Rameses in 2015 - discussion welcome

(I’ve posted this on IntFic too, because I think this topic deserves discussion. If you frequent both, please consider following both threads. I’m perfectly OK with two parallel discussions going on, because they’re likely to be different enough)

I’ve started playing Rameses yesterday, and I’m still playing it (I take my IFing slowly these days - no pressure = more fun). I had, of course, been thoroughly spoiled already. Everyone knows what the whole point of Rameses is by now. It’s heavily constrained, claustrophobic gameplay characterises not only the PC but also the general state of IF in some works.

By all accounts, it was different, unusual, daring, even incomprehensible at the time.

But shockingly, in 2015, it doesn’t feel that different from a lot of games. And I’m thinking - oh boy, is this a warning bell?

In 2015, swamped in Twine games and story-heavy games that don’t necessarily need significant input from the player, Rameses comes across as a precursor to what is the norm today. Especially in Twine, of course, but not just Twine; player’s expectations have shifted, to the point where, for instance (and this has already been discussed in a thread), some players expect all the interactible items to be SEPARATE from the room’s description; authors are expected to explain beforehand whether SEARCH is synonimous with EXAMINE (mostly because in the past some authors were very inconsistent and unfair about it, true); ASK/TELL, which for me was instrumental in enjoying Anchorhead, has been dying a slow death for years now. The plot is expected to hold your hand (and sometimes, infuriatingly, you’re suppose to divine that the plot is leading you towards a bad outcome and break away from it to create your own plot; but often if you do that you’re met with a Rameses-style excuse not to).

I’m not naming names because this is not an isolated incident. This is something I’ve been noticing in general. I can in fact think of a number of recent games - Hadean Lands, Counterfeit Monkey, Coloratura, PataNoir, Chrolophyll, Toby’s Nose - which most definitely do not follow this trend.

But I definitely feel this trend. It’s not that I can point at games and go “this is not what IF should be!”. That’d be stupid. IF has been evolving so much, as has the entire gaming world. Every one of us knows what IF we like best, but that doesn’t mean that’s what IF should be. No, I’m looking at Rameses, seeing that it looks quite modern and not at all jarring, and warning bells are going off, saying “but it’s not SUPPOSED to look comfortably modern! It’s SUPPOSED to be jarring and uncomfortable! What’s going on?”.

Discussion is very welcome.

“but it’s not SUPPOSED to look comfortably modern! It’s SUPPOSED to be jarring and uncomfortable!”

Who says?

Various reviews.

True, an important part of this feeling of frustration has a lot to do with the PC’s characterization, but that’s indellibly linked to the constraints imposed on the player. The latter, rather than the former, is my point, of course; the former just means that the PC was really well written.

…I mean, I’m rather surprised you questioned that. My understanding, from all the reviews I’d read, is that Rameses was quite famous for being frustrating and uncomfortable. Do you mean to say that you didn’t find it to be that, and that neither did the people that you talked to about the game?

Perhaps I should say this differently.

Who says we must be readers who are shocked and made uncomfortable by this sort of thing?

I do like that better. :slight_smile:

Well, it clearly did make a lot of players uncomfortable - one of the reviews is from MattBrush, who’s a relative newcomer and felt something similar. And that discomfort was surely calculated, as it brings the player very close to the PC.

Whether it should still have that power as the years go by, that has everything to do with its own qualities, as befits any work of art that can be admired decades after its creation (even if “context” becomes necessary for proper appreciation). But I find it very curious that the very things that make that work constraining are… well, somewhat modern. It is no longer so jarring to have our progress blocked, or indeed to have a game which is in actuality a short story with a thin veneer of interactivity, or even to have a game hold your hand too much.

(The difficulty in my position is that I can’t really supply examples of what I’m talking about. There’s a certain subjectivity, and well, if it turns out I’m alone in this and Rameses maintains its power even over today’s crowd, including the CYOA players, that will be A Good Thing)

I mean, take Photopia, a big splash on account of its puzzlelessness. For modern players, it plays beautifully; one doesn’t feel that the lack of puzzles detracts from anything. Neither is its puzzlelessness integral to the story. It’s a good example of times having moved on, and Photopia (or, hey, Galatea) still standing tall and proud.

