Conversation as Gameplay (Talk)

[Yesterday I gave a talk at the Oxford/London IF Meetup. The session was about conversation as gameplay, and also featured Flo Minuzzi of Tea-Powered Games, speaking about their released game Dialogue and their upcoming Elemental Flow. There’s a nice livetweeted thread version of my talk available on Twitter thanks to Florence Smith Nicholls, but I promised also to make a blog post about what I said.

Because the talk was written for an audience that included students, game designers from other parts of the industry, and newcomers to interactive fiction, I included some history of my own work that may be redundant for readers of this blog; there’s also some overlap with a talk I gave in Warsaw last September. However, the material towards the end of this talk is largely new.]

*

The Problem Statement

I want more games to be about human interaction, about the nuances of how people deal with one another, about the kinds of topics that appear in dramatic movies. That’s partly because I’d like to play more games about conversation and social interaction. I’m not as interested in action as a topic, and to be honest I often fall asleep during superhero movies these days.

Meanwhile, as an artist, part of the reason I write games is to explore and interrogate things I don’t yet fully understand. Building procedural systems and seeing how they perform is a great way to explore whether our mental models are correct. How people understand each other (or don’t), how they connect and why, are topics of enduring fascination for me.

So I want more conversation-rich games. For that to work as I’d like, the conversation needs to be rewarding as gameplay — not just bolted on around gameplay, as it so often is.

When it comes to my own work, I have a few more ambitions and requirements as well:

Screen Shot 2019-01-19 at 10.31.44 PM.png

First, I want it to allow the player to act with intentionality: to lay plans and carry them out. That means that we need some systematic mechanics that the player can learn and manipulate.

For the purposes of this talk, I’m not spending much time on things that are pure branching dialogue trees without ongoing state or clear mechanics. I’ve sometimes written work in that space, and if you’re interested in how to get the most out of a relatively state-light dialogue presentation, I recommend having a look at Jon Ingold’s AdventureX talk about writing sparkling interactive dialogue. But that’s not what we’re looking at today.

[I’ve written more about world model and systematic mechanics for conversation elsewhere.]

Second, I want the resulting mechanic to have good pacing and dramatic qualities — so a mechanic that systematizes conversation but makes it feel very slow, stilted, metaphorical, or hard to manipulate is not what I’m looking for. Some of these can be cool to play, but I myself tend to be looking to write something that has a bit more fluidity.

Continue reading

Beckett (Simon Meek)

Screen Shot 2018-08-26 at 9.54.35 PM.png

The author of Beckett reached out to me and suggested I have a look at it. So did a couple of unrelated people on Twitter. But when I looked at the website, I couldn’t figure out what it was meant to be: the premise, the play experience, how long it was likely to take. What was this thing? No one seemed eager or even able to describe this game to me. It was only after I’d downloaded and played a bit that I encountered this explanation. It has a clearer plot overview than I could really offer myself.

I’ve played the first several scenes of it now. I’m not sure whether I will play more: it is off-putting, intentionally so, and I am not sure whether it’s giving me enough to make me put up with its off-putting qualities.

But here’s what I can tell you so far. Mechanically, it is a point-and-click adventure, albeit one with a fair amount of text, and set in a moody sepia world generally viewed from above:

Screen Shot 2018-08-26 at 9.58.00 PM.png

As for genre and premise: I am not quite sure of the ground truths of the world, yet. The place is old-fashioned and noir-ish. The protagonist appears to be a form of detective, though he “doesn’t do domestics.” People use physical paperwork and old-fashioned desks. Images hung on the wall look like they come from the 1920s. At one point we visit a bar and to enter we have to speak through a buzzer at the door; it suggests a speakeasy. Someone tells us to plant a bug, and the bug that we see is of the animal variety, shown in video and from a disquieting proximity. Indeed, insects appear frequently and in contexts where you might not expect to see them, including at one point on the neck of an attractive woman, as though it were a kind of jewelry.

Continue reading

Choice of Magics (Kevin Gold / Choice of Games)

choiceofmagics.png

Choice of Magics is work from the author of Choice of Robots, one of Choice of Games’ most successful commercial projects. Choice of Robots was appealing to players for a number of reasons, especially the scope of the possibilities available to you and the sheer size of the project. It delivered a sense of narrative agency that a lot of Choice of Games’ audience really responded to. (Gold also wrote Choice of Alexandria, a smaller and more constrained story.)

Choice of Magics is in a similar mold to Choice of Robots: very large, at over half a million words, with room to customize your style of magic and confront different final challenges depending on how your story has developed so far. The story positions itself at that scale, too — the very first page lays out an absolute mass of background information about the current and previous state of the world, which most fantasy novels would be more likely to introduce gradually over the initial chapter or so.

The game also gives you the option of explicitly noting whenever you’re gaining and losing stats, right inline with the rest of the narration. And the stats page has been enhanced, with some special icons and more content than the average CoG stats page, including a journal of major plot points you’ve encountered — again, to help the reader track the game’s extensive machinery.

