufman also pointed out that there are risks involved:

Tweet from Ryan Kaufman that reads "The What Do You Think Question Nothing breaks immersion like the game stopping and asking the player "what do you think?" It can feel like we're breaking the 4th wall. When we want to ask the player's opinion, we have to camouflage it a bit more."

The worst abuses are authors using “how do you feel about this?” in place of “choose ‘yes’ to continue.” The story moves forward on rails regardless of how the player feels about it.

Kaufman’s recommendation was to link these choices with actual changes in the narrative, possibly adjusting the character’s inventory or abilities to reflect their answer.

Choices for a secret, third thing

My favorite segment was the choice to keep another character’s secret. This happens in Outer Worlds, where the main character has several opportunities to turn Phineas Welles over to the authorities. (That game had some problems, but choosing to reveal the location of Welles’ base had significant implications for the story and the main character’s role in it.)

Kaufman pointed out that these choices should be introduced early, because the decision to reveal a secret has more emotional weight if the player has been keeping it for a while. 

A sequence of tweets from Ryan Kaufman that read "The other challenge is, if you're doing this right, you really have to support the "I won't keep your secret" rail all the way through the scenes. In what ways does the player value not keeping this secret, and what valuable avenues does it unlock for them?" and " i.e. make it more than just a moral stance, or a reason to mess with someone. Are there friendships or opportunities that actually unlock (or -even better- you can imply *will* unlock) if you DO choose to violate the Character's secret?"

Building on these choices can add new dimensions to a narrative, especially when the different types of choices are connected. Choosing to keep a secret can lead to follow-up choices that ask how a player feels about their actions. 

Are they the type of character who will go to extreme lengths to help a friend, or will they abandon a friendship to adhere to a strict moral code? 

Saturday, November 18, 2023

Learn to Test

I used to think it was silly when shows had futuristic computers narrate what they were doing. 

You know, those little stream-of-consciousness declarations, like “scanning the area for life forms” or “initiating self-destruct sequence”? They seemed like cheap writing trying show the audience that things were happening.

Now that I have more programming experience, it makes more sense.

My early coding efforts — in Twine, so we aren’t even talking about something complicated — were nightmares of frustration filled with obscure error messages and opaque syntax warnings. Early versions of the SugarCube documentation didn’t make a lot of sense to me, and it was slow going trying to sift through Q&A pages for answers.1

It was easier to loiter in the Interactive Fiction Community Forum, where I found Linus Åkesson2 sharing a useful metaphor about building bridges. It's okay to start with something feeble, because you can build on it through a gradual process of refinement and evolution. 

As I beat various projects into shape — leaning on the bridge metaphor and applying McDonald’s Theory — I learned the four possible states in which code exists:

My coding efforts are still full of errors and janky syntax, but now it’s easier to find and fix the problems. If my projects need less development time, it’s not because I’m faster at coding. It’s because I’m faster at identifying where things failed. I have become better at testing. 

These improvements came from using more comments in the code and indicators that explain what's going on. When it's easier to see where things are failing, it's easier to identify where you should fix them. 

In that context, it makes more sense to have the computer announce that it’s scanning for lifeforms or initiating a self-destruct sequence.

1. I should note that is much more user friendly in the present day.
2. You may recognize his name from the “8-bit Baroque Metal” performance that recently took certain corners of the internet by storm.3
3. That wasn’t an intentional pun, but it works. SORRY I’M NOT SORRY.

Monday, October 23, 2023

Breathedge: The Good, the Bad, and the Awkward


I enjoyed Breathedge, but it squandered a lot of potential. The early game’s creativity and open environment became more linear and less entertaining as its story unfolded

The early survival sequence is delightful — Breathedge takes place in a massive debris field that is densely packed full of items and destinations. You have to manage hunger, thirst, and oxygen levels while collecting and crafting items that increase the time that you can spend gathering resources. You’re also working with a limited inventory space, and this is not a cozy world of abundance: All of your crafting decisions involve strategic tradeoffs to prioritize survival.

It sets up a well-managed tension in the opening chapters, leaving players to decide whether they want to spend resources customizing their own base or researching additional equipment that could help overcome environmental challenges.

Some of the most immersive, beautiful, and distracting sequences in Breathedge involved pushing to the limits of explorable space and seeing whether I brought adequate food, water, and oxygen to survive the return trip. There are enough requirements for survival, and enough new locations to explore, that it’s easy to overlook an important requirement. Then you're racing back to a previous location to grab something that was vital for survival. 

