Search Results for: design

Making navigation work

I've been playing a bunch of mobile games this spring (for no reason except that I played a lot of PC games over the winter) and I keep thinking about navigation.

Here's a navigation scheme which is common in casual first-person adventures: you always face forward. In every room, there's some number of exits, plus one invisible exit behind you. So you can go forward in various directions (unless you're at a dead end), and you can go back (unless you're at the start). If you bang the "back" button enough times you'll always return to the start room.

I don't know if this scheme has a common name; I'll call it forward-and-back. Examples that I've played recently: The Frostrune, Agent A, Facility 47.

(I'm distinguishing forward-and-back from the common scheme of third-person adventures, where the room contains several exits but they're all visible and the character avatar walks from one to another. That's different; it has no sense of "forward" or "back", although it may have a sense of "left and right".)

Forward-and-back has some obvious advantages. The player always has the same orientation in every room, so the game only needs one image of each room. (Important for a low-budget game where the backgrounds are hand-illustrated rather than rendered from a 3D model.) If the player gets lost, they can smack "back" button until they're not.

The scheme doesn't really support complex 3D environments, or puzzles based on 3D environments. You can't move your viewpoint around to understand 3D relations within a room, and 3D relations between rooms are usually obscure. (The "forward" direction is usually different from one room to the next!) So the scheme has limitations, but okay, every scheme has limitations.

But after playing a bunch of forward-and-back games, I have a complaint. I always feel lost. Or, no, "lost" is wrong. I always know where I am. I have a mental map (a tree, of course). I usually remember what's behind me and what rooms are ahead. But moving around is a somewhat laborious process. These games always involve lots of running back and forth, and the running around takes effort; it doesn't feel automatic.

Compare this to the parser IF navigation scheme. IF compass directions take a lot of crap ("artificial", "unintuitive" -- here's the most recent of many threads on the subject). But, by dooley, if I want to get across Hadean Lands I type "N <enter> N <enter> W <enter> W <enter> W <enter> W <enter> S <enter>" faster than I can think. (Even in a game like HL which supports "GO TO GARDEN", I usually use the compass directions.) Thus, when I'm working on a puzzle, I'm always working on the puzzle. Even if I have to run around, I have no sense of being interrupted by the busy-work of navigation.

What's the difference? Why do six clicks in a graphical adventure feel like more work than six keyboard inputs in a text adventure?

My current theory (certainly overgeneralized): the forward-and-back scheme doesn't give you enough context to think about long journeys.

For the journeys in HL (and other parser IF), I plot out the entire course before I start typing. I enter the commands without reading the responses, or reading just enough to verify that I'm on the right track. (An unexpectedly locked door will stop me, but I might overrun by a few commands before my fingers stop.) But in the forward-and-back games, I can't do this. I enter a room, look around, pick out the right door, click it, and repeat. I can't click-click-click across the game world.

Of course the game designers want to give me context. They post signs; they make buildings visible in the distance. But this is rarely consistent, and it usually only signposts the next room -- not the destination of my journey. If I'm standing at a fork in the road, I have to visualize the world map, think about the next room, and then remember what the path to it looks like. That's the extra step.

Okay, that's a hypothesis. Let's test it against some other game schemas.

In the classical first-person adventure, all movement is "forwards", because you can turn around within a room. The original Myst had clunky slide-show turns, but the genre soon upgraded to 360-panning views (Myst 3) and then to fully 3D worlds.

Now, running around these adventure games is never trivial. There's always a lot of clicking (or holding the "run" button). It can take time. But it doesn't require much thinking, because (once you've learned the map!) you just orient yourself and go. The game gives you the context to look around, to build the entire world map in your head. You see the fountain across the lawn, but you recall that the clock tower is visible down the fountain path, so it's ahead and on the left, so... and the next several steps are clear.

(I am, of course, speaking from the privilege of my own head! I have excellent spatial perception and visualization skills. So this whole analysis may be bunk to you, but I have to work this out for myself first...)

Here's Submachine 1. This is a first-person view, but most of the navigation is up-down-left-right rather than forward-and-back. The world falls into a regular grid (or a few regular grids joined by "ahead" doors). Result: easy navigation! I can click-click-click around the world.

(Then the author makes the later Submachine games really big -- scores of rooms -- which makes the navigation harder again. But at least the difficulty buys me more game.)

In Seltani, my hypertext MMO/MUD, I struggled to make Myst-like physical environments accessible in text. It almost worked -- but traversing large Ages is laborious, even for me. Even the worlds I created! I enter a room, look around, pick the right hyperlink...

Isn't this where we came in? Navigating in Seltani feels exactly like navigating a forward-and-back graphical game -- at least to me. I can learn an area well enough to click the links faster, but it never gets fast; I can never click-click-click through the world. And I think the problem is the same: not enough context, no way to visualize the entire space. It's the feeling of trying to cook dinner without my glasses.

Here's a map of the area described above. Better, right? If I ever redo Seltani, I'll add clickable maps to all my Ages.

Finally, an odd case. Vignettes is a puzzle game with no physical space at all. You "explore" by transforming objects using Escherian perspective tricks.

I played a bit. Then I put the game down and said "Nice concept, but the navigation is terrible!" Is there navigation? Well, there's a map, as we see above. The map shows known, nearby transformations: from the fire hydrant, we can reach the trashcan and the pillcase.

But again: not enough context. The game challenges us to find every transformation, but the map never shows us the whole world -- not even the known world. Missing links are shown as question marks, but only the nearby ones. If the local zone is complete (as above), how do we run across the world to a new one? The map gives us no help. It's not even a clickable map; we have to redo every transformation to explore, even the known ones.

(Added frustration: one-way links. If you're trying to move across the map, you can fall down a chute and land back where you started.) (And even more: the chest metaphor lets you jump instantly across the world, but only to a region that you've completely mined out! It's useless for reaching incomplete regions, the ones you need to reach to finish the game.)

(For all this complaining, I did pick Vignettes back up and finish it. The map is small enough to be playable despite its faults. But I nearly had to draw a paper map to finish -- the unforgivable sin of a mobile game.)

So what qualities make a game truly navigable? I say:

  • the game must let you understand the entire shape of the world;
  • the game must let you apply that knowledge to move across chunks of the world without stopping to think.

There are plenty of strategies for each point. A large-scale map with "click here to jump" buttons will always solve the problem, but it's not the only possibility. The designer may not want jumping; they may want to preserve the experience of continuous movement. Or they may not have the resources to implement the jump button. (At worst, it can require implementing all your lock-and-puzzle logic twice, which is a minefield of potential game bugs. Ask me about Hadean Lands...)

A large-scale map without interactivity will help if the player can connect map features to game-world features. (This is where my Seltani district map falls short; map symbols don't match up well to text.)

(A player who draws a map is certain to understand the shape of the world! But asking the player to draw a map is pretty much unjustifiable if the game has any graphical capability at all. Grumble at these modern times or embrace them, as you like, but that's where we are.)

In a graphical environment, being able to see from one area to another is good; being able to look around and see the world from many angles is also good. Both together give the player a great deal of context. Regular grids, top-down views, and consistent viewing angles all help the player make sense of the world.

And finally, all these concerns apply even to completely abstract maps which have nothing to do with physical space. A limited horizon and inconsistent directions will leave a player feeling lost, even in a skill tree or a branching plot diagram.

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Various world models in IF

Another question from the tweetzone: "What are the significant differences for object/rooms + hypertext/choice vs parser + web?"

Here's (more of) that strand(s) of conversation:

I want tools to create a hypertext based game that still has a room and object model for the engine. Any suggestions? (@KalevTait)

I've done it (in Glulx) but the game design space is poorly understood. (As compared to parser+object model.) (@zarfeblong)

this just means it needs more research (@emshort)

What are the significant differences for object/rooms + hypertext/choice vs parser + web? Maybe I’ve misunderstood. (@jurieongames)

Emily's further responses:

parser + web = you still type. world model + choice = you're selecting what to do from options based on model (@emshort)

Oh, and I guess choice-based games tend to come from a CYOA, paragraph-based design approach? (@jurieongames)

often. even if they don't, enumerating all the options that would exist with a parser gives you a too-long list (@emshort)

so you need then to build a hierarchical interface or else have a smaller tighter verb set, for instance (@emshort)

I agree with Emily here (as usual), but I want to back up and talk about ways I've approach IF design.

Parser IF is a well-explored field, which started with Adventure and expanded through generations of... Adventure imitators. That's not a criticism, that's history. The MIT gang tried to make another game like Adventure; so did Scott Adams, albeit with more limited resources; so did other groups. Then in the 90s, many hobbyists tried to make more games like the Infocom set (etc), and built tools to accomplish that. What rooms are, what objects are, what the world model is, what interactions mean -- all go back to Adventure in a very direct line. I'll assert that 75% of the game mechanics in today's parser IF can be found in Adventure... in rudimentary form, sure, but present. And 75% of the rest can be found in Zork.

That's the form I grew up playing, and then writing. Not the only form, but the closest to my heart. But -- when I build a different kind of game, I'm not trying to approximate parser IF in a different-shaped bottle.

Like I said up top, I've created a hypertext game with a room and object model. That's Bigger Than You Think, a game that I wrote for the 2012 Yuletide fanfic exchange. This has a hybrid UI: you can click on links or type (single) words at a command prompt. It has rooms and an inventory.

(I'm going to assume that you've played BTYT, at least a little bit. If you haven't, hit the link and flip through a few moves.)

BTYT is not a parser game turned hyperlinky. I didn't design it that way and the underlying assumptions don't match the Adventure model. It's much more like a CYOA game-book with added inventory features.

Let's look at rooms. BTYT seems to offer a classic Adventure-style layout: each "page" is a location, and you have a choice of exits, each of which leads to a new location.

