Monthly Archives: June 2013

Why no dialog trees in Go, Jill!

My current side project is a text adventure tentatively called Go, Jill!. I want it to be a mostly-free roaming world with a main linear story where the player character, the titular Jill, will be able to talk about a lot of things to a lot of people. But one thing I don’t want is dialog trees.

Interactive story and branching

Dialog trees are very similar to the concept of branching stories. Usually, when people hear the term “interactive story” they think of branching story. It seems to make sense, right? How else is a story going to be interactive? In fact, there are many arguments that can be made both in favor of and against branching in interactive stories. Most of them were masterfully presented in the book Interactive Storytelling for Video Games.

In general, branching gives a better sense of agency, and that’s a good thing. But, as counterbalance to that, branching carries many downsides, some of which are:

  • It’s hard to write one good story, let alone several good ones.
  • Similarly, in a scripted story (as opposed to an improvised one), a good plot is usually made by planting narrative seeds that will bear fruit later. This is further complicated if the story branches.
  • A story should generally be surprising. If it branches, people will either be progressing at random or not be surprised.
  • Generally, the end of a story either presents a conclusion or a clearly purposeful sense of non-conclusiveness (like The Sopranos). If the story branches, one may always have the impression that the conclusion they saw is only one of many and that often feels wrong.

An ending being only one of many if fine if the game one plays is really set to make people construct their own narrative. Several role-playing games are made precisely to allow that. However, while they are clearly set in a narrative-like world, they don’t have an actual narrative in the generally accepted sense of the term. The ending the players arrive at simply did not exist before they played. It is not one of many pre-existing ones.

Dialog trees

Dialog trees are mostly a form of branching. Even if great care is placed in making sure that they never have negative consequences (like Ron Gilbert did) every time a choice is made it usually prevents another one. In a game of strategy that’s good, but in a narrative context, that’s bad. Furthermore, most dialog trees don’t take the care Ron Gilbert did and actively use dialog trees to alter the course of the story and branch it out.

And here, we have many problems. The first one is that characters usually know more about their own world than the player does. That’s something that very visible in David Cage’s work. A character can open a drawer and find a photo than makes him sad. The player had no way of knowing that the photo would be there, but the character did. At the end, such choices are just random to the player.

Dialog trees are just like that only more so. When we talk to someone in life, we usually have a good idea of what will offend them and what will make them happy. In games, it’s mostly luck. It’s actually worse than luck because the narration of the games forces it to be surprising, on an innocent-sounding phrase is unpredictably likely to turn out to be offensive to a character for the sake of drama. If it weren’t, the story would be boring.

Also, some of the choices offered in dialog trees might be a lot less subtle than what the player has in mind. Let’s say a character asks the player “Should I go talk to my friend about her husband being unfaithful?” and the possible choices are “Yes,” “No,” and “I don’t know, maybe.” And answer like “Yes” can lead to

  • “You totally should. You’d be a horrible friend if you didn’t.”
  • Or “Yeah. I think so. If you don’t and she found out you knew, she’s going to blame you for it.”
  • Or “If you want. I mean, it’s your decision.”
  • Or “Sure. I’ll go with you. I can’t wait to see the bitch go down!”
  • Or “Yes. Let’s go to the café that just opened downtown.”

Even if the whole first line is given, the conversation might end up having the player character say things that the player never expected.

This is randomness, and randomness and storytelling don’t go well together. This is one of the areas where it is particularly tough for story and gameplay to merge. As Jesse Schell is very found of teaching, randomness is generally good for games. He also likes to say that story is often good for games as well. For my part, I’ll add that randomness is usually terrible for stories.

My alternative

Let’s be sensible: for point-and-click games, dialog trees are still the best solution. But Go, Jill! is going to be a text adventure. For that medium, dialog trees can easily be a bad decision. It’s very important to use one’s medium as much as possible. And I have a blog post about just that topic. For a text adventure, I always found dialog trees to be clunky. A sort of haphazard interface inside of the main interface. Text adventures do not have a perfect interface, obviously, but throwing a dialog tree in the middle of it takes away their main attribute: free exploration or at least the illusion of it. If I’m playing a text adventure, I like to feel like I can type anything. I know that only a few words will actually work, but if I play along and the game is well made, that feeling can still hold.

