Randomized variation

Something that’s come up on several of my projects recently is the question of how much randomized text variation can add to the sense of depth in a scene.

In particular, how good a job does it do of simulating lots of different, hand-crafted pieces of content? Are there better and worse ways to deploy random content for this purpose? Do you have a generic sentence form with a lot of randomly swappable elements, like

A red/brown/black/grey dog/fox/squirrel scampers/runs/hurries past you into the undergrowth. ?

Or a table with a lot of hand-rolled sentences, each unique, but each going to be the same every time it appears? Or some variation on all these?

For interactive fiction, this tends to come up a lot in cases where we want to make the world feel deeper and more fleshed out. We want a player to be able to browse a bookshelf and find the titles of many many books. Or hang out in an outdoor area and see lots of environmental messages suggesting people going by, animals passing through, etc. Sometimes it’s possible to rig up a full simulation for this kind of thing — that is, actually track dozens of animal objects running through the gameworld — but usually that’s a lot of overhead for a lightweight effect. (And see Matt Wigdahl’s comments on the “foley” system in Aotearoa.)

My current operating theory is:

1) it’s good to have a mix of more generic sentences with lots of variation and more hand-crafted sentences with moderate variation. This keeps things from feeling too predictable.

2) where random variation is used, the most productive way to use it to maximize the *impression* of content is to construct pairings/arrangements of random elements that are themselves striking and memorable or distinctive.

I brought this up on the #craft channel on ifMUD, where I had the following conversation with Andrew Plotkin (“zarf”) and Dan Shiovitz (“inky”). They had a couple extra points I hadn’t come up with, so, with permission, here’s what they said:

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Bissell, Braid, and the Use of Words

A colleague recently loaned me Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter.

I knew it existed, but wasn’t planning to buy it immediately. Since I’ve been freelancing in the field, I’ve been focusing on books specifically about writing for games, rather than broader criticism.

This is a stodgy process, requiring self-discipline. There’s much I feel I need to know, but it’s often sandwiched in between things I consider too obvious to be worth saying and things I consider insanely wrongheaded.

The latest book on the pile is Lee Sheldon’s Character Development and Storytelling for Games, which is apparently designed for those game writers who have never written anything before and came in from some other part of the production team.

Sheldon’s book dutifully describes many, many basic aspects of story-building; offers an introductory view of plot structures for video games, while deftly avoiding any really hard problems or really interesting solutions; and takes care to remind the reader every few pages of Sheldon’s credentials not only as a professional writer but as the sort of person who has shared a limo with Dick Clark.

The prose is breezily good-natured and would not tax the vocabulary of a fourth-grader, but it gets through its material slowly, with many explanations per concept, so that it becomes boring in aggregate. It is the mental-nutrition equivalent of buttered macaroni. I don’t feel respected by this book, though it is probably fairest to say I am not its intended audience. If I were, I might find it a thorough, not-too-hard introduction to many of the core concepts of the craft.

Bissell’s book, therefore, was refreshing. For one thing, it’s very well-written, in the sense that individual sentences give pleasure. After reading a bit, I find my own writing turning into half-conscious, third-rate Bissell pastiche. This is annoying, but also a sure indicator of prose whose rhythm has got into my head like a hooky song.

Extra Lives is observant. It reads like the kind of travel narrative that is as much about the traveler’s inward journey as his outward one. It captures many of the things I find compelling about games as an expressive medium, and also identifies many of the aspects that are hard to defend. If you’re reading my blog because you’re interested in the problems of narrative/mechanic interface I often write about, then Extra Lives might well appeal to you.

It is pyrotechnic in its wording—I said it was well-written, not that it is modest, and I was not surprised by Amazon reviewers who said they had come to personally dislike the author on the basis of his narrative voice. That wasn’t my own reaction, but I can see where it comes from.

Anyway, here is a guy who turns such phrases as “ozonically scorched” to describe the atmosphere of a room after a disturbing presentation; “thermonuclear charisma” for a personality; “Bachelor Futurist” for a decor style. It is characteristic of Bissell to take an idea that would take most of us a prepositional phrase or a whole clause to express, and condense it to one adverb. If he has to invent that adverb himself, so much the better. Sharp observations in small spaces, that’s Bissell.

It is probably for this reason that Bissell’s chapter on Braid struck me so forcefully.

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Introcomp 2010

Introcomp, the yearly competition for the beginnings of IF games, is enjoying an unusually strong year this year, with quite a few entries and fairly high quality overall. My thoughts — mildly spoilery — follow the cut. If you’re interested in playing the games and forming an opinion yourself, I encourage you to do so. I’ve also truncated my RSS feed for the time being so that the content here won’t syndicate to Planet-IF, as is my usual custom during competitions. I’ll turn it back to full strength soon.

So:

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Game-writing from the pros

I had the privilege of participating in the AI Summit at GDC 2010, which also bought me an All Access pass to the rest of the conference. I went to some of the other AI sessions — all very interesting, though many of them focused on aspects of game design that have little to do with interactive fiction — but I also hit a number of other tracks, taking in panels on independent and serious games, on art and design and writing. Especially writing.

I went to a writers’ round table session run by Richard Dansky, and lectures/panels given by Dansky, Susan O’Connor, and Marianne Krawcyzk; and I chatted informally with several people going that route professionally.

Several things in the writing track resonated with me as being potentially useful to revisit here for IF authors. In all the talk about work practices, there was a certain brutal pragmatism: the perfect is the enemy of the finished; projects have to end sometime; it’s better to write down something mediocre than to write down nothing. You can revise later.

One of my most popular posts (judging by my site stats, anyway) is the one where I talk about ways to get from idea to implementation on a project. But there is more to that process than planning. I find that even in my hobby work, I’ve moved toward treating my game writing like a job — and that sometimes means taking on both the role of writer and the role of the lead designer, creative director, or other project lead, and consciously managing myself.

Here’s what that tends to mean, for me:

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