Electron Dance
3Sep/13Off

You Complete Me

bosonx

I’ve written previously in the comments that I don't get on with Twine games.

At last, I have figured out why. It turns out that Twine games offer too much player agency.  

Although there have been projects like Façade (Mateas & Stern, 2005) that have tried to create games that cast the player as author, most story-based games use a finite decision tree constructed by the game’s designer. I'm not rabbiting on about those games where the mechanics become the story like Dwarf Fortress (Bay 12 Games, 2006) or your average roguelike. I'm talking about something called plot with something called consequences. Do you choose to chide someone or console them? Do you take the yellow brick road or the overgrown path through the dryad forest? Do you kill this person – or render them unconscious? The air vent, the front door or the experimental teleporter?

These crude narrative structures stand in contrast to the freedom of the mechanical realities they are smuggled into. We can explore an entire level of Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo, 1985) as we see fit, limited only by the physical rules of Mario’s virtual world – but the princess is always in another castle.

Some games sport a single narrative through which they thrust the player and we concede that the story is feedback, a reward for the player’s good behaviour. But some designers wish to convince the player they share authorship and current technology only offers one way to do this - go large. Complex decision trees with nuanced consequences and multiple characters are effective in obscuring the fundamentally discrete nature of the plot. But it’s difficult work. As story is still handcrafted, complexity attracts bugs. Cart Life (Richard Hofmeier, 2011) is an example of a densely detailed narrative world – but it is still based on a decision tree, one which harbours all sorts of bugs.

If we boil away the mechanics of the average narrative-driven title, we’re left with a Twine game. Although Twine games are often categorised as digital Choose Your Own Adventure books (CYOA) there are some important differences. The games are often more than just a heap of immutable slabs of text because Twine passages can change according to state. More advanced Twine works also play with the presentation. Nonetheless, a Twine game is still just a decision tree.

urquel

But it is a decision tree sculpted from hyperlinkarium and I find this choice of material particularly toxic. Most Twine games allow the player to rewind their steps which confers the time-travelling power of Braid (Number None, 2008) to the Twine player. With such powerful agency, it becomes a game of scaling the tree, scurrying through the leaves of text, leaning out from each branch and identifying every ending. I wind up performing tree appraisal rather than engaging the story and sharing authorship. I can only consider the game completed once I have learnt the shape of the entire tree.

It's not always like that, of course. I've had fun with some pieces such as the clever Úrquel: The Black Dragon (David T. Marchand, 2012) and there are increasing numbers of Twine games that eliminate the player's ability to step back. Plus our trusty fallback of using a massively complex decision tree to provide an illusion of shared authorship is also in evidence. Take a look at the node map for A Kiss (Dan Waber, 2013) taken from Twine Garden:

kiss-node-map

And yet still I'm all bah humbug. I grew up with the Fighting Fantasy books by Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, a CYOA series that acted as my introduction to the world of role-playing. But I eventually gravitated towards parser-based text adventures, with Infocom's adventures being the high point. One Infocom ad declares, “We draw our graphics from the limitless imagery of your imagination– a technology so powerful, it makes any picture that's ever come out of a screen look like graffiti by comparison.”

infocom-graphics

Ad image taken from Atarimania

We can view parser as a clumsy tool for exploring the decision tree of a text adventure but what the parser did was help obfuscate the tree and place me in the story. When the parser is removed, I start to see the tree again which is why my experiences with the acclaimed Photopia (Adam Cadre, 1998) as well as the important, thought-provoking The Baron (Victor Gijsbers, 2006) were marred. Both games deploy menus to replace parser-based exploration at key moments, exposing structure.

But my problems with Twine are not the problems of Twine. They are not even problems at all.

Games do not exist without their players and I've written before about how players must be able to fill the role expected of them. When a game fails for us, it isn't necessarily the designer's fault.

Lim (Merritt Kopas, 2012) did not work for me yet Dys4ia (Anna Anthropy, 2012), which treads similar territory, did. Lim is a powerful experience for the right player: I was not that player. I found The Cat and The Coup (Brinson & ValaNejad, 2010) fascinating but when I said I loved it because the game compelled me to spend a couple of hours researching the fall of Mohammad Mosaddegh, Zach Alexander commented on Twitter that it was “really telling that the net effect of The Cat And The Coup was 'hey look this up on Wikipedia'”.

