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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.)

Posted in Zarf on Games | Tagged , , , , | 11 Comments

The Secrets Game (idea)

A while ago, Emily Short posted an online chat that I was involved in:

zarf says, "(this reminds me that I should write a blog entry about that MMO prototype that I never did anything with)"

zarf says, "the secret plan that I never did anything with was to combine the window dressing with a power law of frequency, so that the room descriptions are random but one particular random room is your home base and you see it more often"

I was referring to a gameplay prototype that I came up with back in September. The idea was for a casual MMO-RPG -- something on the level of Kingdom of Loathing or Echo Bazaar. I didn't create an online demo, though. I just wrote an interactive Python script to try out the gameplay and the text environments.

You have dreamed of this for years -- who has not? But now it's in sight. You're not bogged down in the World any more; you've reached the gates of the City.

"Welcome to Mezzohaus -- the City of Secrets."

...Or that's what's carved over the archway as you approach. You frown; wasn't this place called "Middlehorst" in the old stories? Probably vandalism. Never mind.

Why here? Because you need the City. Why you? Because you belong here: you hold your own secrets. The blood of the Martians flows in you, and that will give you an edge. You know only scraps of Martian lore; but even the smallest secret is coin here.

You pass beneath the arch, and the stink of Mezzohusse's docks rolls over you. Pheugh -- but it's a place to start. You turn, at a thought, for one last look out at the World.

There is no archway behind you. You see only a battered iron door, tight-locked, in the side of a shambled building. Fluttering on the lintel is a note, which you pull free. It reads: "The first secret is to wait and watch."

This may strike you right away as an Echo Bazaar rip-off. The setting is a mysterious city, and the gameplay is all about trading secrets. In fact I was inspired to pick up the idea by reading Emily's posts about EB, though I've never played EB myself. However, this is an iteration of a design I've been toying with since 2004. I never got far with it; I still haven't. (Last fall, of course, I put my prototype aside for the Hadean Lands kickstarter project.)

But I like the way the text generation came out. So imagine you're reading the above text in a nice Web interface, along with a nice pen-and-ink illustration maybe, and it's followed by this option:

You stand on the edge of The Docks -- a mazy expanse of piers, wharfs, warehouses -- all of low character. Surely not all of Mezzohusse is this unprepossessing? But this is where you must begin.

  1. Explore The Docks

It wouldn't be a numbered option on the web page, but I'm pasting in my test script's output directly here. You'd also have an inventory listing:

You know 3 secrets:

  • The first secret is to wait and watch. {not tradable}
  • The name of the city is Mezzohaus. {4}
  • You've found The Docks. {not tradable}

So you select "Explore The Docks":

> 1
You wander through The Docks, until you come to...

Boat Run {2}

You stand on a long splintery dock, by a dockside. The wharf is littered with bits of paper, and a rowboat is tied up nearby.

  1. Wait and watch (in Boat Run)
  2. Continue exploring The Docks

The numbers in brackets are the value of the secrets. Knowing the city's name is worth 4; knowing the location of the Boat Run is 2. Again, this is rapid-prototyped UI, not real game UI.

Following the "wait and watch" advice:

> 1
You loiter around Boat Run. Eventually you notice someone...

Meeting Tall Abdul {3}

  1. Trade a secret (with Tall Abdul)
  2. Return to Boat Run {expired}

> 1
You have 3 secrets you can trade to Tall Abdul:

  1. The name of the city is Mezzohaus. {4}
  2. You know how to find Tall Abdul (in Boat Run). {3}
  3. You know the way to Boat Run (The Docks). {expired, 1/2}

Trade which secret > 1
Tall Abdul nods attentively, and then tells you...

Love is like a bucket.

Meeting Tall Abdul {2}

  1. Trade a secret (with Tall Abdul)
  2. Return to Boat Run {expired}

> i
You know 6 secrets:

  • Love is like a bucket. {4}
  • You've found The Docks. {not tradable}
  • You know the way to Boat Run (The Docks). {expired, 1/2}
  • You know how to find Tall Abdul (in Boat Run). {2/3}
  • The first secret is to wait and watch. {not tradable}
  • The name of the city is Mezzohaus. {3/4}

The core mechanic is that secrets aren't a currency. When you trade a secret away, you still have it... but it's less valuable for being more widely known. So the fact of knowing Tall Abdul is itself a secret which you can trade in the game. (Though not to Tall Abdul, obviously!) You don't lose access to him if you do this; he just becomes less of a secret.

But the reason I bring all of this up is that all the specifics you've read so far are procedurally generated text. The description of the Boat Run, the names of the city and of Tall Abdul, even the secret "love is like a bucket." (In the latter case, I wasn't trying very hard to be profound! It might equally well have been "death is like a dream.") To see more, let's go back and explore further:

Boat Run {1}

You stand on a long splintery dock, by a dockside. The wharf is littered with bits of paper, and a rowboat is tied up nearby. This place seems abandoned.

  1. Wait and watch (in Boat Run)
  2. Meet with Tall Abdul
  3. Continue exploring The Docks

> 3
You wander through The Docks, until you come to...

One Trout Course by Crate {2}

A pair of warped piers line this disused waterfront.

  1. Wait and watch (in One Trout Course by Crate)
  2. Visit Boat Run {expired}
  3. Continue exploring The Docks

> 1
You loiter around One Trout Course by Crate. Eventually you notice someone...