Some people often like to say that text adventures are misleading because they claim the user can type anything in the input field but only very few of these commands will work. First of all, a list of suggested commands were usually distributed with games at the time. Second, all games restrict actions. Try and have Mario walk in front of a pipe in the 2D games! Get Nathan Drake to talk the people who are shooting at him into changing sides! Take a saw and try dividing up those Tetris tiles! Go ahead, do it! Games are restrictive by nature. Text adventures, like all games, try to use their limitations to be better from them, as opposed to artificially build clutter and pretend that those limitations do not exist.

What I intend to do with Go, Jill! is to encourage the players to have Jill ask about and tell about as many things as possible to the non-player characters, with a specific focus on relations between people. It’ll be a lot of content, but I’ll try to make it work. Again, this will mostly be about exploration. The main consequence to most of that content will be the way the player explores and understands the story. With some exceptions, the actual gameplay will be unaffected. So, for example, Jill will be able to ask character A what he thinks of his romantic partner’s relationship with his mother. This will not be a suggested topic, just not I’ll throw in there. If the player tries it, there will be a response.

The idea is that from one same mass of text, each player will be able to explore the parts of the story that they want at will. Progress will depend on them following the main story path, but it will truly be an interactive experience in the way most of the backstory and underlying relationships will only emerge if the player seeks them out.

There is no negative consequence to picking the wrong option because there is no option to pick. There is no frustration for getting to the wrong ending because there is only one ending. But if a player is not interested in an aspect of the backstory or a character’s opinion, they simply won’t have to pursue it. If, on the other hand they want to learn all they can about what most of the characters think about things, that will be available to them with no in-game downside.

This will definitely not be a game one plays to win but one that one plays to explore.

Tex Murphy: Mean Streets

Box cover from Mean Streets

Box cover from Mean Streets

I played the first game in the Tex Murphy series today, Mean Streets. I didn’t expect much and that’s just what I got. I played the third and fifth of the five games way back when and I loved them. The second one had something of a good reputation, but not the first. Now, I understand why.

Many good ideas, but…

There’s actually a lot of good stuff in Mean Streets. A lot of good stuff. And that’s part of the problem. Many of the ideas are good but:

  • aren’t finished,
  • don’t work well together,
  • don’t belong in this game and
  • while not bad get in the way of gameplay rather than improve it

Still, many of these good ideas are very typical of the early days of video game design, particularly of narrative-based video game design: too much freedom was given to the player, which requires more meaningful content that can or even should be produced.

Let’s look at this in more detail.

Mean Streets had a fully-explorable 3D world in 1989

That, in itself, is impressive. It’s similar to L.A. Noire in concept: the player gets to move at will throughout a city. At specific areas, there are items to interact with. In L.A. Noire, I was impressed the by amount of work that had gone into that system, but I didn’t think it was particularly fun. In Mean Streets, the fact the developers got it to work at all is extremely impressive, but it’s a huge burden on the player and not fun at all. In the end, the player is regularly given four-digit “navigation codes” to be entered in an autopilot system that clumsily navigates through the 3D city.

This system just adds unnecessary steps to get to a destination, when just selecting them from a list would have been much more comfortable. Furthermore, the model for the city is ridiculously simple. It’s just a few shapes on a flat map with in extremely low resolution seen from a tiny viewport. Again, the concept was daring and it’s impressive that it worked technically, but the actual gameplay of it brings nothing but frustration. It takes a lot of time to get from one place to the next, and most of the time, there’s nothing to do but watch very slow movement within an environment and a few numbers changing on the screen.

In the story, the 3D world is navigated with a 3D car. It is possible to fly the car manually and go anywhere. But the controls are so awkward and complex that it is in fact almost impossible to get anywhere by doing that. A fully-polished flight simulator in a rich, detailed world might have been a fun games, but it would not have been an adventure game, at least not in 1989.

Mean Streets allows free input dialog

That’s part of the dream for adventure game developers: allow your player to have rich, detailed, subtle conversations with your characters. Mean Streets goes further and, like Maupiti Island, once a characters has answered a question, the player character, Tex Murphy and either threaten them or bribe them for more information. This is most likely suppose to give a strong sensation of freedom. But it’s not what happens in practice at all.

