Tightening the World-Plot Interface: or, Why I Am Obsessed With Conversation Models


Framed is an interactive comic game in which you move around the panels of the story, reordering events in order to change what happens in the story. It looks really attractive, too.

Forgetting is a graphic novel with CYOA-style branching when you click on certain panels.
Forgetting is a graphic novel with CYOA-style branching when you click on certain panels.

When I first heard of this game, I was hugely excited about it. There aren’t that many entries in the interactive comic space, and this seemed to offer a slightly different set of mechanics to go alongside Dan Benmergui’s (unfinished but, to judge by the demos, awesome) Storyteller or Troy Chin’s Forgetting or the somewhat over-difficult Strip ‘Em All.

When I actually played Framed, though, I had essentially the same reaction described at The Digital Reader:

While Framed is based on a clever dynamic, the actual game is repetitive to the point that I am bored… Rather than have the user solve puzzles with different goals and different solutions, the vast majority of the levels I played all had the same goal: avoid the cops. Other than setting things up so the protagonist can either bypass cops or sneak up behind cops and hit them over the head, there’s not much to this game.

I’m maybe a little less harsh than this — I did feel that Framed was worth playing, and I know that some people did enjoy the puzzles — but nonetheless, I was hoping for something that did new work in telling an interactive story, rather than just setting up a bunch of puzzle levels. In that area it fell short. All of the puzzles are about a similar problem — one set of characters escaping another — and the stakes don’t alter much either. This makes for boring story.

The problem occurs at the world model-to-plot interface. That’s a challenging area for parser IF, too — and indeed for any game in which the player cannot influence the plot directly, but has to change the world model in order to move forward. Choice-based games vary in this regard, but probably more of them are of the directly-influence-plot variety than of the indirect-influence variety.

The Gostak requires the player to figure out the meaning of its strange vocabulary in order to play
The Gostak requires the player to figure out the meaning of its strange vocabulary in order to play

I’ve written before about the value of a systematic mechanic, and the desirability of having a set of interesting verbs that do interesting, consistent things to your world model. (Previously seen on this blog: 1, 2, 3.) And though I have failed to start the Systematic Mechanic revolution of my dreams, nonetheless there is a fair amount of IF that does provide a learnable system to its players: The Gostak‘s language, the magic system of Suveh Nux, the offset between vision and presence in Byzantine Perspective, assorted others.

However. Often the systematic mechanic in these games provides a consistent way for the verbs to modify the world model while the relationship between the world model and the story continues to rely on standard triggers. So, for instance, Savoir-Faire has a complicated magic system that allows the player to destroy, move, and open objects in a variety of ways, but story-level changes are gated by the player gaining access to new documents/memories by opening doors or containers. Indigo? Time-manipulation mechanic allowing the player to gain access to new things and memories by opening doors and containers. Metamorphoses? Object-altering mechanic by which the player gains access to new spaces and memories by opening doors and containers. The trad-IF world model is terrific at doors and containers, but few interesting stories are actually about the doors and containers themselves. This is just the easiest proxy we have for the idea of gradual discovery, just as evading the police is the easiest proxy Framed could come up with for the turning point of an action thriller.

Don’t worry: I’m not giving up my long-held view about systematic mechanics here. I still think they’re grand, and all else being equal, I will usually prefer a systematic doors-and-containers game to an unsystematic one. The system level is fun, learnable, often conducive to ingenious puzzles; it can be used to convey setting information that is part of the narrative layer in its own way.

But I also think that the prevalence of the doors-and-containers model holds back the range of possible expression in the traditional text adventure space. Some (admittedly not all) of my own recent disinclination to write in the parser space comes from not feeling like making more door-and-container games.

Meanwhile, some people in the IF community space are frustrated that more and more games are being written and advertised in their community that are primarily about narrative choices rather than about model worlds, while others see this as a revitalizing change. It’s a microcosm of what is going on with the relationship between games and interactive fiction in the broader gaming scene. There are a lot of cultural and political issues tied up in these arguments, but I also think there’s more possibility than some of us realize for games that will satisfy both sides. And the issue is how we make rich meaning out of rich mechanics.


