Introcomp 2011: Chunky Blues

From Introcomp 2011, “Chunky Blues” is a noir mystery set in the town of Bleakton, MA, with some pleasingly innovative puzzle mechanics.

The first part of my feedback is not spoilery, and talks about the puzzle mechanics in general. Then there’s a spoiler space, followed by some more specific discussion of what I think does and doesn’t work.

One of the most challenging aspects of developing any interactive fiction mystery is coping with the knowledge puzzle. You can give the player clues, but how do you know when he’s figured out what the clues mean? Handle this wrong and you have a knowledge conflict: the player’s figured something out but the protagonist isn’t allowed to act on it yet; or, conversely, the protagonist is prompted to do something while the player still doesn’t understand why anyone would want to do that. (More on this here and here.)

An Act of Murder handles this by giving the player a notebook of evidence and then having Duffy interrogate the protagonist in the end-game: the idea is that you have to have the right evidence present in order to offer answers to pertinent questions. The Phoenix Wright series does something mostly similar, except that it’s about deconstructing other people’s statements and alibis rather than building up your own: if you are interrogating someone on the witness stand and believe that they’re lying, you can interrupt them and produce evidence supporting your challenge. Though I haven’t played it yet, I gather L.A. Noire uses a similar mechanism.

When it works right, this system rewards flashes of insight; but it has a couple of drawbacks. First, it’s hard for the player to know whether he is lacking a key piece of evidence and therefore needs to explore more, or whether he’s just not making the right logical leap. When stuck, the player of this type of mechanic tends to have to revisit a lot of territory to re-detect, or else try every piece of evidence he has against every possible lying alibi — a tedious combinatorial exercise that makes for player rage.

The second drawback is that it doesn’t give the player the sensation of constructing something. All protagonist action is negative and reactive. You can’t argue X until someone else has said Not X and given you a chance to disprove it (or in the case of Act of Murder, asked a leading question).

Chunky Blues takes on this problem with a different game mechanic. The player has pieces of information in memory and can “chunk” those pieces together to produce new hypotheses and conclusions. Those hypotheses could be right or not.

There are several things about this I like a lot.

(1) It’s a coherent, consistent puzzle mechanic. We need more of this in IF. Coherent, consistent puzzle mechanics are more likely to be novel, fair, and well-implemented; they can be taught to the player and then used with interesting variations and twists; they work well within classic level design principles; they can support themes that emerge from the procedural experience. Moreover, a tight verb set and consistent behavior mean that the player learns the affordances faster, making the parser less of a stumbling block. (It’s the difference between having three key verbs you use inventively over and over, and having a whole bunch of loose puzzles where every other room you have to suss out a new verb for prying something open or blackmailing someone with something or filling an elephant-shaped balloon with helium.)

(2) It is expressive. It allows the player the pleasure of actively assembling things, and lets the protagonist be a more active participant in the story.

(3) While it doesn’t quite get rid of the “am I missing evidence or do I just not know how to use the evidence I have?” problem mentioned above, it makes that problem less punitively tedious because there isn’t a timing component as well; you don’t always have to sit through someone else’s conversation waiting for exactly the right turn to bring up counter-evidence.

(4) It lets the author control when certain conversation angles become available — because we explicitly know what the protagonist is thinking of and therefore which leads he might be interested in pursuing. That’s really useful, especially for a menu-driven conversation system like this one; otherwise, there’s a strong likelihood that entries on the menu will give things away to the player that he hasn’t figured out yet.

(5) It’s maybe a little off-putting that the system uses terminology like “chunking” that doesn’t feel particularly connected to the way most people think about their daily activities — or the way this particular protagonist would think about his daily activities. But it does make use of a consistent metaphor: the mind as a repository of building blocks with only moderate amounts of storage. The limited memory aspect means that the player gets actively reminded when he’s likely to have enough information to chunk (because his short term memory is getting full). It also means that the player’s actual, real memory is less likely to be stressed by having to retain too many small bits of data, because there are only going to be so many things available at one time. The advantages of the metaphor seem strong enough to justify its inclusion, even if it’s a way of thinking about consciousness that doesn’t particularly suit the period or the protagonist.