This foregrounding of mechanics carries through into the rest of the fiction as well. The story needs to rapidly introduce the five major schools of magic, so it runs you through an adventure scenario that teaches you about each in sequence, surprisingly rapidly.

Several of the world-building choices are quite tropey, which makes them generic but easy to communicate to the player in a hurry: there was a lost ancient civilization, they knew various magics, the magics are currently outlawed but you find your way to the ancient academy where you can recover tools and documents which are written in a muddle of Latin, Greek, and old versions of romance languages — played more for humor than for cultural resonance. At the same time, these ancients were also not so very different from modern people and had magical pseudo-airplanes and microwaves. It’s not quite the Great Underground Empire, but it has something of the same flavor.

Continue reading

The Red Strings Club (Deconstructeam) and Minigame Conversation

Screen Shot 2018-08-29 at 9.58.46 PM.png

The Red Strings Club is a cyberpunk narrative experience about fate and happiness featuring the extensive use of pottery, bartending and impersonating people on the phone to take down a corporate conspiracy.

The Red Strings Club was recommended to me by a reader who explained that this was a game that used mixology as its conversation interface. If you want someone to talk to you, you make them a cocktail.

That does really sound like my kind of thing, I have to admit. I have written multiple prototype games, all of them sadly occupying dusty corners of my hard drive, that were based on some variation of “you have to mix evocatively-described liquids together in order to elicit information.” In one, it was a form of scrying with magical ingredients. In another, you were going to custom mix perfumes for yourself to wear to social events in order to subtly influence the conversation of the nobles around you. In a third, your choice of how to weight components in the mixture was going to drive the probabilities in generated descriptive text, so if you used a lot of one liquid you might become more perceptive about physical qualities, or a lot of another liquid would reveal memories.

None of these projects ever got finished. The perfumes one didn’t get further than an “oh I think I see how I’d do that” level of spec. But what appealed to me was a combination of challenge, physicality, and expressiveness

The challenge would have to do with the mixing rules: you might find that the ideal potion to scry out the murderer was one requiring ingredients that reacted horribly together, and you’d need to find a way to mix them safely.

The expressiveness would arise from the fact that you’re combining several elements into a single choice, and they could carry different axes of information. Imagine a perfume in which the top and heart notes express the noun and verb of action, the “what are you doing” portion of the command, while the base note expresses how you feel about it, a touch of protagonist characterization. Patchouli for the earnest, unguarded, irony-free. Sandalwood if you’re old enough to know better but not quite old enough to be genuinely subtle. Myrrh for bitterness. Vetiver for an inscrutable smirk.

It’s too rare in games that we’re allowed to say whether we take an action eagerly, or joyfully, or with reservations, or because we can think of no alternative.

Anyway. That is a very long preamble to say: that is not how The Red Strings Club works at all.

Continue reading

Quarantine Circular (Bithell Games)

Screen Shot 2018-08-26 at 12.50.07 PM.png

Quarantine Circular is not a sequel to Subsurface Circular, but is very much an extension of the same core concept: a dialogue-driven game with dialogue menu and topic inventory, plus a lot of polish. In a few select places the topic inventories even allow you to combine concepts, constructing questions with multiple facets.

It’s less puzzle focused than Subsurface Circular, though, and more ambitious in the way it simulates social circumstances. You’re often talking to multiple parties at once, and things that please one character may irritate another in the same conversation. The story is less linear, as well: there’s more room to make choices early in the interaction that may have some long term effects. Meanwhile, the handling of the protagonist has shifted. Subsurface Circular has the player play a single character. In Quarantine, you take on several different viewpoint characters — though you may have limited access to those characters’ true understanding and motivation.

So mechanically, this has a lot of features that appeal to me — more than the original did. But that meant shifting more focus onto the fiction, and that didn’t bear up quite as well as I would have liked.

Continue reading

Subsurface Circular (Bithell Games)

Screen Shot 2018-08-25 at 7.40.06 PM.png

Subsurface Circular is a game of puzzle conversation. The look and feel are quite polished — nice animations, sound effects, a sense of three-dimensional place, a UI representation of how far you are along your subway journey — but your activity in the game is talking to your fellow robots on a subway car, mostly picking dialogue options.

For Plot Reasons, you yourself are never allowed to leave the subway. But other riders come and go, and you can interrogate them for as long as they’re seated near you. The subway ride also functions as a measure of your progress through the story, in an elegant understated way: you know where you started, and roughly how far you are from completing the loop.

Character entrances and exits are gated in such a way that, as far as I can tell, it’s not possible to fail at an important conversation beat because you’re too late and the character leaves the train before you’ve talked to them. The frame structure provides just enough sense of passing time to imply a little urgency, but not so much as to actually get in the way of success.

As you do so, you gather “focus points” — a topic inventory that you can deploy whenever your current strand of conversation runs out, unlocking new menu items. Your focus point buttons highlight when you have any available gambits associated with them. And there are also a handful of things to figure out, passwords you can extract from one character to use on another and so on.

Continue reading