Bletchley Park, 1942. A component from the Bombe machine, used to decode intercepted German messages, has gone missing. One of the cryptographers is waiting to be interviewed, under direst suspicion. Is he stupid enough to have attempted treason? Or is he clever enough to get away?
Working on a new branching narrative project for inkle has crystallised in my head a problem I think I’ve often skirted around, but not ever pinned down before; and it’s a problem that sits right the heart of interactive narrative design.
The problem is this: if we’re tracking what the player chooses, and using that to alter how events play out, then how do we decide when to cause, and how do we decide when to affect?
There’s a conversation going on here – the reader says something, and the author says something back. The best interactive writing matches the author’s reply to the reader’s comment so perfectly it feels like there must be a human being inside the machine, typing furiously away.
But how do we decide who gets to hold the talking stick at any given moment?
Merry Christmas, and if you’ve just unwrapped a new game, here’s a sobering puppy-for-life type statistic which is urban legend in the games industry, and might even be true: the majority of console games are played once.
So what? you might think. Most books are read once, most DVDs are watched once, most Christmas cakes eaten once… But I don’t mean finished, I mean played. The majority of console games are opened, installed, booted up, played for a single session (possibly of several hours), then never booted up again. Even though games can afford tens of hours of entertainment; and even though games cost four times as much as books or films.
And that isn’t true of books, or DVDs, or Christmas cake. So why the difference? Is it just because people can get stuck on games?
I don’t think so. I think it’s deeper than that. In fact, I’m not sure there is a difference between the consumption pattern for a DVD, book or a game. I think instead that the difference is in what we mean by the word finished. (And, what is inkle going to do about it?)
I’ll be talking the Futurebook conference in London on the 5th of December as part of a panel on the topic of gamification, alongside Anna Rafferty, MD of Penguin Digital and Jess Brallier of Pearson US.
It’s been hard for me to pin down exactly what I want to say. The normal rules for talking about game design don’t really apply – the audience will be publishers, editors and writers, and I think a standard design talk about risk/reward and challenge/learning might send people to sleep.
I was discussing challenge in games with a friend at work today – specifically, what to do with the player that can’t overcome it.
Interactive Fiction has long battled with the problem of stuckness, and these days it’s rare to see a polished game released without hints, walkthroughs, or such an incredibly linear storyline that pretty much anything you do will work. But could we be doing better? Consoles games increasingly are trying to resolve this problem: is there anything to learn from the experiments being done in the console world?
Recently, I’ve been writing a lot of selection-based hyperfiction. There are two reasons: firstly, it’s a lot faster to go from idea to playable game, and secondly, I can show it to people who “can’t” play text games and they get it.
Then there’s the third problem: pacing. And that one’s hard.