The Night Circus

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.)

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11 Responses to The Night Circus

  1. Dan Fabulich says:

    Does Kingdom of Loathing do a better job, in your opinion?

    At Choice of Games, we're mostly decided against time-limited turns, because we don't care for them either, but it's hard to argue with the revenue potential of time-limited turns where you can pay for additional actions.

    • Emily Short says:

      At Choice of Games, we're mostly decided against time-limited turns, because we don't care for them either, but it's hard to argue with the revenue potential of time-limited turns where you can pay for additional actions.

      Yeah, though you're also selling individual chunks of content. The trick about the EBZ model (Night Circus is a bit different, obviously, since it's funded as part of an advertising campaign) is that content isn't really modular and you can't make players buy Part 2, or whatever; so there needs to be some other mechanism to relate content consumption to income.

      • Dan Fabulich says:

        Indeed. Though, that's part of why I was a bit disappointed by Night Circus: when I'd heard about it, I'd hoped it was going to be like EBZ, but without time-limited turns. Instead, it has time-limited turns that I can't even pay money to accelerate. Why limit turns at all, in a funded advertising game?

        • Andrew Plotkin says:

          You might as well ask, why limit turns at all in a completely free game? But KoL has meaningful play even if you ignore the pay-for-bonuses mechanism and play for free. (That's how I played it, back when I played KoL regularly.) The time limiting is a positive feature of the gameplay, not a monetization mechanism.

          CRPGs are all about pacing. In the old school, you're limited by your actual time -- you gain stats for every minute your ass is planted in front of the screen. The game is about optimizing that use of time. If you could do everything in zero time, not only would the game be over in zero time, but there would be no reason to play well.

          The casual CRPG has the same optimization gameplay -- that is, it's built on the same player motivation -- without tempting you to become a twelve-hour-a-day WoW-head. The game becomes about optimizing the N actions you get per interval T. This is particularly nice for people who don't *have* twelve hours a day free (they can become top-rank players without being hardcore players), but it's also nice for games whose content is the savor-in-small-sips style, rather than you-fall-into-the-world-and-vanish.

          • Dan Fabulich says:

            "If you could do everything in zero time, not only would the game be over in zero time, but there would be no reason to play well."

            But Ford, what about the story? If you're making interactive choices that affect the plot, why limit that?

            Maybe this is just a mismatch of expectations. If you're making a grind-based CRPG, then having a grind limiter makes sense, I suppose.

            But Failbetter is striving to be much better than grind... so why limit the fun? It feels like publishing a novel and limiting the number of pages you can read every day.

            • Emily Short says:

              But Ford, what about the story? If you're making interactive choices that affect the plot, why limit that?

              Because it's not just a question of choices, but of texture. The texture of exploring the night circus is a dreamy wandering. If you experience too much of it too fast, it loses some of that feeling. (I'm not just speculating -- I've seen the system run on different timings when I was doing beta stuff, and I can say definitely that this is true, at least for me.)

              That said, for me one of the weaknesses of traditional CYOA is the relative absence of texture; without time to explore, commune with the world, and learn to care, I feel less investment in the plot choices. The Night Circus goes to the opposite end of that spectrum.

  2. Andrew Plotkin says:

    KoL is an unabashed CRPG, with lots and lots of opportunity for character optimization, and I love it for that. I realize that EBZ/NC is in another part of the field entirely. What's important to me is feeling *some* degree of ownership of my experience.

    I have no objection to time-limited play per se. It's just that my work habits are much happier with "you've played half an hour, come back tomorrow" than with "you've played thirty seconds, come back in five minutes."

  3. metoikos says:

    See, I was totally addicted to Echo Bazaar (enough to pay $5.00 for extra turns for two months), but the same opaque mechanics of goal-handling finally made me quit.

  4. Toast says:

    I agree for the most part, but I think things are still being worked on. Quiet exhilarations now allow you to move on to the next day, and I was actually able to finish the Interest in Magic plotline. I don't think everything is complete yet.

    I'll probably give up on it before it's finished, though.

  5. Angela says:

    The worst part for me is actually the Reveur Rank - most of my friends discovered Night Circus before I did, I have a Rank of 2, which opened some stuff but there is so much that's restricted by Rank and apparently the only way to increase this is to convince other friends to join. The friends I have who are interested in Night Circus are already playing, the other friends I invited once and now I can't do most of the stuff I want to because my Rank isn't high enough.

    I also have 32 x An Interest In Clockwork and I'm still waiting for whatever card is supposed to finish that storyline.

    I also really dislike the one-card-every-4-minutes thing because I can never quit, because if I just wait a couple more minutes I might get a productive card, so I'm sitting on my computer all evening & late into the night clicking (and finding things to do between cards) and vainly hoping for some kind of progress...

  6. Andrew Plotkin says:

    It's true that they've made positive changes since I posted this, but it's still hard to get a sense of goals and agency. I *have* finished the "Interest in Clockwork" storyline, but I couldn't tell you how.

    I understand the Reveur thing -- it *is* a promotional game -- but I resigned myself early to never getting any. My urge to do everything is weaker than my urge to avoid that sort of stuff.

    As for the timing, I didn't get a handle on it until I also started playing Echo Bazaar, which has a more schedule-friendly "Play for fifteen minutes, four times per day" model. I just pop into NC immediately before EBZ, and don't touch it otherwise.

    But I have to admit that I've mostly given up by now. After Clockwork I started collecting Love, but the resolution isn't triggering and I've seen everything else. (EBZ remains interesting.)

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