A frequent design solution involves making the world model-to-plot relationship a sequence of many special cases. In scene X, you’re fighting the villain, so coming up with something to distract her is the thing that will move the plot forward. In scene Y, you’re trying to get away from the goods, so inventing a method of transport is the order of the day. The story is dominant, and it creates contexts in which some aspect of the world state is endowed with a particular, if temporary, plot meaning. For one specific scene, a routine action with your Portal gun becomes plot-altering rather than simply physical. At the extreme end are games that consist only of special cases: QTE-driven pieces like Heavy Rain, many passages in recent Telltale games, the majority of what is written in Twine. The meaning of a given action is highly situation-dependent, or else only situation-appropriate actions are available at all.

The method can give you a lot of dramatic power, though at the cost of the particular kind of agency Stacey Mason calls affect:

Diegetic agency allows us to make changes to the narrative. Affect, on the other hand, allows us to move through the space, swing a sword, or jump over an obstacle. The two are interrelated, but not synonymous. In Big Blue Box’s 2004 game Fable, the player controls a character in an action-RPG style fantasy. She may press buttons to swing a sword, cast spells, and so on. Performing each of these actions individually, I would argue, constitutes affect. The player may perform “good” or “evil” tasks, saving a man versus killing him for example, and her character and game experience will change according to that decision. I would argue that this type of choice is diegetic agency. Sometimes the two might coincide: a player might swing a sword to kill a man, thus exercising both affect and diegetic agency at the same time. — Stacey Mason, “On Games and Links: Extending the Vocabulary of Agency and Immersion in Interactive Narratives”

As I’ve argued elsewhere, the tightly-constrained, low-affect storytelling often works better in intense scenes interspersed through the plot, rather than all the time. At its most extreme form, even with a world model, this kind of thing becomes indistinguishable from choice-based IF: if the only things you can meaningfully do in a given scene are DROP GUN or SHOOT GUN, then, functionally, even a parser game shares a lot with the

(a) Drop gun
(b) Shoot gun

presentation. (Not identical. But similar.)

invisiblepartiesOccasionally the special-casing is precisely the point. One of the things I love about Invisible Parties is how fiercely it embraces these special cases. It is all about particularness and variety and difference; its puzzles are also all about learning to apply really esoteric verbs (“USE TEXTUAL CRITICISM”, for pity’s sake) in various situations, and pushing those situations over some tipping point into apocalypse. All the scenes we travel through are on the verge of breakdown, but they’re all there in different ways, for different reasons. It works for Invisible Parties because, thematically, Parties is about the incompatibility of cultural outlooks and philosophical systems. It’s about the fact that our physical environment is only a tiny fraction of our mental environment, and the latter is very powerful. So as we travel from one culture to another, we shouldn’t expect the same rules to carry over.


Clearly, though, there’s something enormously seductive about the idea of a game in which both affect (ability to fiddle with the world in systematic, predictable, plannable ways) and diegetic agency (ability to make narratively meaningful choices that affect the plot) are available consistently throughout much of the experience, rather than just occasionally in specialized one-off scenes.

To be clear, I don’t at all think that this is the only way for an interactive story to be good, but I think it is a way that is highly coveted by a lot of people.

When I hear people talk about their dream of a holodeck experience, often what seems to lurk behind that dream is actually this desire. When Warren Spector keynoted the Inventing the Future of Games conference a couple of years ago, he talked about wishing for a game in which the NPCs would notice and react to small social gestures as well as grand moves, where spontaneously spilling a glass of water on someone would be read as part of the story. Others have fantasized to me about games where “everything matters,” environments in which they could explore freely and have their every gesture multiplied into unimaginably juicy, story-rich responsiveness from the world around them. A sandbox game, plus more story content than the collected Tolstoy. I suspect that many of the people saying this would find that a LARP or even a tabletop storygame actually provided a level of possibility that inhibited play (the “OMG uh what should I do?? I’m not thinking of something cool enough to do in this moment!!” factor), but the affect-plus-diegetic-agency aspect does seem to be a major part of what they want.

Make It Good requires the player to manipulate NPC knowledge by showing and hiding evidence.
Make It Good requires the player to manipulate NPC knowledge by showing and hiding evidence.

