Category Archives: personal

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.

Indiecade review and highlights

That’s it, Indiecade is over. This is my second conference ever, the first one was GDC earlier this year. A comparison feels apropos.

First of all, the average quality of the speakers at Indiecade does not quite match the incredibly high standards of GDC. But the mood is a different thing entirely. The mood at Indiecade was all about fun. It’s a lot more relaxed. There are much, much fewer people and they seem to be here much more to be here and a lot less because their profession or obligations dictate that they should. Not to say that GDC wasn’t fun and interesting, but the overall “vibe” was more directed, focused. People came to accomplish something and did it. Indiecade was about trying, wandering, discovering, not knowing what to expect.

At GDC, I carefully planned where I wanted to go. At Indiecade, I let myself follow some sort of flow. Some things seemed utterly pointless while some were nothing short of astonishing. There were astonishing things at GDC as well, of course, but the difference was that at Indiecade, the astonishment came without warning, at any time, in any context. Be it about games, technology, general information or just who happened to be in the audience at the time.

Gorogoa, by Jason Roberts

The first wow moment of Indiecade for me was the incredible Gorogoa. It’s a graphical adventure with a mechanic like no other. The innovative nature of its gameplay leaves Loom in the dust. It’s beautiful, moving, fascinating, engaging, surprising and a lot of other good things. It’s, on the other hand, not close to finish and, at the time of writing, quite a bit buggy. The goal of Gorogoa is, apparently, to help a young boy defeat a monster that’s ravaging a city. In order to do this, the boy seems to want to collect color-coded MacGuffins. Nothing too original so far. What makes the game magical is that rather than control a character or his environment, the sets in the game are made of Photoshop or animation cell-like layers and the player gets to re-arrange them to reshape the world, changing the meaning of each shape as it shifts contexts and the meaning of the resulting image. The graphical style of the game is like a nineteenth century engraving, delicate, detailed, organic and understated. It’s a work that could only exist in its medium and that pushes the limits of what I, for one, would have considered within the realm of a single person’s imagination.

Still, I find Gorogoa somehow reminiscent of the experimental works of the French comic book artist, Marc-Antoine Matthieu. Particularly his Julius-Corentin Acquefacques, prisonnier des rêves series as well as his stand-along comic Le Dessin.

Renga, by Wallfour

On Saturday night, I saw a hundred people play Renga by Wallfour. Wallfour, with Renga, has solved what I believe to be a huge problem with many users sending input to a single screen in a way that’s easy to understand: they used laser pointers. A hundred people joined forces to interact with a single using nothing other than laser pointers. The whole experience was fun and riveting. They used a perfect mix of technology and, of all things, stage know-how and dramatic structure.

Super Hexagon, by Terry Cavanagh

Everyone at Indiecade seemed to be playing Super Hexagon, an extremely simple game that got me hooked even though I’m still not sure why. The gameplay is ridiculously simple but irresistibly engaging.

Prom Week screenshotProm Week and more

The final highlight I want to address here is a project that I believe has a huge future in entertainment in many ways: Prom Week. It was not, however, a surprise because I had tried it before. What was a hugh surprise was that I got to meet Aaron Reed, author of what is probably the most remarkable work of interactive fiction in existence so far, Blue Lacuna. There’s a saying: “don’t meet your heroes.” The meaning is supposed to be, “they’ll never live up to your expectations.” In this case it meant, “He will well beyond your wildest expectations and you’ll make a complete fool of yourself in front of him. Or feel like you did.”

Prom Week has a new interface, which is a huge improvement on the old release. I got to speak with Prom Week team member Ben Samuel whose enthusiasm was infectious. He told me a bit about the engine. I still have high hopes for their engine Comme Il Faut, even though, apparently, it is not available for independent distribution quite yet.

Sill, my main takeaway from Indiecade was to have actually met the author of Blue Lacuna, which, to my great shame, I haven’t finished yet. I should really get done with that.

Game Jam entry: Eternal Guardian

My group’s entry for the 2012 Game Jam was called Eternal Guardian. It can be found on the Game Jam’s website. It was made with PyGame, so it works on any platform that supports PyGame: Windows, Mac, Linux and most Unices.

The theme this year was the Ouroboros, the serpent that bites its tail. We made a game on the theme of sustainability and renewal. A Mayan city in peril is granted the help of the snake god from the incoming peril. But protecting the city is not as straightforward as it seems.

As this was made for the Global Game Jam, the whole game, art included, was made in less than 48 hours. Programming was done by Daniel Langdon, Andrew Sweet and me. Daniel was great at solving what turned out to be very tricky math problems. Andrew as our local PyGame expert. I took care of the sound. And all the art was done by Jame Threefoot.

Why I want to make games

Here at the ETC, a very informative and charismatic speaker asked the students, “Why do you want to work in this field.” This field was video games. In her mind, it most likely was in the AAA industry, but maybe she meant video games in general. I had a looming impression that my answer would be too convoluted to fit in the succinct Q and A format we were in, so I kept quiet. Now that time have passed and I have somehow managed to brush my thoughts into a coherent set of threads, I will answer here.

In short: classics.

Interactive media are in their infancy. We may have come a very, very long way since the seventies, but that’s certain to be only the first few steps of a longer journey still. We’re where the Western novel was in the eighteenth century, where the theatre was in the Renaissance, where painting was in the Middle Ages. We’re still in the times classics are being made.