You'll quickly notice, however, that there's never a choice to "go back where you came from". Nor is there a sense of stopping to take action in a given location. A page is really an event, part of the story of an exploration into a cave. (The narration of the event includes entering and looking around.) You are always moving towards an endpoint; you cannot explore at will, except by using the "start over" option.

So the model is really The Cave of Time, the first of the "Choose Your Own Adventure" gamebook series. That book offered the notion that each page was a physical location in a cave -- but it didn't really stick to it, because pages in a book just don't represent Adventure rooms very well. Pages want to be sequenced events. (Later books in the series entirely discarded the idea of representing a physical maze. Our common notion of "CYOA game" is all about branching events, not branching tunnels.)

What about inventory? If you poke down certain branches of BTYT, you can find some objects to take -- a crowbar, a rope; "medium-sized dry goods" in the Adventure vein. But again, these are not manipulable objects in an Adventure-style world model. You can't put them down or try different actions with each one. Instead, they become an extra set of CYOA-style options -- available to try in each scene, until you find the right situation for each one.

(Note that the game header lists the current movement choices on the left, and the current inventory choices on the right.)

Paper gamebooks can't easily offer an inventory in this way. It's the experimental facet of BTYT. But it's not an Adventure-style inventory. I designed it to fit in with the CYOA model; it's what a gamebook choice-list would look like if it could be dynamic.

Seltani takes yet a third approach. Seltani is a hypertext environment inspired by Myst Online. The Myst games tend towards richly detailed environments but a sparse inventory system. You are expected to spend your time exploring the world, and then manipulating pieces of it "in place". You don't typically apply arbitrary tools to arbitrary targets.

Therefore, I wanted to create a choice-based system in which nodes are typically locations. You'll stop in a location to examine many of its parts, and perhaps pull some levers or turn some knobs. This required a multi-window UI: an environment window which describes what's around you, a detail window which describes the particular item you're paying attention to, and a history window in which events (and environmental changes) scroll by.

Note that this is different from the Adventure UI, where everything happens in a "history window". In parser IF, looking and examining are actions -- the response is a description at that moment. If you LOOK twice in a row, the world may have changed. Seltani's descriptive windows, in contrast, are always current.

(Some parser IF has tried permanent LOOK or INVENTORY panes. The Scott Adams games of the early 80s worked this way, for example; Beyond Zork also offered such a mode. However, these experiments have not caught on in the parser-IF community.)

Seltani has something like a world model, although it's very flat. It's got worlds, locations within a world, and that's about it. The built-in infrastructure is mostly about the portals between worlds rather than world contents.

Significantly, Seltani doesn't have objects or an inventory system. Why not? Well, say it did. What would you do with objects? "Actions" in this UI are hyperlinks which either examine or manipulate the world. If you carried a sword from the Living Room to the Kitchen, and a "sword" hyperlink were (somewhere) available, you could reasonably expect to examine the sword. But that's all! There's no way to express dropping the sword or smashing a window with it.

I avoided this problem in BTYT by discarding the idea of "examine". In that game, a "sword" hyperlink always means "take the sword" (when you first discover it) or "use the sword on something here" (if you're carrying it). I restricted the design to have at most one whackable target per location -- and you never drop anything except in its final use-location. Furthermore, BTYT is made of simple objects which do not require close inspection. So a single-link inventory works okay. But Myst games are full of detail; the BTYT model would never have worked for Seltani.

This is not to say the Seltani model can't be extended that way. The engine supports an extra "world pane" which remains visible throughout a world. The world designer could put an inventory list there. (Or, equivalently, tag an inventory list onto every location description in the world.) You'd have to decide what it meant to click on an inventory link in each location -- essentially inventing your own world model.

What you can't do is carry "objects" from one world to another. Seltani assumes that worlds are independent. It's hard enough rigging up one Age without figuring out how to respond to artifacts from every other Age!

(No, worlds aren't necessarily independent. You can build two Ages which are interconnected and share data. But that gets beyond this scope of this post.)

I should also note that the Seltani model can be extended in the other direction, too. You can build CYOA-style (or Twine-style) worlds, where nodes are treated as events rather than locations. To do this, you have to avoid relying on the event window. You also have to also lock out Seltani's multiplayer features, since a group of chatting players are implicitly presenting events in a location.

I've talked about two of my choice-based game designs, and how I try to craft each one so that the game and the UI match up.

One sometimes sees attempts at "hybrid" UIs -- trying to present a text game with both command-line and menu-based interfaces. You won't be surprised to hear that I have no patience for such experiments. I'd ask myself: does the game's experience depend on the parser interface? If it does, it's required! And if not, get rid of it! -- it's a waste of your time and the player's.

(But what about BTYT? I'll tell you straight up: the command-line interface on that game adds nothing. I should have gotten rid of it. I left it in to support MUD play via ClubFloyd, which is a very minor use case -- it should not have influenced me.) (Anyhow, the right approach would be to update Floyd to support hyperlink input. The RemGlk library makes this possible.)

The same goes for attempts to "port" parser games to a choice-based UI. I have nothing against remakes of a game. (Coloratura, for one example, is a parser game that was remade by the author in Twine.) But this is a design process, akin to translating a book into a movie or vice versa. You can't slap a new UI system onto a game and expect it to be "the same game but now accessible to more people".

I intended to wrap this post up by responding to Jon Ingold's post: Parser as Prototype: why choice-based games are more interesting.

My reaction is "how fundamentally wrong-headed". But if I try to support that, I will need so many qualifiers that I'll fly into the weeds and sink. I mean:

  • The post is from a year and a half ago, which is decades in Internet Time
  • Jon recently commented "Def not talking about approximating a parser game. Rather, parser was a step one to being able to design choice games this way" (@joningold)
  • Jon's design process is his process and I'm not going to step on it
  • The post is about the Sorcery! game series, and I haven't even played those
  • I don't assert that parser IF is some golden standard which other models need to approximate (much less measure up to)

So there's no fundamental disagreement -- rather, I think the post is weirdly framed to make an apology which doesn't need to be made.

I have played a lot of 80 Days. I can confidently say that it's not an approximation of a parser game. 80 Days is its own kind of IF, and its interface fits it very well. It doesn't have a "world model" in the sense of a space to manipulate objects. Its world model is, you know, a model of the world -- big and round and covered with cities -- and your inventory is meaningful in the space of planning your trip.

Note the word "planning". Much of the gameplay of 80 Days involves collecting, buying, or selling objects. But they are not used in the way that, say, Hadean Lands uses objects -- as mysteries whose places in the world come as crucial discoveries. Rather, their value is cumulative and largely predictable. When you buy a didjeridoo, you know where it's most profitable to sell it. If you miss that stop, well, you can probably sell it elsewhere -- and there are other ways to get cash anyhow. Other objects act as bonuses in the mini-game of learning new routes; but again, there are lots of ways to learn routes, and your piece of shortbread is never going to spell the difference between success and failure.

While I was finishing this post, the XYZZY Award finalists were announced. As it happens, Hadean Lands and 80 Days were each nominated for five awards.

It would be meretricious to explain that this will be settled by battle royale of alchemical Kaiju versus Victorian steam-mecha, as piloted by myself and Meg Jayanth. Mostly because With Those We Love Alive was nominated for eight awards, so you have to amend the battle with Porpentine and Brenda Neotenomie drawing mystical runes all over both of us, which makes it all confusing and hard to film.

I will instead wish good fortune to all the nominees, including the above-mentioned and also Kevin Gold, Sean M. Shore, A.D. Jansen, michael lutz, kaleidofish, Sam Ashwell, Steph Cherrywell, Emily Short, Lynnea Glasser, C.E.J. Pacian, Jason Dyer, Ade McT, Carolyn VanEseltine, Simon Christiansen, Mæja Stefánsson, Graham Nelson, Juhana Leinonen, Jim Munroe, Chris Klimas, Nicky Case, Kateri -- whew! I hope I didn't screw that list up.

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Designing alchemy in a puzzle game

A question about Hadean Lands from the tweet gallery: "Have you written anything about how you approached designing the alchemical system?"

Excellent question! The answer is "No, but I should, shouldn't I," yes okay. (Thanks @logodaedalus.)

My twitter-sized reply was "Sound cool while supporting the puzzles," but I can say more than that.

(Note: I will start this post by talking about HL in generalities. Later on I'll get into more spoilery detail about the game structure. It won't come down to specific puzzle solutions, but I'll put in a spoiler warning anyway.)

The keynote for HL's system was the alchemy puzzle in The Dreamhold. The Dreamhold lab had just two ingredients and three actions to take, but it felt like a dense explorable territory.

Dreamhold's principle was that any action you try on a given substance will produce a new and interesting result. And then you can try new actions on that! Obviously this exponential expansion has to be tied off pretty soon. Many of the combinations converge to common outcomes. The tree is only a few steps deep, really. (I think there are twelve possible substances to find.) But it's enough to give a sense of experimentation and discovery.

For HL, I wanted that sense, but bigger. Did I succeed? Heck no! It was an impossible goal. HL has forty-odd starting ingredients and thirty-odd magic words (not to mention other ritual actions, and the environmental influences, and...). Just providing the first step of a dense exploration tree would be... well, somebody might do it, but I wasn't going to.

So I developed HL with a less ambitious principle: you get recipes. When following a recipe, you should always be able to tell a right action from a wrong one. That is, a particular magic word will produce a unique response if you use it at the right time -- different from the response you get if you use it at the wrong time. The differences may be slight, but they're perceptible.

I didn't want to entirely crush the spirit of experimentation. So the second principle was: recipes aren't everything. The opening puzzle demonstrates this, and various later puzzles require you to substitute or invert ritual elements. I set up parallel structures and oppositional structures to make that make sense.