I can think of very few games, indie or commercial, hobbyist or AAA, IF or not, that come anywhere close to this. Make It Good, perhaps — and it’s a very difficult, very inaccessible kind of work, but one of the masterpieces of modern interactive fiction. Slouching Towards Bedlam is full of scenes in which diegetic agency is possible but the player is unlikely to realize it on the first playthrough; it’s only on replay that one recognizes how the story can be bent at those moments. It works because it’s modeling a specific kind of action to have decisive, supernatural influence on the story, but the player doesn’t know this initially. Façade observes the player’s behavior and triggers a lot of different outcomes depending on that behavior, but it does so in such a black-box, inscrutable way that it’s rare to feel remotely in control of the situation. Prom Week offers a lot of detail on a large social network and allows the player to play with it inventively, but there’s so much data available about how every character feels towards every other that it can be hard to master the playing field.

Part of the solution, as many of us have been saying for many years, is to make the world model (and thus the verbs available to the player) be about things that typically matter narratively, rather than things that typically don’t. Shooting people, when it happens in a story, is usually important, but not very many stories primarily turn on shooting. (A few, yes. But not most of them, not even in action movies.) Opening boxes and getting into rooms appear much more frequently in stories but are often so unimportant as not to be mentioned explicitly. Hence the need for conversation models, for ways of systematizing communication between characters. Communication is at the core of most stories, one way or another. (I’ve written lots about conversation modeling in the past, including modeling of moods, knowledge, conversation topics, the presence of multiple parties in a room, and so on.)

This is necessary, but it’s not sufficient, because it doesn’t delve into the question of how to design a game around a conversation model, and how to get both diegetic agency and affect out of one.

The system in Versu is the most advanced I’ve worked on: it allowed characters to develop complicated opinions about one another, tracked factual knowledge that had been tagged as being significant to the story, coped reasonably with conversation in which characters could come and go, and allowed NPCs to have in-the-moment reactions to things much like Spector’s knocking-over-a-glass. Versu provided a library of small gestural behavior and appropriate reactions to these. It had the granularity required to allow characters to get on one another’s nerves, or fall in love, or become friends, gradually — Chris Crawford talks often about the need for floating point variables to calculate the nuances of feeling that you could have towards another person, and while I think that’s not really the biggest issue, nonetheless the sense of build-up in degrees is important if the player is going to have a sense that all their actions in the game have mattered and been taken under consideration. (I say more here, about halfway down the page, about numbers used in mood modeling and thresholds for NPC behavior.)

rome_cover_portraitBut having a model is not the same as having a complete design solution that builds a story effectively around those moments. With Versu we also experimented with a number of different design approaches. The last release, Blood & Laurels, is built around scenes that might correspond to levels in a different sort of game. Each scene has several possible outcomes, and the outcomes depend on some aspect of the model being in a particular state. Some scenes end when a character has certain information. Some scenes end when a character is in a particular mood, or they’ve reached some relationship. Those outcomes are situation-dependent, but there can be many different ways for the player to reach particular mood or information outcomes. In addition, B&L wasn’t trying to do dynamic plotting: the high level of the story is a nodal diagram with predetermined nodes. You will never fall into a completely new scene with new stakes in Blood & Laurels; no character will ever formulate a new plan specifically in response to what you’ve done, because they’re not capable of goal-seeking at the level of narrative space.

The results are imperfect, even within those constraints. Much of my ICIDS keynote (ICIDS Keynote Powerpoint file with notes, PDF of slides w/o notes) was about lessons learned from the Blood & Laurels feedback and what I’d like to experiment with next. But a lot of the things I talked about there were about user interface, the choice of affordances, the need for richer text generation to better represent the richness of the AI model, and other problems that belong to the code level.

I didn’t talk so much about the design issues around specific elements of the conversation/knowledge model, and I want to come back to that a little now.


Thinking very broadly about conversation mechanics, I find it useful to think about persuading one or more NPCs to do something: change their goals, carry out an action you want them to carry out, prevent an action, get out of the way of an action, etc. Many scenes of conventional drama take this form one way or another, whether it’s Hamlet’s father’s ghost persuading Hamlet to try to kill Claudius or Bruce Willis saying something really badass to a bunch of terrorists and making them run away in fear.

If we want the player to navigate with intention, we need them to understand what they can reasonably hope to persuade the characters to do or not do. In Prom Week, a character can choose to befriend or break up with other characters, for instance — there’s a very clear domain of high school-style interactions in play. In other types of story, the options are much more situational — in Blood & Laurels, the protagonist is often simply trying to manipulate other characters out of having a reason to kill him.