So. Neat concept.

Execution is a little rockier. Spoilers ahoy, so I can explain what I thought didn’t work so well:

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There were a few points where the conclusion was given away in advance — for instance, even before I’d figured out that the note was from Velvita, the description strongly suggested it was. At other points, because the system has such expressive potential, it’s all the more disappointing when attempts to chunk two pieces of information together don’t form any interesting result. There were several times where I had a genuine idea about how two bits of information might be related, but the game didn’t allow for them — a sharp reminder that the expressive potential of the system is very limited in practice.

Another problem is that it’s not always clear how the player’s discoveries relate to the triggers that allow the plot to move forward. I wasn’t able to move out of the pile of garbage until I’d made a certain realization, and this was loosely hinted at by some of the game text, but in ways that only made sense to me after the fact. Similarly, there was a point at which I was suddenly inexplicably able to get past the bouncer, but I have no idea why, other than perhaps because I was carrying a hamburger. But maybe it was because I’d made some other discovery? I don’t know. The game just wasn’t clear about this.

The narrative triggers problem could be resolved with more rigorous plotting and better signaling — e.g., by having a lot of the game’s blocking puzzles depend on your ability to talk your way past someone contingent on what you’ve realized, rather than more abstract blocks like “you don’t feel like moving yet [and won’t until you’ve realized something, but I can’t tell you what it is]”. That would need some design changes to fix, but needn’t be a killer.

It’s much more problematic that this system invites the player to combine ideas inventively and imaginatively but has no way of coping when he invents something the author hasn’t specifically anticipated. I’m not sure exactly how I’d handle that. If the number of possible combinations over the whole game were small enough, it would be possible to write some entertaining easter egg text for what happens when you, e.g., think about elephant tusks and alphabet soup — something that made it clear to the player that this wasn’t an important step to have made, but that you had some funny, juicy comeback to the attempt.

If there are too many inputs to make that work (and for a large mystery there almost certainly will be many many pieces of evidence), then perhaps the next fallback would be to have some general categories of feedback; e.g., a standard message for any time you tried to relate the elephant tusk fact with something that mentioned Mr. Elephante. These sorts of feedback wouldn’t really advance the player’s progress, but they might implicitly hint a bit about which leads and connections are likely to be meaningful and which aren’t — thus contributing to the learning process, and still being more juicy than a default message that just says you can’t see how to link those two ideas together. The challenge then would be to figure out how to categorize types of information in such a way that you could generate good default feedback about the player’s combination choices.

There’s one other point that affected my enjoyment, not related to the puzzle mechanic. The game doesn’t hold itself to a very consistent standard for writing and atmosphere. The intro notes provide a disclaimer for this, in effect saying not to expect something literary. But I’ve enjoyed lots of games that weren’t literary. What’s missing here is rather a clear sense of what kind of writing it wants to be, a confidence about the narrative voice. Because it veers uncertainly between modern and period tone, serious issues and pop cultural jokes, the writing constantly makes the reader readjust his own mental relationship to what’s going on. This is apparent throughout, though especially strong in the hobo scene. Are we supposed to feel bad for the hobo, or are we supposed to want to toy with him in a cruel fashion? Is the problem of poverty and homelessness being invoked here seriously or is it a joke? Is his bindle full of girlie magazines meant as a serious stroke of characterization about what this man prizes? Or is it intended as a mocking gotcha to the player who has gone to all this effort for a bag of useless junk? It’s not clear. And because of this I’m constantly being forced out of engagement with the story.

All told, then, I was more interested in the gameplay mechanic than I was in the story and setting. That said, I’m really happy to see people doing this kind of work with puzzle mechanics. With some revisions and a stronger narrative voice, the full game could be very good.