When I got into Carnegie Mellon, I most likely had a choice between the ETC and Dramatic Writing. In many ways, Dramatic Writing tempted me more, but the ETC seemed to be the right choice. An argument I heard a lot if favor of the ETC is that it would make me much more employable that Dramatic Writing. It would have been a blatant display of a superficial character not to take such an important and practical aspect in consideration. But that was not it.

Why would I have gone into Dramatic Writing? Because I love television. Writing in American television blows my mind, not in every instance, of course, but definitely in most respects. But then what? Let’s say I make it television, for the sake of argument. I get a small job as a story editor on a mediocre show. Then another, then another. Then I get a job as a story editor in a good show. Then another. Then I become a lead writer for that show. Then for another. Then, at last I am given my own show. Even if my new show is a success at that point, what then? I will not be like David E. Kelley, or Aaron Sorkin, or Chuck Lorre. Those people will have moved on by then. And with the Internet and (duh) video games taking center stage, where will television be like by then?

Whereas here, in this medium, I have the opportunity, maybe, someday, with a lot of work, a lot of luck and a bit of faith, to be like the David E. Kelley or the Chuck Lorre of video games. I don’t know if games, or interactive entertainment, or whatever one feels like calling them, are where novels were in the eighteenth century. Maybe they are where novels were in the nineteenth century: big, bold, formulaic behemoths of literature about to gain some level of respectability in the arts. Or maybe that’s where games were in t he eighties and we’ve reached the moderns in games. Maybe our independent games will turn out to have been the Virgina Woolfs or the Prousts of the medium. I don’t know. Maybe one of use will be the Agatha Christie of the medium. Given the opportunity, if earned, I’d take that title with more pride I could express here.

The important things is that games are lagging a lot behind most media and that’s normal and we should embrace it and take it as an opportunity to do great things and to be great for it. Interactive entertainment is where the future is still very likely to be shinier, more beautiful, more challenging, more intriguing, more delightful than the present. And I want to be part of that, in some respect.

I, consumerist

It’s been about ten years since I’d lived in America since I moved back here ten days ago. Oh, I’ve visited many times since, but things are slightly different when one lives here. Here are a few poins I thought are worthy of note. They are personal observations about my first ten days in Pittsburgh, not an ideological primer.

  • Coupons are worth it. I saw a lady at the supermarket shrink her checkout bill from $50 to $35 with coupons. Also, the checkout lady refered to them as “cue-pons”, like Mel Brooks’ character in Mad About You. I liked that touch. I’m starting to look into that whole coupon thing. Yes, I am now officially an old lady.
  • My Mac, my internet router and my debit card all arrived early. In the case of my debit card, it was early by several days, and it had a PIN that had been preset by me. Toto, we’re not in Europe any more.
  • I like root beer. I used to confuse it with ginger ale, which is to “ginger-y” for me. But root beer, I like. I also like creme soda, though creme soda tends for suffer more when it’s in its “diet” version.
  • The lady at the pharmacy remembers me and reminds me to take my loyalty card. It’ve lived here ten days. After ten years in London, not a single person behind a counter knew who I was.
  • Verizon’s help desk is well-meaning but not really motivated. Not that I can blame them. When she asked me to open Internet Explorer on my Mac, assuming it was running Windows, I quietly stayed on Chrome. A good thing I was not running Linux. (This last sentence is so going to get quoted out of context.)
  • Pittsburgh is not Manhattan. It’s not easy to find a breakfast with eggs on a weekday in Shadyside. Pamela’s the only one I found so far.
  • The food is healthy. I’m sorry to all of those who assume otherwise, but in my experience it’s true. Don’t get me wrong: unhealthy food is available, and quite easily, too. But on average, I’ve felt well fed without taking huge amounts of insulin without eating at home much more easily than in London or Paris. It’s just that here, when you order a salad, you actually get some greens. Same thing with vegetables. It may be because I eat at CMU a lot, but today, my taco salad had a few tacos, but it was mostly veggies and salsa. And the egg and ham breakfast I had earlier was just that: eggs, ham and a hash brown. No bread, no butter, no baked beans, no croissant, no fried slice, no pastries, no “are you sure you’re sure you don’t want a pastry with that? You can always eat it later.”
  • The buses work better than in London. Now, the buses in Peru worked better than in London (really; I was there and tried them) so it’s not really that much of a challenge. But it’s nice to see that some cities outside of New York in the U.S. have good public transportation. Everything is still made for people with cars, though. But it’s possible to deal without a car.
  • I found generic sucralose (Splenda).

On the whole, it looks like this country is every bit the consumerist’s heaven it’s depicted to be. But I’m really not sure it’s a bad thing. After all, in Britain and France, the main reason we don’t get those sort of things is because we teach the consumers to lower their expectations. That is my experience, at least. (“Well, yes, the train is going to get there four hours late, but you can’t expect it to be on time every time.”)

The U.S., like every country, is not without problems. Actually, it has problems galore. Just look at the news is you want a comical version of the situation and to the Daily Show if you want a soberingly accurate one. But I’m not sure its consumerism is really one of them at all. The people at che checkouts who remember my name seem happy because they’re doing their job well by remembering who I am. That’s nothing to shun or sneer at. If anything, it brings them job satisfaction, which in turn might contribute to some measure of happiness. And I am told by some people who are more learned than I am on the matter that happiness is a very pleasant thing.