I think everyone agrees that I didn't hit the perfect balance. The game starts you with an off-recipe puzzle, but there's too long an interval before the next one. In between are lots of recipes that you have to follow perfectly; you lose track of the initial lesson. But most players were able to get onto the right track (or jump off the wrong one, if you like).

A followup question was "Did you have alchemical dynamics in mind when making the puzzles?" The answer is... mixed.

(Spoiler warning for the overall game structure, starting here!)

The core arc of HL is the limited supply of four key elements. You need all four for the endgame, and there are intermediate goals which require two or three. So initially you can only accomplish one intermediate goal at a time; then you have to reset.

That was my initial puzzle framework. I wrote that down, and then started complicating it. What ritual needs elements X and Y? Is it the ritual itself which needs those elements, or do I invent a sub-ritual which consumes X and provides a related X2? And so on.

At this point, I was inventing puzzles and alchemical mechanics in parallel. Or rather, I was going back and forth -- every decision on one side firmed up the possibilities on the other side. I needed puzzles whose solutions would seem reasonable; I needed mechanics which would feel like parts of a plausible magical science.

You'll note that I didn't start by creating a complete magical system and then deriving puzzles from it. Nor did I invent a bunch of puzzles and then invent alchemy that could solve them. Neither approach has ever worked for me. So if you're hoping for a complete, consistent model of HL alchemy -- I'm sorry. No such thing exists.

I knew that it couldn't exist, of course. That's one reason that the alchemy is described as being eclectic and syncretic. It fits nicely with the social background, too. The real-life British Empire did steal artifacts from all over the world. I evolved the idea that a magical British Empire would lift occult knowledge from every place they conquered, and jam it all together without regard for consistency or context!

(We assume this made them better at conquering. The game doesn't touch on much history, but references to the "East Empire" imply that they've got a firm grasp on Central Europe, and no doubt the New World as well. If I were a better writer, I'd have built a story about the Navy running into aliens and trying to treat them colonially... oh, well, room for a sequel.)

(There will be no sequel. That was a joke.)

The point is, I could make up whatever alchemical rules I wanted. I tried for a balance -- consistency in some places, chaos in others. I could draw on mythical, mathematical, or religious sources without having to be accurate about any of it. Convenient!

Back to the puzzle construction. As I said, there were a few key resources whose scarcity determined the game arc. Then I invented more resources -- both ingredients and formulae -- which either resulted from or combined with the key ones.

This could itself have created an ever-expanding tree of dependencies. But I constrained it, or at least bent it back on itself, with a third principle: everything in the game should be used at least twice. Ideally, in slightly different ways.

A naive adventure game uses each item exactly once. Indeed, many graphical adventures remove things from your inventory once you've used them successfully. This cuts against your sense of immersion -- not because of the anti-realism, but because you wind up watching the game mechanics rather than the game. An object disappearing (or being checked off) is a better signal of progress than the response of the game world. Text adventures don't have this disappearance convention; nonethless, the player learns to keep track of what's been used and ignore it thereafter.

I would rather teach the player that there's always more to learn. You may think you understand an item, but you still have to keep it in mind for future use. You have to keep everything in the game in mind at all times. This is the underlying challenge.

So I went over and over the list of rituals, looking for singletons. Magic word used only once? Work it into a new ritual. Alchemical potion only solves one puzzle? Invent a new place to use it. This added a richness to the mechanics. Two uses of a reagent imply there must be more; you have the sense that there must be underlying laws to explain it all. This is, as I said, an illusion; but it's a well-supported illusion.

Of course, it added up to a gob-smacking number of puzzles. Fortunately (or perhaps not), I was blessed with a very large list of formulae, resources, and recipes to scatter around the Retort. I could "use up" these extra puzzles as obstacles to various resources. (Thus all the locked cabinets.)

Also, since these puzzles weren't involved in the key resource plotline, it was okay if they had multiple solutions. (Some of the cabinets can be opened two or three ways.)

The final principle of Hadean Lands: involve all the senses. Let me go back to a line that I quoted in 2010, explaining the HL Kickstarter:

"If a witch could teleport (a thing that seems impossible, but I could be wrong), it would involve hours of preparation, rituals, chanting, and filling all the senses with the desired result until the spell would work in a blinding explosion of emotional fulfillment." (Steven Brust, Taltos)

Magic should be a transcendent experience. I tried to describe the effects of your rituals in colors, textures, sounds, scents... even the words that you speak are given synesthetic weight. Not to mention the ineffable air of things going wrong or right (so useful for cueing mistakes).

Of course, an adventure game involves lots of repetition, and nothing wears out faster than a repeated sense of transcendence. (Except maybe humor.) I dodged this problem with HL's PERFORM mechanic. When you PERFORM a known ritual, it doesn't repeat all of the descriptive text; I kept the output bare and mechanical. You're not reading it anyway! You just want to know whether the ritual succeeded. This preserves your sense of involvement with new rituals.

(Admittedly this falls apart when you're failing at a new ritual. That's a somewhat repetitive experience -- inevitably, I think.)

So there are my principles of magic design. I don't suppose I sound like a Hermetic occultist. I hope I do sound like a writer or designer describing his craft, because that's what this is. A lot of fussy details and a clear plan, is all.

Like the man said: writing is the art of causing change in a consenting reader, in accordance with the writer's will. You gotta be pragmatic about that stuff or you'll get nowhere.

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Emergent gameplay vs whatever the other kind is

I spent the weekend at a delightful little game-dev conference at NYU. Much cool stuff happened there. However, I want to focus on Saturday morning.

Saturday's first talk was by Warren Spector, who has recently switched from developing games (Deus Ex, etc) to teaching the subject at UTexas. His thesis was simple: emergent gameplay, emergent gameplay, emergent gameplay are you listening people.

Here's a writeup of Spector's talk, thanks to Leigh Alexander and Gamasutra.

(Footnote: the quality of emergent gameplay should be referred to as "emergency". As in, "Yeah, that game had a lot of emergency." Hat tip to Vernor Vinge for pointing this out.)

Spector tried not to say "Everything else sucks." He stated right off that he was oversimplifying, and that he's just presenting the kind of games that interest him. But it was hard to avoid the subtext that any scripted, linear, or single-solution interaction was inferior -- bad game design. Inherently. That if players tried the emergent (simulative, rules-based) gameplay they'd be happier and never go back.

This led to a lot of backchannel muttering among the audience; you can scroll back through the #practice2013 Twitter hashtag if you want the dirt. I disagreed, Emily Short disagreed. But one can only fit so much pith into tweets, of course.

Then the next two speakers (Soren Johnson and Keith Burgun) started their presentations with exactly the same analytic framework: linear versus generative, scripted versus emergent. And they seemed to assume that this question was settled -- that all of us were already committed to the emergent end of that dichotomy.

So. I am not part of that stampede. I disagree with the conclusion, and I disagree with the premise.

First: this emergent-vs-linear thing is oversimplified, just as Spector said. Any analytical model is simplified, but this is the bad kind; it trims away something crucial. One of the later speakers posted a slide with a linear-to-emergent scale: games could be placed at any point along the scale. But this is still too simple!

A game can do more than one thing. Most do. To describe a game, you need a whole stack of scales. For example, Bioshock (the first) gives you:

  • free movement in a complex spatial environment;
  • a fairly rich array of tactical combos for combat (built on power and weapon upgrades chosen over time);
  • exploration through a branching tree of rooms (with much backtracking as you achieve goals and are rewarded with new tools and options);
  • an irregular sequence of environmental puzzles, each of which has a single solution to be discovered;
  • an infrequent sequence of binary choices for dealing with Little Sisters;
  • a fixed sequence of story chapters leading to a narrowly forked ending scene.

So what in there makes Bioshock a "linear" game? Certainly the last aspect. Certainly not the first two. The middle ones are worth an argument in their own right. So, can you ignore the combat or the Little Sisters or the overall storyline, and still claim to describe Bioshock as a whole?

Heck, look at Myst. For twenty years, gamers have been dismissing Myst as a linear slideshow -- while other gamers remember it as a completely open, unconstrained, explorable environment. I refuse to declare that either view is wrong. Surely this demonstrates that there's more than one layer here? Every "emergent" game has scripted aspects to it, and every "linear" game has aspects of surprise, and they can both be happening at the same time in different ways.

Moving on.

One of Spector's repeated points was (I paraphrase) "If you create a clever puzzle with a solution, you're showing how clever you are. Let the players show how clever they are." And much other language about "putting players in control."

I find this painfully misleading. For a start, complicated systems are expressions of the designer's intent! If they weren't, we wouldn't have to spend so much effort tweaking, adjusting, and getting them right! (The word "right" is itself an admission.) To quote some of the replies:

ok look when "emergent" interactions occur they're part of the possibility space the designer set up, not magic out of nowhere (-- Michael Brough)

it is possible for the rule set itself to express a world view; emergent gameplay != absent designer (-- Emily Short)

Or, in my own words: bringing more player agency into the experience does not mean pushing authorial agency out. It makes authorial agency different, more complicated, yes. But the simplistic see-saw trade-off is a phantom terror.

Go back to Spector's immediate statement. Is it bad to work very hard, to be extremely creative, in designing a puzzle? Shouldn't we laud that effort, when the designer chooses to put it in? Surely the point of emergent gameplay isn't to let the designer be lazy. (If so, it's not working, nohow.)

No, what Spector wants -- rightly -- is to permit the player to be creative. We both treasure games that require the player to think creatively. We don't seem to agree on what that means, though.

Most of my text games hearken back to old-school IF: puzzle situations, unique solutions, hand-crafted outcomes. Two people who finish Spider and Web will, ultimately, have found the same solution for every puzzle. And I thought of that solution before either of them. But does this mean that they have not been playing creatively?

I say they have been. The work of solving these puzzles -- the play experience -- is of experimentation, discovery, and then synthesis of the results in a way which was not immediately obvious. That's creative thought. Dismissing this as "square key in square hole" is ignoring the point.