Frustration and backtracking are an intentional part of the early gameplay experience, and I enjoyed those challenges. 

Later stages are filled with pointless, mandatory backtracking — everything happens in enclosed spaces full of oxygen and additional supplies. In these sequences, you interact with a designated object that sends you to a similarly arbitrary destination in the opposite direction.

These environments felt like they were padded full of unnecessary space and deliberate switchbacks to extend the amount of time required to finish the game.

It was also disappointing to explore a universe with almost no diversity. Women only appear in Breathedge as pinup art and murals depicting idealized femininity. There’s an overall lack of variety: the humans that get rendered with faces are all men, and the majority of characters have a single, generic body type. (Granted, there are a small number of exceptions used to make fat jokes.) 

The only female voice actor in the game recites lines from a diagnostic computer with BDSM programming — she makes sexualized statements about torture and punishment in response to the player’s choices. 
Some of the poor design choices in Breathedge felt like an attempt to compensate for even worse narrative choices. The game begins with an interrogation where the player recounts their story of surviving the spaceship crash. It's a framing device where the “game over” message is replaced by an interrogator insisting that things must have gone differently. 

That kind of artifice works well in a game like Spider and Web, when the designer wants to call attention to differences between the events that happened and the story that the player sees, but it felt like a needless extra step here. The player ends up loading a saved game to continue, with or without the extra prompting from interrogators. 

Overall, it felt like the developers were reluctant to use the intrinsic motivation of survival in outer space. Instead of trusting that people would want to rescue themselves, the game imposes a confusing plot involving eco terrorists, secret research projects, and corrupt government bureaucracies. When these jumbled story pieces don’t fit together, Breathedge just breaks the fourth wall and says “do this because the designers have made it a requirement.”  

I would have been happier exploring outer space without the extra gamification.

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Tomorrow in Crabs

 “History doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme,” as they say. 

I’ve noticed that the current fragmentation of the internet looks like the internet migrations of the early 2000s. MySpace blew up — first in the sense of getting popular, and then in the sense of complete catastrophe — which left a lot of internet users adrift.

People vowed that they would never to put all their trust in a single internet platform, and it sparked the creation of a ton of blogs. Today, people are coping with the loss of Twitter by swearing never to put their trust in a single internet platform and creating their own newsletters. 

It’s like natural selection creating 5 different evolutionary paths that all ended in crab shapes.  

But mostly I wanted to bring up crabs to note that they had a starring role in the July issue of Trends in Parasitology, a scientific journal that explores “Parasite effects on host’s trophic and isotopic niches.” The article talks about studying the different ways that parasites alter the behavior of their hosts (see also: The Last of Us). 

The article caught my attention because of this sentence: “Wild-caught organisms should not be considered single organisms, but rather entire ecosystems, hosting a variety of microbes and parasites, which can be found in virtually every tissue.”

I swear that links back to video games — I remember reading about a PC game from the 90’s where the player guides the development of a civilization that is being built in the fossilized remains of a dragon. I just can’t remember the name of it.

(The title of this post is a reference to Today in Tabs, which I’ve been using to keep up with online developments now that, you know…) 

Thursday, August 24, 2023

Questioning my reactions

 A bush in the shape of a question mark

I came of age in the internet forums of the early 2000’s, and it was a time when posters were expected to follow a forum rules — whether those rules were written or otherwise. Ignorance was no excuse, and anybody who failed to demonstrate a mastery of “obvious” common knowledge was assaulted with lurk moar memes, encouraging them to study community etiquette before posting again. 

It… wasn’t the healthiest environment for advancing collective knowledge and shared understanding?

The norms of online discourse shifted over time, especially after Twitter became a major platform. I wouldn’t use words like “welcoming” or “inclusive” to describe the average Twitter user, but it became acceptable to go around posting while ignorant on main. 

Then Dick Clark died, and ignorance had a bit of a moment. It took things to the other extreme. 

There has to be a middle ground between communities where people are pressured to hide what they don’t know and ones where people make a big show of patting themselves on the back for not knowing anything. 

Asking questions is good! It’s how a person learns, but it can also encourage inquiry and discovery among larger groups of people. Two examples come from the Interactive Fiction Community Forum:
In the current internet environment, the ability to ask questions has become much more important. News is secured behind paywalls, search results are poisoned by paid ads, and platforms like Discord make it almost impossible to find interactions from just a few months ago.

I need to reconsider how I respond to ignorance. (And to be clear, I mean honest lack-of-knowledge ignorance — I remain comfortable with my reflexive desire to spurn poorly disguised bigotry, intolerance, and hatred.)

