Isn’t that Vignette Spatial?

Since September 4th I’ve been trying to write a post for this month’s Blogs of the Round Table. At first, I thought about discussing why Chris Crawford said that artistic expression through videogames is mostly limited to space (the part that starts at the 4:33 mark). Which after some reasoning was true to some extent, but such thinking got me nowhere. Then I just looked at our medium and tried to identify the inherent limits that it may present. Basically, I arrived at something like “we are only constrained by our screen and our speakers”, which is frankly anything but a revelation. Thinking about space in broad terms got me nowhere, so here, let’s approach the issue from another angle, let’s try to answer a simpler question: How many game design ideas can I come up with that deal directly with space? That number turned out to be 7.

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So, yeah, this post is about me throwing ideas out in the open. Well, rather than “ideas” I’d call them “gameplay vignettes”. Please enjoy. Or not, that’s entirely up to you.

  • An interpretation of how the creation of ideas work: The screen is filled with different nodes, each representing a theme in particular. Ideas are created when mixing and matching this different concepts to form something new (new nodes). The distance between two nodes is proportional to the difficulty of connecting these two themes together. The more creative the person is, the bigger is their maximum distance to relate themes.
  • An interactive fiction where the main character can’t move or look at anything. The only method to learn about his surroundings is through conversation with a character.
  • A blind protagonist: Third person camera. Everything in the gameworld is rendered in black and white, but only the things that are at 3 foots or less from the protagonist can be seen on the screen as black silhouettes. If it isn’t clear enough: here I’m trying to convey how blind people perceive space, or at least how I perceive space when I have my eyes closed.
  • Third person camera, ground completely flat, seemingly infinite space. But the moment the player walks, she’ll notice that her footprints are repeated in the ground ad infinitum (there’s only 100 square foots of real terrain). This is just a visual idea, but a powerful one if done correctly and in the right moment. Maybe moving crates/blocks around to get to the exit? Running at incredible speeds to then use a ramp and land in an impossibly high exit door? Maybe you would just draw complicated patterns in the middle of the air, dancing, letting movement flow and create a ballet with millions of backup dancers doing the same. Mmmhhh, dancing with yourself… that reminds me of something (“paint it red” to be precise).
  • A giant chess/checkers game that is played by itself (or by other players). It’s all played through the night, with only the lights of shots being fired illuminating the battlefield. The ride of the Valkyries playing in the background. Here, the player is controlling a small group of characters that are trying to avoid being squashed by the moving pieces.
  • Third person camera (wow, that’s a shocker). The world deforms around the avatar of the player whenever she walks. When she tries to move in one direction, the world stretches at the sides and the things that appeared in front of the camera start to look like they are getting closer. The more the world deforms the more force the avatar has to do to keep moving until she eventually stops (rubber band like). If the player let’s go of the controls at any time, the world snaps back into position, making it look like the avatar never moved from the spot.
  • A camera system for third person games: Let the camera go through the geometry, and everything that obscures the camera get’s turned semi-transparent. The concept is easy, the implementation is actually really hard. So much so that nobody has ever done it 100% free of graphical glitches yet. Still, it’s a neat solution to camera control problems, although for tight space it will probably eliminate the sense of claustrophobia, which depending on the intent of the game designer, this might be a good or bad thing.

I did have to discard some of the ideas that popped into my mind, mostly because of lack of interest. For the most part they were ideas that had already been done and that I couldn’t add anything interesting to them.

Ideas such as:

  • Circular spaces (see Aether, Psychonauts and Mario Galaxy)
  • Switching between spaces (see Shift, Super Paper Mario and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past)
  • Changes in gravity/perspective (see everything from Loco Roco to Symphony of the Night  to VVVVVV)
  • Space customization (see Love, Sim City and any tycoon or sim game ever made)

Of course, some games even combine two of these ideas, such as Super Paper Mario being a game about switching bewteen spaces by changing perspective, but still, I couldn’t think about anything of substance to do with these 4 concepts. That is, for now. If can come up with even more gameplay vignettes I’ll be sure to add them here.

Please visit the Round Table’s Main Hall for more entries on this month’s topic.

