I was one of the few people lucky enough to be given a preview of the environment and allowed to play with it before release (and Jesse tucked in a few features at my request); the idea was I was supposed to have a working realm ready when Guncho was released. But the days are gone when I could whip together something playable in a month (for which I blame my job, social life, and decreased ability to go without sleep multiple nights in a row). So I didn’t finish the project in time. And then once that deadline had gone by, there were other things that seemed more urgent, and so I still haven’t finished the project. I am lame.
But leaving that aside for a moment: Jesse and I were chatting this evening, and he suggested that he’d like to hear about some of my multiplayer IF ideas. So here they are, and I apologize for breaking the no-unimplemented-concept-discussin’ standards of the community. Please, if any of this strikes your fancy as something to implement, feel free to use it. Or debate, or ignore. Whatever.
All right. So there are lots of kinds of puzzles that multiplayer IF could lend itself to, some of which are basically textual variations of multi-player puzzles in online games: stuff like players cooperating to work on objects that can’t both be reached at the same time, or in a multi-person combat party, or physically assisting one another (are there many IF games involving piggy-back rides? there could be). There are probably a lot of places one could find examples of this sort of puzzle. And there are also obviously competitive puzzles (which of you can resolve this first? how do you protect your stuff from the depredations of other players?) which would be suitable for different kinds of games.
To be honest, though, that is not the aspect of Guncho that caught my imagination immediately. What I was more interested in was: How do you tell an interactive story with several players? How can an interactive story with several players be better than an interactive story with one player?
For one thing, interactive story with multiple players could have the different players take roles in the story. Abandonitis? Challenge of writing believable dynamic conversations? NO LONGER A PROBLEM. The players will be the characters. They will talk to one another in English. They will respond to gestures and perceive nuances behind words. They will have moods not simulated by numerical approximation. They will be not-robots. Worlds open!
Okay (you may be thinking), but at that point how much is the story really being written by me, the supposed author, and how much is it being written by the players, for the players? How do I guarantee that the players have enough material to make conversation interesting? How do I motivate them to interact? How do I constrain them just enough to make the story happen while still leaving them free to do the human participation that would make this so much fun and so totally unlike single-player IF? If I give up that much control, how is the result different from a MUD?
These are (except the last) all variations on standard problems in RPG design, even if they aren’t things IF authors are used to thinking about.
At which point it became obvious that any Guncho game I wrote would be some kind of IF/RPG hybrid. It would be like an RPG in relying heavily on the players’ spirit of cooperation and willingness to act their parts. That would leave a lot of its quality up to someone else: playing the game with sucky co-players would be way less fun than playing it with a good group. Balance would be a problem. I would need to give everyone reasons to need one another, to encourage interaction. Probably (thinking of some of my favorite RPG campaigns) I would succeed best by writing something that gave everyone reasons to cooperate… and reasons not to trust one another completely. Reasons to try to persuade one another and lie to one another, to bribe one another with in-game items, maybe to attack one another as a last resort; more likely, to slightly handicap one another, whether by poison or spells or the theft of a needed item or some other more mundane form of sabotage.
So then I thought: I will write a game that has a team win condition, but also has some additional win conditions for each individual player. They will be motivated to help one another, but each one will have some secret goal that might be in conflict, partly or wholly, with someone else’s. It would be possible for the team to win, but for one or more of its members to lose. And it would be best if the individual motives came most clearly into conflict right at the end, at the big crisis, so that there’ are real decisions to make and loyalties to test.
Each character will have some specialized resources, too — things he can use to help or bribe others uniquely. Puzzles might have multiple solutions accessible to different characters, and that would mean that you could either figure out how to do it “your” way, or beg/bribe someone else to do it “their” way. You might be the one with the motivation. They might be the one with the easy solution. How you come to an agreement is entirely up to you.
Not all the cool stuff one could do would be RPG-stuff, though. The great thing about IF is its attention to physical setting, and I wanted to make a lot of use of action-seen-at-a-distance, to reinforce the awareness (always) that the player was in a space inhabited by others. So I’d want some areas to be visible from other areas (Friends managed to milk the plot potential of the line of sight into Ross’ apartment for many seasons on end, so that’s got to be useful for IF, too).
Maybe characters could spy on one another. Maybe some of them would have devices allowing them to bug and hear each other’s conversations.
Maybe there would be puzzles that required characters to work out some means of long-distance communication. Maybe character X is supposed to distract a guard while Y sneaks into a room… only they need to make sure that their actions are coordinated, and they can’t see one another. So perhaps they have to work out a signal of some kind.
It also occurred to me that it would be great fun to distinguish this IF-RPG hybrid from regular RPGs via the fact that, in IF, different players can get different reports. Game masters in a room full of people have to say one version of events. Everyone hears the same thing. Or the GM can whisper something to someone, but then everyone knows about the whisper. Online RPG sessions can involve the gamemaster privately messaging people, but even there, there’s usually enough mental overhead for the GM in running multiple secret conversations on top of the main stream of game information that the technique doesn’t get used unless really necessary.
For Guncho, this would be no problem at all. One character could read a letter and the others just see him read it; the information in it would be private unless he chose to share (and if he didn’t let them look, he could well lie in his report of the contents). In fact, this could carry over to all kinds of things: different characters with different backgrounds would see different descriptions of objects and rooms. They could choose to share their knowledge with one another or keep it close to the vest. Not only would they start the game with secrets, but they would continue to receive new ones throughout. And maybe there would be some explanations of things that they could only fully piece together through conversation.
Also, of course, a character’s actions could be reported differently to that character than to everyone else; and that, too, would be a way subtly to reinforce the character dynamics that one wanted the story to have. Just as other people notice posture and bearing more than we notice it in ourselves, the game could sketch the characters to onlookers — “You head north” for the actor, but “Frobozz waddles off to the north” for everyone else. (It would probably be a bit cruel to single out one player for a particularly mockable PC, and in general I imagine the effects would need to be subtler than that, unless one were going for a comedy game — but the idea stands.) It would still be possible for players to play deliberately against these types, but I think the game could exert considerable pull on them to fall into specific roles, just through some well-chosen descriptive elements.
I do still hope to return to my Guncho WIP, and see whether I can get some of this working.
In the meantime, though, I think there’s a huge amount of untapped potential in the tool, not just as a place for tinkering and two-handed puzzles, but as a means of telling interesting stories with different limitations and freedoms than most single-player IF currently affords.