Whereas Rameses was meant to be uncomfortable. True, maybe it also needs some context - at the time, when puzzleless IF was less likely and more interactivity was normal, not to mention the fact that it actively taunts you with unusable choices sometimes, it would have felt far more claustrophobic that it does today. This is, however, not that unusual - some works age better than others.

The point of my reflection is, Rameses no longer feels quite so constrained (though it’s well-written enough that it’s still painful not to be able to act as you feel you should), and unfortunately that works against it somewhat. And I’m wondering, rather more generally, whether it is a good thing that we are so used to being constrained in our fiction.

…well, I say “we”. Really at this point I mean “I”, until someone else says “Hey, I felt that too”.

Again, if no one does, that’ll just mean things are peachy, so, win-win.

To start with a tangent to your main point, I absolutely would not say that Galatea has remained unchanged as an experience. Galatea was originally intended to surprise players by having a great deal more knowledge and state tracking than they anticipated, because they’d be coming in with expectations based on the most rudimentary NPCs. Now it cannot do this, both because expectations have moved on and because people tend to encounter the game framed with the information about how much dialogue is implemented.

Also, I wrote it for the (I figured) 25-50 rec.arts.int-fiction IF veterans who were interested in the niche-within-a-niche that was the art show. I even had specific individuals in mind as an audience for some of it. I didn’t even consider adding a general intro-to-parser tutorial, because why would I? But now it gets played in classrooms by students who’ve never seen a parser game before, and it feels weird to them.

I feel like “I’m wondering, rather more generally, whether it is a good thing that we are so used to being constrained in our fiction.” is phrased in a way that makes it very hard to get into without overcharging the conversation. I don’t think there’s a moral or ethical issue here or even a practical concern where one type of game experience is more of a “good thing” than another. From my point of view this is more about taste and about what particular forms are equipped to express. Constrained works are good at expressing what it feels like not to have power, not to control everything around oneself, and there’s a good deal to learn and talk about there. Much of the subject matter of traditional literature is probably better suited to a constrained presentation than to an open-ended power fantasy (though I grant that those are two ends of a large spectrum).

I also think there are multiple kinds of agency at work here, and that parser IF fans tend to be used to one (what Stacy Mason calls affect, or what maga calls grasp) while CYOA/Twine/Choice of Games readers are used to another (what Mason calls diegetic agency). In the vast majority of parser games, there is no significant plot branching at all; in 2000 or so even having branches at the ending was considered generally unusual. The average choice-based game actually offers a lot more diegetic agency than the average 2000s-era parser game. It just offers less experience of affect/grasp.

(For more on those terms and on parser plot structures: nitku.net/blog/2015/10/we-dont-need-roads/ .)

I haven’t played Rameses in a few years, but the last time I did, what had changed for me was that the writing felt a bit clumsier than it did the first time, and the exploration of themes a lot more heavyhanded. I don’t think that has anything to do with the issues you’re talking about, though.

In my experience, the PC refusing commands or acting on their own without my input (besides an occasional refusal of something painful or fatal - refusing to walk into lava) causes an alienation if it’s not explicit at the beginning - If I’m not controlling the character then what is my role in the story? Am I a bug on the character’s shoulder whispering suggestions in their ear? I think this distancing is what throws people and disturbs them.