The recent tunnel racer Boson X (Mu & Heyo, 2013) requires “precise timing and fast reflexes”. Some have compared it to Super Hexagon (Terry Cavanagh, 2012) but Boson X is randomly generated with no two games being the same. I am quite rubbish at it, but a cursory look at the comments on the relevant Free Indie Games page reveals an outpouring of love.

boson x menu

Also consider the rage of the contemporary critic (myself included) towards the failure of the mainstream FPS to harmonise story and gameplay – games in which the pure hero protagonist is also a mass-murderer. Clint Hocking's term for this disease, ludonarrative dissonance, is often wheeled out like a modern day freak show. Yet, as Robert Yang noted in an essay titled “Ludonarrative dissonance doesn't exist because it isn't dissonant and no one cares anyway”, that crushing failure to make a merry marriage of gameplay and story has not blunted the sales of the Call of Duty series.

The dialogic nature of games as a conversation between player and developer means that we're not necessarily going to fit every conversation. However, who we are and the cultural contexts we exist within are always in flux: the conversations we found engaging yesterday are not the same as the conversations we will enjoy tomorrow.

Maybe I will get into Twine tomorrow. And maybe the mainstream gaming public will get fed up of face shooters next year.

It's for this reason that I always support a plurality of games, even if I don't like all of them.

Short version: Oh my Gods, liking games is subjective?!

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  1. I remember a Super Mario choose your own adventure book that I had as a kid and it seemed that every single time I played it, I ended up coming out of the same green pipe free falling without a magical umbrella to my doom. Bah. Mario never died from high falls anyway. I’m not sure whether numerous pages sent me to this pipe or whether I was making the same decisions each time but I find it quite interesting: that was my adventure; my destiny. I’m sure other people made it, but me? Green pipe death every time.

    I don’t think I’ve played a CYOA book since though. Heavy Rain felt very much like a cinematic one which it really made no bones about. It was just a series of interesting decisions to make, often time imperative. I found the quick decision-making often exposed my core impulses and I loved working out why I’d chosen what I’d chosen afterwards. The joy was in not knowing which of your actions made a difference so you were careful with every single one. In that regard it was hard to get an idea of what the ‘tree’ looked like — it could have branched and splintered off anywhere.

    As I’ve mentioned many times before here in the comments, Hailey and I only played Heavy Rain once without any reloads so both or our experiences were different and far more interesting for it. We even refrained from talking about it until we were both finished. Had we both allowed ourselves to go back to make ‘better’ decisions I think it would have damaged the experience and dispelled some of the mystery of not knowing what could have been. I think the magic’s in that mystery: I know there’s a structure there; a tree, with lots of branches to explore (all these games operate like this), but not knowing what’s on those branches and which one you’re crawling along is where the fun is for me.

    I mean, just look at Dishonored: I had no idea that so many different things could slip and slide around until I relayed my experiences to you and Steerpike. Knowing that my actions weren’t in a vacuum, that they could change the course of the game in a number of ways made my decisions far more exciting and meaningful. It’s good for replayability if you’re into that sort of thing — at the risk of exposing the tree/structure — but also great for single playthroughs where your playthrough can be very different to others’.

  2. Hey Gregg. Some of the CYOA books were hard work. You had to take the exact correct path to find all the relevant items to deliver success and that, really, meant grinding through the book a few times. Do we have time for that kind of design now? I know I don’t.

    The way you describe Heavy Rain is the same way I experience the tree of Cart Life: it’s so complicated that the journey feels unique. Do you really want to play the game multiple times to explore that tree?

    Still, I had a little e-mail conversation with Ian MacLarty today, one half of the team behind Boson X, and he implied that Twine games are fun precisely because they are about exploring an author’s work, about *devouring* the tree. In other words – my quest for “shared authorship” is the wrong goal when it comes to Twine. But I guess that’s why I’m not a good partner for a Twine game.

    There’s another article hidden in here that I haven’t figured out too. The purpose of multiple endings, which is something that bugs me no end. It comes down to this question of exploration of a tree vs writing your own story. Maybe this piece is actually a step towards figuring that out.

    Dishonored was definitely in my head when I wrote this, because it also offers a fairly complicated decision tree. Yet I feel like there are a lot of problems in Dishonored’s tree – I can’t articulate that in a pithy sentence, it would probably take a whole article to explore. But I’m not that interested in yet another Dishonored article, so I’ll just let that hang.

    Hmm, David T. Marchand has just pointed out that Boson X might actually be closer to Super Hexagon that I thought. That’s what I get for making a comparison to Super Hexagon – a game I have not played.

    Incidentally, this personal problem of “seeing the decision tree” also affects my appreciation of point-and-click adventures and visual novels (pretty close to a graphical Twine, right or wrong?). I’m trying to get into the Wadjet Eye games especially after enjoying Gemini Rue. And I also liked Christine Love’s Don’t Take It Personally (I liked it so much it made me mad, if you recall).

