IF and Choice (or, another goddamn CYOA thread)

On the XYZZY thread S. John wrote:



[UPDATE: rant-tagged because S. John objects to the quote being taken from the context of his original post, which can be followed by clicking the above link.]

I submit that this abstracts away too much about real design. Real game design isn’t exclusively about the choice points that you can use to influence the ultimate outcome; it’s also about interaction with the game. That’s why Chutes & Ladders, Candyland, and clock solitaire work as games even though they don’t contain any choice points; the player is interacting with the game. No one would play clock solitaire if they didn’t get to move the cards around themselves.

So in a railroaded IF like Rameses, putzing around with the environment isn’t an illusion of choice. It’s a form of interactivity. I’ve been playing Nightsky a lot, and there are a fair number of places where you bump into something that can’t possibly impede your progress, but that jostles and makes a sound as you roll over it. Qua platforming challenge the game would be exactly the same if those were static platforms; qua interactive experience it would be much poorer. The free-form putzing around with the environment you often get in parser IF is like that. (Though the parser/CYOA distinction can blur a bit even here, as Undum often lets you explore the environment in ways that don’t affect the choice structure.)

So, my thesis: when you’re thinking about what makes a game what it is, don’t necessarily think about the choices it gives you. Think about the ways you interact with it. I don’t even want to make this a point about CYOA and parsers; I think that thinking about interaction is more important than anything we can get from the CYOA/IF distinction.

I guess that will actually boil down to positive reinforcement – which of course you can’t get from a game without interacting with it somehow.

If you wrench it out of context and pretend its about anything other than XYZZY judging standards, then you’d be right. Plus wrong (to do so). If you disagree with my in-context stance (which is entirely and only about whether parser and non-parser games may be fairly and equally judged against one another, at least to the same extent that two very different parser works can) there’s already a thread for it.

S. John, I like you and have no beef with you, but since you decided to be hostile about it the apology you get is of the not very apologetic variety: I’m sorry that I took your statement as a general statement about game design rather than a specific statement about awards voting.

Um, I’m not the one who decided to be hostile, here. I think I’ve exercised extraordinary restraint in responding to your baseless straw-man attack against me.

I suppose anyone who wants to can judge that for themselves. I certainly did not intend any sort of attack against you.

Well, I can’t imagine where you’d find hostility in my very measured, multiply-drafted-to-be-as-polite-as-humanly-possible-under-the-circumstances response to the thing which you didn’t intend to be an attack.

If you don’t intend hostility to me, and I don’t intend hostility to you, then I am happy, and I hope you too are happy. Since I don’t want to respond to non-hostility with hostility, I can edit out the parts of my second post that presumed hostility if you like.

I was when I woke up. It had been an excellent weekend :frowning:

Just let it ride.

Not to get involved with the quarrel, but Matt W’s point, that there’s a difference between interactivity and choice, is an interesting one. Calls to mind the toy v. game dichotomy. And really it could be applied to CYOA just as well to parsered IF.


This is an excellent point. There’s a point-and-click game called Balloon Diaspora which has some pretty easy puzzles, but in which most of the interaction is multiple-choice conversations that don’t (I’m pretty sure) have any effect on the next choices you can make. They just allow you to express your interpretation of the story. So that could be one model for CYOA that emphasizes interactivity over choice, or at least over branching.

I side with Ross here. I find much cyoa simplistic, and much parser opaque, so many of my favorite games are in that gray area in-between. Emily Short’s Best Of Three, for example.

I would say that’s interactive only in the same sense as a book, where the content changes when you turn the page. You can skip passages or even read them out of order, if you want; and you could do the same thing with a transcript.

Even if you always read a book linearly from beginning to end, giving the player in a game like Rameses the option to get some information about certain things in the environment, or not, is analogous to optional footnotes/endnotes in a traditional written work. You can read them, or not, which changes exactly what you get out of the text.

My point is I think what you’re mostly talking about as a good thing in this thread is what I would call exploration. That can be fun; I’ve had a lot of fun with it in various games, media, and other settings over the years; but I would also say that the depth and breadth of exploration possible in a given work is completely orthogonal to the depth and breadth of interaction possible with it. As I understand it, interaction requires meaningful, change-effecting decisions; as such, in something like Rameses, the player may interact with the parser, but all their attempted actions are essentially blocked at that layer. Nothing they do can make any meaningful change to the world state or affect the course of any given playthrough beyond what descriptions get printed and slight textual variations in, for example, dialogue.

I certainly agree with you that exploration can be an important component of game design, but I wonder what exactly your goal is with this thread. Do you really think exploration as part of game design has been neglected lately?

This is a pretty widely held viewpoint, I think, although I find it a little strange - as it seems to suggest that you can only tell if something’s interactive by playing it at least twice.

It would be better to say the game should feel like it contains meaningful player agency. Whether it actually does or not is kinda unimportant, IMO.


My own stance is that no single-player computer-game is meaningfully “interactive,” period. Only the illusion of interactivity is possible (presently) in a single-player computer game. Solitaire is solitaire; there is no “interaction,” only programmed reaction.


What about playing with blocks by yourself? This isn’t a sarcastic question at all; a lot of the things I’m interested are the sort of things you do when you play with blocks. (And I’ve sometimes stopped when I was playing World of Goo and thought, “Why am I not playing with a nice set of blocks instead?”) I don’t really care whether we call this “interactivity,” but it’s part of what I’m interested in.

It’s fun and I like it. :slight_smile:

Hm. I guess my favorite things are:

(A) Testing the limits of the blocks. Can I build an arch without any made-to-make-arches pieces?
(B) Seeing how high they can go before falling over. Always loved that.
(C) Making roads out of them. Not sure why. I just like roads.
(D) Making oddball giant domino-fall things with blocks much larger than dominoes.
(E) Attacking structures with dinosaur toys and making “rar” noises.

Sure, it’s play, after all. For my own part, though, I find it necessary (for quality work, anyway) to have a clear distinction in mind between play, gameplay, interactivity, choice, and all the other different things that bubble up in these threads, because their differences (however we choose to arbitrarily chunk them for conversation’s sake) are important to design.

But in parser IF, the player is contributing to a constructed narrative, even if there are no choices that affect anything other than the order of the segments of that narrative. The player supplies the direction of the narrative even if he or she can’t influence the story. (I think I got this from my reading of Twisty Little Passages last year.)

Why is that? I believe that reaction from one agent to another’s action is an utterly necessary component of interaction. What makes a sufficiently complex computerized system different from a human brain, if they both make decisions from the same set of possible actions? My mind only exists as reactions programmed by biology and my past experiences; looking only at the actions taken in a given system, a computer program with some kind of learning algorithm would be no different.

I’m not much of a fan of providing the illusion of agency; I’ve always put a much higher weight on interesting replayability, even outside the realm of games (EG, movies). Games that pretend to allow meaningful decisions, but actually don’t, feel flat and empty as soon as I figure it out.

If the order of those passages doesn’t affect the content of the passages, then no, I wouldn’t really consider that influencing the direction of the narrative in any useful sense. Not any more than taking a pair of scissors to a novel, at any rate.

Nothing, and once we develop genuine AI, single-player computer games will vanish (except as a quaint nostalgic form?), because then* there will be at least two players: the human, and the AI, interacting. Until then, we have only the artful illusion of that.**

I agree, but “illusion of choice” and “illusion of interactivity” are two separate things (see prior posts). A single-player computer game can offer genuine choices, and when it offers fake choices, that’s lame (and typically transparent). But with interactivity, an illusion is all that’s available, so the art of that illusion is important to most designs.

Entirely agreed.

  • Assuming our new AI Masters wish to play games with us at all, of course, and don’t simply ignore us, enslave us, kill us, or leave us behind as they go off to colonize a new and gleaming Robot Planet.
    ** Which is not to say that “interaction,” in the blandest sense, requires human level AI … you can interact with your dog, after all, or a pet turtle. But your dog and turtle (even if they team up) can’t run a decent Call of Cthulhu campaign, and so, for game-design-discussion purposes, it’s near-human or it’s near-nuthin’.