IF traditionally builds a complex, rule-based world out of hand-crafted, unique responses. One action is shallow. A hundred actions, revealing common underlying rules, is a fluid environment. (That's why "square key in square hole" is an oversimplification. A puzzle with one clue, one option, and one action is a trivial toy.) Seeing unexpected possibilities in a fluid environment is... exactly what Spector says he wants.

random thought: at one point if a dialog tree is big enough, it will FEEL emergent. Is that what matters? (-- Reynaldo Vargas)

Yes. (I could quibble about "tree" being a prejudicial term here. Make it big and stateful, and it'll stop being a tree. Down that path lies Versu.)

Switch to a more familiar example: the crossword puzzle. It has a single solution (unless the designer has been really creative). But you have to be clever to find it. Crossword solving is not a monotonous dictionary attack. Puzzle fiends then move on to baroque variations (the cryptic crossword, the variety cryptic... the MIT Mystery Hunt) which require even more creative thought to solve. Yes, the designer has to be cleverer yet. Crosswords are harder to construct than to solve. I don't see that as a reason to criticize; I'm grateful to the designers.

Let me wrap up by stepping back. I am not an enemy of emergent gameplay. It's awesome. I try to build my games, even the tiny ones, around an explorable mechanic with complex, generative results. I love Spector's pithy metric: how much do you know in advance about a player's play experience? That's an important question; it permeates every design decision you will make. (To say nothing of the crass realities of replayability and Internet walkthroughs.)

But I do not accept that this is a quality metric. It doesn't tell you whether a game is superior, or even (if you dare ask) "more fun". And it's not a simple metric. You don't ask that question once per game. You ask it over and over, interrogating each aspect and element of your design. Never "is this an emergent game" (blech); rather "what are the emergent interactions in this game?"

Go now and do likewise.

Footnote 1: There's a whole subdiscussion to be had about minimalist games -- games which have been boiled down to a single core mechanic. (This was the focus of Keith Burgun's talk.) To the extent this is possible (Go already exists!) it avoids much of my argument. Some games really are doing only one thing! And if so, you'd better get as much oomph as possible from that one mechanic.

But let's not confuse the simple case with the general case. Commercial games tend to be large, rather than minimal. And both in and out of industry, genres love to hybridize, forming interesting compounds and complexes.

Footnote 2: I forget what footnote 2 was.

Footnote 3: Don't imagine that the entire conference was a buzzsaw of absolutist "emergent" rhetoric. Later on Saturday, Emily Short sat next to a couple of the Walking Dead designers and they talked about the balance between generativity and prescription. No, it wasn't a counter-spinning buzzsaw of authorial control. Nobody wants that. Tradeoffs are always where the interesting design is.

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One year of this project, and the ways of puzzle explorability

Tomorrow will be the oneth anniversary of the Hadean Lands Kickstarter project. One year of this new lifestyle.

(Technically it's eleven months of this lifestyle, because I quit for Christmas. Also eleven months since I took possession of the donated money, due to processing delays and business schedules and thinking about taxes and all the other absurd things attendant on self-employment. I could also mark it as thirteen months and five days since I decided for sure to quit my industry job; thirteen months and four days since I reached my Kickstarter funding goal. But enough with the dreamy reminesce.)

Over the past month I have nailed down the outline for Hadean Lands. I know all the major puzzles that occur, and the order you hit them in. Or rather the possible orders, since there's a lot of variation. I'm using a traditional bushy-middle-act structure (many things to do but free order in which to do them -- think Myst). But there's a lot of puzzle interlocking going on too, beneath that high-level structure. Keeping track of this is why I wrote PlotEx, and you better believe it's been helpful. I can say for sure that the outline is consistent.

I haven't actually counted the major puzzles here, but I bet you want to know... okay, let's say 53. (The number is a little fuzzy, because you have to do certain things more than once, with variations. Yes, there will be shortcuts.)

The next milestone is sorting out the minor puzzles. These tasks aren't so much for challenge, but rather for pacing, and for setting up future puzzles. The locked grate in Adventure is the right analogy here. You get keys, you unlock the grate. It's not a big deal, but it spreads out the early exploration, gives a plot beat (underground now!) and gets the IF newcomer (we all were, then) used to the notion of using appropriate verbs.

Also, many of those major puzzles (30 of them) are alchemical rituals or procedures, which require ingredients. A one-ingredient ritual is no fun! I'll need a fair number of extra items just to fill out recipes and make the action sequences satisfying.

So for each ingredient X in a major puzzle, there will be a lot of "explore to find ingredient X", and a judicious proportion of "make ingredient X out of Y and Z". (Which means adding puzzles, or at least locations, for Y and Z. Don't worry, that recursion won't get more than one or two levels deep. They're minor puzzles after all.)

I could approach this by simply making up Y and Z items until all the slots on the chart are filled. But this would be boring. I mean for you, not just for me. (Okay, for me too.) One-use-per-item is a poor adventure game model.

Instead, I want all of the rituals to overlap. Y should be used in two different rituals; Z in three. Think back to my HL teaser: the untarnishing ritual starts with ginger oil, but you also have peppermint oil available. Shouldn't that lead into a different ritual? What if you start with ginger but use the binding word instead? These don't go anywhere in the teaser, but they will in the full game.

In essence, the space of ingredients and magic words forms a map -- and this abstract map should be explorable and interesting, just like the game's physical map. So this is what I've started working on now. Making up a lot of Y and Z items, but arranging them in a satisfying way. (While still obeying the major puzzle ordering constraints, of course.)

And that's this month in Hadean Lands.

(I should probably restate this, although it's not news: the estimated completion date on HL is "I don't know yet." This will continue to be true for quite some time. When I've gotten five of those 53 puzzles implemented, then I'll have a basis for estimating my progress rate.)

On the freelance side of my life, Fealty for iOS continues forward. It's playable single-player, but still all placeholder artwork, and the Game Center integration only half-works.

I am also doing a small commissioned IF work (!), which will appear on-or-around the beginning of January. Crazy, eh?

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Halloween and progress report

A week ago I tweeted: "With Meanwhile stable, my Next Damn Project Slot is open as of Monday. And that means Hadean Lands (aka the Previous Damn Project)."

Perhaps you read that with a detached, urbanely ironic skepticism. Or not. Maybe Twitter can't tolerate that much irony. Who knows. Anyhow, last Monday, I opened up my HL design notes file. I brushed the dust and dinosaur vertebrae off it and read through. Here's what I quickly realized:

  • There are way too many ideas in this file. My notion of what should go into this game was, let's say, overambitious.
  • However, the ideas that are coalesced into puzzles and plot are fine. (Except for that thing about airlocks. That isn't going to fly.)
  • Thus, I must throw out 80% of the unattached ideas, and use the rest to fill in the gaps in what I've got. And then I'll have a design.
  • True, there are a lot of gaps. But there are plenty of ideas to fill them.
  • Geez, this is a complicated puzzle structure. No wonder I bogged down before, trying to fill in the gaps.
  • To the bat-cave!

Er, that last should read: I need a complexity management tool! So I quickly wrote one: PlotEx, a Python script for exploring puzzle plot constraints.

This is not an IF creation tool, specifically. It just lets you express your puzzle constraints in a simple way: what needs to happen before what, what requires what tools, and so on. Then it computes all the consequences of the scenario; it shows you what states can and cannot be reached. You can try variations like "what if the player never solves that puzzle?" or "what if the player has an extra invisibility potion?" Basically, it tells you whether your game is solvable, or whether parts of it are solvable too soon.

I've written a whole big article about PlotEx, plus documentation, so I won't go into further detail here. Bonus example: the plot logic of Enchanter rendered in PlotEx. Take a look if you think it might be useful to you.

Has it been useful to me? Heck yes. I have now filled in many gaps, and I have a much better idea of what elements I can put where without breaking HL. Furthermore, I can keep testing this; I can write unit tests for the game logic, effectively.

Of course, you might say I would have made more progress if I hadn't written up a whole big article plus documentation. Maybe. But this is how us geeks work.

More soon.

In other news -- or rather, the news I started with: Meanwhile has been sent off to App Store review. If nothing goes wrong, it will be available Tuesday, November 8th (slightly earlier in Eastern climes!)

Happy Hallows, or whatever you do. (I watched the Anti-Morris.)

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Inevitably I am drawn into the games-and-art thing

The question "Are games art?" is thoroughly boring, because the answer is obvious. It's obvious to me; it's obvious to you. I don't know if our obvious answers are the same, but whatever -- either way there's nothing to discuss.

This doesn't mean I'm tired of discussing why videogames are or aren't art. A couple of days ago Tablesaw posted a quick manifesto-ation, which I thought was terrific:

The player of a game is not the audience of a game, just as an actor is not the audience of a playscript, and a musician is not the audience of a score.

Games lack an audience not in the traditionally understood manner (nobody is desires to or is able to observe the art), but in a profound and fundamental way, in that they cannot be understood except through entering collaboration.

(--from Shorter Games and Art, April 5)

Of course it's easy to pick at rough edges here (this is the Internet!) -- a game of Rock Band can have an audience. Adventure games (text and graphical) play very well in groups, with one player "driving" and the rest involved at a lower level, if at all. But these cases only make the question more interesting.

Comparison: Ritual

A group of monks singing a service, daily or weekly or whatever the ritual entails -- or Tibetan sand mandalas, or etc. The song, or the visual design, may certainly be recorded and reproduced as art. People may perform (sing, construct) works in the traditional artistic sense, for an audience. But this is not the goal or experience of the ritual practitioners -- not primarily. They are doing, not presenting.

But then, where did the song come from? Someone composed it for the monks, and we accept that as an artistic activity (even if the sung service itself might be something else).

