Archive for February 2005

Natural action   1 comment

My use of “structural elements” to name things that are actions but not really puzzles was a bit of a hack. I meant that those elements were working as structure, rather than something to “stump” the player, but since normal puzzles define structure as well, it’s not the best term. (I also put in a bit of bias with my first two examples for having the structure require navigating somewhere else first; however, the CPR scene in Photopia doesn’t follow this logic.)

I’m going to stick with natural actions for the moment, defining them as “actions that advance a narrative without requiring insight or logic.”

I’ve also contemplated the problem I posed regarding the “easy” puzzles of Photopia: what makes them different from using a key on a lock? I think the hinge here is the puzzles involve fantasy elements, invented items with possibly no context in the player’s experience. They’re relatively typical Western fantasy elements, so readers with a nodding attachment to those tropes should have no issue, but it’s quite plausable for a player to know nothing of Western fantasy.

Looking over my previous examples, then, I’d say natural actions either a.) Give direct instruction to the player, b.) are repetitions of a puzzle in identical contexts, so after the first time it is quite natural what to do, or c.) are connected enough to a player’s background and context that no thought is required.

C seems like a relative case. Take the possibility someone has never seen a lock and key before. Using a key on the lock then *would* be a puzzle (never minding the fact they probably wouldn’t know the word UNLOCK either). If this is taken as fact, then the “easy” puzzles in Photopia really *are* natural actions for some players, so for those people they are not puzzles at all (which explains why when the game was released there was confusion as to whether it was puzzleless or not).

Now, to the experimental IF question: could an (enjoyable) game be written entirely with natural action? There are, of course, actual examples (like Stephen Bond’s Rameses) but they seem to enforce this through player inaction; pure navigation, or conversation, or a combination of both. Would it be possible to maintain natural action while allowing the player to be in the middle of, say, a spy thriller?

Posted February 4, 2005 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

Structural elements vs. puzzles   Leave a comment

In James Bond: Everything or Nothing there’s a 2-player cooperative mission mode. Throughout the mission there are doors with two buttons; both buttons must be pressed at the same time for the corresponding door to open.

In some contexts this might be called a “puzzle”. However, because the layout is consistent — the buttons are always to the left and right of the door — it’s not a puzzle at all, but a structural element of the level. The doors force both players to be in the same location at once.

In interactive fiction, the equivalent sort of thing can be found with locks and keys. There may be a door with a corresponding key, and some difficulty involved in finding that key, but once the key is located unlocking the door represents a trivial puzzle. The actual matching of key to door is acts as a structural element (forcing the key to be found first) rather than a puzzle.

In Photopia, an early scene involves resuscitating a person. The player is given directions on what to do and a NPC intercedes if the player is simply passive. The events represent player action but do not represent a puzzle. The commands the player enters are part of the structural elements, but not a puzzle.

Later on (with the storytelling scenes), there are some “easy” puzzles. These are not merely structural — the player is not told what to do, and some people have gotten stuck. The actions are strongly implied, but the leap to blatant obviousness isn’t there.

The question I have is, at what point does something turn from structural element into puzzle? Clearly in Photopia’s case the direct commands from an NPC managed it, but what about the more subtle ways? The structural aspect of the lock and key seems to derive from convention — if there was only one IF game that used keys and locks, would that constitute a puzzle because of the lack of repetition? Intuitively, I’d say no — I can’t imagine a player of Dreamhold being stuck on the first locked door once they have a key — but I have difficulty pinning down the exact reason why.

The interest to an experimental IF writer here would be to explore what limits there are in “puzzle-less” IF. Which sort of actions are allowed when avoiding puzzles, and which represent some sort of difficulty and are therefore off-limits?

Posted February 4, 2005 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction