Warning: I didn’t mean for this to be a rant. But it became one.
I’m currently on a MythBusters spree. I’m quite enjoying it, it’s fun, entertaining, educational, and fun.
The 100th episode, the MacGyver special, ends with a cool stunt. The Build Team give Jamie and Adam four tasks that they have to pass in true MacGyver style. Simple-ish tasks, like developing a film with “chemicals” of the sort usually found in households or picking a lock with a lightbulb filament.
What struck me, and what gave me the urge to come here and verbalise what’s got me really excited, is the gap between what the Build Team intended them to do… and what they actually did.
Test number one: escape a locked room. They were supposed to use a lightbulb filament to pick a lock. What the Build Team didn’t expect is that the lightbulb they supplied the “heroes” with had a rather thick filament that wouldn’t fit.
So consider the Build Team as the author, and you could imagine that maybe the author had intended the player used something else to pick that lock, something that would actually fit. But what Adam did was, he used his steel-toe capped shoes to hammer and anvil the filament into something flatter that would fit the lockpick.
Tests number two and three were so mundane in terms of the guys’ performance being completely expected by the “villains” that I won’t go into it. The author laid out puzzles; the player resolved them. End of story.
Test number four is what’s really got me going. They were supposed to improvise a signalling device they could use to draw the attention of a flying aircraft, using only components they found in a makeshift “villain’s camp” (MythBusters are entertainingly theatrical). The Build Team - the author - devised a crafty puzzle where they had all the means to construct a potato cannon - they had the PVC tubing, ignition, fuel, potatoes.
The player - Adam and Jamie - went on another tangent altogether. They only went and built a kite.
This has me severely excited the same way that a transcript for Infocom’s “Sherlock” has me excited. You might, or might not, know that in that transcript there’s a fictious scenario where the PC misses the train… but not to worry, taking a hansom cab and a few shortcuts they can take the train at the NEXT stop, and board it from there. But this never happens in the game, AFAIK, and happens in almost no IF that I know of: if the PM missed the train and there won’t be another train along, they’re stranded, the game ends or the PC is a walking dead.
The latter example is about the freedom of IF, and making it possible for some puzzles to be failed without the harsh penalty of losing the game. Off the top of my head I can only remember Christminster actually doing this in a few scenes. I’m not talking about choosing to do or not do something and then deal with the consequences, like Anchorhead does with the library card - I’m talking about transparently the player FAILING to solve a puzzle, or to turn up in time for a timed event… and having a second shot at repairing it later.
It was when I realised that this would never happen that I started collecting saved games. Old school games take too much glee in punishing the player. New school games hold the player’s hand so much that the player wouldn’t fail, not without ample warning and leeway. I’m sure everyone prefers the middleground (old school stereotype = too much frustration, and new school stereotype = no challenge at all), and this middleground would benefit tremendously from this sort of design. In Sherlock, it would have emerged (emergent gameplay, anyone? I guess maybe that’s the point of this post…) from a time/transportation system that made it possible for you to catch up, maybe, to a train that’s just left the station you haven’t arrived to yet; in Christminster, it simply happened because the author made sure the player had that second chance.
Going back to the MythBusters, though, this would of course be the Holy Grail of simulation-based IF - an IF world where physics are so emulated (or simply where the author underwent such massive beta-testing that he kept adding alternative solutions… which is another good thing!) that, Last Express style, situations can occur that the author didn’t predict, and a puzzle can be solved in a very different way to what the author expected.
I understand the upcoming Hadean Lands is crazy with physics and/or chemistry, and I have an inkling that Metamorphoses might come close to it too (I haven’t played it yet; but I have played Fractured Metamorphoses). Considering that Counterfeit Monkey does more or less the same thing, except that it uses word manipulation instead of heavily simulated physics… the result is a comparable piece with multiple solutions, an incredible amount of possibilities, and the perfect playground for a Wordsmith MacGyver. As opposed to, say, Nord and Bert, or Ad Verbum, or Earl Grey, where the same manipulation exists as a gimmick or central mechanism and is limited to being the correct tool for the job at hand.
It’s not quite like the infamous spells, either. In all the Enchanter trilogy, most spells had very specific use. There was an effect if you used them on something they weren’t supposed to be used on, and in Sorcerer that was the source of a few easter eggs or amusing situations, but it was just icing - the puzzle would be solved exactly as the authors predicted, and that’s that. Similarly, the wishes in Wishbringer are, if you’ll notice, carefully constructed to be useful in only a few key very specific situations.
Chris Crawford’s emphasis on emergent storytelling always seemed hollow to me, because I always felt that if you remove the auhor and the authorial process from the equation, you lose the appeal; you might as well give the player a word processor and go “Write your own story”. I’m frequently confronted by clear examples of me being possibly wrong in this assessment, and the most immediate example I can think of right now is Kerkerkruip, where clear, definite storylines and strategies arise where none is intended (after all, what you have is a specific set of enemies, objects and rooms. But they come together during gameplay to create a definite narrative). Possibly Crawford dares to go the limit - his Storytron certainly failed to provoke any reaction in me precisely because there wasn’t an author, there wasn’t a narrative, and I felt I might as well just go off and write my own game.
(A parenthesis here would be necessary for 18 Cadence. It’s not my cup of tea at all, but from what I understand, it’s sort of an environment with a few pre-fabricated rooms and characters where you can create any sort of narrative you fancy. It is, in fact, a word processor with an amazing lot of inspirational material that, by itself, already tells a story of a sort, so you are by turns creating and subverting. I would not classify this as emergent gameplay, mostly because I find it hard to call it gameplay at all, but it’s certainly in the neighbourhood)
My point with this Crawford/Emergent branch of the discussion: it doesn’t have to be taken to extremes, or we risk losing something special. But in the correct circumstances, in the right game, this could be brilliant. The ability to use objects in way they weren’t intended and that, because of their simulated physics, works perfectly.
Now, this is all not very practical stuff. In practical terms, a game will be designed to direct the players towards the items they’ll need to solve the puzzle. Often, an author will be approached by a player who’ll say “Hey, why can’t I do this instead? It should work”. And the author will hopefully incorporate that. But always within tight authorial limit. This is what happens.
But I can’t help but feeling that there’s something fundamentally precious in this freedom (Christminster is one of the best games of its time I’ve played. I seriously loved the heck out of it). A), the freedom to screw up a tight-limit puzzle and then being given the chance to make amends. B), the ability to look at the tools in hand, and start constructing a puzzle solution that may or may not be what the author intended - but that works!
Payoff would be limited. It’s like alternate solutions - how does a player know there are alternate paths/solutions? He normally won’t, unless they are spelled out, because every player has their own mental processes and they tend towards doing things a certain way, and once it works THAT way, a player is unlikely to come back and try another way. So as in many, many “alternate paths/solutions” games, the player would be unaware of the complexity of the situation.
But on the flip side, the player would definitely be satisfied, because his mental process came up with a working solution (even if trial and error is necessary, and even if the original solution wasn’t all that good after all and needed tweaking or re-thinking). And you would have MORE of your players feeling this way, not just the ones that happen to think the same way that you, the author, think.
Ok, I’m mentally tired after writing all this down, I seriosly did NOT mean for this to grow this big.
EDIT - I’m putting this on my blog. It’s been underused lately and this is big enough.