I suspect I will have a lot more to say on this matter later, but for now: Rameses is one of my all-time favorite works of IF. It’s one of my favorite works for a number of reasons:

  • The writing. Aside from a few parser artifacts (if I was remaking it in I7 the first thing I’d add is “the list what’s on supporters rule is not in any rulebook” or however it is, to get rid of all that “On Wayne’s bed is Wayne.”) it is excellent. It’s the most accurate depiction of social anxiety I have encountered in IF – of all aspects of anxiety, including the part where it can make you into an asshole. It is very, very hard to get this tone right, to successfully navigate the line between “troubled” and “self-indulgent,” between “flawed character” and “flawed character I cannot put up with any longer.” The line is also subjective, influenced by people’s societal and personal baggage, and often has very little to do with authorial skill. (One of the best-rated books of its year was Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. I found it almost unreadable. Not because it wasn’t a good book, which it is, but because spending time with this guy’s narrative voice felt like the equivalent of pouring poison into my ear. And I have a high tolerance for this sort of thing! American Psycho? Fine. Tampa? A-OK. This, though…)

Maybe it’s just me? The definition to what I look for from IF is closest to Emily Dickinson’s definition of poetry: “if I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off.” The writing in Rameses is also far more nuanced than this tone often allows. (One example: I’m 75% sure Stephen Bond might have an essay railing against this very sort of thing, but I’ve always thought there’s a fairly clear subtext in Rameses that Alex is closeted or at least still figuring things out. YMMV.) It’s a bit heavy-handed, sure, but I think it has to be and certainly had to be at the time; it says a lot that Bond clocks the reader over the head with the point that FREE WILL IS CENTRAL TO US, BUT I CAN’T DO ANYTHING! I CAN’T DO ANYTHING! I’M TRAPPED AND I’M STUCK! and yet people still don’t get it. The risk of being subtle is that people will miss what you are doing.

(As for the writing being clumsy – your mileage may vary. “I can’t do anything” is as accurate an example of this sort of mental state as most writers, including the masters, have come up with.)

  • The implementation is actually very good. One of the standard criticisms of puzzleless IF is that it’s lazy, or a crutch for people who don’t want to do the work of implementing puzzles. But Rameses is thorough. Here’s an early, somewhat immature example. So you’re a college boy and you start out in your bunk bed. There’s a certain entirely plausible thing a college boy might do in this situation. And you can do it! You can do it with so many synonyms for it. A lot of people had, or have, standing score dings for people who don’t implement XYZZY responses; I submit that a game should have its score docked if you start out as a teenage boy in your bunk bed and cannot jack off.

  • I find the whole “have we just gotten used to being so constrained?” line of argument baffling. Nobody reads a novel and accuses the author of poor craft for not letting the reader choose the plot. Nobody watches The Godfather and calls Coppola a hack because they can’t make Michael Corleone jump around like a pony for five hours. “The plot is holding your hand”: what the fuck does that mean?

(I submit that this “holding your hand” business, which you’ve mentioned many times now, is also incredibly loaded language, the kind of thing most often used in tirades about casual gaming taking over everything, and that I know what you’re talking about and you know what you’re talking about.)

This is why I’ve mostly abandoned the term “game” for this kind of thing. It sets up expectations I find limiting and counterproductive. Some people are very enamored with the mythos of games and developing games – this isn’t a criticism, just an observation – but while I grew up with games, I always considered myself a writer first.

  • The “distancing” thing you mention is, I think, one of the great unexplored branches of parser IF. By “unexplored” I don’t mean that no one’s done it, but there is so much untapped potential there, and so many ways to do it. In Rameses the “am I a bug on the character’s shoulder” bit is fairly accurate and deliberate – the PC addresses the player at several points, and is generally right about their probable reaction. I don’t find it alienating at all; I find it interesting. But when I talk about it sometimes I feel as if I am shaking people’s shoulders going “can’t you see?”

  • One of the most oft-quoted things about Rameses is “you can win by just typing Z!” I have always found this among the most asinine things I have heard in my entire life, the equivalent of saying “reading is easy! Just turn page after page and you’re done!” If you make no effort to engage with something, naturally your experience will reward no effort. Garbage in, garbage out.

Absolutely. I really enjoyed the writing. Not just the characterisation, and the characters and plot, but also the wordsmithing. I didn’t find it clumsy.

