Most Compelling MacGuffins

What are the most compelling MacGuffins you’ve ever seen at the outset of IF games. Which lead-ins to the story or adventure were so intriguing, that the minute you started up the game and read the opening, you just absolutely knew you would have to play it through? i.e. the Biggest Hooks Ever.

It’s hard for me to think of any, actually, that were really that big, as ‘hitting the ground running’ does not seem to be a mark that IF authors hit very often. Sure, they have opening goals, especially in modern works; it’s an important, generally acknowledged design philosophy. But which were so intriguing that they were fully Hitchcock-worthy from the opening ‘shot’? (Although not necessarily suspense-thrillers like Hitchcock made – I am not looking to confine it to any particular genre.)

Planetfall’s opening was good – a spaceship was actually gonna crash immediately; that kind of makes it hard to look away. If you managed to get through the included short story, starting to play A Mind Forever Voyaging was just fantastically intriguing, too, although it didn’t really last because the game was extremely undirected. Hmmm… Delusions?

Oh… and why was it so intriguing, that would be good to know, too.

The Act of Misdirection. Leaves you in suspense as to what is going on while giving you a lot of stuff to do, and the player’s suspense mirrors the suspense of

the audience

while leaving it ambiguous as to whether it mirrors that of the PC.

Very interesting, Matt. I had to think about that a bit to get it straight in my head. Sounds pretty cool!

Oh one more from the old school… Hitchhiker’s Guide, but of course that opening was ripped straight from the novel/radioplay.

One might think here to suggest something like Violet, because you get hit with an urgent central question right away, but it’s not really intriguing. I don’t really care about some character writing a paper. I only care about it because the author told me my character is supposed to care, and so in order to solve the game, this is what I must want to do. Total panic for the protagonist, but completely bloodless for the player. I know it’s a very well-respected game, but I don’t think it is really a good example of the most effective way to start a game. It’s just not a great hook from a reader’s perspective, although it absolutely fulfills its function of keeping the player from starting at loose ends. Let’s say it’s halfway there. But thinking about Violet is really what started me thinking on this path. There are quite a few modern games like Violet: well-clued openings with clear goals, but relatively bloodless from the player’s perspective. This is suboptimal.

Who has gone further? (I definitely haven’t – this is one of the things I’m trying to fix.)

Violet is definitely a case of YMMV. I absolutely know what it’s like and care that the PC has to write his dissertation, except that it’s so much something that could have been ripped from my life that it’s basically a Your Apartment game for me. (I have to confess I haven’t actually played Violet past the opening – when Violet told me that I shouldn’t get coffee it was so counterintuitive I didn’t know what to do next. And I, personally, don’t drink coffee.)

Me neither. I have been in that position too, but in my case I just decided that although I cared, I didn’t care enough to meet deadlines, and dropped out. Didn’t finish my thesis. And yet I felt no emotion whatsoever when playing Violet, maybe because that part of my psyche that used to aspire to meet deadlines in order to impress people is just dead.

Not really looking for just an emotion though, because you can feel an emotion without intrigue. My gut tells me that an opening can and should do more than even both evoking an emotion and setting a goal.

OK, I have my solution on how to up the ante at the start. Not going to tip it though. (This is not for my bigger WIP it’s for something short I’ve been toying with a little each day since the ‘Non-Competition Games’ thread.) My new opening is cool enough and dovetails with the overall theme so that for better or worse, I want to see how it plays out, so close enough for jazz I guess. 8)

Still, I’d love to expose myself to more examples of the sharpest openings possible, if anyone’s got. Can’t hurt!

