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July 7, 2002

A small argument O’Reilly & Associates publisher Tim O’Reilly has a very sensible column on the O’Reilly site, taking issue with some aspects of a recent Washington Post article about the not-exactly-immense e-book publishing industry. I agree with just about everything O’Reilly says, save for one sentence that prompted a mild rant from me in the comments section following his column. (The subject is storytelling and its relationship to supposed “delivery vehicles.”)

Oh, and Clarion is terrific, but very absorbing, as I expected: twenty students, three or four new stories per day, one-on-one meetings with each of them, and so forth. This being 2002, some of the students are also writing weblogs. As foreseen, I myself haven’t been on line much. More later, of course. [11:02 AM]

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Hard-Hitting Moderator: Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

Comments on A small argument:

Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2002, 12:12 PM:

Your rant doesn't even go far enough: Games aren't "storytelling". There are points of similarity between games and stories, but the more a game is like a story, in general, the less it is like a game, and vice versa.

Greg Costikyan elaborates this idea on his website, at http://www.costik.com/gamnstry.html .

Neel Krishnaswami ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2002, 12:55 PM:

Greg Costikayan is still wrong. There is no essential nonlinearity in games, and linearity is not a necessary virtue of storytelling.

For example, consider a wargame designed to replicate the battle of Waterloo. The design is a success they can replicate the actual flow and outcome of the battle. Moreover, the outcome has to be inevitable only given substantial freedom of action to the players and best-effort play on both sides -- there's no art in building a game that replicates Waterloo by depriving the players of choice.

Now, this criterion for good design is almost identical to the standard advice about good plotting: the writer should let the action arise out of the natural decisions of the characters, rather than forcing the characters to make decisions based on the plot's needs.

Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2002, 11:37 PM:

There is an essential non-linearity in *good* games. A game which replicates the battle of Waterloo without allowing the player any choice at all is a very poor game, and a game about the battle of Waterloo which ends with the British-Prussian alliance always winning is probably not much better.

The fact that there are pieces of advice which make for good games and, in a different sense, make for good stories does not prove that they have the same purposes. "Know what the words you use mean" is a rule which can be applied equally well to writing fiction as to writing contracts, but that doesn't mean that contracts are fulfilling the same need as fiction.

Neel Krishnaswami ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2002, 09:19 AM:

No, that's not true. Nonlinearity is *not* an essential feature of a good game. Consider Zork: all of the problems in the game must be solved in a particular order, in a particular way. This is massively linear, and yet, it's one of the great computer games.

Zork doesn't offer nonlinearity. It offers the appearance of choice. This is important, because it's the difference between a structural feature of the game and an aesthetic attitude that the players bring to it. The former you're stuck with; the latter you can take apart and put back together interesting ways.

This is clearest with roleplaying games, because the rules are freeform enough to permit coming up with all sorts of variations. For example, I have a two-session adventure in which the players take on the roles of Aquinan angels. In Aquinas's theology, angels and demons perceived the entire universe in a single moment, and hence had full foreknowledge. The way I model this is to spend a session in which the participants figure out what will events will happen in play, and then in the next session we play that out. All of the actions are fully determined; it's the emotional responses to omniscience and predestination that are not.

Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2002, 03:58 PM:

Neel said:
>No, that's not true. Nonlinearity is *not* an
>essential feature of a good game. Consider Zork:
>all of the problems in the game must be solved
>in a particular order, in a particular way.
>This is massively linear, and yet, it's one of
>the great computer games.

Two points, one narrow and one broad:

Narrow: The puzzles in Zork most certainly do NOT have to be solved in a particular order, at least not in any version I ever played. Certain puzzles (like the sliding rooms puzzle) required long sequences of fixed moves to solve, but you could solve the sliding room puzzle followed by the Fabrege egg puzzle, or the egg puzzle then the sliding room puzzle, with no impact on the outcome of the game.

The broader point is this: Even in a puzzle (and I do consider puzzles to be a kind of game; some people don't), if the player has no choice of actions, there's no puzzle, and hence no game. If I'm playing a puzzle and at *all* times there is only one thing that I can do, it's no puzzle at all; it's just something to poke and prod at until it comes apart. If you can't fail to solve it, it's not a puzzle; if you can't make choices, it's not a game.

(Yes, this means Candyland isn't a game. And so it shouldn't be.)

Most stories do not offer choices to the reader, beyond "do I continue with the story or not?". To the degree that a story offers those choices, to my understanding it becomes less like a story. It might become more like something different and equally good or even better, but it's less like a story. (A conversation is less like a story than a lecture is, but in general I prefer conversations to lectures.)

Scott Janssens ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2002, 06:21 PM:

Already, this group has put more thought into gameplay than the average computer game design team. OK, I'll admit I may be a _little_ cynical from my years in the computer game industry. :)

Avram ::: (view all by) ::: July 09, 2002, 01:16 PM:

Actually, Scott, Kevin comes from the computer game industry, as do I. As do Greg Costikyan and Eric Goldberg (the guy he's arguing with at the beginning of the essay kevin linked to).