If I’m going to “be the change I want to see” on the internet, supporting and encouraging people who want to develop new knowledge, then I’ll have to put aside the survival instincts that I developed in my early internet days. 

Sunday, August 6, 2023

I bet there’s a German word for it.

Tipa has a post up about taming the games backlog, and it’s entirely too relatable. Meanwhile, Ocho’s goals for August reminded me that I still have to get back to Fallout: New Vegas (although I’m reluctant to return after some ugly misadventures at Camp McCarran).

What I’d really like to do is resolve some unfinished business from more than a decade ago: I finally dragged my Nintendo Wii out of storage to complete some games that have been stuck in my memory for a very long time. 

What do you call it when you forget a game’s controls, meaning that you can’t pick up where you left off, but you remember too much of its plot to start over? That’s what happened with me and The Last Story.

I was barely managing the combat sequences before I took an extended absence, and now I think I'll need some time to get back into practice. Sometimes it helps to start a game over and work back through the early tutorial battles, but I don't have the patience for all the story sequences.  

Yes, I remember the island’s terrible secret. No, I don’t want to endure the extended heel turn that was heavily foreshadowed. The Last Story is interesting overall, but its storytelling can be a bit over the top. 

I’m sure that the tutorial details can be accessed through in-game menus, and I could always (pause for dramatic effect) read the manual — with enough study time, it would be possible to resume moving forward. But I don’t play games to conduct intensive research.

So I’m just kind of… staring at it? I have always wanted to see how its ends, and people say nice things about the game, which means that it’s probably worth finishing. After that, I’ll see if I can get back into Xenogears and Farewell Ruins of the Moon.

Wednesday, August 2, 2023

That's Just Science

Over at Unwinnable, they’re discussing the 2023 movie Talk to Me:

“Talk to Me may be the most credible supernatural teen horror movie ever made, simply by dint of the way that the kids in the film turn the medium-istic hand into a party game, heedless of the larger questions it raises, or the possible consequences of their actions – until it is too late and those actions have come home to roost.”

Orrin Grey, the author of the review, asserts that the movie’s credibility comes from (realistically!) showing how idiot kids will eagerly do dumb things for entertainment. 

But it’s not just kids. Over at the University of Virginia, they have known for years that people are willing to do stupid things whenever the opportunity is available:  

“For 15 minutes, the team left participants alone in a lab room in which they could push a button and shock themselves if they wanted to. The results were startling: Even though all participants had previously stated that they would pay money to avoid being shocked with electricity, 67% of men and 25% of women chose to inflict it on themselves rather than just sit there quietly and think”

More recently, Erin Kissane put it into a Mastodon-specific context:

That's part of a larger post from Kissane that discusses how and why people engage with specific social networks, which is a topic that seems relevant for Blaugust.

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Blaugust 1: The Stressbox


Cardboard box sitting on a floor

Blaugust has me thinking about dealing with the things that stop me from blogging (i.e., writer's block), and one of the tools I use is a stressbox. It’s a mashup of two lifehacks that I found on the internet:
  • When you write down what’s bothering you, putting physical distance between yourself and the list can be like leaving your problems behind.
  • When your inner critic is particularly fierce, you can invite a second inner critic to point out shortcomings in the first critic’s attacks. (This was a joke* about tricking the two critics into arguing with each other so you could sneak off to do some real work.) 
When I can’t make any progress on a project, I create a stressbox by opening up a disposable notepad.txt file and writing out all my objections.

A few things can happen from here.

Maybe I’ll identify an underlying issue that’s stopping me from making progress. Or I could wear out my inner critic by venting until there’s nothing left to criticize. Sometimes, it’s McDonald’s Theory in action — I lay out my worst possible ideas, and then it’s much easier to improve from there. 

I also get the fun mental image of trapping my inner critic(s) in that two-dimensional prison from Superman II.

The stressbox can sound like a waste of time, but I normally bring it out when I’ve already wasted a lot of time procrastinating with things like gaming or household chores.

It’s no less constructive than any other form of procrastination, and it gets me closer to a place where I'm doing actual work. (I’m already seated at the computer and typing in complete sentences; it’s a minor change to start typing in a different window.) 

The main drawback is that the comments from the stressbox are never part of the finished work — the file is never saved, because who wants a record of their most obnoxious self-criticism? 

I end up forgetting that it can be an important part of my creative process. Every time I sit down in front of a new project, I have to remember how it works all over again. 

*Update 11/27/23: I FOUND THE JOKE!

Sunday, July 30, 2023

Blaugust: Retreating into the Future

I’m joining Blaugust this year because the internet of the future looks like a return to the internet of the past. An article in The Verge exaggerates the current situation, but not by much:

Twitter is being abandoned to bots and blue ticks. There’s the junkification of Amazon and the enshittification of TikTok. Layoffs are gutting online media. A job posting looking for an “AI editor” expects “output of 200 to 250 articles per week.” ChatGPT is being used to generate whole spam sites. Etsy is flooded with “AI-generated junk.” 

Elsewhere in The Verge, James Vincent has drawn parallels between auto-generated text and geofoam, a synthetic material stuffed into “the empty spaces that progress leaves behind.” Generative text has made it increasingly difficult to connect with people and websites that share useful information; the internet’s largest platforms have become hollow exercises in mass-produced content for monetizing web traffic. 

This decline of great powers has played out elsewhere in literature and history. Eleanor Janega sees parallels with the collapse of Twitter and the cascading failures of the Roman Empire:

In reality the “fall” wasn’t because outside forces wanted to destroy Rome – they just wanted to control it. There was a slow and steady degradation of the services that the Empire could offer, and people began to respond to this with smaller and localised communities.

Online, a shift towards smaller, more localized communities looks like a return to internet communities of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s: webrings and niche resource pages curated by passionate individuals. In the Fediverse, people are being encouraged to post more on their personal websites:

Mastodon post urging readers to return to RSS feeds, webrings, and similar interactions in the wake of major platform collapse

I found Blaugust, the Festival of Blogging, through my Mastodon account. The festival promotes a similar idea, encouraging people to publish more blog posts on their own sites during the month of August, and I’m hoping that it can help me overcome some of blogging’s emotional obstacles

(In addition to getting the idea of emotional obstacles from Tracy Durnell, I have also been thinking about her point that blog posts don’t have to be long. Both of those concepts have helped me address some of my own concerns about publishing material that doesn’t feel like it’s “good enough.”)

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Game Exploration Done Well

(Image credit: Pixabay PIX 1861)

A while back, Overthinking It discussed how players enjoy exploration and discovery in video games. The argument was that a discovery is something players learn or find. A good discovery provides a thrilling sense of accomplishment, but these discoveries are only made through the process of exploration.

From a design perspective, it’s not enough for your games to have discoveries that entertain players; the players need to enjoy — or at least tolerate — the exploration that leads to those discoveries.

Forgotten Tavern tried to apply this concept with discoverable equipment upgrades. As the story progressed, scene descriptions changed over time to encourage exploration and lead players to better equipment. (Feedback suggested that the discoveries were appreciated, but the exploration mechanics could have been improved.)

The Ultima series gives better examples of a well-executed exploration/discovery process. Jimmy Maher at The Digital Antiquarian explains

“The gratification that comes when another piece of the puzzle falls into place is considerable. Ultima has always been better at delivering that thrill of exploration than just about any other CRPG. [….]Ferreting out these secrets and hidden mechanics contributes to another thing Ultima always does well: making you feel smart.”

Maher calls it “exploration,” but finding secrets and hidden mechanics sounds more like “discovery.” This difference is noted in Andrew Plotkin’s comment on a post about Ultima IV:

“It was an exercise in detail-oriented patience. You *can* see that extra pixel if you look for it *every time*, and if you don’t — well, you’re playing the wrong game. Similarly, every NPC has something to tell you, and you plumb their stupid conversation keywords until you find it. If you haven’t seen the other side of a lake or mountain range, you’re not done with it.”

The Ultima games were designed to support exploration that led to interesting discoveries. These dynamics are also seen in a more recent game, Fit for a King. It has graphics that are clearly influenced by earlier entries in the Ultima series:

Fit for a King screenshot via Kitfox Games
(Image via Kitfox Games)

But I was delighted to learn that the similarities are more than visual. Fit for a King has 26 royal commands that are used to unearth buried treasure, yell secret phrases, and discover hidden details throughout your kingdom.

The game is described a non-linear sandbox, but Fit for a King has more structure than its description suggests: you are trying to find new ways to impress your rival before the big summit at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. It’s fun to explore the world, but it’s also rewarding to discover new and extravagant treasures that accomplish your goal.

The writing easily switches between serious and silly, depending on the circumstances. It's also brief and snarky, providing just enough detail to support the narrative.

After the preparations are ready, the player enjoys a brief exchange with their rival at the summit, and then an epilogue describes how various characters fared. That’s where you learn that the royal commands weren’t just cosmetic affordances  different characters will get married, wage war, and find lasting fame based on the player’s previous actions.

A final message encourages the player to go back and explore some more, which turns out to be a good idea. Fit for a King offers enough discoveries to support multiple playthroughs. 

Friday, January 27, 2023

Michael Crichton Predicted Our Response to ChatGPT

Dinosaur image via Pixabay

No, it wasn't in his explanation of Chaos Theory. 

It’s his description of Gell-Mann amnesia:

“You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well [….] You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. [….] you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.”

Most of the breathless hype about ChatGPT seems to come from people asserting that it will radically disrupt the work of someone else. When experts evaluate ChatGPT in their own disciplines, the same optimism is missing:

  • Musician Nick Cave has received “dozens” of ChatGPT-created songs that attempt to emulate his work. He is not impressed.

  • Stack Overflow, a website for programmers discussing code, found ChatGPT answers to be “substantially harmful” (emphasized in the original statement) for users who want correct information.

  • Journalists at Futurism looked at CNET's use of ChatGPT for creating news stories, and they found “a series of boneheaded errors.” 

  • In cybersecurity discussions, observers have pointed out that ChatGPT can’t do the actual work required for a successful attack. 

  • One app tried using ChatGPT responses in its online mental health services, and the experiment ended because “messages just felt better” when they were written by humans. 

When it comes to overblown predictions about ChatGPT’s effects, it’s odd to see credible sources change gears and forget what they know. At least Michael Crichton can explain what’s happening. 

TL;DR Just invoke Betteridge’s law when an article asks you “Can ChatGPT fill in mentorship gaps for Gen Z workers?

Friday, January 13, 2023

The Perils of Narrative Dissonance

I wrote a public review of Potion Permit — it’s up at Press SPACE to Jump — but the lack of narrative resonance in the game deserves a discussion of its own.

Tweet from @the_strix: "Boiled down, resonance is when a work connects to itself; thematically, archetypically, structurally. It has its own internal call and response, patterns, echoes, and other structural and rhythmic forms that *cohere into meaning*

Stardew Valley, the Rune Factory series, and Story of Seasons games all resonate with the idea of nurturing. They ask you to spend time and attention on short activities for long-term benefit, nurturing crops and relationships that yield rewards.

Potion Permit abandons the ideas of farming and growth. Instead, you run an infirmary to heal sick patients. You brew potions for healing, and your ingredients are gathered outside of town. 

The potions, and their constant demand for ingredients, turn every day into an extractive rampage. The only limits are your own endurance. The exact same objects will appear in the exact same places the following day, so take everything you can find!

Potion Permit screenshot showing tree stumps and crushed rocks.
Success is full of tree stumps, crushed rocks, and cut plants.

You can pretend to be a careful ecologist by taking only what you need, but the game mechanics completely ignore any suggestion of an ecological balance. There’s no penalty for stockpiling absurd amounts of raw materials, and you’ll probably need them later. 

This extractive idea of “harvesting” clashes with the story behind your mission to Moonbury: the player is supposed to heal a long-standing rift between the Medical Association and the local villagers. (The association was exiled after a series of mysterious accidents wiped out native plants that were unique to the area around town.)

Spoiler alert: the conflict turns out to be a big misunderstanding. Chemists didn’t cause these problems, but their knowledge can fix them. The ecological disaster sites end up being excuses to brew Potion X and apply it at Location Y. 

Once the native plants are restored, they're additional resources to extract for your potions. It doesn’t feel like a story about healing environmental damage when the gameplay has you unlocking new areas for exploitation.

All this activity is completely removed from the social dynamics of Moonbury and its inhabitants. In fact, they encourage you to extract additional resources to experience the next installment of their story. Getting to know villagers through daily interactions becomes the thing you do to find out what needs to be extracted next.  

Tweet from @the_strix: "So what are the tools of narrative design resonance? Theme is your strongest ally. Know your themes, know how they translate to mechanics. Thematic patterns echoing in parallel, or like nesting dolls. Characters illustrating themes or challenging them."

Potion Permit ends up feeling like a narrative of colonization and imperial expansion. The capital city, and its bureaucratic medical association, has sent the player to a backwards society that relies on a witch doctor. You are asked to improve that society by looting the surrounding landscape, saving the people from themselves.

I don’t think this colonization theme was intentional! But it’s an interpretation that fits into the spaces left by disjointed narrative design.