Mailbag: Choice of Aesthetics

A while back, you alluded to the aesthetic preferences cultivated by Choice Of Games and their writers.  Is this written down or codified somewhere?  Is there a critical discussion?   Have you written about it?

There’s a lot of advice and material codified for people who are actually working for them, on their website. An obvious starting point would be their three-part series about how they judge good games: 1 2 3

It’s also probably worth looking at their ideas about structure, which covers branch-and-bottleneck (or what they call “stack of bushes”) design, delayed consequence, and stats deployment. Endgames specifically are covered in this post.

Sam Ashwell’s review of Cannonfire Concerto talks about how that work does/does not align with Choice of norms, and there are a few other (admittedly fairly offhand) observations in his review of Hollywood Visionary.

Overall, I’d characterize their preferences like this:

  • a highly customizable protagonist who at a bare minimum can be any gender and romance any gender, but who might also embody many other possible variations
  • a tendency towards bildungsroman, so that the protagonist’s definition can be incorporated into the storytelling, and because the whole brand was inspired by the game Alter Ego; many of their works start with an education and training period
  • less focus on prose style: their structure allows for more verbose writing between choices than inkle or Failbetter, and the undercharacterization of protagonists often precludes using a strong narrative viewpoint
  • an emphasis on plot consequence (you did this and as a result the company failed) over internal or emotional consequence
  • a tendency (though not an absolute rule) in favor of interchangeable characters
  • riffing on core conventions of existing genres (though this is something where they’ve matured over the years, I think — but early pieces sometimes felt focused on “what if we took this standard trope set and then explored the consequence trees possible within it”)

Mailbag: Teaching Spatial Storytelling

A Twitter follower asked me for resources to teach students to pair space and story in a meaningful way, and they were already familiar with my article Plot-Shaped Level Design.

Screen Shot 2017-04-21 at 1.36.22 PMTo state what will be extremely obvious to some of my readers, but probably new to others: this is classic craft territory for parser IF, where maps are generally developed in tandem with plot and puzzles.

The primacy of the map, in this tradition, is why Inform had a map index much earlier in its development than it had a scene index: charting the space, together with its doors and access points, was understood as more critical (and also easier to do programmatically) than diagramming a CYOA-style node structure.

Classic text adventures rarely experimented with treating space as continuous rather than room-based, even though the possibility of doing so cropped up in discussion at least as early as 1991, with another discussion in 1996. Some of that may have had to do with technical challenges, genre convention, and the relative difficulty of expressing quantitative information in prose. But I suspect another major factor was simply that the room-based approach to map design offered a lot of leverage in controlling which parts of the story the player saw at a time. Games such as Ether that allow for very free movement through a highly connected volume have to rely on alternative methods to control narrative presentation, or else have story content that can safely be encountered in any order.

In classic parser IF design, the companion of the map was the puzzle dependency chart. Puzzle dependency charts showed which barriers had to be crossed before which others; maps represented how this manifested in physical space.

In most parser IF, not all of the map is available at once, and the player has to solve puzzles to open particular areas, whether by unlocking a door, getting past a guard, throwing light on a dark room, etc.: many of the classic IF puzzles reward the player with access to new spaces, though there are many different ways of setting up the challenge initially.

That progression of spatial access was typically what let the author control the difficulty curve (only give the players puzzles that they’ve proven they’re ready for) and the plot reveals (put the more important clues deeper in the map). Often, reaching a particular location, or reaching it under particular circumstances, or interacting with an object there, would serve to trigger dramatic scenes marking a major advancement in the story.

Then there’s the question of pacing and content density. How much story material belongs in each room? How much real space does a given room represent, and how does that connect with narrative presentation? Adam Cadre’s review of Lost New York gets into detail about some of these topics, and the problem of representational space vs. literally simulating a large area.

So with all that background explanation, here are a few other resources beside the links already given, but if anyone reading wants to recommend others, please feel free to comment as well. Continue reading

September Mail

Hello Emily,

You don’t know me. I read your blog and I actively use Adrift to experiment with make IF games and have tinkered with Twine also.  I know you are super busy so i will get right down to the point, least i start rambling about IF.  

In a brief summary this is about an idea (that may have already been once given to the IF community) of setting up a crowd funding for a prize pool for a IF Creator/Engine competition.

Some might say the best IF creator out there is Inform, i did try it in the past but couldn’t get into it, i tried Quest and that was confusing to use after getting used to using Adrift. I have been tinkering with Adrift on and off for about six years and it has come along way, but falls short in some areas due to only one Dev who adds new features and fixes bugs in his spare time. Adrift does have the ability to use expressions that are close to programming and it is over the last year or so i have learned quite a bit with expressions. I think Adrift is often overlooked (the ability it has with being able to create custom properties for locations, objects and characters. And the ability to create modules to add to your library or share. It still needs lots of polishing).  

I was thinking to myself today, why hasn’t there been a kickstarter (add in other crowd funding options here) on creating the ultimate IF Creator/Engine (that could handle CYOA style games, point and click, IF or all of the above in one game). But then there would be many opinions of what that might be or look like and how it would be internally structured, visually look etc no one would never agree on things. And of course the parser. So what about the next best option;  crowd fund a prize pool for 1st, 2nd and 3rd place for an Interactive Fiction Creator/Engine competition with defined criteria for judging, such as UI, Parser, multimedia support etc you get the idea. I do not know how big the funding would get to make a decent  prize pool worthy to garner attention from programmers around the world. Obviously the bigger the prize pool the more attention and interest in it. I am not a programmer so i do not know what would be a realistic deadline 12 months? 15 Months? for at least a working prototype. Programmers outside the IF world would be at a disadvantage, but could catch up quick reading a number of articles written about IF its weaknesses and strengths with what is currently available to us as tools as well as free content that can be played to see the best of the current crop of IF games in the last ten years. Maybe fresh eyes (programmers outside of the IF community) on the scene might help?

This approach could see some really ingenious ideas that may not win the prize but spark some new ideas to improve on or the winner might have something few didn’t think of that he/she goes on to finish and releases either for free or profit. People tend to be more interested in being in control of their own project and are motivated to be ambitious or think outside the box more this way. I am sure there would be many failed or unfinished entries, but hopefully there might be a small number of really well implemented ideas… 

Continue reading