  3. I remember a piece by Gabriel García Márquez about works that show their own structure. Let me get the book, it’s probably around here… This is it, I’ll translate a paragraph:

    “I don’t know who said novelists read other people’s novels just to see how they’re written. I think it’s true. We’re not satisfied with the secrets exposed right there on the page, we turn the page around to decipher the seams. In some way impossible to explain we dismantle the book to its essential parts and put it back together when we already know the mysteries of its personal clockwork. That attempt is disheartening in Faulkner’s books, because he didn’t seem to have an organic writing system, instead he walked blindly through his biblical universe like a herd of goats loose in a china shop. When you manage to disassemble a page of his, one has the impression of having too many springs and screws to spare and that it’ll be impossible to put it back to its original state. Hemingway, on the other hand, with less inspiration, with less passion and less madness, but with a lucid rigor, left his screws at plain sight on the outside, like on the railroad cars. Maybe that’s why Faulkner’s a writer who had a lot to do with my soul, but Hemingway’s the one that had the most to do with my craft.”
    –Gabriel García Márquez, “My personal Hemingway”

    I think it’s nice how he’s complimentary of both kinds of works. Personally though, when I find something bad, be it a game or anything, there’s usually a feeling of “I understand this completely, and that’s why I don’t like it.”

    Jokes are an exception: you hear a joke and once you “get” it, it’s done. You dismiss it then and there, and that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad one. That’s what jokes do, even the best of them. Maybe that’s why the only Twines I can enjoy are the ones with a punchline (Úrquel included). You can tell when you saw what was to be seen and the game allows you to let go.

  4. What I like about Cart Life is that the decision making is really granular in that they have further reaching consequences, like buying cheap coffee or the good stuff. Or taking the bus rather than walking. Or situating your coffee stand downtown rather than at Florin’s Gate near that independent joint. Or even eating some food before you leave the house. All these choices add up and eventually the simulation says you’ve ran out of money and can’t afford the bus and later you miss your daughter leaving school and so on. Heavy Rain doesn’t have that sort of simulated cause and effect, it’s all hardcoded and scripted. The net results are arguably the same (we get different experiences based on our actions) but the way Cart Life does it through simulation really plays to the strengths of the medium. Heavy Rain could work as a CYOA book, or a Twine game really, but I don’t think Cart Life could, it has too many moving parts.

    Didn’t Ebert (briefly) indulge in the prospect of Romeo and Juliet as a game? I think he argued (obviously) that being able to influence the story would make it a lesser experience. I’m not sure, but it’s certainly an interesting angle to approach the ‘tree versus single story’ issue from. I always remember Radiohead’s Exit Music (For a Film) being a reaction to the misery that is Romeo and Juliet; obviously Thom wanted things to turn out different. Didn’t we all eh?

  5. I’ve played with Twine, but I also find I like the parser much better. Maybe for the reasons that you’ve mentioned! I know a lot of people really hate parsers or find them inaccessible though. It turns out I didn’t have time to finish up another parser game for IF Comp this year, but I do wonder what it’s going to look like.

  6. @David: That’s very interesting. All going into my brain for when I feel ready to write something on the relevance of consequences in games. However, that’s not going to stop me trying to get on to at least one of the Boson X leaderboards now. Your name being there is like a dare. My pride is involved here.

    @Gregg: Like I’ve said before, Cart Life does a grand job of mixing up the mechanical with the narrative to the point where mechanical consequences – such as working too late – can have impact on plot. It’s a game of missed conversations and opportunities. Everything seems to count. But it was an expensive game to construct in terms of tree granularity.

    @Amanda: When I was writing I realised I have *no patience* for Twine and the format doesn’t encourage me to slow down; thus the idea of “too much player agency” was born. The inaccessibility of parsers, though, is much like the inaccessibility of a war game or other specialist game. There are conventions; if you don’t know the territory it can be hard to navigate. In other words, I think the inaccessibility is, in some way, over-stated. I recall Andrew Plotkin trying to do something with an iPhone game to help “teach” players how to approach text adventures.

  7. As someone who’s made a couple of relatively well-known Twine games, I’ve never understood the desire to devour the tree. If all choices are made, no choice has been made.

    I wonder how much of the problem people have with Twine is just the presentation. It feels like a website – because it *is* a fucking website. It feels clinical and doesn’t encourage patience or immersion, no matter how many gimmicks you add.

  8. Yes, Jonas, hence my comment about hyperlinkarium. I think if it was built in a different way – perhaps even inside a Flash engine – it would edge me away from my internet habits which are callous and impatient. After all, the difference between a Twine game and dys4ia is just presentation – a Twine game offers a lot more decisions that the latter.

    The hyperlink carries that baggage, that internet conditioning. Something like Kopas’ Queer Pirate Plane doesn’t look like hyperlinks and I found it easier to settle into. For all the talk of the importance of mechanics – like I do myself – it is ridiculous how much presentation impacts my ability to play a Twine game.