Perhaps it is improvisatory. (I don't know where mandala designs come from.) The conventions, elements, and boundaries of improvisation might themselves have been composed by someone. More likely -- in such improvisatory traditions -- they evolved, in a thousand unattributed acts of creativity over years or centuries.

Where is a videogame against that backdrop? Not at the purely compositional end; the player is doing more than interpreting a score. Not at the purely improvisatory end; there is always a game designer composing the boundaries, affordances, and elements of choice. But this looks like a range along which various games can comfortably sit.

Comparison: Sports

A group of basketball players on the court are not there to perform -- not primarily. They're there to find out who is better at getting a ball through a hoop. They are observed, but a sports audience is not a performance audience.

But then, where did the rules of basketball come from? I bet someone knows... yes, from a Dr. Naismith in 1891 (followed by years of community evolution). Well. Here we have a game designer. For all the discussion of sports in our culture, little light falls on the designers. There's plenty of light (and heat) on the rules of the game, mind you -- particularly as they evolve and change. But the terms are the fitness and functionality of the rules, and how they shape play today. The history and context of the creators are only of marginal interest; nor is how they may influence sports of the future. This is discussion of day-to-day craft and function, not a discussion about art.

That is: the question of whether the game of basketball is art is not a question that sports people care about -- and maybe the videogame world should take that as a cue. ...But if you said that some change to the rules made the game ugly, or more beautiful, I suspect that most sports people would know just what you mean.

The domain of practice that requires fitness, functionality, and beauty is design, not art. No one blinks at calling videogames a field of design. I'm a game designer -- objections? No. And of course we accept that design can be studied at art schools, discussed in art journals, and displayed in art museums. So perhaps that's all the reframing we need.

(Art museums love exhibits of chairs. I love 'em too. If I weren't into games, I'd design chairs.)

And so: Design

What nerves get tweaked if we say that games are design rather than art? Three of mine:

  • The origin of sports are few and distant in history. Videogames are made by people striving before our eyes. I want to dignify that struggle as artistic effort. (I note that while basketball and baseball feel like permanent features of life, Catan and Dominion are current. Board games, like videogames, are a live topic. Plus, of course, the best-known ab initio creation of a sport, these past few years, took place in a novel.)

  • Games have text and story. We have a strong bias that text -- the text of fiction and narrative, if not necessarily the text of description or argument -- is art. Design is often for text, but only occasionally includes it. (If a writer illustrates and inscribes her own text, we think of that as art upon art. The magazine layout designer gets no such generosity.)

  • Design has function. Art, in some angle of my terminology, does not. (I think of the song and the painting, which exist to convey an experience and impinge upon no worldly concern. Of course I know this is an idealization and is bunk. The monks would say the same.)

If the upshot of all our argument is that videogames are too functional to be art, and that art is supposed to just "sit there and do nothing", then I am going to laugh and laugh and laugh.

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Life Flashes By

I played Life Flashes By last year, when the first public release appeared. The author had previously demoed the game at the IF gathering at PAX Prime in Seattle, so I'd already seen a "middle" chapter of the work.

I didn't write anything at the time, because I am lazy and then because Emily Short wrote a column that was more perceptive than what I was thinking. However, now it's been another few months; Life Flashes By has circulated around the various gaming communities and been discussed some; it's been featured in the recent IF Demo Fair; and Deirdra Kiai is declaring a full, final, let's get this thing on the road release. (Available as free download or collector's edition.)

"So now what do you think, smart guy?" Hm.

Life Flashes By is a pure-dialogue game which a real-world setting. Or, rather, a real world with a lightly fantastical frame that owes more to magical realism than to genre fantasy. It's a story about a somewhat disgruntled novelist who runs into an unexpected tree in the dark-forest-in-the-middle-of-her-life. She is given (or gives herself) a time-out to reflect on what she's done with her life, and what else she could have done with it. And that's it. It's not a game built around puzzles -- not even abstract conversational puzzles -- much less jumping, shooting, or matching three of anything in particular.

This is a simple experiment by some criteria, and a radical one by others. From a literary point of view, LFB is a story like many others you might read. It has a tangible character and it's well-written. Speaking as an IF person, I can say that LFB fits easily in with textual dialogue games like Galatea and Alabaster.

But if you're coming from the traditional videogame world, you may be shocked, for more than one reason. Since when do games have reams of strong dialogue about three-dimensional people? Living their ordinary lives? But also: where is the game in this game? What does the player have to try to do?

I can breezily take good writing for granted. (Go ahead, mock me.) But I suppose I have some of that latter reaction too. I got into IF when the genre was synonymous with puzzles. My horizons have, I hope, expanded since then; but I still think of games as having an inherent element of challenge, of frustration and achievement. Even if it's only "explore everywhere" or "find every ending". (A good game, or at least a good narrative game, ties the challenge to your immersion in the story or the story world.)

LFB is certainly a story. It's certainly interactive: on the moment-to-moment level of dialogue choices; in the higher-level decisions of how much time to spend in each scene and which features to discuss; and in the chapter-level choices of where in the "world map" to visit.

My problem is discerning the connection between those decisions and the story. The game's web page says:

[Life Flashes By] is a story best told non-linearly, which lends itself uniquely to the interactive nature of games. As a player, you won't just be watching a plot unfold, you'll be shaping and affecting it in a way unique to you alone.

But the non-linearity of the presentation doesn't seem to affect the story that is presented. You, speaking for the protagonist, can select her take on any given scene in her life -- regret or satisfaction, disgust or forgiveness. But I never had the sense that the attitudes I chose were part of her story. The game didn't seem to react to them, outside the context of a single dialogue sequence. The only point at which I felt I had a significant choice was at the end, where a summing-up what-did-you-think option gained some oomph simply from its final placement.

The structure of LFB may be working against me, here. It's seven scenes from the protagonist's life, and seven alternate outcomes from her choices in those scenes. Again, you can experience these in any order, and react as you will to them -- but they are memories, and imply a fixed, immutable life story. Deciding the protagonist's attitude feels like a weak reed, compared to the weight of history.

Of course, as with any game, it's possible that some of the interactivity went over my head in the first play-through. And I have only played through LFB once. (A drawback of the voice-acted approach. To replay, you pretty much have to turn on subtitles and button-mash through the spoken output. I haven't.)

So I've missed any aspect of the story that arises from the tension between different approaches. I'm not sure what to say about this possibility, except that if a game aims for that structure, it must offer some tangible motivation for replay. Visibly missed goals, perhaps, as you make divergent choices. Or directly visible consequences of the choices you did make, implying the possibility of consequences you missed. Having seen all seven primary and alternate scenes of LFB, I feel that I have experienced the whole game.

Please understand -- I recommend Life Flashes By to you. It is a polished work, with clever (consciously cartoon-style) artwork, excellent voice work, and a delightfully understated soundtrack. (I've put "Gloom and Doom and Horrible Torment" into my regular hacking-music lineup; you can think what you want of that.) The author has also extended a foot into alternate-reality-fiction; the story's main characters occasionally pop up on Twitter. (I'm following the irritating fairy foil but not the protagonist herself, and you can think what you like of that, too.)

I may have spent half of this post musing on LFB's possible weaknesses, but that's just the way I write about games. I am interested in the next game -- any next game -- and what it can do differently. Narrative games today seem to be divided into the overproduced genre romps (from the commercial world), the cruftily text-parsered (in my IF corner), and a few highly-pixelated poetic abstractions. Not too many authors sit down to write a straight-up high-quality story, in the interactive mode. For that alone you should pay Life Flashes By your attention.

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The IF Theory Reader

A project born in the shadowy depths of IF history has suddenly breached and flipped its tail gaily in the sunlight.

The IF Theory Reader was conceived back in 2001, by Emily Short and Dennis Jerz. They collected a stack of essays from various people active in IF at the time. But the project fell victim to life-scheduling issues, and it sat on the shelf for (if you can imagine such a span of time) ten whole years.

This past fall, Kevin Jackson-Mead volunteered to take over the project, and Things Began Happening. He dusted off the old essays and began contacting the authors. And now -- to cut a great deal of editing work short -- the IF Theory Reader is available as a free PDF download. (Or, if you are attached to the smell of paper, you can buy a POD volume from lulu.)

So is it worth reading dusty IF history? Well, I haven't read it yet. But I can say that the book really represents a tour through the past ten years of the IF community's thinking. Some of the essays are from 2001; some have been revised for this edition; some are brand-new. Many have been published in other forms, so if you've been devouring our blog posts and essays for the past few years, you will see few surprises. But if your awareness of IF dates from the last century -- or if you've been following us only casually -- I think this book has something to offer.

For the table of contents, read on.

  • Crimes Against Mimesis -- Roger S. G. Sorolla


  • Toward a Theory of Interactive Fiction -- Nick Montfort
  • Characterizing, If Not Defining, Interactive Fiction -- Andrew Plotkin
  • not that you may remember time: Interactive Fiction, Stream-of-Consciousness Writing, and Free Will -- Mark Silcox
  • 2 Brief Dada Angels -- Ryan Stevens, writing as Rybread Celsius
  • Object Relations -- Graham Nelson
  • IF as Argument -- Duncan Stevens
  • The Success of Genre in Interactive Fiction -- Neil Yorke-Smith
  • Parser at the Threshold: Lovecraftian Horror in Interactive Fiction -- Michael Gentry
  • Distinguishing Between Game Design and Analysis: One View -- Gareth Rees
  • Natural Language, Semantic Analysis, and Interactive Fiction -- Graham Nelson
  • Afterword: Five Years Later -- Graham Nelson


  • Challenges of a Broad Geography -- Emily Short
  • Thinking Into the Box: On the Use and Deployment of Puzzles -- Jon Ingold
  • PC Personality and Motivations -- Duncan Stevens
  • Landscape and Character in IF -- Paul O'Brian
  • Hint Development for IF -- Lucian Smith
  • Descriptions Constructed -- Stephen Granade
  • Mapping the Tale: Scene Description in IF -- J. Robinson Wheeler
  • Repetition of Text in Interactive Fiction -- Jason Dyer
  • NPC Dialogue Writing -- Robb Sherwin
  • NPC Conversation Systems -- Emily Short


  • 10 Years of IF: 1994-2004 -- Duncan Stevens
  • The Evolution of Short Works: From Sprawling Cave Crawls to Tiny Experiments -- Stephen Granade
  • History of Italian IF -- Francesco Cordella
  • Racontons une histoire ensemble: History and Characteristics of French IF -- Hugo Labrande
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Desktop Dungeons and tiny UI hangnails

I was bored Saturday night (yes, I'm allowed to be bored) and asked around for game suggestions. Someone mentioned that Desktop Dungeons was out for Mac. I had only the vaguest memory of having heard of Desktop Dungeons, but I gave it a shot.