Then we have to offer the player a persuasion toolkit. For all its age, I find the Aristotelian breakdown of rhetoric into ethos, pathos, and logos still pretty useful. Ethos: You might convince an NPC because you’ve established a strong positive relationship with them, or by appeal to some other authority they respect, whether that’s God, the government, local standards of etiquette, etc. A lot of dating sims work on these grounds; you build credibility with the NPC by doing the sorts of things they like to see people do, and the thing you’re convincing the NPC to do is date you. Pathos: You might convince an NPC via emotional manipulation, gaining their sympathy or making them too afraid of you to resist or by triggering a state of heightened emotional vulnerability in which they’re not thinking straight. Logos: You might give an NPC information that makes it evident they should change their approach.

Here’s a thing about ethos: it works on long scales. Respect, affection, and love aren’t gained instantly. Game models that focus primarily on ethical persuasion are often long-form pieces with cumulative stats (visual novels, long RPGs) that would require you to replay big chunks if you wanted to get a different outcome. It’s really hard to plan ahead around this: often the player needs to rely on the effects of a long friendship in some circumstance they couldn’t possibly have anticipated before they got there.

Detective Grimoire allows the player to put together information into new sharable deductions.
Detective Grimoire allows the player to put together information into new sharable deductions.

At the other end of the scale is logos, pieces that turn on knowledge-modeling. Information can be delivered more or less instantly, and new information can be, as it were, crafted out of existing information (see Detective Grimoire or Phoenix Wright). This works best if the types of information you’re using are systematic (there’s a reason these are mystery games with trope-defined concepts of “evidence”) rather than just a cluster of variable world-state facts. Likewise, you need the player to be able to remember all the key facts they’ve gathered, so the knowledge model probably needs not to be too enormous.

What about pathos? In my experience, it’s the least reliable basis for building a mechanic. What moves people is, after all, often highly situational and difficult to build into a plan. You can, if you like, give players a blunt emotional instrument like “compliment Bob” or “insult Bob” — and Versu did experiment with this — but spamming the same few social gestures decreases both their plausibility (how often do you stand around telling someone a list of reasons you think they’re awesome?) and their emotional impact (if you do, how long before they stop saying “thanks” and start wondering what you want from them?). In Blood & Laurels we actually put a cooldown timer on some of those verbs just in order to de-spam-ify them. (Which then made players wonder why the affordances came and went as they did. More UI clarity needed.) In a couple of other prototypes, we had NPCs who were capable of going into “overload” states — where they were too sad or too angry to react normally, and would start doing different kinds of things instead — but this is harder to manage in the context of a really script-heavy story.


Here’s my contention: there are a lot of games that have experimented with doing just one type of persuasion, but having all three available gives the author a lot more creative flexibility in terms of pacing and variable dramatic intensity. As complex as it may be to have a conversation model that includes all of those elements, having access to all of them is likely to produce game stories that are closer to what we recognize as well-formed narrative in other media; it may be better to have all three axes of persuasion but a relatively small verb set in each category than to have one axis of persuasion that is more densely populated.

At the same time, the ideal design of this kind would be one that systematically taught the player how to use their conversational toolkit, and made the possible NPC goal states clear, so that the player knew what to be aiming at.

And then players will have affect and diegetic agency at the same time, and kittens will be born from daffodils, and we will rule the Empire as father and son.

37 thoughts on “Tightening the World-Plot Interface: or, Why I Am Obsessed With Conversation Models”

    1. I think the assumption – not a bad one, really – is being made here that >USE TEXTUAL CRITICISM, not >USE, is atomic. In IP, >USE only works on a limited set of items, all representing skills; and the only other verb you can use on those items is EXAMINE. So each skill-item is effectively its own verb, plus a bit of explanation text pinned on.

    2. Right, what Sam said. I wasn’t even really making an assumption about the code implementation — it doesn’t really matter to the player’s experience if there are objects in the code that represent the various skills and that can be acted on by the USE verb, because what USE does is so different in each case that each of those skills needs to be learned and applied individually.

      1. (Now that I remember it, I did consider turning the gifts into straightforward verbs and scrapping the USE part entirely, but ended up deciding that parser IF players are more likely to attend closely to inventory objects than to non-standard verbs.)

      2. I bet it would have been fine with straight-up verbs *if* the INVENTORY command had clearly listed them. (“Skills: you can TEXTUALLY ANALYZE, …”)

        Us-folk generally don’t go for USE without prompting, but we typing “I” by spinal reflex.

