Design and documentation journal for my interactive fiction (text games); also reviews and other miscellaneous stuff.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Big Fantasy

One of the many things I love about text games is how much control it gives authors over the character's perceptions. Untrustworthy narrators are a much bigger challenge in a game where you've also got a videofeed.  FTA doesn't have an untrustworthy narrator per se, but skills are on the list, and one of the things I would dearly, dearly love to have happen is for the presentation of the world to subtly change as the PC gains knowledge.

So if the PC's plant-knowledge skills were low, she might barely be able to distinguish between trees - descriptions would be pinned on things like size.  As knowledge increased, she might be able to pick out major families - she can identify a maple with reasonable accuracy, even if she doesn't know the species.  Later, the knowledge would not only give her accuracy of naming, but also insight into status.  Verbs could change - "grow" could be "flourish" if the plant is happy, or "languish" or "struggle" otherwise.

The giant initial hurdle is the sheer quantity of text that has to be written with excruciating accuracy and testing, followed immediately by fractal parser wrestling.  Then the player has to stay immersed long enough to experience this transition, and for it to aid the way they play.  It's too much work for a large game written by a single author - it's the sort of thing that demands giant databases and teams, but I hope someone does it.

I may have lied earlier - I think this kind of perception might be easier to do on, say, a tile based graphic game; all you need to do is use the same tile for every tree until the PC is at a high enough "level" to get different trees/flowers/shrubs/etc.  Thus, what initially appears to be sort of repetitive and boring when the PC is ignorant becomes tremendously diverse with knowledge, without any actual change in the world - only in perception.  Level increase in this case becomes less about grinding or unlocking achievements than it does about character development and exploration.

Even some of the non-visually oriented skills could benefit from this sort of mechanic; hunting could initially be fairly routine.  Additional skill gives you insight into animal behavior, and means that a) you notice a lot more tracks and dens and so forth in general, and b) the hunting commands are far more detailed and nuanced, progressing from, perhaps, a simple report ("You catch nothing.") to expanded descriptions and choices that honor the things the PC already knows ("Fresh deer tracks lead into the shadow of wood; they were likely made no more than an hour ago.").  This is something that doesn't need to be nearly as built in as the description-based day-to-day stuff has to be.  It's not easy to replace every reference of trees in game text with a nuanced, PC-appropriate description; it is much easier to go in and fiddle with a specific action.

One advantage is that properly scaled reveals could also let the player pick stuff up gradually as well.  Let's say the player is trying to grow corn.  A beginner farmer may notice only a few big things: if the plants are dry and withered, if the crop is ripe, and maybe a cosmetic issue or two.  By the second season, the PC can recognize that wilted plants need water, and has a better sense for when it will ripen.  She begins to notice insects and leaf condition, and maybe soil quality.  The beginning player picks up on things in the order of importance, too - she will need to make sure there's water, followed by fertilizer and insect control, followed by more esoteric things.  It teaches the player about how the game is prioritizing information (or how the game wants the player to prioritize information), which is helpful when there's lots of bits to pay attention to.  It's also better than a tutorial, in the sense that the player doesn't have to retain all the information at once.  And, of course, there's nothing to stop advanced players from fertilizing the corn even when their PC doesn't recognize that as an issue yet.

There's a potentially ugly issue here: first, if the player likes the way an optional action works, and uses it a lot, it's going to change.  Let's say Bob the Player likes short descriptions, and thus sends Kyle the Character off to hunt regularly.  As Kyle improves, Bob is going to get less and less of what he likes in the first place.  And Chuck the Player would have preferred longer descriptions and more interaction from the start, so never really sent his character hunting much to begin with.

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