Desktop Dungeons -- screenshot

The dungeon is a little larger in real life, but I've clipped the shot rather than shrinking it.

Turns out it's a microroguelike. Meaning, it's Nethack, only short. That's nifty. The designers say it's aimed at ten-minute game sessions. It takes me twenty or thirty, because of their other nifty idea: the combat is (almost) completely deterministic. You strike for a fixed amount of damage, the enemy strikes for a fixed amount of damage. You can see all the stats in advance, so you know whether you're going to win. Also, the monsters are static -- they sit still and wait for you to pick fights.

This turns the usual odds arbitrage of roguelikes ("do I want a 5% better chance to hit or a 6% better chance to dodge?") into a series of specific puzzles. (Which I then way overthink, which is why my games run a little long.) Of the N monsters I've run into, which ones can I kill? Will they provide enough XP for me to level? If not, should I explore further? The game's goal is always a specific level-10 monster, so you aim for that.

There's a nice handful of other game mechanics which I won't describe. It winds up as exactly as much roguelike as I want to play, so I've blasted through a bunch of games since the weekend. (One of the game mechanics I won't describe is unlocking new classes and buffing up the dungeons as you win more games.)

Okay, that's the "woo play this!" part of the post. Now the interesting part! The tiny UI mistakes that drive me to insensate, raving mild annoyance.

Desktop Dungeons is not a pretty game. It's got a fixed-size grid of tiny pixel-art tiles. That doesn't annoy me (although I'd hit the "double size" option if there were one). It has a nice model of showing both rollover detail information and status messages in the same pane; status messages are rare enough that this works fine. (Nethack-style "click to continue" messages would slow DD down intolerably.)

No, what gets me are the buttons. When you find a shop, you see this:

Desktop Dungeons -- a shop

Nothing wrong with that, except that when you click "Buy", you see this:

Desktop Dungeons -- bought from a shop

And then you -- augh! Two buttons! Brain freeze!

That's a modal dialog in front, you see; when you hit "OK" they both vanish. But I'm a Mac user. The "OK" button is always in the bottom right corner of a window. So when I see this screen, I automatically reach for the bottom right button -- which is the inactive "Buy" button. Yes, even though I just hit it.

It's a tiny detail. Like a hangnail. I have a hangnail right now and it's irritating.

But wait, it's worse. See the gray "Retire" button? That quits the game. You wouldn't think I'd press it accidentally... but it's in the bottom right corner. See the problem?

When a status message appears, it looks like this:

Desktop Dungeons -- status message

(Patron deities are another one of the mechanics I haven't described.)

As I said, you don't need to click through these messages; you just read them and keep playing. Only there's this button in the bottom right corner. At least twice yesterday I tried to click through a status message, just because the button was there, and accidentally quit.

Mind you, at least twice today I died by attacking a monster that was too strong for me. Sometimes you're just an idiot. But the UI shouldn't tempt me.

Other nitpicks: the spell glyphs. You click on a glyph (the red cross in a circle) and then click the target monster. Well, you wouldn't, because the red cross is "heal self". But pretend I had a fireball glyph next to it. Click glyph, click monster. Problem: there isn't quite enough feedback about what you're going to do. Yes, there's a noise and the cursor changes. But I'd really appreciate some hover text (or text somewhere) indicating what my click is going to do. I've racked up several stupid-deaths by mis-clicking the fireball glyph, so that I whacked the monster instead of fireballing it. Result:

Desktop Dungeons -- I died

Then there's the UI for discarding glyphs. (You get a stat bonus for throwing away spells, which is a nice bit of side strategy.) You're supposed to drag the spell (the red cross) onto the recycle glyph (the red-blue yin-yang thing). Okay, but this is the only dragging in the whole game! The very fact that spells are draggable is a distraction. The tutorial has to scream "DON'T DRAG SPELLS ONTO MONSTERS", which is a big hint that the UI has gone down the wrong path. Why not follow the usual glyph UI: click on the recycle glyph, then click on the target (the cross glyph)? You'd need a way to deselect recycle, but hey, we need that anyway. Nothing more annoying than clicking fireball and then realizing there's no good target.

Now the disclaimers: Desktop Dungeons is offered as an alpha. When I look at the designer's blog, I see lots of discussion about rebalancing, redesigning, and generally fixing things all over the place. For all I know, the problems I've run into are already history in somebody's source tree.

Also, I've played a bunch of DD in the past five days, so take my complaints as the whining of an addict. Also, the Crypt and Library are kicking my ass. Just saying. Grr.

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Puzzle structure in 2015

I recently read Tony Bourdain's Medium Raw, which was a fascinating look into the world of people who are really, really interested in food. I like food. These people think about food more than I do. So much so that I can barely understand their explanations.

At my first meal at Momofuku Ssäm, one particular dish slapped me upside the head [...] It was a riff on a classic French salad of frisée aux lardons: a respectful version of the bistro staple -- smallish, garnished with puffy fried chicharrones of pork skin instead of the usual bacon, and topped with a wonderfully runny, perfectly poached quail egg. Good enough [...] But the salad sat on top of a wildly incongruous stew of spicy, Korean-style tripe -- and it was, well, it was... genius. Here, on the one hand, was everything I usually hate about modern cooking -- and in one bowl, no less. It was "fusion" -- in the sense that it combined a perfectly good European classic with Asian ingredients and preparation. It was post-modern and contained my least favorite ingredient these days: irony. [...] But this was truly audacious. It was fucking delicious. And it had tripe in it.

(--from Medium Raw, Anthony Bourdain, chapter 17)

Mind you, the whole book isn't like that. Bourdain talks about everything from hamburgers, to fatherhood, to foie gras, to the Food Network, to the stupid things he wrote in his first book. But that paragraph in particular grabbed me because I have no idea what he's talking about. I can look up the recipe (frisée lettuce with hot pork, vinaigrette); maybe I've even eaten it somewhere. I've eaten spicy Korean stews. But why is this ironic? Or audacious? What is it reacting against? What are the things it is reacting against reacting against? If I'd been sitting next to Bourdain, eating off his plate, I still wouldn't have a clue.

I recalled this paragraph on Sunday afternoon, sitting in an MIT auditorium, listening to the designers of the 2011 Mystery Hunt talk about their puzzle structures. I knew exactly what they were talking about. I'd just lived through it (or half of it, anyway, since I got two good nights' sleep during the Hunt.) Everybody in the room was smiling and nodding along to the speaker's presentation, and laughing at the jokes on the slides. This was our field. This was our side of the wall. Tony Bourdain would have been completely befuddled, see?

(Mind you, if I'd tried his salad, I'm certain I would have enjoyed the hell out of it. Puzzles have more of an entry barrier. But put that aside.)

I want to talk about how the Mystery Hunt has evolved in the five years I've experienced it. But that wouldn't be enough perspective. Many of my teammates have been doing it for ten years; some longer. Several of them have designed Hunts. Somebody needs to write the Hunt history thesis and it shouldn't be me. But I can start pointing at the questions.

What was new in 2011? What does puzzledom look like when it's playing above itself, reacting to things that the non-puzzlers have never heard of? I'll put down two lines, and then fill in the explanations for those of you who don't know from lardons.

Backsolving is solving.

Metas are a tool.

The earliest Hunts, we are told, were unstructured lists of puzzle questions. Then some genius added the idea of the "meta", or metapuzzle -- a puzzle built using the answers to other puzzles. (I first encounted this concept in The Fool's Errand, in 1988 or so.)

A simple example (not from any Hunt or game in particular): imagine you've solved a group of ten puzzles. The answer to each is a ten-letter word or phrase. In fact, each answer is a ten-letter name, and it's the name of a famous scientist or inventor. ("MARIE CURIE", for example.) You write down the ten names, in order of their famous discoveries (radium, 1898). That gives you a neat ten-by-ten-letter square. Then you read down the diagonal of the square. It spells out a new ten-letter word, which is the answer to the metapuzzle.

(Why the diagonal? It's not an arbitrary gimmick, although it is something of a genre convention. You need to pull an answer out of the letters of ten names. The important insight is that the order of discoveries is important. Given an ordering, you can pull the first letter from the first name, the second letter from the second name, and so on. The diagonal is just a way to visualize this rule.)

(Why not simply use the first letter of every name? Some metapuzzles do work that way. It's a question of puzzle difficulty. No insight is needed to look at the first letters -- that's such a common convention that we do it automatically. With that setup, you don't have to figure out the ordering of the names. You do have to unscramble the letters, but a ten-letter anagram is trivial with the right software. So that would be an easier final stage, which the designer might use if the earlier parts of the puzzle were particularly hard.)

(By the way, this example is kind of weak -- Marie Curie discovered more than one thing, you know! And radium could be said to have been discovered in 1898, when it was identified, or 1910, when it was isolated in pure form. A serious puzzle designer would eliminate these ambiguities. Fortunately, I'm just making stuff up for a blog post.)

But this metapuzzle system leads to an interesting side effect. You can solve a meta without solving all the puzzles that feed into it. If you've solved nine of the round's puzzles, figured out the ordering, and gotten "INS-GHTFUL", you don't need to solve "MARIE CURIE" to guess that last letter. You punch in the meta's answer and move on to the next round.

That leads directly to the question of backsolving. Say you're in this position, with nine puzzles solved. You can easily solve the meta; but you also have a lot of extra information about the earlier puzzle, the one you're missing. Because of the meta structure, you know that it's a ten-letter name, a famous scientist. The fourth letter of the name is "I"; and the scientist worked between, say, 1880 and 1915 (or whatever the years of the third and fifth letters were). With that information (and Wikipedia) you could probably guess "MARIE CURIE". That's backsolving the puzzle -- working from meta-information you know about the answer.

So do you punch that backsolved answer in? In my first hunts, my team preferred not to. It seemed like a form of cheating, and it didn't really get us anything -- not when we already had the meta solved. (The winners aren't the team that solves the most puzzles; they're the first team to solve the last puzzle.)

But this year, the organizers made a couple of subtle changes which flipped this on its head. First, they used a point system in which solving any puzzle got you closer to unlocking new puzzles. (Thus, going back to fill in old gaps was valuable.) And second, they added a simple checkbox to the answer page: "Did you backsolve this puzzle?" Just by recognizing that option, they made it feel more legitimate.

As a result, everybody did a heck of a lot more backsolving this year. And my impression is that this generated more fun for everybody.

After all, any given Hunt puzzle involves looking for patterns, and working both backwards and forwards between the clues and the answers. (If this makes no sense to you, think about crosswords. Of course you work back and forth between the clues and the grid. Looking at the crossing letters in the grid isn't cheating, it's the whole point.)

If metas are part of the solution process, then that back-and-forth information flow becomes multilayered. Any puzzle might require both clues and context to solve. That can only lead to more interesting puzzles.

(Plus, of course, backsolving is solving, and solving is fun. One teammate remarked that the best two moments of the weekend were the Hunt's launch, when the first brand-new puzzles appeared -- and 3 AM Sunday morning, after the successful cracking of a meta pulled the group into an intense burst of fruitful work on its related puzzles.)

Back to this year's metapuzzles. Metas are now a standard Hunt element. Standard enough, in fact, that for several years everyone took them for granted. That's why "metapuzzle" got abbreviated to "meta", right? A round consisted of a bunch of puzzles and a meta. Solve all the metas, you get into the endgame. That's the way my first Hunt worked.

There were always variations in this structure, of course. But the 2011 hunt got a little more crazy than usual. It was divided into five rounds -- five "worlds", as it had a videogame theme. Each round was roughly twenty puzzles, divided into (say) three groups. Each group had a meta. The solutions to the three metas then had to be assembled into a meta-metapuzzle for the round. When you had the five meta-metas, you got to the endgame. (Which was not technically a meta-meta-meta, because you weren't assembling the five meta-metas into a new answer -- you just had to collect them.)

Furthermore, each of the five worlds had a different meta structure. (Spoilers coming for anyone who wants to try the Hunt puzzles...) The first world was an unadorned meta-meta, involving the answers to the three metas. In the second world, each meta answer describes a transformation that has to be applied to the previous meta puzzle name. In the third round, each puzzle has three answers, one for each of the three metas... and so on.

The creators were justifiably smug about their experimentation. In a sense, they wrote five mini-Hunts, each with a creatively different meta structure.

In another sense, I think, they put the knife in "the meta" as a concept. (Although it may be a while before it expires.) The meta-metas are the first hint. Why not go for a meta-meta-meta? Well, you could, but it wouldn't be three times as clever -- it would just be another puzzle relation. These new structures? They're interesting puzzles, which involve the answers to other puzzles. But all the puzzles in a Hunt should be interesting! And they are.

Metas aren't qualitatively different puzzles. They're a tool for hooking puzzles together.

For some reason, the Hunt spent several years going around in this loop where all the metas kind of looked the same. I mean, they were distinct puzzles -- but they all had the same shape, where you looked at an incoming set of puzzle answers and applied brain-sweat. This, as the non-meta puzzles went through cycle after cycle of creative improvisation.

So what will the Hunt look like in 2015?

I'm waving my hands, of course, and I don't particularly expect to be the one writing the 2015 Hunt. (My team consistently does well, but not that well.) But let's say that I'm right.

Designers will let go of the notion that solving has a direction. It won't be puzzles feeding into metas; it'll be puzzles connected to other puzzles. And those puzzles connected to yet others, or maybe back to the first bunch.

I don't mean that all structure will dissolve into an N-simplex of every puzzle using answers from every other puzzle. That wouldn't be constructible. (Although someone's gotta try it.) But the point of puzzle design is insight, and insight about where the answers are coming from -- or going to -- is a valid dimension to play with.

Certainly there will be puzzles which you pick up and solve directly, with no other context. My points are (a) knowing that from the start is less fun than figuring it out; (b) if you are stuck, shouldn't the context -- the related puzzles -- be an avenue of attack? Start wherever you can make an entrée, and work around to the puzzles you're stuck on. The more directions you can approach your stuck spots from, the more fun you'll have.

Maybe a "nexus" puzzle -- one which involves the answers to many other puzzles -- will actually be solvable on its own. (Or partially so.) You'd be expected to then "backsolve" into the other puzzles and make progress on them from there. Or maybe you'd find two puzzles that were unsolvable on their own; you'd have to work them in parallel, through a common relative.

Maybe all puzzles will just get a little bit harder, because back-and-forth is the expected mode of solving. That might be frustrating at times, but then it would be more satisfying at other times. It's hard to deny that Hunts have been getting more complex, though the creators have tried to keep the difficulty balanced. This sort of interweaving is the way I see that evolving.

And, in closing, I'll link to the 2011 Hunt's opening act and closing credits. If this all sounds like tripe, you can still watch those.

Mmm. Spicy Korean tripe.

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How to write a touchscreen adventure game

First-person graphical adventures -- Myst -- have become hugely successful in the past several years. Yes, even as Cyan Worlds and Presto Studios and such dinosaurs have withered in the frost. What are popular today are the tiny, casual, unbeautiful and narratively-barren games we call "room escapes". They're written in Flash, and they pour by the dozens out of our web browsers.

Viridian Room screenshot

(Of course, some are huge, some are hardcore, some are lovely, and some are rich story-worlds -- I don't have to link examples, do I? That's not the point. The escape genre has conventions, and they're not trying to live up to what we thought all graphical adventures would be like from 1994 onward.)

When I got my iPhone, I thought "Room escape games! Perfect! Little puzzle environments to explore while riding the subway to work." (This was when I rode the subway to work.) I looked through the nascent App Store, and found... a couple. There was no easy porting path for existing games, due to the whole Flash situation, and only a couple of developers were writing for iPhone directly.

More room escapes have appeared in the past two years, but it's still not a big corner of the App Store. More important: none of the games, as far as I've researched, have really thought about the iPhone (touchscreen) interface, and what it means for first-person graphical adventures.

The model did not originate with Myst, of course. It's almost inevitable in a modern computer UI: you see on the screen what you would see in the world. Your mouse is your hand, and you click an object to push, pull, move, or take it.

...Except that "the modern computer UI" is the mouse and cursor UI. Myst (and its predecessors and descendants) took full advantage of the cursor to provide a graduated, explorable experience. You look; you see an object; you consider whether it might be manipulable; you move the mouse over it; you see the cursor change to a hand; you consider what clicking might do; you click and find out. It's almost a subliminal process, but it's real.

Hello, the touchscreen -- no mouse, no cursor. You're touching the scene directly. That has to improve immersion... right?

Maybe. It changes the game. Simplifying a UI can improve it, but short-circuiting a puzzle can ruin it. Do you explore the room by tapping every object in sight? That's not exploration, that's a rampage. You've just pushed every button, opened every unlocked door, and picked up every object! -- just to get yourself oriented. You might not have even realized that something is a button (or jewel, or door); it fired "all by itself" when you touched it at random. No moment of realization, no intention of agency. The pacing is all wrong.

Designers have tried to cope with this in several ways. Some games simply don't put much weight on discovery; clicking blindly is the expected path. (Not a popular path, however. Game review sites tend to frown on Flash escapers that omit the changing mouse cursor.)

iPhone Riven screenshot

In the iOS port of Riven, Cyan implemented a "shake to reveal" hint mechanism. Shake the phone, and green circles pop up (briefly) around important hotspots. It's effective, but not very immersive. The green circles come across as graffiti on Riven's classical artwork, and -- worse -- they're not much like exploration. You can't wonder about them or discover them. They're a menu, and you folks know how I dislike menus as an adventure UI.

(Down a side path we find the "hidden object" games. These have been ported to iOS in fair proliferation. Partially because they're a popular genre, of course; but also because the discovery model is simpler. The game has no notion of thinking about what to do; you see a correct object and click it. That fits perfectly on a touchscreen. The hidden-object games that include real adventuring elements -- yes, many do -- get away with a suboptimal tapping interface because that's not the main point of the game.)

Let us back up.

Look around; see; consider; investigate; think about results; try it. What can fill these roles? "Look" and "see" haven't changed: we display a scene. You consider an object. You investigate... surely by tapping it. Tapping is the most basic touchscreen interaction.

Now you know the object is manipulable, but you haven't done anything with it. You've gotten a hint about what might happen, and you're thinking about whether to try it or move on. Finally you try... what?

How about dragging the object? Most real-life interactions (outside of elevators and iPhones!) involve moving things, not just touching them. Myst is full of buttons, but it also includes levers and dials -- things to pull, rotate, slide, and lift.