Scott Janssens ::: (view all by) ::: July 09, 2002, 04:44 PM:

Then you know what I'm talking about :)

Neel Krishnaswami ::: (view all by) ::: July 09, 2002, 06:05 PM:

Kevin wrote:
>
> The broader point is this: Even in a puzzle (and I do consider
> puzzles to be a kind of game; some people don't), if the player has
> no choice of actions, there's no puzzle, and hence no game. If I'm
> playing a puzzle and at *all* times there is only one thing that I
> can do, it's no puzzle at all; it's just something to poke and prod
> at until it comes apart. If you can't fail to solve it, it's not a
> puzzle; if you can't make choices, it's not a game.

I don't agree. The problem the player faces can simply be to deduce
what the correct next step is. At each point there's only one useful
thing to be done.

Some of the most fun computer games I've played have been A-B-C quests
of this form. (Find the Toilet Plunger of Unclogging and give it to
the Sewer Elves. Get the directions to the Sacred Parking Lot. Beat
up the lot attendent and steal the Mithril Keys of the Jaguar from
him. Drive the Jaguar to the Mall of Really Cool Stuff and trade in
the Jaguar for the Grommet of Ultimate Power. You know the drill.)

> (Yes, this means Candyland isn't a game. And so it shouldn't be.)

Unsurprisingly, I don't agree. I don't think it's any less a game than
tic-tac-toe.

Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: July 09, 2002, 10:24 PM:

Neel says:

>The problem the player faces can simply be to

>deduce what the correct next step is. At each

>point there's only one useful thing to be done.

If there is only one *thing* that can be done, then there is no puzzle, and no game. If there is only one *useful* thing that can be done, then there is a puzzle.

> You are in a dark room. If you type anything

other than "go north", your command will not

be registered.

> [response not entered]

> No, really. Right now, you can type "go

north". Nothing else will have an effect.

> [response not registered]

> Now, now. We can wait all day. Just type

"go north" (with or without the quotes;

we're not picky) and we can all get along

with the tour.

And so forth.

As to Candyland: I don't know whether you've played it recently, but Candyland doesn't offer the player any choice. You spin the spinner and move your piece. It's completely non-interactive. Compared to Candyland, Tic-Tac-Toe is Go and Chess and Iron Man Triathlon rolled into one.

Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: July 09, 2002, 11:32 PM:

Sorry about the crappy formatting on that. The joke would work a lot better if it were legible. Try this:

Zorkmaster: You are in a dark room. If you type anything other than "go north", your command will not be registered.

You: [response not registered]

Zorkmaster: No, really. Right now, you can type "go north". Nothing else will have an effect.

You: [response not registered]

Zorkmaster: Now, now. We can wait all day. Just type "go north" (with or without the quotes;
we're not picky) and we can all get along
with the tour.

And so forth.

Candyland still isn't a game, by which I mean that it's not useful to discuss as if it were in the same type of activity as games like Tic-Tac-Toe and Shogi.

Alan Hamilton ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2002, 03:44 AM:

Courtesy of Infocom and Douglas Adams:

>listen
(to darkness)
You hear the deep and distant hum of a star drive coming from far above. There is an exit to port.
>port
You can't go that way. (We were lying about the exit to port.) There is an exit aft...
And also
>aft
That entrance leads to the Infinite Improbability Drive chamber. It's supposed to be a terribly dangerous area of the ship. Are you sure you want to go in there?

>aft
Absolutely sure?

>yes
I can tell you don't want to really. You stride away with a spring in your step, wisely leaving the Drive Chamber safely behind you. Telegrams arrive from well-wishers in all corners of the Galaxy congratulating you on your prudence and wisdom, cheering you up immensely.

>aft
What? You're joking, of course. Can I ask you to reconsider?

>no
Engine Room
You're in the Infinite Improbability Drive chamber. Nothing happens; there is nothing to see.

>look
Engine Room
I mean it! There's nothing to see here!

>look
Engine Room
Okay, okay, there are a FEW things to see here. This is the room that houses the powerful Infinite Improbability Generator that drives the Heart of Gold. An exit lies fore of here.
Sitting in the corner is a spare, portable Improbability Generator.
There is an ionic diffusion rasp here.
There is a pair of hypersonic pliers here.

Alex Steffen ::: (view all by) ::: July 13, 2002, 04:25 AM:

I was just going to say I'm glad you're having a good time at Clarion, and that it sounds (from Deirdre's blog) like it's the usual pressure-cooker-cum-creative-outburst of which we've heard.

But now I feel like I should take some sort of stance vis-a-vis linearity, gaming and storytelling. Well--

Aw, screw it, I'm in a mountainside cabin in Northern California, Die Zauberflote is on the radio, and there are shooting stars. I'm going outside.