I’ve been trying to write this for the past couple of days in the wake of the end of IntroComp and the great feedback I received from it. I wanted to talk a little bit about the design decisions I made in The Cuckold’s Egg – what I was trying to do, what succeeded, and more importantly, what failed. I also wanted to start a conversation about some of the issues the game raised for me in terms of basic IF design, on player knowledge (versus PC knowledge) and meaningful player choice.
I approached The Cuckold’s Egg intending to learn from what I saw as mistakes I’d made in the past, while trying to stick to what I thought of as my strengths. In hindsight, for example, Slouching is very much guilty of infodump – between the phonograph, the letters, the files, what the user actually spends a lot of time doing is reading, simply understanding the situation. Then they form a plan of attack, attempt to execute it, and the game (hopefully) supports them to that end.
I wanted to see if it was possible to have the same sort of decision-based gameplay without the infodump. I succeeded less than I’d hoped – given the fact that most of the reviews I’ve seen missed the Big Idea behind the setting (honestly - it was pretty well hidden). I’m actually going to try starting another thread on the question of how better to communicate that point.
In addition, I believe one of the things I’ve learned something about myself as an IF designer is I simply think I don’t have a “big” game in me. Between the combinatorial complexity and the sheer amount of “stuff” required to fill out large areas with interesting content, the thought of making a game larger than something comparable to Slouching seems overwhelming.
There was also the idea that I wanted to give the user a great deal of latitude on how to deal with the issues that face them, something akin to Floatpoint or Slouching, and a larger game feels anathama to that. I couldn’t imagine what a Floatpoint-style game (the user is confronted with a problem with a wide variety of solutions/choices/endings) the size of say, Curses would look like.
But perhaps it would be possible to construct a larger narrative out of what is basically a bunch of smaller games?
Hence the ‘day’ mechanic I attempted in Cuckold’s, similar to the way time works in Christminster. Each chapter/day has at least one major plot-point that has to be dealt with before “time passes”. Those plot points have different solutions that feed into the days that follow.
Being more ambitious, I thought, what if the previous choices affected the future choices you had to make? What if there were a Plot Manager/Game Master algorithm that ran every “night” and set up the next situation? Something akin (but more complex than) Wing Commander - where the immediate mission before the user can be solved in different ways, leading to different future scenarios?
That was the basic intention, in any case. But due to my choice of tools and time constraints the result turned out quite differently. I barely ended up with one day, in which player choices really didn’t matter all that much.
Part of the reason I wanted to do a prototype - and used IntroComp as an impetus to get one out - was that I wasn’t sure what the moment to moment gameplay would look like. I knew that conversation would be important and tried looking at the various libraries and implementations for such that are available in Inform.
SHOW/ASK/TELL (as I’d used previously) just really didn’t seem up to the task. Again, trying to learn from past mistakes, the characters in Tapestry and Slouching are basically the equivalent of information-dispensing objects, like books. You can ask them about a variety of topics and generally get the same response again and again, with a few modifications.
I needed characters that reacted. And possibly had their own agendas in conversation. When I went through the documentation on Threaded Conversation, it seemed exactly the sort of thing I was looking for.
While I still think that TC can support that kind of gameplay, the learning curve almost killed me. I still can’t claim facility with the library – the end result in the IntroComp entry has definite bugs where conversation topics vanish entirely and I’m not sure why. Also, as Ms. Short points out in the documentation, it requires a tremendous amount of material to not have NPCs that feel slight. They need to respond to a huge number of topics in a huge number of ways to seem even vaguely realistic.
Worse, the library seems intent to generalize quips - you have to go out of your way to link quips with certain characters, which seems completely backwards to me. I can’t imagine having a “generic” response from a character - because even if they were all trying to communicate the same basic information, the tone would be so different as to feel false if the same text were printed in each case.
Combining TC’s basic functionality with ‘facts’ that NPCs and the user can learn, along with emotions for the NPCs gives a huge amount of variability in responses, all of which have to be written. I tried experimenting a little bit with the first character the player interacts with - the hostler. But watching people play the game brought up all kinds of questions about how to handle this kind of gameplay, and whether putting this kind of effort into basic NPC interaction is, ultimately, worth it.
The first time you encounter the hostler, she takes control of the conversation – immediately asking you where you’re from. This single scene brought up all of the issues I’ve mentioned above: what the player knows versus the PC, meaningful choices that have consequences, complicated NPCs with agendas, etc.
Who you are (an agent of the Apostasy) and why you’re there (to ‘quietly’ investigate a murder) are things players completely missed before they got to this scene. My intention to remove the infodump might have removed too much context in this case.
Obviously, the opening scene could be changed to try preventing this – make more of the letter perhaps? – but the problem remains that players can get to this scene without knowing exactly what’s going on. People didn’t know what choices they were making, or the consequences of them. They didn’t know if they were lying or telling the truth, or how the hostler would react, or what the consequences of her reaction would be.
The first choice you’re given is in response to the question “Where did you come from?”
You can “say only that you came from the valley” - which is what is says on the tin. You literally just came from the valley and that’s all you’re saying; “say you travelled from the capital” - not only being honest, but earnest; “ask about using the stables” - completely side-stepping the question.
I wasn’t sure how to handle this better. Would it have been more useful to use Bioware-style tagging on the responses, such that it would read “say only that you came from the valley (lie/prevaricate)”.
Worse, it was completely unclear what your actions would result in. In mechanical terms, telling the truth makes her afraid, lying to her makes her suspicious, and side-stepping makes her out-and-out angry. The later is the only one with real mechanical weight – she’ll clam up when you start asking her questions about the town and the elder. The problem there is, how does the player know you could have handled things differently?
Once the hostler’s clammed up, the only way to get real information out of her is to identify yourself as an agent of the Apostasy, which is the big choice in the first day - how you handle coming into town. Do you find your way in and a place to sleep without identifying yourself?
How many players saw that as an option? Even saw that as the central choice? People found the ‘choice’ in Slouching in various ways, but mostly it seems the general path was just reaching an ending and not realizing they’d made a choice until after the fact. I was hoping for something more clear than that with TCE.
Once you’re sleeping and talking to Silenus, he too takes control of the conversation, noting what you’ve done. There’s something like four different openings to that conversation, each of which has at least two possible responses, with further responses from Silenus. All of which was a lot of work.
Which leads to the question – was it worth it? Was the work put into Silenus and the hostler worth it in the end? Did people notice that their choices mattered, even subtly? And how would players feel if those choices had consequences further along? Surprised? Cheated? Frustrated?
Watching the ClubFloyd walkthrough, I wondered if a hybrid system might not ultimately be better for all involved - something between the simple ASK/TELL functionality I’ve used previously and the more complex Threaded Conversation implementation. Should the basic default be ask/tell and then only when conversation is clearly important - and consequential - we switch over to TC? Something like the ‘converse’ / ‘interrogate’ modes in the original Gabriel Knight?
Basically, I’d like to start a discussion about these and similar issues, trying to use the intro as a springboard. What were people’s experiences? Did the choices feel meaningful? Did people even notice there were choices being made? I feel like I need to answer questions like these before rewriting/editing the opening and deciding what the rest of the game will look like.