  1. That’s really interesting. It occurs to me that various forms of logic offer standard ways of making arguments – it would be interesting to try an incorporate offering a syllogism as a standardised method of persuasion in a conversation system. Of course, since humans aren’t particularly logical, you’d also need emotional techniques which are harder to standardise.

  2. Really like that breakdown of persuasion into ethos, pathos and logos. I like to give the player an alternative to violence in the CRPG type of games I build, and those three options actually provide a pretty nice way to systematically derive such alternatives – i.e., either have good relations with the person/faction in question, use the PC’s persuade/intimidate skills for an immediate solution, or find/construct evidence/material to solve the issue. I’ll have to play around with that a bit.

    I feel the biggest issue with these kind of games is not the mechanics (though those are complex enough), but how to make them accessible in a way that will work for “normal” gamers, and not just those who are specially interested. The “everything matters” environment idea is cool, but what use is it if the players don’t understand/see that it matters. Reminds me of an article from one of the Telltale guys about the Walking Dead. Apparently, the designers really didn’t like the small pop-ups which informed the player that one of the NPC’s was reacting to a particular action, but in testing it turned out to be an extremely important UI element. Which makes perfect sense, IMO… subtlety can be very cool, but accessibility requires clear communication.

    1. Yeah, I often find myself arguing for why it’s okay to expose a bit more of the underlying system. I think a lot of designers feel like it’s aesthetically wrong to show the clockwork gears behind their story, but it can actually make players feel more engaged if it means they understand better what’s going on. (This is one of the lessons from tabletop RPGs I talked about in my GDC microtalk, in fact.)

  3. Thanks for mentioning my review of Framed. What was even more frustrating than the money wasted on the game was that the developers won’t even acknowledge my concerns.

    1. Hmm. I don’t know the background of your interactions with them, but if what you mean is that they haven’t responded to a negative review, that doesn’t surprise me at all — on the contrary, it’s often perceived as kind of unprofessional to do so.

  4. Spinnaker really did two nobles tries at using all three types of persuasion.

    Perry Mason: The Case of the Mandarin Murder (you can present factual evidence, try to lead witnesses emotionally into saying more than they want, and smooth-handle the jury)
    Nine Princes in Amber (<a href="look at the verb list!)

    I’d love to see something with the extensive conversation verb list of Nine Princes done correctly, maybe with a point-and-click GUI to help things out.

  5. I confess that I happily see everything as doors and containers, including desires consequences of social interaction. The only difference I’ve found so far is that, with social doors, there’s more likely to be a case where opening one perma-locks a few others.

    More tangentially: my largest ongoing parser project (the 1936 San Francisco one) uses conversational-intent verbs (console, intimidate, etc) in a way that I _believe_ avoids any kind of the “spamming” effect you mention (it also leans heavily on “card holding/revealing” for NPC manipulation), and it’s one of those things that, whenever I’d mention it around IF folk, the result was either awkward silence or someone flat-out insisting that it’s a stupid thing to try (Adam takes the record with this, having told me it’s a stupid thing to try like three times). So far, as the game develops, it’s been an _excellent thing to try_ and I guess I’ll just have to wait for the testing stages to learn otherwise (though I can’t speak to its value beyond its own context … I’m always more interested in making a thing ideal for its own context rather than broadly useful as a system, even when – in context – it’s systematic).

    1. Yeah, I’m definitely not trying to sell a grand one-size-fits-all theory here. “Works in context” is key.

      Anyway, that sounds like a very interesting game and I’ll be curious to see it.

      1. Oh, no, I didn’t think you were! Entirely the opposite … I just found it encouraging to see you writing about it (among other things) as a challenge to be met, rather than a folly to be dismissed.

  6. Have you compared Sims 4? It’s been a challenging problem, complete with Convince spam. The goals are fairly similar, but the gameplay gives it a twist. Curious if the change in abstraction gives you any ideas.

