I never got around to playing Echo Bazaar, despite a weltering wave of friends who washed through, happily tweeting little fragments of louche Victorian storyline. I had a day job at that point, and I didn't want any addictions that could embarrassingly sneak up on me at the office. (The brownie bars from the cafe down the block were bad enough.)
Now the company has released The Night Circus, a smaller -- I assume smaller -- game in the same model, as a licensed promotional thing for an upcoming book. The boss is no longer looking over my shoulder (his head is now firmly positioned on top of my neck) so I figured it was time to give the thing a try.
The Night Circus presents itself (to a gamer's eye) as the mutant offspring of a casual RPG and a literary CYOA. You have encounters, each encounter offers you choices, and the outcomes affect your "character sheet" in various ways. But rather than gaining a few traditional RPG statistics (money, experience, strength, magic), you gain a bewildering array of story elements: Invitation to the Circus, Lightness of Heart, Shiver down your Spine, Connection with a Delightful Lady. As you might expect, each of these affects the outcome of certain future encounters.
This is a very general model -- in fact, either of the examples I just cited (Kingdom of Loathing and the Choice-Of-Games CYOAs) could be described in the same terms. You are given a situation, you make a choice, the outcome affects your play state, repeat. And indeed the Night Circus designers do several things with the basic model. Some encounters are chained: one encounter gives you an element that opens up another encounter, and so on. Some encounters require multiples of something -- you have to collect six Unreadable Symbols to unlock a certain choice. And some encounters are chancy, perhaps requiring several attempts to achieve a particular outcome.
Also, of course, every encounter and outcome is described. The language is leisurely and dreamlike, giving the Circus a powerful sense of place and circumstance:
The child is happily absorbed, playing with a painted spinning-top. Its black and white spiral is mesmerising, and you have to drag your eyes away. And there it is. You've never seen the symbols on the child's face before, but they are certainly related to the drawing on the postcard. You sketch the symbols. Later on, you find the Paper Tree, standing in the open air behind a marionette show. You attach your sketch to a branch, and it becomes just another leaf.
So then. The language is right up my alley; the art is lovely; the web interface is simple and accessible. Am I enjoying The Night Circus?
...At first I did. But after a couple of hours, I realized I felt frustrated, rather than immersed. I was fighting the game design, or it was fighting me. Let me try to shape the reasons.
First, it uses time-limited turns, like most casual online RPGs. You get one encounter every four minutes, and your backlog is limited to six; so the game encourages you to play a few minutes every half-hour or so. Or you can keep the window open and tap it every four minutes, if you're feeling addictive. This is not my favorite schedule; I prefer KoL's plan, which encourages you to play for half an hour every day. But whatever: I'm willing to play the addict for a weekend to try the game out.
The problem is how the encounters are distributed. The metaphor is a deck of cards, with all the opaque randomness that implies. You draw a card, play it, and that's your encounter. (You can hold up to three cards at once, but this doesn't really give you any more options, because the three cards you draw usually don't have anything to do with each other. So it almost never matters what order you play them.)
So you have some set of goals (six Unreadable Symbols, twelve An Interest in Love, etc) -- but you have no way to act to achieve those goals. All you can do is click cards and watch the elements pile up. Worse: when you finally get that twelfth An Interest in Love, what do you do? Keep clicking cards, same as before. There's no place to go to use what you've found -- you just have to hope that an encounter turns up which makes use of them.
The result, I'm afraid, is that The Night Circus neatly elides both the struggle and the victory from your game experience.
Most of the actual decisions you're offered are "bold or cautious?" choices. I assume your preference affects other encounters, or maybe your chances in chance-based outcomes. I'm not sure. Nothing indicates where they matter.
The major decision you're offered is the Notebook of Circus Clippings, which allows you to choose between An Interest in Love, An Interest in Clockwork, and An Interest in Magic. Each of these opens up a different set of encounters to progress through. That's fine. Occasionally an encounter offers you the opportunity to switch tracks. That's fine too.
But I am extremely unclear on when I should switch tracks. At one point I had twelve An Interest in Clockwork; the caption says "Raise this to 12 to complete the story." Did I complete the story? Honestly, I don't know. I kept clicking cards. I got a thirteenth Interest in Clockwork. No change. Then I ran into the Notebook again, and I tried switching to Love just to see what happened. I think what happened is that I lost all my Clockwork progress. Whoops.
Now I have 23 An Interest in Love -- again, out of twelve -- and I have no idea whether I should hope for a new Notebook or be afraid of one. Do I keep clicking and wait for something to make use of those 23 items? Do I wait for another Notebook so I can switch to Magic? Wait for a Notebook so I can save it in one of my three hand slots? (That's the only case I've found where I'd want to save a card, but note that it hasn't actually happened to me yet.)
There are several other elements in my list that claim to be collectible. For example, the Quiet Exhilaration says "Three of these, in combination with Memories of Play and Lightness of Heart, can lead to greater joys." And... beats me? Maybe it's already happened.
(It's very well to declare "The text is its own reward; just keep wandering and let the Circus happen to you." The game says as much. But it's not giving me new text any more; nothing new is happening; and there's nothing I can do to make anything new happen!)
So, overall, I can't call this thing a success. It feels like a system designed to be fun to write for; but the fun doesn't get transmitted to the player.
I see places in the engine where there's room for more. For example, I've collected two (out of more than 40) game elements that can be clicked at any time, leading directly to an out-of-turn encounter. Maybe more of them are supposed to be that way? All of them? It would be an obvious way to "cash in" your twelve whatevers -- click, reward, triumph. But in fact, neither example is used that way.
It's most annoying to compare Night Circus's cards with the current wave of deck-building games. In Dominion et al, the cards are designed to give you something good in every hand. The hands are random, but they're based on your past choices in a directly obvious way. And then you get to decide how to play the hand. Worst case, you have the opportunity to choose something for future hands. The more you get, the more you can do. Call it grinding if you like, but the failing of The Night Circus is that it doesn't even offer grinding for a purpose.
(And now I will go read Emily Short's post on the game, to see if she has the same conclusions.) (Answer: not really, but I think she's framing it as "Echo Bazaar made simpler" whereas I'm trying to play it as a gamer.)