Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

My Comments on Short’s Comments on Second Person

Emily Short has just posted some extensive commentary on Second Person.  It sounds like an interesting book as it contains essays about all sorts of games including computer games, board games, collectible card games, and role playing games.  You just don’t see a lot out there on game design, so this sounds like a real treat.  (As a special bonus, you even get a brief description of Short’s actions in a roleplaying game– and it sounds like a very Whedonesque/comic-book type moment, at that!  I love gaming stories….)

There are several nifty things to mull over in her post, but I’ll just pick out my favorites:

“The problems of linear, nonlinear, and multilinear storytelling” are pretty much a dead horse amoung the more critical folk of the interactive fiction community.  She points out several works that explore each of a half dozen major issues of this theme.  It’s interesting how these issues don’t seem to come up in role playing games as much.  I do like the Classic Traveller “Patron” approach to working around it: provide a good collections of situations and/or people that need assistance from the player characters.  Then present about five or six interpretations of the events.  The Referee can then pick the ones he likes and then improvise the events of the session based on the players’ reactions, the needs of his campaign, and on his decisions about what’s really going on.

“In general, it’s possible to let the player make meaningful choices and discover creative solutions in IF, but only within the predefined interaction domain of the game; it’s not possible to let the player invent whole new thematic content or add character nuance.”  It is this observation that highlights why MMORPGs will never be able to replace role playing games.

“Light source puzzles are much less common, but also, in general, IF authors have moved somewhat away from the idea that a single standard world model is appropriate for most or all works.”  This is an interesting remark.  Aside from the fact that I felt like an absolute genius when I first solved the main light source puzzle in Zork I, we’ve seen a similar development in the architecture of role playing games during the same time period.  Third edition GURPS was geared primarily towards “realistic” gaming… while fourth edition rules were rebuilt from the ground up to make things even more generic than they already were.  One component of the learning curve for GM’s new to GURPS 4e is that they now have to delineate the specifications of their world model before they can begin playing.  Even though this mostly amounts to deciding what rules to ignore, this can still be a daunting task.  As tool-kits evolve, they are decoupled from any game-world and genre assumptions.

Short quotes Eric Lang as saying that “collectible card games are at their root combinatorial exercises; players fall in love with possibilities as much as they do with strategies, and no other type of game offers more options.”  I personally would have to disagree with him: Car Wars offers even more possibilities.  Not only do you get to design your car, but all of the combinatorial possibilities are available without having to purchase “rare” cards and so forth.  Also, the number of scenarios and maps that can be devised yields even more possibilities.  Finally, Car Wars retains the possibility of linking scenarios together to form a running campaign and ongoing story.  Car Warstrounces the CCG’s in terms of raw possiblity.

Short also quotes Greg Costikyan as saying that “adventure games tend to be ‘beads-on-a-string’: small areas where there is some freedom of action until some event occurs, at which point a transition to the next bead is opened.”  This is probably my favorite part of good adventure game design, although I see the structure to be one more like the layers of an onion than beads-on-a-string.  The game tends to open with a small area with only a limited number of items… and each puzzle solved results in a steady expansion of the scope of the game.  I’m really daunted by games that open with a huge area to explore: I just dread having to figure out where to begin!  I especially like it when you face a puzzle in a newly discovered area late in the game and you immediately see a use for an object that seemed useless at the very beginning of the game.

Finally, Short asks, “is there anything cool we can do with social negotiations in interactive fiction?”  This is an area that distresses me most about game development over the past twenty years.  I remember as a child [T]alking to the characters of Ultima IV and asking them if they’d like to [J]oin my party.  Also you could ask them about something by typing in the name of a place or a person.  As an adult a friend showed be the new Morrowind game that he though was totally kewl.  You talk to the character by clicking on the hyperlinked text of their speech.  Grrr….  I’d really like to see something more substantial than that.  I must be disappointed because Eliza made us think that this would be so easy….

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