  7. I started typing a comment that began with a big digression about Crayon Physics, and I thought that should go on my blog, so it’s in the pingback above. But here’s how I’d relate it to conversation models:

    The exciting prospect about NPC interaction that’s got affect and diegetic agency, for me, is that it’s not entirely predictable. I don’t expect to know exactly how characters will react to my conversation–lock-and-key conversation or reach-this-stat-to-interact conversation can be fine, but it’s going to take me out of the mode where I’m treating my conversation as a conversation and into one where I’m looking for the key or trying to minmax my stats. That was a problem I had with ‘Mid the Sagebrush and the Cactus–I was trying to choose appropriate options for a conversation when what was really happening was a stat-based combat. (And also maybe why the blunt emotional instruments in Versu didn’t work for me.) Having multiple possible outcomes to the conversation won’t necessarily make a difference, either; if there are three different triggers I can hit that make a character do three different things, and I’m looking for one of them because I know what I want the character to do, it’s still a lock-and-key model, just with a door that unlocks three different ways with three different keys.

    (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, if that’s how S. John’s project works. I’m not trying to sell a one-size-fits-all theory either! Just trying to talk about how I’d like to see from stuff like what Emily is talking about.)

    But what that means to me, and the way I relate it to the Crayon Physics post, is that if our NPC interaction isn’t entirely predictable then we need to have it produce interesting results even if it doesn’t produce the exact results that the player wants. If near misses are as bad as total whiffs then players won’t try to do interesting things, they will want exact feedback and predictability (“mention that you know Throbbleton’s dark secret: +2 to fear, +1 to anger, -4 to liking”), and they’ll look for keys and minmaxing rather than going for relatively natural conversation and using their social intelligence. If doing something that doesn’t quite succeed yields something interesting and cool, if it comes across as opening up possibilities rather than closing them off, then players might be more willing to go with the flow. I’m thinking of my playthrough of Blood & Laurels (which I described in the B&L thread at intfiction): I stumbled into a major storyline and an unexpected outcome while working toward some completely different goals, and it was cool because the unpredictable effects didn’t close me off from doing interesting things. What I like is not so much knowing what my options will do but having them make sense after the fact. (So “Clementine will remember this” is OK, though it’d be nice if it could be delivered a little more subtly….)

    This seems hard to do in a script-heavy game, though, where you need to keep the branching structure under control. One possible solution I’ve been thinking of is to have the overall plot of the game be something that usually moves along irrespective of what the player does, tossing up a lot of side stories that the player can participate in. Like this: The player is a butler at a party, which limits their interaction with the characters to answering questions and bringing them things and moving things and telling them where things and people are (or lying about it) in attempts to manipulate them in various ways. And there are stories they can affect: Do they try to arrange things so that the lovers find themselves in a secluded area together or prevent that very thing? But if they don’t succeed at one of these goals, there’ll be another one along soon, and the mess that they create may lead to new interesting things to do. (Now Lord Frumperton is very angry at young Freddie and you might want to keep them apart.) And all the while there’s a grand design to the party that is hurtling toward its conclusion… which you might want to disrupt, once you know what it is, but the overall progress of the story won’t be halted if you fail to achieve some of your goals.

    And then the kittens are born from daffodils.

    1. So this gets into a topic that I almost mentioned, but left out for fear of making the post even longer than it already is.

      Part of what you’re talking about here, I think, is the difference between Doug Church’s “intention” (what the player thinks she’s trying to accomplish) and “perceivable consequence” (what the player can see she’s accomplished after the fact), and how those should relate to NPC behavior.

      I think intention is, or at least can be, pretty important; if you have a game with too little of it, the player can wind up feeling that they’re basically playing the role of a random seed. This is how I usually feel when playing Façade. Hence this post’s preoccupation about how to strengthen the player’s experience of intention when it comes to interacting with other characters, especially given that, in a lot of traditional game styles, players have the least control at these points rather than the most.

      But there’s a second narrative design principle that I tend to bring in here, which is that the player should not get only what she expects. The perceivable consequences should (often) include both something the player was trying to accomplish and something else that she wasn’t. If she makes a concerted attempt to anger another character, then that character might indeed get angry, but handle that anger in an unexpected way. The scenario you mention in your B&L writeup is a result of exactly this principle: the protagonist tells Artus something, and the result is partly what the protagonist expects (Artus trusts him more) and partly what he doesn’t expect (Artus does something to a third party that Marcus didn’t want). (Thanks for posting that, by the way! I always enjoy seeing what people have done.)

      There are two reasons I think this matters.

      First, with respect to NPCs specifically, it reinforces the sense of NPC autonomy: they’re people, not machines, so of course they don’t react exactly the way you might have predicted. Matt Boch’s GDC microtalk, from the same panel I was on, goes into this idea a bit more and is well worth a look.

