In Depth Analyses

Warning! This article contains Spoiler Information!

First, I am going to apologize to every author whose game I am taking apart with tweezers below. I'm sure you'll all refuse to speak to me for a month or so after reading my analyses of your games. I promise you this, however. I will endeavor to explain WHY I say the things I say. There will be no 'empty' criticism in these articles if I can help it.

The One That Got Away

_The One That Got Away_ (TOTGA) was my second favorite game from the 1995 Competition. It lost out only to _Uncle Zebulon's Will_. The reason is hard to put my finger on, so I will muse on it below, and perhaps clarify both to myself and others why TOTGA doesn't quite stand up before Zebulon.

TECHNICAL ASPECTS: The parser was excellent. Leon did a great job of both simulating a complicated act (fishing), and explaining to the player exactly how the simulation works. The pamphlet in the game that tells the player how it works is both funny and straightforward. No complaints on this front. Leon thought of many phrasings and synonyms and made them usable.

PLOT: This is one of the two areas where Leon really hit the nail on the head. The plot is engaging (if short) and serves to bring out the humanity in the characters. It is a gentle bittersweet touch to contrast the comic effect of the rest of the game. If television comedy writers could regularly reach this level of compassion and feeling, then I would start watching sitcoms. Perhaps the very weakness of the game, its size, helped in this area. Static writers edit, cut, re-write, and cut some more when working on a story. They try to distill the literary experience down to its essence. At least, the good ones do. Padding out a game is something many of us are guilty of, and it really shouldn't be condoned, but remains standard practice both for us hobbyists, and for the gaming industry at large. We want to find room for a certain puzzle, or we need to stretch the playing lifespan of the game just a little more. But what we usually end up doing is diluting the experience.

Leon just put in what he needed to tell the story, no more. When he was finished, he stopped. That's the greatest praise I can give him.

ATMOSPHERE: Here he was on some shaky ground. With only four rooms, and a very few objects, a sense of the game's atmosphere failed to materialize for me. There was some sense of a quiet country lake, but where was the gentle breeze, the quiet rustling of the grass? Leon did in some aspects neglect the senses. He had the birds, but the sound of the country is a rich and wonderful thing, very hard to capture in words. He had the raw fishing experience, but failed to capture the thrill of a whining reel as the mighty fish races for the darkest depths of the lake. There was some good progress towards a unified feel in the game, but Leon needs to work more in this area. Atmosphere is a game designer's bread and butter.

WRITING: This is another area that really stands out as exceptional. The turn of the comic phrase is everywhere to be seen in TOTGA. There are many little references to other works of this vein (Moby Dick, among others), and the writing seems caring and conversational while still being informative. I would perhaps rank the writing between Zebulon and A Change in the Weather. TOTGA's writing avoids the sometimes deadpan delivery of Zebulon, but fails to capture the truly beautiful phrasings that pop up so often in Weather. Altogether not a bad place to be ranked, betweeen two 1st place winners.

PUZZLES: I think that enough has been said on this matter. Suffice it to say that TOTGA is too short, and the puzzles a bit too easy for most people's tastes. However, on a related soapbox issue... ;)

There are many legitimate reasons to do this, but in a competition voted on by many die-hard puzzle lovers, a game that attempts it is simply going to suffer unless the writing is truly, truly magnificent. It must capture the attention of the puzzle-goers and draw them into the plot, even as puzzles do in normal IF. It's not impossible, it's just a heckuva lot harder to do without all the smokescreening and handwaving that goes on in a more traditional IF work.

This too to consider. Players have certain expectations about games, and different ones about stories. If your puzzles are lean, then expect to be lumped into the story category, where you will find it very hard to keep up with static fiction. Remember, in terms of work alone, you are doing 4-5 times the work that an author of a static fiction work might do, probably more. You must read the player's mind and anticipate the player's actions, then write the myriad plot branches, whereas a static writer only writes one plot. The puzzles put the player into a different mindset, where less is expected of the writing, as the player remembers that this is just a game. Not a satisfactory situation, in my mind, but a real one, nonetheless.

CHARACTERS: The one main NPC in TOTGA is a truly excellent example of how to make an NPC that feels like a person. Due to limitations on parsers and the author's time, we have come to a certain set of commands that are expected to work for most NPCs.

>show x to person
>ask person about x
>tell person about x
>person, do x

The NPC in TOTGA doesn't go anywhere, doesn't even do much, but the SHOW and ASK verbs are very well-implemented for him. These are fairly key to bringing an NPC to life, at least until another NPC grammar (or AI) is invented. The NPC in TOTGA (Bob of the bait shop) reacts to all sorts of questions and objects. He has motivation, a purpose for being, and a personal history. This last is too often neglected in IF NPCs. A character needs a past, a present, and hopes for the future in order to feel real. Our perception of time, and our ability to plan sets us apart from most animals. A human NPC that lacks all indication of these traits is going to fall flat on its virtual back. I personally write a history for any NPC that I create, unless it is some sort of unintelligent animal. Even in that case, I still make a list of traits. Is it irritable? Does it have a fear of water? If you master the art of getting inside an imaginary person's head, then you will soon thereafter master the art of the NPC. And the art of the character is the art of fiction, because, as many writers will tell you, stories are about people first, events and places second.

So, my recommendations to Leon? Work on a longer game, and practice bringing a theme, or a more unified feel to your writing. The puzzles weakness is a very difficult thing to overcome. The only help for it is to practice inventing puzzles. You get better at it over time. Knowledge of first order logic and AI is helpful when you remember that at its heart, any truly complicated mechanical puzzle can probably be reduced to some form of Turing machine. So, invent an interesting set of states, a set of operators, and a start and finish state, and then invent the imagery to go from there. Mathematics are very helpful in some forms of puzzle design. But remember too not to cram your games full of the 'soup can' puzzles so popular in graphical games today. There should be logic and careful planning behind each puzzle. There must be a reason that the player wants to solve each puzzle. The reason can be to get to a treasure that he/she knows about, or to help an old lady out of the goodness of his/her heart, but don't just put a strange boardgame in the game and expect the player to enjoy playing it. Another lesson that I need to learn myself, but I'm working on it, cross my heart.

That concludes my analyses for now. I will continue this practice in future issues of SPAG, unless there is some great demand that I discontinue it.