Obviously, whether a game or any work of art succeeds in its artistic intent is completely up to the audience. I never wrote one of those post-comp postmortems for Violet, and one of the things that has been fun about having written it is seeing the different ways that people different react to the relationship that the game is about. But, anyway, if anybody is interested in what I was trying to set up in terms of the game having stakes, it was like this:

[spoiler]Violet loves the protagonist. Violet has aspirations in life, which do not involve staying in Madison, and the only reason she is still there is to be with the protagonist, who is supposedly “finishing up” his (or, optionally, her) Ph.D. So, all he needs to do is go up to the office and keep writing, right? Yet, the months keep passing, and he doesn’t seem any closer to finishing. Violet does not know what to do. More months pass. Violet is desperate. She loves him, but this dissertation is ruining their relationship and squandering their lives. Then she finds out the guy has been lying to her and hasn’t manage to write anything at all in a long time. That’s the last straw: she decides she needs to do something drastic, maybe to save the both of them, and if not at least to save herself.

The protagonist loves Violet. The protagonist sure as hell wants to be done with his dissertation–by this point he regrets having gone to graduate school in the first place–yet he also feels he’s been in graduate school so long that he quitting would basically mean that he’d wasted most of his twenties. Especially since all he needs to do is just sit and write. And, yet, he cannot make himself do this. He goes up to the office every day and does everything except write. He finds himself fibbing to the woman he loves about it, hates himself for this, promises to himself he will make up for it by getting his dissertation on track. And yet he still doesn’t do it. Finally she finds out and gives him an ultimatum. That day, if he is going to be with the woman he loves and also not feel like a complete fraud and failure, he needs to prove to himself that, when everything in his life is on the line, he can get something written. And yet.

(Incidentally, I also had a game-mechanic goal with Violet: I like when games have puzzles that are thematically related. What I tried to do with the core puzzles in Violet is write a game that had both thematically-related puzzles and thematically-related solutions. No claims about my success or failure at that, but that was the intent.)[/spoiler]

Again, whether or not it works is up to you. But that’s what I was trying for in terms of the game having stakes.

I pretty much got all of that from the opening of the game. At least, from the opening of the game and my own experience (maybe because I did care enough to grind my way through the solution, and also, was at times afraid that I had wasted, er, all of my twenties and some of the next decade).

So, um, opening hooks! I just thought of “you need to pee” from a couple of different games actually, but in both of them I stopped once I had succeeded. (In one, this was the whole game.) Spider and Web would have to be up there for best opening hook for me.

One can imagine an interesting historical IF game in which the player is Tycho Brahe at a dinner party and OMG I HAVE TO PEE.

Wow, thanks a lot Jeremy for laying out your design goals like this. It is pretty interesting. Like Matt I pretty much picked up on the first two paragraphs worth of info, having been there myself (I wasn’t a PhD candidate though and it was only a yearlong thesis, not several years) and felt all of those emotions at the time – and yeah, I lied plenty, too. I guess I just don’t feel those emotions anymore maybe because when you take the other path and don’t finish, you tend to shut them off as not having served you well. (It’s also been almost two decades.) Emotions are an extraordinarily slippery thing to get ahold of. Maybe that’s why emotional identification is a bit unreliable as an opening gambit. It needs be built not hooked.

As for your design goals, I think you accomplished them amazingly well. Violet is a great game that I solved cooperatively with someone and we both enjoyed it very much. The puzzles were logical, well-contextualised, and implemented with great finesse. My quibbles with the opening are just that: my own quibbles with the opening, problems of a lack of unknowns, too little intrigue, that are shared by almost every other IF game in existence. It would definitely not be fair to judge Violet comparatively as a game on this account; that’s not what I was trying to do.

I’m trying to recall now if I was really wondering anything in Spider & Web in the opening scene besides, ‘How do I get out of this opening scene.’ Once you do get past the opening scene, I absolutely agree with you, but I always felt the opening scene was a little bit deceptively undirected, although I should really just open the game up and check it out again.

Unrelatedly, here’s a couple of examples that might help make clear what I was trying to reach for with ‘better player intrigue’.

Example #1: Big character hook with no intrigue for the player. “John knows that if he doesn’t finish dumping this body on time, the boss will fire him, his wife will leave him, and he’ll probably lose the house and the car. And then he’ll get whacked.” There are no unknowns here for the reader to wonder about, and it’s too early for me to care what happens to John, so it is only really a ‘hook’ for the character, not the reader.