      Second, with respect to storytelling more generally, you often want to create a situation for much of the game in which the protagonist is being continually thwarted or seeing the stakes rise. If the protagonist always gets what she wants just by pursuing that thing, it’s going to be a pretty short story. If the protagonist takes action but is perpetually thwarted by circumstance, she gets to seem a bit pathetic, a bit bullied by fate. So a good structure is often one in which the protagonist tries to solve her problem, and does in fact partially accomplish a solution, but at a cost that was greater than anticipated, or with some unintended spin-off consequences that nonetheless at least make sense in retrospect.

      Now, in this situation where the player triggers something undesirable to happen as well as something desirable, I also think the player is most likely to feel responsible for the outcome if they went into the situation intentionally. In this context, I often think of a game from a few years ago, Lazy Gods of Earth (my review), in which the player starts in a context where there’s nothing to do except for an action that accidentally unleashes some demonic forces into the world. When this happened, I didn’t think, “oh no, what have I done? I must immediately save the world from these creatures!” I was, instead, fairly aggravated. My protagonist didn’t know what the action was going to do, and even though I think player expected it might be a bad idea, I was railroaded into it. I took this precipitating action because there was nothing else I could do. The story would have worked much better, from an interactive perspective, if it had either given me a reason to want to do this unleashing action first, or else started up the next moment after I’d done it.

      Whereas what I was going for with the Artus situation was something where you clearly realize that you the player could have done something else at the key point; you know that what has happened is the result of a decision, you knew you were making the decision at the time, and you possibly had even worked up some reasons why that was the right thing to do. Knowing about a possible goal state, “Artus knows the truth about what happened at the oracle,” doesn’t mean knowing what he’s going to do with that information.

      1. Hmm, interesting (and I’m glad you liked my B&L writeup!) What I was actually thinking of when I talked about opening up new possibilities in B&L, though this is not at all clear from my comment, was the part where gur guvatf V unq qbar cheryl* gb niratr Tvn, abg zhpu pnevat nobhg jurgure gurl jbhyq nyfb ynaq zr va gur fbhc, jurer jung qverpgyl cerpvcvgngrq zl orpbzvat rzcrebe. The one you described was enough at the beginning that I took it as something that was intended to send me down a major plot branch… also I viewed it more as a major screwup on my part rather than accomplishing anything I wanted.

        I have more thoughts about the “random seed” thing but I have some early-morning-over-here things to do.


      2. Entirely Blood & Laurels spoilers:

        Nu! Lrf. Gur tnzr jnf jevggra jvgu vg va zvaq gung lbh zvtug jnag gb niratr Tvyn be bgurejvfr xvyy bss Neghf, naq gurer ner n ahzore bs jnlf bs chefhvat gubfr nvzf: lbh pbhyq nyfb unir orgenlrq Neghf’f frpergf gb gur Rzcrebe ng fbzr cbvag, be grnzrq hc jvgu uvf cngevpvna bccbaragf, be inevbhf bgure guvatf.

        Ohg gur qrfvta jnf nyfb zrnag gb xrrc vg fbeg bs nzovthbhf jurgure gurer ernyyl jnf n Sngr/qvivar vagreiragvba gung zvtug or thvqvat lbh gbjneqf orpbzvat Rzcrebe, naq bar bs gur jnlf gung znavsrfgf vf gung cnegvphyne ernpgvba. (Gur Rzcrebe pna ernpg va n inevrgl bs jnlf qrcraqvat ba ubj guvatf unir tbar hc gb gung cbvag, be lbh pbhyq nyfb unir uryq bagb lbhe cbvfba naq bssrq uvz qverpgyl jura lbh tbg n punapr gb or nybar gbtrgure.)

      3. About intention: That line about the random seed definitely picks out a big problem here. It reminds me a lot of what Michael Martin said about Gish (not linking so as not to offend the spam filter, but it’s on his “McMartin plays his stack” page):

        ‘Tying damage almost entirely into the physics model is a good idea on paper but works out to be fairly bad because the borderline between “necessary to advance” and “does you a little damage” and “does you enough damage that finishing the level is unlikely at best” is razor-thin; even though the physics model is (presumably) deterministic, once you’ve got fine-grained enough resolution mechanics, a deterministic system based on fuzzy inputs like the exact frames the player decides to do something may as well be random. Near the end of the game it was not clear whether I was solving puzzles or just happening to luck into the physics engine deigning to let me proceed.’