What if… Part 2: Parser-less IF games, the power of omission, brute forcing, freedom, edutainment and the longest title for a post I have ever dared to write

What if Interactive Fiction games didn’t have a parser, but a point and click interface?

Wow. I searched for "Interactive Fiction" on google images and the first result was a screenshot from Vespers 3D hosted in an article on the Rampant Coyote Blog. Small world indeed!
Wow. I searched for "Interactive Fiction" on google images and the first result was a screenshot from Vespers 3D hosted in an article on the Rampant Coyote Blog. Small world indeed!

(Since I can’t link to sites in the caption, here’s the blog of the dude that’s making Vespers 3D and here’s the Rampant Coyote Blog. Tell them I said hi.)

“How do you dare to suggest castrating IF games!” I hear you say. Now, please put the torches and pitchforks down and hear me for a second. I’m not talking about using graphics or anything like it, all I’m saying is that I’d like to explore what IF games would feel like with other kinds of user input.

The gist of the idea is: Interactive Fiction meets SCUMM. It’s pretty easy to imagine, just take Monkey Island 2, remove the graphics and put text on top. There, you are done. But what does this mean? It seems pretty simple on the surface, but let me assure you, it’s not. At least form the designer’s point of view.

“But… but you loose all the freedoms that the parser gives the player!” would be the normal response to such a suggestion. Which is fundamentally true, but with a caveat. You see, the vast majority of IF games defines a list of verbs that the player can use, so I can happily transform this part of the parser into simple buttons without loosing much. But then, the player now has the ability to be certain that there are exactly X number of verbs available, at least at the moment. What this does is erase the exploration of verbs, which to be quite frank is one of the many joys of playing a good IF game.

Right, now, if the player clicks on verb buttons instead of writing verbs, then what about the nouns? Simple! Just click the desired noun in the text displayed on the screen.

Sounds restrictive? Maybe, maybe not. Every IF game fundamentally functions like this, since the player is restricted by the descriptions he is given. If your house doesn’t have a ceiling, but the narrator never mentions this, then the player is never going to find out about it. The command “look at ceiling” just returns a “I don’t know what ceiling is”. It’s the elephant in the room, if the narrator feels like ignoring it, you’ll never know about it.

Which is a wonderful tool to mess with the player’s head. I can imagine it now: The whole game takes place inside a seemingly empty room, but as the player looks at the few things casually mentioned by the player’s character, other things start to get mentioned. After a few minutes of playing, the seemingly empty room is now filled with stuff.

I have to admit that it sounds like a gimmick, but that may be because I haven’t described the psyche of the player’s character or the reason why she’s in this room, or why she’s avoiding mentioning almost every object.

It plays to the strengths of the genre, to the strengths of text. I’m sure it can be done in 3D graphics with the latest shaders, but I’m not that sure if it would be as interesting. In a visual medium, every time an object gets mentioned it would suddenly appear out of nowhere, distracting the player, giving too much detail and letting the player form an impression on said object based on it’s appearance. You can’t regulate how much visual information you get from an object, at least not without abstracting reality. And even just the fact that you are abstracting reality sends a message to the player.

In text? You can perfectly omit visual detail without raising any kind of suspicion.

…..

Where was I? Oh, right.

Loosing the parser and replacing it with a point & click interface would certainly close a few doors, but I’m quite curious of how many it might open.

I think that one of the most important changes this introduces, apart from the obvious accessibility improvement, is that now the player would be able to brute force the puzzles. I guess it depends on your opinion, and how you think about design, but for me? Being able to use brute force is instrumental to my enjoyment of a game, especially at the beginning stages. It means I’m never stuck, it means I always have something to do or try.

Sure, I’ll get used to the game and eventually will start to develop strategies, think more about a problem before trying to resolve it and so on, but at first? I’m gonna test the limits of the system, I’m gonna see how far this thing can go before it breaks, I need to understand the fundamental rules of the system before I can start really thinking about how to resolve a problem.

Now, in most games, this process is not fun*. I fail over and over again, replaying the same level constantly just because I’m testing the interactions and controls (Does this enemy kill me? Do I die if I fall here? How do I hadoken?).

If that GIANT BALL OF FIRE hits you, does it hurt?
If that GIANT BALL OF FIRE hits you, does it hurt?

