At GDC this year, I unfortunately wasn’t able to go to Mordechai Buckman’s poster session on interactive fiction because of schedule conflicts. (At any given time at GDC there are usually at least three things I urgently want to be doing…). The good news is that he was good enough to put up a video of that talk, which can be viewed here. I’m going to talk about what he says, but the talk itself is well worth viewing.
His first point is that CYOA and text adventures, and the point-and-click graphical adventures that came after them, are strongly hampered in the types of story they can tell and the variety of pacing they can provide because the interface elements remain fairly uniform throughout and because there are strong conventions about what they can be used for. He describes parser-based games as primarily evoking disorientation in the player; he argues that CYOA games always have to be high-stakes in order to make choices matter.
Throughout this portion of the presentation I found myself raising mental objections. The possibility space with existing tools is not nearly so narrow as he argues. There are a lot of IF games that incorporate some element of menu choice at key moments, or massively constrict the verb or object space in order to focus the player, or keep things moving so that actions keep playing out. There are a lot of CYOA games that present an IF-like world model under the surface, or that allow the player to explore multiple ideas in a leisurely fashion, or that reach for a lyrical experience. Mark Marino has just recently written about how the promise of hypertext, which had seemed long dead, has revised in new forms and formats of interactive literature. In the realm of visual novels and graphical adventures, too, there is a surprising diversity these days.
Nonetheless, though I thought his generalizations were way too general, Buckman’s not all wrong about CYOA and traditional parser IF. There’s a ton of fascinating work at the cutting edge, but a lot of that is coming about precisely because people are thinking about presenting options differently, dressing stories in different skins, and so on. I’d position Buckman’s pitch here not in contrast to what the IF and related communities are already doing, but as another natural contribution to this exploration of what all we can do.
Buckman’s second point is that it would be possible to explore a wide number of other emotional and play experiences by changing up how we display player choice, not just from one story to the next, but from one scene to another in the same story. He offers examples, and laudably they’re not just Photoshop mockups, but short playable sequences you can access on his site. Dialogue buttons change size and shape to communicate how the protagonist feels about saying those things. Boring options appear on just a to-do list to be checked off. In a time-pressured context, options pop up rapidly, obscuring old text. If some of this sounds familiar, you may have run into Buckman’s Gamer Mom at some point in the past. That work moves, expands, contracts buttons to reflect mood. Most of the concepts here have to do with implicitly and intuitively communicating the protagonist’s interior experience to the player without having to spell out how the protagonist feels about things, though there’s a curious minigame example about playing a difficult decision-making problem like a game of solitaire.
Some of Buckman’s mockups work better than others.
The sample involving a detective searching a crime scene confused me both about what I was meant to do and about what action was actually happening. And the examples are kind of rough, aesthetically, which need not be unforgivable, but is at least somewhat important when you’re making a point about the communicative value of such skins. I also know from experience that doing real-time interactive text — something he demonstrates in order to create a sense of urgency and overload — demands a lot from the player, and can make playtesters freak out when they feel that they can’t read fast enough to keep up with the game. Player reading speeds vary enormously, so that two players can find the exact same reading speed either tediously slow or so fast that they can’t keep up.
I’m not sanguine about the Wario Ware-like variety of choice presentations that he recommends, either. Over the course of a long game, it might get exhausting to find yourself wrestling with a new interface every minute or every five minutes. If one used many of these special effects, there’s a risk of winding up with a control mechanism that shares the worst aspects of Heavy Rain’s quick-time events: it’s easy to make mistakes because the buttons mean something different every time you see them, there’s no real way to acquire skill with the system, time pressure is frustrating and important misclicks can undermine the player’s attempts to make choices.
There’s an aesthetic point, too, and that is that sometimes — often — what I want from my UI is for it to become second-nature to the player, to become so transparent that the player can perceive and interact with the game world without consciously thinking about how the choices are laid out. Some of Buckman’s examples are pretty intuitive and could, I think, yield that kind of experience. But that player comfort is, again, undermined if you change the UI constantly. That makes the player a perpetual novice, always having to think more about how to manipulate the game than about what she wants to achieve. Also, Buckman’s setup assumes that there’s not a lot that the interface needs to communicate about the options other than how the protagonist feels about them — which works for no-underlying-model CYOA just fine, but works significantly less well the more mechanically complex the model might be.
And that doesn’t even touch the development issues. Getting one good, attractive UI that performs acceptably on multiple platforms can be the result of massive amounts of iteration and effort. Having to design a new UI for every scene of the game? Yie.
All the same — and I know I just heaped up a lot of caveats — there was a lot to like about Buckman’s suggestions, especially in the context of short games where just 1-3 variant interfaces might suffice, or where communicating a protagonist attitude or feeling was the primary intent of the game. I don’t think these ideas are the cure-all he’s arguing for, but I do think they’re pretty cool in the appropriate context, and worth playing with. And I really strongly agree with the point that we should reconsider our mechanics for the kind of story we want to tell.
I started wondering how one might make a practical tool that would make such games both easier to write and more attractive when complete. Maybe a Vorple skin that could take in option data but dynamically build different styles of button for different contexts? Maybe a Twine add-on?