        And that’s something that can be a big problem in physics-heavy games, and presumably in NPC-heavy games too. But on the other hand we wouldn’t always expect to be able to execute our intentions perfectly in games like this–sometimes you aim for something and miss, perhaps because some physicsy thing happens, but it needn’t be so infuriating if the physicsy thing is something that you could reasonably expect and if missing things doesn’t brickwall you. For instance in Nifflas’s NightSky there are some pinball levels where it’s pretty hard to golf the ball exactly where you want it to go, but it’s not that bad because what happens is that it falls back down to your flipper again.

        Maybe we have something like “intention” and “ability to execute your intention” and “punishment for failure” here? And one way to do things is to give the player a very high ability to execute and also additional unpredictable effects that arise from their execution, and the way they execute it. But that’s where I worry that if we encourage them exclusively into plans that they can know will succeed, we have to basically give them locks and keys or stats that they know how to optimize, and that’s going to feel artificial. Whereas if we can find a way to let them try to execute their intentions in ways they know might fail, but that fail in ways that make sense, and that take them to interesting places if they do fail, then maybe some of the players will play in a more natural and less systematic way. (Some small fraction of players, perhaps. I have the luxury that I’m not trying to make a living doing this.)

        Not that this should be the only approach. If the part in Blood and Laurels where I cbvfbarq Neghf hadn’t gone just as I planned it’d have been frustrating. And you still have to communicate the consequences of your actions in a way that makes it clear why it happened–as you did in the Artus situation. But sometimes I think it might be interesting if the player goes in saying, “Well, I can make a cutting remark about Pongo to Lady Muriel, and maybe we will bond by roundly abusing him, or perhaps I’ll wind up angering her as well as him, and it might depend on how annoyed she is at me over everything else I’ve done”–as long as angering Lady Muriel doesn’t keep me from doing everything else I want to do. And perhaps the way to make that work is to have a plot going forward whose progress is somewhat independent of the way we’ve manipulated the NPCs.

        (By the way, is it OK if I post your B&L-specific reply to the intfiction thread, spoilered instead of rot13ed?)

      4. Re. posting the comment: Feel free.

        There are no strategies that provoke a unified response from all players. But I agree that fuzzy success / non-penalizing failure can be quite useful.

  8. I’m perfectly fine with someone finding a one-size-fits-all model, as that’s what we currently have with the physical dry goods model of parser IF. Every game tweaks it a little, which keeps it fresh, and I’d expect a systematic conversational model would be similar. But it’s that shared common core that makes the entire genre playable without undue effort. And I strongly agree that persuading is an important verb. But so are a few others such as those related to making or breaking some kind of contract between two people. Promising, Vowing, and Committing, or Offering, Bargaining, and Trading. Persuading is just one method to get them to commit to some action or behavior. But so’s blackmailing.

    Regarding ethos: As long as the in-game time between two prompts is measured in days instead of seconds Ethos can exist in short games.

    Regarding affective actions vs diegetic actions: Thanks for this, I learned something. Um, using usually-diegetic actions in an everyday affective, doesn’t-matter way would be a good way to learn how to play while playing. My takeaway is since it’s difficult to choose non-narratively meaningful actions with good affect and contrive situations where they become meaningful, we might choose a set of verbs which are easily narratively meaningful but still useable in affective situations. Like a court drama in which you can also ACCUSE your aid of misplacing your favorite pencil, against which he DEFENDS with evidence, etc., as warm-up to using those verbs “for real”.

    Regarding NPCs as blackboxes: my WIP combatted this with a off-POV device. When the player initiated the ending of a scene by typing in LEAVE, the textdump showed his character standing up, saying the goodbyes and related chatter, and walking out the door. But the “camera” didn’t follow him. It would stay in the room where the NPC(s) would say a few lines to each other discussing how they felt about you, or if the NPC was alone they’d mention something to a passing servant or to their pet bird or whatever, about how they felt. This mini-soliloquy was almost always a single paragraph or less and let the NPC speak more frankly. I was surprised at how well it read. Coming at the end of a scene it also foreshadowed beautifully. (Note: WIP was in third-person. Trying this in second-person POV didn’t work as well.)

    And godspeed to you, S. John Ross.

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