With this, our interface comes together. Tap is investigate; drag is act. Tap a lever, and it jiggles; it is eager to be pulled. Tap a door, and it will shift slightly on its hinges -- unless you hear the sad "clunk clunk" of a locked door. Tap a key lying on a desk, and it will rock a little. Then you pull the lever, or slide the door open, or pull the key to your inventory bar.

And buttons? Frankly, we'll do without them. This is rough news for the porters of an existing graphical game, but rethinking an interface means rethinking your game design. Change them to toggles or knife switches. The good news is that dials and combination locks work wonderfully; rather than clicking "up" and "down" buttons to set digits, you drag the wheels around or spin them with a flick.

Secret Project KLD lock puzzle

I've built a prototype of this interface. You may recall it as Secret Project KLD. I didn't build a complete game, but I built enough to prove that the UI works. The trick is to make these dragging motions continuous -- or continuous enough, anyway. When you drag a slider back and forth, it should actually follow your finger on the track. When you drag a door open and closed, it should move wiht your touch. Full 3D modelling makes this easy, but might be too heavyweight for a mobile device. I found that six or eight "keyframe" images is enough to make the illusion work. The direct responsivity of touch more than makes up for the jerkiness of the animation.

Navigation is trickier (but then, it always is). To see a close-up view of an object (if it has a close-up) you should simply tap it. Tap is investigate, after all. By extension, tapping on an open doorway should move through it, and tapping on the edge of the screen should turn around. Now tap is somewhat double-purposed (but then, it always is). I think this is acceptable; walking around a room to look at things is okay for an automatic action. It's always reversible (perhaps with some jockeying to turn around and find your way back). You won't accidentally solve a puzzle or mess up your known position, as long as the game has no step-and-die traps (which, of course, it shouldn't).

I have most of the KLD game designed, and I modelled quite a bit of it in Google SketchUp. Why did I put it aside? It turns out that SketchUp is good for modelling, but not great for placing comeras or rendering frames of moving parts. My graphics workflow was slow and painful. Also, the artwork that I did produce was sized for older iPhones; I'd have to rethink the whole plan for iPads and the new double-resolution iPhones. I may get back to the game someday, but my immediate future is pinned to text IF.

So here you go. The correct model for a touchscreen-native adventure game. Somebody run with it.

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What IF is harder and easier than

Aaron Reed's recent book Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7 opens with this quote:

All around him, the Machines' fleet and orbital stations are blasting away at his tree ships, burning the mighty trunks like firewood.
(-- from The Duel That Spanned the Ages by Oliver Ullmann)

Aaron goes on to describe the development work that this scene would require in a triple-A, commercial, graphical game. Concept artists, modellers, texture artists, animators, sound designers, probably a musician, and programmers to pull it all together. You know the drill.

"As IF, all the author had to do was write those twenty-two words," Aaron notes.

This is one of the clear benefits of IF. I can sit down and write a game in a month. (Not a Hadean Lands sized game, no. But Shade, Heliopause, and Delightful Wallpaper were all four-week efforts for me.)

In the game development realm, this is unprecedented freedom. Sure, there are plenty of small-scale graphical games out there; even one-weekend games. But for a complete, detailed, polished game and story experience? IF lets you make 'em in the time that most designers would need for a prototype.

I want to use the phrase "throwaway games", except that's dismissive. (And I admit I'm a perfectionist even on short games.) It's not about throwing them away, but throwing them out there; you can try an idea, develop it, and see how it runs. In a larger game, you can add a scene or scrap one in a few days of effort.

...And with that self-congratulatory mindset, I ran across this post on the writing of books, by novelist Delia Sherman:

Bull on through regardless, throwing words at the wall in the hope that some will stick. One member of my writing group, when writing her first draft, writes scenes that seem to happen in Real Time, in which the characters sit around cooking dinner or mending harness while talking about the weather or the crops or their love lives for PAGES AND PAGES, which is fun for us to read, but not ultimately useful to the plot or the structure of the novel, in the course of which she will write [FLOUNDER], which is obviously exactly what she (and her characters) are doing. She doesn't rewrite them until she's finished the draft, at which point they either disappear or get so completely rewritten that maybe only the setting and one line of dialogue survive from the original. She finds writing them immensely useful, though, however seemingly inefficient, for getting to know characters, for creating an atmosphere or details of her world.
(-- from How to Survive A First Draft, Delia Sherman, Nov 27 2010)

I winced, because I never do anything like this in IF. Write reams of interactive code, to get the feel of a scene, and then throw it away? No. I have to work the whole sequence of game events out in my head, before I can possibly start coding. Not down to the single-action or single-response level -- I'm willing to wing it to that extent -- but nearly all my scenes are first-draft-perfect. Or, they'd better be. Changing them is too much work!

This is one of my big stumbling stones in becoming a better writer, obviously. I don't write nearly enough. And yet, it's the same pace and schedule which (I hope) makes me a good game designer; I can do so much, compared to the typical game creation process!

So there we are, and I don't have a moral for the post. Or maybe I do, and it's about the underlying level of craft in the book and videogame worlds. The broadest stereotypes of the fields are that books can be crap, but games are usually crap. You don't have to tell me about the exceptions. I'm just pointing at the sheer amount of work that it takes to get an interactive scene out, as compared to a written scene. How will I ever get enough practice?

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Anna Anthropy on good level design

Love this lecture from Anna Anthropy on good platformer level design, using a thin but rich slice of "Super Mario Land" (Satoru Okada, Game Boy, 1989) as an anatomical model.

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Homebrew tabletop mashups

I have many clever and creative friends who like games. One or another of them will regularly host game-playing gatherings at their homes, where we sink a few hours or more into various tabletop contests. But sometimes, some of these clever and creative people will find themselves a little tired of the well-worn titles, and that's when the combinatory experimentation starts.

quiddler_texas_holdem.jpgI took this photo last weekend, during one such event. The card-based word game Quiddler (published by Set Enterprises) is an old favorite of many-perhaps-most of my gamer friends. My pal Marc, one of the weekend-long game-gathering's hosts, led a groggy Sunday-morning group in inventing the mashup of Quiddler and Texas Hold Em depicted here. Players each held two of Quiddler's letter-cards, and as community cards appeared according to the standard flop-turn-river pattern, players bet on wether they held the highest-scoring Quiddler hand. This photo shows the final round's winning hand in the lower left; it allowed Marc to spell ZITHERS.

One especially memorable mashup I enjoyed several years ago, via the same group of friends, was "Apples to Ideas", a collision of the increasingly well-known party game Apples to Apples (Out of the Box Publishing) with the rather more obscure party game The Big Idea (Cheapass Games). It essentially involved pitching pairs of the green and red apple cards instead of using the standard Big Idea cards, and otherwise playing according to the The Big Idea's rules, which involves rapid-fire pitching of cockamamie startup-company ideas based on the cards you play. We found that this not only led to a much larger pool of cards, but players had to get more creative coming up with (at least vaguely) legitimate-sounding business models based on cards not tuned for this purpose. During this one game, I scored big by playing the card pair [Industrious] [Industrial Revolution], selling it with the slogan The socioeconomic paradigm shift so nice, we named it twice!™

Have you seen, pondered, or even invented and playtested any game-mashup ideas, yourself?

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Games that don't exist

Greetings, devoted bloggees. I am Andrew Plotkin -- or, as some of you know me, the Internet's Zarf. You have no doubt seen me on the Gameshelf, abetting werewolves and villagers in their mutual slaughter. I also write text adventures, review games, and generally mess around with the notion of gaming. And I am delighted to join the Gameshelf Blog.

For my first post, two variations on the theme of "games that don't exist"...

Invisible Games is an occasionally-updated collection of... of... you know Italo Calvino? He wrote Invisible Cities, a collection of brief and wonderful accounts of cities. Magical, impossible cities -- cities that do not exist, but ought to.

Fantasy author Catherynne Valente has created a few such cities herself. Thus her Invisible Games: the games that might have been. A story here, a photograph there -- redacted, uncontexted, obscurely indexed.

In 1971 a small advertisement appeared in the back pages of Scientific American. It read, simply:

Never Be Alone Again.

It has been estimated that some thirty-five people responded to the ad, and another seventeen the following year. However, it cannot be ascertained at this point whether these fifty-two participants comprised the entirety of mail-in replies or merely selected out of a larger pool. In either case, each of the fifty-two respondents received a package approximately six weeks after enclosing twelve dollars in an envelope and sending it to a P.O Box in St. Paul Minnesota. The package contained a simple lightboard, various cables, a 103A modem, and a black button that depressed with a satisfying click.

(From The Loneliness Engine.)

Caverns, in contrast, is the story of a game that was never invented. As a child, David Whiteland played a game of dungeon exploration, assembled out of hand-drawn bits of cardboard.

Although I was told at the time that what I was seeing was a copy of a real, commercially-available game, it was over a quarter of a century later that I finally saw the original on which it had been based. By which time I had played it for years, grown up, and made several versions for friends' children.

The "original" that Whiteland eventually discovered was The Sorcerer's Cave, by Peter Donnelly. But Caverns is not The Sorcerer's Cave. Donnelly's game was a solitaire adventure; Caverns has players competing to finish quests (a mechanic taken from a different Donnelly game). More interestingly, Caverns gives an eliminated player the option to keep his hand in, by controlling monsters for the rest of the game. And Whiteland describes the fine game-balance that he remembers from his childhood Caverns set.

Where did these differences come from? New rules are big changes. Game balance comes from months of variation and testing. Someone invented each element of Caverns -- presumably a child, playing the eternal metagame of "Let's try it this way!" But this was no game-design studio; it was a kid's basement. Quite possibly the players didn't think of their work as game design, or testing. They were playing their favorite game. And what came out the other end was a coherent game, recalled by an adult who went on to make sets for more kids.

Whiteland does not include the rules of Caverns on his site. He merely describes them. If you play the game, you will invent it too.

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