Example #2: Big hook for the player with no character intrigue at all. “John knows exactly what he’s going to do and how he’s going to do it. He’s done this a thousand times. He’s never gotten it wrong once, except for that one time, at Parry Sound. They were cleaning up the blood for weeks. Adjusting his tie like a professional, he walks into the large white room.”

Even though I know absolutely everything about what’s at stake in #1 and it is huge, I’m not interested and wouldn’t care if the game disappeared immediately at that early stage. On the other hand even though I know absolutely nothing about what’s at stake in #2, or even anything about the story at all, or even what I’m supposed to do, it would be really, really difficult to put that game down until I had got at least a few basic questions answered.

I hope that makes clear why I feel that setting a clear goal for the character and creating intrigue for the reader are fairly distinct and why I think I need to think about and accomplish them separately.


P.S. Spider & Web is amazing with the unanswered questions throughout its duration, I just don’t recall offhand how much strong unanswered questions impact the opening scene.

The first thing that comes to my mind is Fail-Safe. It dumped me right in the middle of the action, and I couldn’t just walk away from the game because someone else was depending on me for help. :slight_smile:

Walker and Silhouette is another one that hooked me right from the start, mainly because I wanted to know what exactly Walker intended to do.

All Things Devours also pulled me in, combining the need to act quickly with uncertainty about what was going on.

And Six hooked me right away, but that was mainly because of its competence and obvious good humor, so probably not exactly what you’re looking for. :wink:

Thanks for the tips, DJ! I have played most of these except for Fail-Safe, which has been recommended to me more than once now. Moving it up another notch on the to-play list. I will definitely try it.

All Things Devours is an interesting example of what I was just talking about, above. Athough I’ve solved it, I didn’t recall quite how it began, so I reloaded it in my browser, and it all came back to me as to why this game failed to really interest me. The first line of the transcript is fine. It’s mysterious. It raises questions.

You're in. The following paragraph then proceeds to throw that out the window and immediately answers every single question raised by ‘You’re in’, and then some, leaving me nothing more to wonder about except how to solve the puzzle. Here it is…

The plan now is simple: go to your lab, plant the bomb, and run. The prototype will be destroyed. The military will have no way to continue the experiment. No-one will die. The guard is out securing the grounds. The building is empty. You have six minutes.

Now, I enjoy puzzles, and I prefer my IF with puzzles to without. But after reading that paragraph, I am no longer really motivated at all to solve this puzzle, because I already know (at least I think I know, which is just as bad) absolutely everything that’s going to happen when I get to the end. The game just told me. (Possibly one question might have remained as to the nature of the ‘prototype’ but that was easy to figure out anyway, because it is directly related to the game’s genre, and genre information about a game is pretty hard to conceal from potential players. Most people don’t even consider it a spoiler.)

So, while it’s great for orienting the player, this is not a particularly wise thing to do, narratively! I don’t have any general need to prove to myself that I can solve any particular puzzle. I only really feel compelled to do so, in order to reveal important story. If a game leads me to believe that it has already given me all of the important story up front, and there is little left to wonder at but whether I will win or lose, then it has effectively destroyed a lot of my motivation even to play. In fact, the only reason I even bothered to solve ATD is that I was playing ‘cooperatively’ with a friend, but we get a little competitive sometimes – I couldn’t very well just let him go ahead and solve it first, could I, just because the story lost my interest in the second paragraph. And the puzzle was great, enjoyable, and well implemented, but it didn’t make any difference to my interest in the story, because the damage to my suspense level was already irrevocably done.

So to sum up, it’s probably not the best idea to rely on people’s desire to solve puzzles for their own sake, to pull things forward narratively, because not everybody has that desire, and in any case it makes for an unintriguing actual story. Of course, YMMV as always.