Meeting One Foot Dave {3}

  1. Trade a secret (with One Foot Dave)
  2. Return to One Trout Course by Crate {expired}

Now we have a different location, with a new person. (The original location, the Boat Run, is "abandoned" because we've overused it -- its value has declined to 1.)

> 1
You have 6 secrets you can trade to One Foot Dave:

  1. Love is like a bucket. {4}
  2. You know how to find One Foot Dave (in One Trout Course by Crate). {3}
  3. You know the way to Boat Run (The Docks). {expired, 1/2}
  4. You know how to find Tall Abdul (in Boat Run). {2/3}
  5. You know the way to One Trout Course by Crate (The Docks). {expired, 1/2}
  6. The name of the city is Mezzohaus. {3/4}

Trade which secret > 1
One Foot Dave nods attentively, and then tells you...

"I know this person on One Trout Course by Crate."

You know how to find Tall-Foot Tom (in One Trout Course by Crate).

Meeting One Foot Dave {2}

  1. Trade a secret (with One Foot Dave)
  2. Meet with Tall-Foot Tom
  3. Return to One Trout Course by Crate {expired}

The game proceeds by meeting more and more interesting people, who know more and more interesting secrets. Those secrets, as you see, include more locations of people. Eventually they require more work for trades -- "I'll tell you about location X if you find person Y for me", that kind of thing.

The point, however, is that a series of locations can be procedurally generated, but still feel fairly distinctive. Let's find a third location:

You wander through The Docks, until you come to...

Empty Crate Street {2}

A long dock thrusts out from the dockside here.

You can see "dock" and "dockside" as repeated elements, but the setting still has some oomph.

I haven't done any real testing at all. But I can attest, of my own experience, that the prototype really started to come alive when I added the NPC names. At first I had "Person 1", "Person 2", and so on -- running through the quests felt like turning a crank. But when they were named One Foot Dave and Sneaky Cass, it felt like experience. I'm sure if I'd gotten around to generating physical descriptions of the NPCs, it would be even better.

Obviously, if you encountered a long list of these generated descriptions, the illusion would fray. Let me put the description-generator in a loop:

The muddy seawall here sports a warped dock.

A pair of slender barnacled docks thrust out from this wharf. Decaying posts march down the seawall.

This dockside hosts only a pair of warped, splintery docks. The wharf is littered with bits of wood and rope; a pile of moldering crates stands not far off.

A long barnacled dock thrusts out from this stretch of seawall.

A narrow pier thrusts out from this muddy seawall. A pile of crates molders close by.

This length of shoreline hosts only a couple of narrow, shoddy docks. A pile of disintegrating crates stands not far off.

A barnacled pier thrusts out from this length of shoreline. A pile of crates molders nearby; bollards march down the seawall.

A splintery pier leans from this disused shoreline. A pile of crates molders close by.

A few narrow shoddy piers line the seawall here.

A couple of long piers lean out from the wharf here. Hunched, dingy warehouses loom not far off, and an illegible signpost stands nearby.

You stand on the ancient shoreline here, looking out over warped piers. An unreadable signpost stands close by.

A few long shoddy piers lean out from the dockside here.

You stand on a rotten pier, just off an ancient seawall. An illegible signpost stands nearby.

A heavy rotting pier leans from this ancient stretch of seawall.

A heavy rotten pier juts from the waterfront here. A pile of crates molders not far off.

Reading down that list isn't like playing a seaside IF game. It palls quickly. I guarantee that you skimmed most of it.

But the point of the power law is that you wouldn't encounter a long list, not all in a row like that. If you explore the Docks repeatedly, you wind up returning to the same handful of locations over and over. You'd be going back and forth between the Boat Run, One Trout Course, and Empty Crate Street. New places don't appear until you "use up" old ones. And the game mechanics make it pointless to keep revisiting old, valueless locations.

So you always have this small region of interesting areas, which change slowly over time. If the game mechanics are clever enough (I never got that far), they would change at different speeds: you'd have a "home base" which was very familiar, some common haunts that changed perhaps once a week, and more transient locations that you visited for a day and then moved on. The same is true of characters. You'd have some regular liaisons and some one-off trade partners. So Tall Abdul would become a well-known character to you, even though (from the game's point of view) he's just a generated node.

The intent isn't to fool the player. If you play this game for a while, you realize that the descriptions are not all hand-written. But I think this approach can maintain the feel of a well-written world, without requiring that effort for every single description.

Naturally, this would all lead into hand-crafted segments. Make enough progress in the Docks, and you will eventually (statistically) stumble into the first Docks storyline. The same gameplay would be the same -- you'd be meeting people, looking for secrets, and trading them. And you'd go back to your familiar locales and contacts to get the resources (the secrets) for the storyline quests. But you'd get those unique elements distributed through your game experience.

Just like any other RPG: there's grinding and there's storyline. The goals here are (1) to integrate them better; (2) to give a little bit of unique color to every single "grind" action; and ultimately (3) to let the player suspend disbelief in the mechanics and feel immersed in the world.

(For added fun, the game designers might comb through each day's logs of generated text, looking for new story ideas. Or just pick a few nodes to receive special attention. So there's a small chance that Tall Abdul would turn up in a story quest, or say something new to you tomorrow! I think that would add a lot of pizzazz.)

Posted in Zarf on Games | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments