Gloom and other thoughts

This Christmas I received a copy of Gloom, which I’ve been curious to play since it was reviewed over at Play This Thing. The mechanics of the game exist to enable the players to tell increasingly implausible and horrific Gorey-style tales about their characters, until at last they are all dead.

As is usually the case with story-telling games, the results are more amusing than coherent. But there are a couple of mechanics I thought worked reasonably well.

Cards in Gloom are transparent plastic with text and numbers in specific areas. As you play, you stack cards representing plot events on your character; the cumulative effect of all these twists and turns is what you see when looking down through all of the stacked cards. Some events overlap others, wholly or partly blotting out their effects. From a story-simulation point of view this is a very coarse-grained kind of bookkeeping (right for a card game, but you’d expect subtler from anything implemented on a computer).

Some cards (in addition to bestowing positive or negative points) come with “story icons” — hearts for romance, coins for monetary adventures, etc. Some subsequent cards receive a bonus for being played on the correct story icon, or are restricted only to be played over a specific icon. This aids in the construction of semi-coherent stories, because you are more likely to play, say, “widowed at the wedding” on a character with some prior romantic events.

But the storytelling aspect is not really about plot as such. Most of the fun here comes from inhabiting the expectations of a particular genre, though — it’s not exactly a mockery or parody of Gorey as an invitation to wallow in a pseudo-Goreyverse for a while. This is not surprising — Second Person has some essays about storytelling boardgames that basically argue that they work best when they rely strongly on genre conventions. IF doesn’t really work on this level: if it did, a game wouldn’t be so much about being immersed in a story, making choices, solving challenges for the protagonist, or playing a role; it would be more about story organization, about choosing developments from outside the tale.

I did once try to construct a game that would be essentially on that level: you had a magical puppet theater, and you could pick objects and puppets and put them on the stage and then start them up; the next scene of the plot would be generated based on the current story state and the selection of characters and props you had chosen. But it was so boring that I gave up after not very long. I am not at all sure IF has the right granularity for that kind of game. Or maybe I just wasn’t thinking about the design right: I was trying to make the computer do the hard (but fun) part, while leaving the tedious management part to the player, which is exactly wrong. What if…

—–

>LULU KISSES MR OLERUD
But Lulu dislikes older men.

>LULU BECOMES DRUNK
Having stolen the keys to her aunt’s liquor cabinet, Lulu spends an evening becoming seriously intoxicated on single malt scotch.

>LULU KISSES MR OLERUD
In her drunken state, Lulu approaches Olerud in the back garden and insinuates herself into his arms.

Olerud is embarrassed: though he would like to respond passionately, he knows that Lulu is acting out of character because of drink. He pushes her away rudely and departs.

>LULU IS SICK
Lulu then wanders over to the rose bushes and is vilely ill.

—–

Of course, a huge problem here would be communicating to the player the range of what can practically be done in this story. Lulu and Olerud exist in too much of a conceptual vacuum. There needs to be a genre with a highly conventional set of standard moves (e.g.: Zeus rapes someone, someone has a child, someone battles a nine-headed monster). There needs to be a clear set of rules for determining when an ending has been accomplished (e.g.: the protagonist founds a city, someone is turned into a tree). There needs to be some source of challenge; possibly in fact the game would provide a goal state explicitly and it would just be up to the player to achieve it (provide a foundation myth for the cult of Demeter; get Aeneas to found a city…).

Hm.

14 thoughts on “Gloom and other thoughts

  1. Gloom doesn’t *rely* on genre conventions; it supports them, I think. You can perfectly well play it as a game of symbol-bearing cards. The storytelling aspect is something that floats on top of the *game*, and contributes to the *experience*.

    (I have said the same sorts of things about Race for the Galaxy, my current favorite wallowing-in-theme card game.)

    Trying to translate that dynamic to IF, I’m willing to ditch those terms “game” and “experience” — or rather, I accept that the terms will apply differently to the aspects of IF design. However, there’s still that dynamic there. Giving the player something to do is, currently, a separate problem from giving him stories to tell.

    My attempt at something like this was the second part of Wallpaper, where you have a very simple object mechanic and goal structure, with the story and atmosphere piled on top. A close cousin to Gloom in other ways, obviously. :)

    I expect there’s a better synthesis out there, where you have a much-less-abstract (but still simplified) toolbox of commands, but the story/flavor occasionally leads to you new and interesting commands.

    (I occasionally think about the Soap Opera / Operetta Game, in which the fundamental moves are “X loves Y”, “X is Y’s parent”, “X and Y were switched at birth”…)

  2. Gloom doesn’t *rely* on genre conventions; it supports them, I think. You can perfectly well play it as a game of symbol-bearing cards

    I grant that one could play it as a set of mechanics without any flavor, but I’m not sure it would be any fun. It would also feel a lot more arbitrary: some of the mechanics (e.g., about what can be played on existing story icons) only make sense as a way to express a certain kind of plot idea. Stripped of that context, I think they’d just seem like arbitrary and illogical elements.

    (I occasionally think about the Soap Opera / Operetta Game, in which the fundamental moves are “X loves Y”, “X is Y’s parent”, “X and Y were switched at birth”…)

    Hm — promising, but those are more premise-moves or backstory-moves than plot-moves, it seems to me.

  3. I’m not absolutely sure I know what you’re referring to, but if by “simulation approach to plot” you mean the “you can do anything” sort of world that I tend to argue against, the difference is partly about level of action. If the player’s actions are on the level of moving stuff around and setting things on fire and whatnot, it’s highly likely that what will emerge is not a story but a lot of tinkering. If on the other hand the player is constrained to use higher-level actions, what you get will probably be more on the level of Storyteller.

    I would also envision that there *would* be some clear goal, and possibly even an explicit structure, in my hypothetical Gloom-like IF.

  4. > Stripped of that context, I think they’d just seem like arbitrary and illogical elements.

    Oh, totally. But you’d still know how to *win* with them; the choice-range and your goals would still be directly visible. This is what you were worried about losing in the IF version.

    > those are more premise-moves or backstory-moves than plot-moves…

    The idea is that, in genre, the current plot element is *revealing this bit of backstory*. Buttercup jumps up and resolves the plot by explaining that the Captain and the Sailor were switched at birth. Pick two other people to have been switched at birth, and you get a different story outcome (and resultant marriages, or maybe it would become adoptions, or whatever.)

    (Also include “X and Y have been masquerading as each other since the middle of Act 1”, to throw classical comedy into the move options. “X is pregnant by Y”, “X is bankrupt”, …)

  5. I see.

    Food for thought.

    While you’re mulling over approaches, in the tracking and stalking phase of the hunt, I thought you might like to be reminded of the proper way to build a swimming pool.

    You pour the cement, let it harden into a block, and then chisel away everything that isn’t a swimming pool.

    See, it’s Zen.

    Conrad.

  6. Aw. Originally, I was just skimming posts to catch up. Then I saw ‘>LULU KISSES MR OLERUD,’ and ‘>LULU BECOMES DRUNK’ and read that section more closely, only then going back to the beginning to read and learn that this was just dreaming, and not a real game I could go play. Sadness.

  7. To me, good mechanics mean you’ll play the game more than once – a good theme means you have fun while you’re playing. Frequently when theme overrides mechanics too much in a particular game, the gameplay really suffers. This is too bad because I am a huge sucker for theme when buying games.

    There are games out there where the whole point is the story telling though:

    http://www.boardgamegeek.com/tag/storytelling

    Such as “Once Upon a Time”

    http://www.boardgamegeek.com/game/1234

    Also as a sidebar to Andrew – if you like Race for the Galaxy (and/or San Juan) you might also like Glory to Rome which has replaced both of these as my new favorite game of this type (if there is such a “type” :-) ).

  8. The source of the difficulty is that these are two very different kinds of games.

    On the one hand, in a game like Gloom, as I understand it from the ad and from having played these kinds of things, the game asserts no semantic structure to the system. Players pick the card they will play, asserting that fact to the gameworld: but the effect of that card is instant, transparently numeric, and one-dimensional. Could be hit points.

    The semantics of the situation, and therefore the story, lies solely in the players’ minds.

    On the other hand, a ‘game’ like Storyteller is coded to handle story semantics with an exhaustive lookup table of independent variables-to-dependent variable. It’s fun and cool, but there is no actual story logic going on beyond what the designer foresaw and implemented.

    The similarity between them is that there is some work placed on the player in understanding and assembling the story.

    Now, I like that kind of thing: a lot. I really dig those kinds of stories where I ask myself at least once, “What kind of story is being told here?”

    It amplifies my sense that “story is happening.”

    –But that’s a subjective similarity, having to do with human intuitions about storytelling. It’s not to be found in the games.

    The kind of game you’re talking about, in other words, where the game engine *handles* the story semantics on the fly, is infinitely more difficult than either of the examples you’re citing.

    Conrad.

  9. >I did once try to construct a game that would be essentially on that level: you had a magical puppet theater, and you could pick objects and puppets and put them on the stage and then start them up; the next scene of the plot would be generated based on the current story state and the selection of characters and props you had chosen.

    Sound similar to Daniel Benmergui’s Storyteller, which itself is just a proof of concept, but a working one and just fun to play with: http://www.ludomancy.com/games/StoryTeller.html

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