Sorry for posting twice in a row w/o waiting for feedback, but I figured as long as I am now quoting actual openings I might as well get unlazy and go ahead and explicitly replay the opening to Spider and Web. Here it is…

[code]On the whole, it was worth the trip. The plains really were broad and grain-gold, if scarred with fences and agricultural crawlers. The mountains were overwhelming. And however much of the capital city is crusted with squat brick and faceless concrete hulks, there are still flashes of its historic charm. You’ve seen spires above the streets – tiny green parks below tenements – hidden jewels of fountains beyond walls. Any bland alley can conceal balconies wrought into iron gardens, fiery mosaics, a tree or bed of flowers nurtured by who knows who.

This alley, however, is a total washout. It ends in flat bare dirty brick, and you’ve found nothing but a door which lacks even the courtesy of a handle. Maybe you should call it a day.[/code]
After reading this, I’d be wondering… how to open the door. That’s pretty much it. I’m not even wondering what’s beyond the door, because I’ve been given no reason to believe, not even a hint, that there is anything unusual beyond this door. For all I know, it could be somebody’s dirty ‘My Apartment’. (I know it probably isn’t because of who the author is, but that’s an extrinsic factor.)

So there are no intriguing narrative questions there. Just how to solve a puzzle. It’s not a very compelling opening, in my book.

Of course, immediately after you open the door, the game starts to absolutely rock and becomes impossible to put down. The sharp opening was just delayed by a scene, and I’m not saying that was necessarily the wrong decision for this particular game; I’m just saying that there is an initial cost to this approach, in that the player is expected to read an opening containing no narratively interesting things, and still be intrigued enough by the puzzle alone to type that first command, instead of just closing the window and playing something else. And that’s a risk that I — an unknown author targeting newbies — just don’t want to take.

EDIT CORRECTION: I was wrong about not getting the sharp opening (the first interrogation scene) until after you open the door. You also get it if you give up and try to leave the alleyway, so there is a safety net there, but it still depends on the player taking an initial leap of faith that this will be interesting.

Oh, I was referring to the sharp opening that comes after you think “What is going on here?” and try to do something obvious. (I think maybe I did try “south” first.) If we’re referring specifically to the stuff that comes before you type the first command, which is not unreasonable, then I’d have to rethink all my answers, because they were based on my memories of the beginnings of games, which don’t separate out the opening text from what happens after you type a command or two.

I agree it’s good to make the player want to know what happens next. I don’t agree that that always has to be done by withholding key information. Indeed, I have kind of an allergic reaction to underspecified openings or ones that don’t give clear motivations or goals to the main character, or in which I feel like the author is just keeping stuff back in order to screw with me. I’d infinitely rather be told “you need to defuse this bomb” than “there’s a really important task you need to perform [but I’m going to be coy about what it is].”

Taco Fiction does a charming variation of this by telling you exactly what you-the-protagonist intend to do but making it pretty clear to you-the-player that things aren’t going to go down smoothly, and that seemed fair enough.

Anyway, this is all personal taste, yes, but the point is, I’m not sure these conclusions you’re drawing are universally applicable.

Lurking Horror starts off with a nice, clear goal, even if gave up on it and went campus-exploring prematurely in my first attempts.

Cool. Whatever works!

Yeah. Rereading, it seems I did give the impression that unknowns are the only way to go, but pretty much anything that really, actually makes me want to read the next thing, would do the job. It’s amazing to me sometimes how many writers do not even feel the need to aim for this. You don’t have to write every sentence like a potboiler, but it’s kind of important to at least have something, up front, for me to want to see happen or develop later. Unknowns can be an effective way, but they do depend on thinking the author will satisfy things in a way that justifies the mystery. If you aren’t willing to believe that this will happen, it stops working. Which is related to why I have never been able to get into anything again written by that dude who did the new Battlestar Galactica. But I still love the unknowns, done well.

No need to rethink unless you want to. My focus has kind of been drifting, I guess, more exclusively toward the beginnings of works, where the ‘macguffin’ is established, probably because that’s what I was working on when these questions arose. (They’re also easier to check out!)

Now that I think of it this is a trope: The Unspoken Plan Guarantee. The chance of a plan’s succeeding is inversely probable to how much it’s spelled out to you, because it would be boring to know exactly what’s going to happen. Though to quote some tropers:

Quotation not intended as endorsement here.