What actually happens is that both in the manual and in in-game dialog, the player is instructed to write everything down, with numerous repeated advice to check for spelling. The instructions to check for spelling are repeated several times in the manual, sometimes several limes per page in bold, capital letters. What this means, is that one has to write down outside of the game any name that is given and type it back exactly inside of dialog text input boxes. Any deviation will cause the characters to be confused. Bribing or threatening hardly ever worked. It actually never worked when I tried it. I can only guess that it does eventually, if not it would not be in the game.

There’s in built-in help system

It’s possible to pay an informer for hints, but Tex has limited money and there’s no way to know if the informer will have any information or how much she’ll charge for it. This makes the whole process random and frustrating.

The intent and the result

The goal of all this was obviously to hide the linearity of the game. One of the buzzwords of the time was “non-linear.” We now know that there’s nothing essentially wrong with linearity in games. Super Mario Bros. is completely linear and is still considered one of the best games of all time. This absolutely extends to narrative games: the games in the Ace Attorney series are mostly linear and are also very highly praised. The way it’s possible (although not practical) for the player to roam around and the way money can be spent on bribes and informants give the impression that one can reach the end of the game in many ways.

In order to add an action element, there are short combat sections, not unlike in the games of Quantic Dreams. I found they mostly lead to a game over and if one had not saved, a lot of gameplay is lost. But it’s not like the combat sections are announced. They can come at any time and the conclusion of a failed combat section is a game over screen. Combat is generally a bad idea in an adventure game, but unannounced combat that interrupts gameplay based on conversation that just ends the game is even worse.

The game also tried to vary mechanics, much like God of War did successfully years later. But what we got instead was what Yahtzee Croshaw would call a schizophrenic interface. There is:

  • a free-roaming 3D interface for the flying car
  • a non-interactive 3D view for autopilot in the flying car
  • a side-scrolling view for combat
  • a face-to-face view with text input for dialog, and another, equivalent one for phone calls,
  • a visual-novel-like themed interface for locations,
  • white-on black text popups for narration

and others that I might not have encountered. Many of those are not bad, again, they’re just out of place, or unfinished, or too numerous, or a combination of the above.

There’s also a huge contradiction between the views of the city in the flying car and in the side-view action sequences. It’s simply impossible that these two worlds have anything in common. Again, not bad as such, but completely incompatible. That is also true of visual-novel-like sections, which have detailed, rich graphics that don’t match either the 3D views or the combat sections.

And, as Tex spends most of his time flying, the title Mean Streets doesn’t make much sense. Tex seems to spend very little time on streets. Yes, the only time the player sees the streets in question is during combat, but that part of gameplay seems so removed from the rest that it seems odd that it would become the titular feature. It’s not like when the title of a work is an deceivingly inconsequential detail, like Slaughterhouse Five or The Perfume of the Lady in Black. It just seems that that title was given because it was a cool title, reminiscent of a cool movie.

The good stuff

There are many, many good things in Mean Streets that are worthy of praise. Many of these have been kept in future games.

First of all, Mean Streets uses technology that was definitely bleeding edge, such as 3D, video and voice. These were very much ahead of their time in 1989. The got in the way of gameplay or were frustrating, but I’m confident that the failure of Mean Streets is what made the subsequent games so good. After their first Tex Murphy game, Access had figured out what to keep and when to use it.

This game also makes me glad for having taken the class Building Virtual Worlds at Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center and Jesse Schell’s class on game design. These were specifically designed to avoid problems like the one in Mean Streets. I can’t honestly say I would not have done the exact same thing at the time myself.

Heidegger, in retrospect

My last project at the ETC was Heidegger, at our Silicon Valley campus. The client was Electronic Arts and we were very lucky to be able to work with several people from the Dead Space team at Visceral. Our project was about finding a way to deduce player types though gameplay analytics and from there predict how likely people will be to like another game.

I worked on the interface with the very talented Anabelle Lee. She took care of aesthetics and I was in charge of functionality. I took that opportunity to improve my skills with the HTML 5 Canvas and jQuery. But, most of all, I got to experiment with Websockets and the fascinating Tornado web server, written in Python.

I also wrote and edited our promo video. I did not film it, though. That part went to other members of our team.

I would like to take the opportunity to thank Ben Medler, our fantastic client contact for just being so awesome.