Agreed. (you’ll notice I did enjoy Rameses and don’t want to bash it) It’s not easy to give the player an illusion of choice and then systematically prevent them at every turn - meaningfully!

I don’t get the analogy. A novel, and a film, are static fiction, so there’s no expectation of anything BUT static fiction.

It is rather subjective, yes, which is why I was thinking I’d let this thread just die; a lot of what motivated it seems to be subjective, and not shared by pretty much anyone else. Basically, by “games holding your hand” I mean games practically telling you, at every prompt, what you should do next. Or listing your options at every stage. Or offering fake choices just for the hell of it (often in sub-par Twine games. Maybe it’s my fault for not being at all selective in the games I play, I just play them all…).

My whole point was that Rameses did it so friggin’ well, and yet in some level it doesn’t feel all that different from the holding-your-hand-at-every-stage games, except of course for the bit where in Rameses’ case it is absolutely deliberate and brilliantly manipulates the player until they feel as desperate as Rameses. Genius. But the gimmick nowadays has lost its lustre, and I did wonder whether that was a good thing, granting that (and this is the bit that maybe I SHOULDN’t take for granted) the reason it’s lost its lustre is that so many games, of such various degrees of quality, are doing it.

Emily Short’s rebuke about “Galatea” wasn’t lost on me. If I completely misunderstood that, I probably misunderstood this as well. Hence my hoping this would actually just die down.

Not to say I’m not happy about your comments - I’m thrilled. :slight_smile: I like discussion.

100% agreed. I like games where your reward is proportional to the effort you put in. I don’t like that oft-quoted bit you just quoted for that reason. But, I HAVE seen quite a few games where you CAN win just by typing Z, or doing what the prompt tells you to. Is this Rameses’ legacy? Are these people trying to do the same thing? Are these just authors who should really be writing static IF instead? I don’t know, and I don’t think I should discuss it here further because I clearly have the wrong end of this one. But that’s what prompted me to start the discussion in the first place.

Still, I’m not really sorry. I learned a fair bit from this.

I don’t really buy the comparison between Rameses and non-branching hypertext or choiceless media. In terms of story structure I would place Rameses much closer to traditional parser IF than railroaded hypertext. In fact I’ve always read Rameses as a subtle critique to other parser games’ illusion of choice.

The technique that Rameses uses is something like transparent magician’s choice (I don’t know what the actual term is if there is one) where you are given multiple opposing choices but each of them leads immediately to the same predetermined outcome. It’s very rare for choice-based games to do that. If a passage offers only once choice it’s not really the same thing as offering choices A, B and C where A and B go “nah, you do C instead.” (Not to be confused with immediately convening branches where the next passage is always the same but the player’s choice is always valid.)

(Edit: This got lost somehow.) I guess my point was that these expectations are artificial, and could well shift.

Uh…possibly! (I hope you don’t abandon the discussion. In part selfishly.)

I disagree with this (and I thought this was what Peter was talking about); it seems like I see this a lot in choice-based games. Maybe they don’t always immediately lead to the same place, but after a couple of clicks the paths rejoin. From Emily Short’s review of


this year:

I can’t think right now of many games that are exactly like this for the whole way, but it seems to me as though a lot of choice-based games are like this a lot of the time–or they have a lot of “click this node to see a description that takes you back to the previous node, then click one to advance.”

Yeah this is the distinction I mentioned in the next paragraph: there’s a difference between joining paths and offering invalid choices. A simple (fictitious) example:

Regardless of what you choose the next passage is you arriving to the park. There might not even be any acknowledgement of the choice but it’s implicitly assumed that the protagonist has done what the player has chosen.

In contrast Rameses would explicitly bait-and-switch the player if they chose A or B. So choosing either of them the game would say something like “You don’t feel that happy so you go frowning instead.” I can’t claim that I know the board that broadly but I don’t think that’s a very common technique.

I feel like there was a Twine game not too long ago that used that exact technique pretty heavily. I think it was Impostor Syndrome?

I just played “Actual Sunlight”. It is remarkably like Rameses…