Four talks at GDC

Well, GDC is officially over for the year. This conference was a powerful one for me in a lot of ways, exhausting and inspiring. Thumbnail sketches of some memorable talks from the last two days:

(1) Chris Crawford spoke on the history of computer game programming, complete with lots of fun pictures of positively ancient machines, and ending with his pitch for games to be about people. I’d heard a lot of it before, but it was an enthralling and well-delivered talk, and even though we disagree on some fundamental approaches to the problem, I sort of love hearing the point made over again. Afterward we met up in the hallway and there was a curious playground-fight vibe from some of the onlookers as we discussed our different approaches to the gameplay-about-people problem. Which isn’t what I intended — I just wanted to say hi to him after assorted emails and comments exchanged over the years. But whatever the surrounding circle may have thought, I have no beef with Chris, nor I think does he have any with me.

Anyway, one of the points Chris made in our unfortunately brief discussion was that he felt the parser in IF doesn’t do a good enough job of taking in information from the player — that it doesn’t listen well enough; it doesn’t allow the player to make a big enough part of the conversation between game and machine. I’m not quite sure what this indicates: is the input not granular enough, or the output too wordy, or the range of things that can be said via parser too narrow, or…? I’m not sure whether I’ll agree once I figure out what this means, but it’s an interesting statement.

(2) Brenda Brathwaite talked about her series of tragedy-focused games, the series to which Train belongs. The core of her talk that stuck with me was this: “Whenever there’s human-on-human tragedy, there’s a system.” So her approach is to explore that system in rules, and make the player complicit. There was a lot else in the talk, about the personal nature of her work and about her own feelings in creating it. I don’t really feel comfortable trying to summarize here, but it was a brave talk to give, and fascinating.

In fact, quite a lot of this GDC has felt unusually personal for an industry conference, from Michael Todd’s talk (which I didn’t see but heard praised by many many people) about designing games while clinically depressed, to the rawly open content of the rapid-fire indie talks, to conversations with Deirdra Kiai and Terry Cavanagh about the motivations behind my own work and/or theirs.

(3) Ernest Adams gave a talk on spec’ing out an interactive narrative, in which he discussed a lot of standard problems: the freedom/agency/story problem, the question of whether the player should be able to change outcomes (and the fact that an interactive narrative doesn’t have to be one in which the player changes the plot), etc. It wasn’t as flashy a talk as the others, and it didn’t contain a lot of information that was new to me, but it was cool to see these issues organized in one place. You can see it too, since he has put the slides (odp) and storytelling template materials (odt) online.

(4) Brian Moriarty gave the most coherent and philosophically interesting argument in support of Ebert’s “games can’t be art” dictum that I’ve ever heard. (This gets long.)

Edited to add: there is a set of point by point notes from Moriarty’s talk here, which covers some details my analysis doesn’t discuss.

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The IF Theory Reader is available

This news is a little old because of my being at GDC, but it’s worth amplifying the signal anyway: the IF Theory Reader, aka the IF Theory book, now exists, thanks to Kevin Jackson-Mead’s dedication in reviving it from an undead state. It can be downloaded as a free PDF, or purchased in physical form for about $14 American.

Some of the articles in it have been revamped. I substantially rewrote my article on IF geography to talk more about route-finding across a map, status line compass roses, and other navigation and UI elements that have come much more into vogue since the article was written. My piece on conversation I rewrote less extremely, but still adjusted here and there.

That’s not to say that old = useless. The book opens with Roger Giner-Sorolla’s article Crimes Against Mimesis, posted years ago on the rec.arts.int-fiction forum. That series of posts formed the starting point for many, many long discussions about game design, storytelling, and simulation in the years to follow. Other selections include a lot of coverage of different areas of IF craft — writing room descriptions, designing puzzles, coming up with NPC dialogue — as well as some more theoretical discussions.

The Sacrifice Mechanic

Over on the Escapist, Extra Punctuation has an awesome article about a game mechanic of leveling down rather than up. I’ve occasionally kicked around a similar idea, though starting more from “how do we do choice narratives where the choice feels significant?” — and one way to make the player actually care about choices is to tie the results into gameplay.

I’m attracted by the idea of a plot reminiscent of (the movie version of) “Last of the Mohicans,” where our protagonists start out as wealthy, happy, proper young ladies of English extraction and end up as bedraggled, hardened, and — in one case — dead. It’s a story of stripping away all peripherals until each character’s deepest feelings and commitments are revealed. That kind of story could make a compelling tragic game, or a story of triumph at excruciating cost, not far off from the structure of Victor Gijsbers’ Fate.

Leveling down, or gradually giving up your collection of Batman gadgets, or losing one after another of your crew of sidekicks until you stand alone, or burning away one after another of your huge inventory of doodads — that’d be a way to do the gradual-loss plot. Like I said, awesome.

IF Theory Book, update

Back in January, I was hoping to be able to revisit the long-dormant IF theory book project and give it an overhaul. At the time, I was applying for a fellowship that would have given me quite a lot of time to focus on new media work, of which I hoped this would have been a part. But that didn’t happen; instead, I am consulting for the video game industry and am enjoying myself quite a lot, but have very little time for major outside projects.

All the same, I was sad that I didn’t have time to finish something that I know a lot of people are still interested in seeing. If anything, the recent success of Aaron’s Inform 7 book has increased the amount of email I get from people about this project.

Recently, Kevin Jackson-Mead stepped forward to volunteer to work on the theory book, and I have taken him up on it, perhaps a little more vehemently than he originally expected. Kevin is an IF aficionado who does a lot of organizing for the Boston People’s Republic of IF group and also has substantial work background in publishing. I am stepping down as chief editor and handing the materials I had over to him. Dennis Jerz, who was working with me on the project way back in the early days, has chosen to remain involved.

Kevin is starting off by getting in touch with the original contributors. If you are one, you should already have received email from him asking about your interest in continuing to participate, and soliciting input about where the project will go from here. If you didn’t get his message, let me know and I’ll pass on your email to him, or you can contact him directly if you know where to find him. (I don’t want to post his email address here in the sight of the spambots.)

Many thanks to Kevin for being willing to take this up, and my apologies to everyone for not being able to bring it together some years back.

Choice as Threat

Then from out of the blue
And without any guide
You know what your decision is
Which is not to decide

This article talks about how players like to avoid making an irreversible decision.

This resonates with some things I’ve been working on lately: instead of presenting the player suddenly with a choice (even a choice that has a lot of emotional resonance built in), I’m trying to tantalize the player for a while with the idea that if they do everything right, they might be able to have their cake and eat it too. This ratchets up the tension as the player tries not to lose either of the two valued opportunities, and gives them a chance to think about which they would choose if they really had to.

Maybe when you get to the point, you do let the player have both things and not decide after all. Or maybe you gradually make it harder and harder to balance the two, so it becomes clear that a decision is going to be absolutely required after all.

Either way, the player gets to see the choice coming, and the agonizing over it becomes part of the PC’s characterization; it’s a deeper part of the story, not something you can save-restore out of significance.

Anyone else playing with this pattern?