In most IF games I’m in this stage permanently. Which things are interactive? What type of grammar does the parser recognize? Is there a time limit for certain puzzles? Can I answer to questions from NPCs? Can I give objects to NPCs? Can I tell things to NPCs? Can I spit? Can I dance? Can I jump? Can I shout? Can I ride a car and run over someone? Can I take off my pants? Can I pick up a rock and throw it? Can I write my name in the sand? Can I hit myself? Can I punch someone? Can I bite someone? etc, etc, etc.

That’s the beauty and the curse of any IF game: Freedom. The good part is that the game designer has the opportunity to surprise his/her players with unexpected recognition of uncommon verbs. In Lost Pig, I was delighted when I found out that I could command Grunk to spit on things, to take off/put on his pants and all sorts of uncommon actions that aren’t normally recognized by the parser. The downside is that it allows for so much freedom that the player ends up frustrated when half the things he tries to do are met with a variation of “Er… what?” from the parser. There’s no computer program, at least not at the moment, that can respond correctly to every three word sentence a human being can come up with.

The solution? Well, you either have to eliminate the parser and replace it with… oh, I don’t know, maybe something pointy and clicky? Or… you could beta-test the thing to hell and back, adding every single thing your focus group can come up with. Then spend a few years in beta, monitoring what every player writes. And then maybe after 5 or so years release the game to the public. And then spend the next few years polishing it.

Yeah.

*This is why I’m concerned about the future of videogames as learning tools. In theory they are exceptionally good at teaching how a system works but if they are not designed to be fun and easy at first, they can end up being less effective than our normal means of teaching. I can’t even imagine the kind of responsibility that would imply for the game designer in charge of an “edu-game”, especially since videogames are not used as a teaching tools yet (they are not a “proved” way of teaching).

[/rambling]

By no means this so called “solution” I’m suggesting is all-encompassing. Would Galatea work if it didn’t have a parser? My guess is “no”. And obviously there’s that other solution I already mentioned but this one is by far easier to implement.

What if …

What if an Interactive Fiction game had a suggestion mechanic?

Say, you start typing “Look out the” and as you type, the parser gives you the most probable options to use. In this case “Look out the window” would be the only option available. Simple huh? I know it can get a little complicated, so let’s look at another example:

You start typing “look at the” and the parser, instead of showing you all the possible options it shows you the 5 most probable ones: Nail, Painting, Poodle, Hammer and Broken glass. Let’s suppose that you weren’t going to look at any of these things, so you keep writing “look at the c”. Then, the parser refreshes his suggestions to: Cobweb, Chair, Chainsaw, Cat and Controller.

See where I’m getting at? One of the most glaring faults of any IF game is the steep learning curve that brings the use of a parser. Because, at least at first, we all try to discover the limitations of the parser with wacky combinations of words or convoluted sentences, only to discover that none of it is recognized. “I don’t understand”, “What?”, “I don’t know how to “kill the clown” ” are the typical responses an IF game blurts out when someone tries to get creative with the commands.

Sure, it’s a simple idea, but think of the ramifications this mechanic might have: First and foremost, it’s going to make IF games easier to play, to get used to, to let the player explore the limits of the parser almost without having to resort to trial and error, to avoid the “I can’t do that” line. That’s the obvious part, think of the other interesting things: Now we can hint more directly at the player by manipulating the suggestions. That’s awesome and all, but I can’t stop thinking about the potential to screw with the player’s head.

You know, something like a game based around a teletubbie world where all the characters are happy and every object has a smiling face. When you start typing “look at”, you get suggestions like: Own Wasted Life, Dog’s Headless Body and Own Hemorrhaging Torso. But when the player selects one of these things, they change to words like Puppy, Flower and Sunshine. Then, at the end, it turns out that the protagonist was having a near death experience and all the objects in the happy world were actually the things around him in the hospital.

Now, why nobody has ever done something like this before? My guess is that making parsers is already hard enough to do. To integrate a suggestion system would probably make things a lot harder for the programmer and for the writer. Primarily because the nature of an IF game fundamentally changes with such an invasive mechanic. Or maybe not, I don’t know.

If you ask me, it’s worth a try.