Sunday 14 April 2013
Does interactive fiction need randomness?
This is a personal view, however. As a designer, I’m not saying there shouldn’t be dice. Some gamebook nostalgia buffs like having them, and if the implementation isn’t going to cost too much then why not offer the option? But it should be an option. Someone who has never played a print gamebook will, quite rightly, find the use of dice to make no sense whatsoever. It’s like having animated turning pages and rustling paper sounds. Only worse.
But if not dice – if we want to move onto a new generation of gamebooks without dice – what are our options? (And incidentally this is a good point to mention that the evolution of gamebooks is also the subject of a series of very interesting posts on the Mysterious Path blog.)
That opens up the whole question of randomness. In a face to face RPG, typically when I hit a foe with a sword I might do 2-12 points of damage or whatever. In a computer RPG, on the other hand, the amount of damage is usually fixed for a given weapon, opponent and combat manoeuvre. Here’s why. If I can see my lucky or unlucky dice roll on a tabletop, and feel (utterly unsuperstitious though I am) that I was in some way responsible for that roll, I can accept it. But if I get into the same fight in a CRPG and lose because lousy numbers are generated, I’m not going to keep playing. It’s the device that made the roll, not me. I want victory in a videogame to be about tactics, reaction speed and choice of weapon, not blind luck.
In a digital gamebook it’s not likely to come down to reaction speed, nor indeed to the simple stabbing at controller buttons that satisfies us in most videogames. How do we play to the strengths of the medium? One way is to reason that, reading a gamebook being a cerebral sort of activity, maybe the fights can have a more cunning rule mechanic. This is what Inkle and Steve Jackson (the UK one) have done in the Sorcery app. You pick an attack strength, so does the opponent. The higher number inflicts damage, but also fatigues the attacker so that he can’t put as high a number next round.
This fits with the sense you get when playing a digital gamebook that you are laying a story behind you as you go. In the case of Sorcery (or Frankenstein) that’s explicit in that the sections of text are stitched together. You could show that text to somebody else and they could read it as if it were the novelization of your adventure.
I like this because it’s how we perceive time. The future is fizzing with all these quantum possibilities, the past is fixed in one shape. But hold on. If we are indeed creating a novel-like experience as we play, doesn’t that beg the question of how much prominence should be given to fights and other tests of skills, whether randomly or strategically decided? I’ve blogged before about how fights are tricky in fiction. I can’t actually remember the last novel I read that had a fight in it, and I’m willing to bet that even in A Song of Fire and Ice you don’t get very many – and that they aren’t ever described blow by blow unless (a) a lot hangs on the outcome and (b) there’s something clever, dramatic and unexpected about how it plays out.
The thing is, how much fun is it to read, “You strike at the goblin, but he parries. He ripostes and you react too slowly. His sword lays open a long gash in your arm.” It doesn’t matter if, instead of generating this stuff procedurally, you have Jeanette Winterson writing it for you. It’s just not interesting. Which makes me suspect that, in the context of a digital gamebook, it isn’t interesting to play either.
Some will say at this point, “But I like picking my main weapon, my armour, deciding when to drink the healing potion, selecting a combat stance.” Then, honestly, you need to play The Witcher, which does all that stuff with a lot more excitement and eye candy than you’re going to get in a medium that is principally prose.
That’s not to say gamebooks have to drop the gameplay aspect. You can have “interesting choices” in stories. 007 games his showdown with Oddjob – much to the delight of my eight-year-old self. And do you know how Conan defeats the peerless swordsman Mikhal Oglu? Pure gameplay. The tactic is so surprising and brilliant, in fact, that Roy Thomas doesn’t even need to show the ensuing fight. There’s no randomness there, of course. The smart choice trumps all others.
But how much do we want the gameplay to be visible? If the Game of Thrones TV show had on-screen bars showing characters’ declining political influence stats, would that make us more engaged, or less? One of the reasons that role-playing isn’t more popular is that most people don’t have the kind of mind that can see “Strength 14” on a sheet and turn that into an intuitive feel for the character. Storytelling has rules, as anyone who has done improvised storytelling will know. It’s just that those rules are a lot more implicit, interesting and subtle than THAC0.
In short, if we want more people to read gamebooks, we need to de-geek the mechanics. Mostly that means hiding them altogether, as in Frankenstein, where I do have stats (Trust, Empathy, and so on) but the reader never gets to see them, only their effects. And, if you can’t see the stats being applied, there’s no point in randomness. It’s simply no longer relevant to creating an engrossing interactive story.
Thanks to Farrin N. Abbott of CopyCatFilms for the intertitle card.