    For the comment record, Jonas’ Twine games are the gentle Arcadia and surreal Moonlight.

  9. Are Twine games really websites? I could see ‘Open link in new tab’ being a problem there… :-)

    “If all choices are made, no choice has been made.”

    That’s a great way of putting it. I like that a lot.

  10. Yes they are Gregg. If your browser’s option to View Source when in a Twine game, you can see the whole game. You can just use the browser Back to undo moves in standard games.

  11. This is a great comment thread for helping me focus my thoughts on choice in games.

    Also for perhaps making sense of the end of The Matrix Reloaded.

  12. Heh, weird; I rewatched Reloaded about 2 months ago for the first time since it was released and this time I think I actually understood it, pseudo philosophical babble and fancy dialogue gymnastics aside. Something in particular helped me understand it more, but… spoilers and stuff.

    Nevertheless, both Reloaded and explore possibility and choice in similarly mindbending ways. Few people seemed to have linked the two though.

  13. Damn, it redacted ‘redacted’!

  14. Hooray, Harbour Master is back from sabbatical!

    I’m not up on the interactive fiction space, and so only learned about Twine a few months ago. My personal reaction to it was to see it as voice mail.

    Voice mail, it transpires, was not intended as an answering machine. That’s the least of its capabilities. It was envisioned as more of a telephone-based PA system, the auditory equivalent of “all-staff” emails, and a way to conduct asynchronous telephone conversations. It’s used as a digital answering machine because that’s where consumers saw its value.

    Thus Twine struck me as a great tool, not for making games people play, but for mapping out scenarios and decision trees. A free version of Articy:Draft, I guess. Any kind of structured process that you might, for whatever reason, want to walk through. Checklists. Doing your taxes. Planning a table-top RPG. Outlining a novel and deciding which plot threads can be snipped or put in a sequel. The games themselves? I played a few and enjoyed fewer, largely for the reasons you describe, HM. The parser hides the substructure; the menu shows it, warts and all. No amount of A/B/C complexity can un-reveal the simplicity of a menu decision system.

    I was terrible at Infocom’s games, but I loved them and the ideas behind them. A Mind Forever Voyaging? Moonmist? Trinity? Sign me up, please. Infocom was able to explore stuff you rarely saw in games, even back then. They were literary in a way nothing else ever has been. The text contributed to this, though I remember that the box art was so evocative I often found myself playing and wishing they had graphics. Something about a text interface makes a game feel niche, no matter how big a commercial product it is. And niches are where unusual stuff gets explored.

    Like Gregg, Heavy Rain is a modern standout for me. Problems, sure, but a very powerful game. And of course Dark Souls. The former is ideal if you play as Gregg (and I) did, taking whatever comes without new tabs or reloads to undo; the latter just doesn’t allow it. There’s an immediacy to the realness when you do that. As Jonas pointed out, following all paths is the same as following no paths – but seeing the path so clearly makes the player feel like they’re doing it wrong by leaving avenues unexplored, even though that’s kind of what games are all about.

  15. I get what you mean, Steerpike, but I think that Twine games can feel very different if, instead of tracking a story, starting somewhere and moving forward through choices until it reaches an ending, they are seen as places to explore, with rooms made of text that you travel between.

    Naked Shades is a classic example of this — all the passages are explicitly places, and you explicitly travel between them. Your state as a player mutates as you travel about, but that’s not where the branches are. If you view the node-map as laid out spatially, then exploring the environment fully feels less dissatisfying.

    And now I’m thinking of John Brindle’s reconstructions of the node-maps of games by playing them. A space to explore rather than a story to choose from.

  16. Fair alternative viewpoint, George – thanks, I will try Naked Shades out!

  17. Can’t help but agree with Jonas.

    On a podcast some time back we talked about The Walking Dead and in it Potter (one of the editors on Arcadian Rhythms) admitted to reloading every choice until he got the most satisfactory result.

    This kind of save scummery, where you have to see all of the tree annoys me to no end. If you aren’t going to just let the tree guide you and not worry about the quantum realities of other people’s choices then it is not the game’s fault but your own.

    There are exceptions, when the choices are clearly binary and have little to no impact on the user (in that they are black and white and/or with obvious outcomes) or no impact on the story line (the choices and compartmentalised to that and have no impact on whatever narrative they are attempting; it ends up just being a poor experience.

    Hilariously people have become so used to the Mass Effect way that when something like The Witcher or Way of the Samurai comes along they are paralised by them.

    Anyway really liked the article. There is more I want to say but it ties in with an article I wrote about the ending of The Last of Us and another piece that I am struggling with because of a single word.

    Also, is your sentence a reference to Iron Man 2? That’s a bad thing if it is.


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