12 thoughts on “Introcomp 2011: Chunky Blues

  1. I got past the bouncer by reading all 123 pages of How to Get Girls; sometime while that was happening he went inside and locked the door, but the door wasn’t implemented and I could go in. I think it might be a pure timing thing. (If so, this isn’t a great design decision.) I didn’t have the hamburger, having already given it to the hobo. –At least this gives me an idea of what the books are for, to give you something to do while waiting for the bouncer to go away.

    I’m sort of uncertain about a lot of things here because of the IntroComp nature of it; the about text explicitly says that there are a lot of overimplemented mechanisms that might turn out to be significant in the larger game, but it seemed to me that this extended to a lot of objects and memories — I think I finished, because I got to the point where it teases the full game, but I sure didn’t do anything with my extra hat. All this said, I liked the chunking and would play the full game.

      • Huh, weird. I got pretty explicit instructions for what to do. Let me see what happened…

        So I got this:

        >read girls
        Judging by its cover, this book is a thought-provoking treatise on gender relations.

        [To read a book, specify how many pages to read (ex. READ 12 PAGES OF BOOK). This will advance time by one minute per page.]

        …and then tried READ 1 PAGE OF GIRLS, etc., which gave me nothing but “You’ve now read [n] pages out of one hundred and twenty-three.” But when I went to the club and tried reading all 123 pages at once, I got:

        The crowd of people turn away and go home.
        The bouncer goes inside the Dehydrated Walrus and locks the door.

        Though when I tested this just now, it happened at 4:00. I had clearly spent a lot of time trying to figure out various things to do before I read the book.

        Anyway, it looks like the books are currently a way of killing time.

      • For what it’s worth, I get the same bracketed instructions for “x girls” too. (Also, the ending of my last comment may not have been clear — what I meant was, if the bouncer goes away at 4:00, then reading one book all the way through doesn’t kill enough time unless you’ve already spent a lot of time wandering around blindly, which of course I had.)

      • Curious. Either I didn’t manage to produce that instructional message or I just missed it going by (possible, but unlikely, because I was really trying to figure out how to interact with them — hm). Anyway, thanks. That’s interesting.

      • Also, it occurs to me, that suggests that the reason the bouncer finally went away inexplicably in my playthrough is that I had just wasted enough time doing other things — so maybe there was no trigger at all.

  2. According to a site called Mean IF Reviews, which I feel bad about even reading

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    you’re supposed to give the bouncer a girlie mag.

    (This thread did not help me solve the puzzle, partly because I mischunked it with shammack.)

    • I actually never got the bouncer problem, because I went inside the Walrus using the Fire Exit in the alley. That was actually the first thing I did after getting up from the garbage.

  3. Pingback: Introcomp 2011: Bender | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

  4. I didn’t open it, I just typed “west” and I found myself inside the bar.

    Probably a bug, since, for what I’ve read from others, the bouncer is obviously a puzzle.

  5. Now that the IntroComp voting deadline has passed, I think I’m allowed to clarify some of these things (spoilers).

    Being able to get into the fire exit was a bug caused by the cat. It wanders around the game world at random, so there was a chance it would end up going east through the fire exit, in which case the code that causes it to close again after a turn never fired (because it was only activated by the player opening the fire exit).

    Getting past the bouncer was also a bug. I had rules in place to keep the player from entering the Walrus during daylight hours, and also rules to make the club close and the bouncer leave at a specific time, but the times didn’t match up, so there was a window when the bouncer wouldn’t be there but the daylight hours rule wouldn’t prevent the player from entering either.

    Both of these have been addressed in the current version.

    The primary purpose of the books is to pass time (one minute per page), which is currently only useful if you need to get the bouncer to leave again after he’s already left and come back (he won’t accept another magazine for a while) or if you’ve waited long enough that the Walrus has closed for the day. But reading a book to completion (the magazines don’t count) will also increase your maximum short-term capacity by 1.

    A lot of this stuff was added at the last minute. I’ve learned my lesson; next time, I’ll allow more time for testing between the “last minute” and the actual last minute.

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