Tag Archives: jesse schell

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.

Why not a Proust-themed transmedia work?

Why a Proust transmedia world

This semester, I am taking Jesse Schell’s Game Design class. He did a lecture on transmedia, which has recently become something of a buzzword. In his lecture, he mentioned several examples of transmedia worlds, like Peter Pan, Sherlock Holmes or even Tolkien, that were created long before the concept of transmedia itself. Peter Pan is particularly notable, as it was first a short story, then a play and then a novel. It was transmedia in the nineteenth century. This is true of others works, but Peter Pan is very noticeable in this regard. As Jesse was explaining this, my mind went straight to Proust. Proust definitely created a world. It is deep, it if fictional, and it has another criterion that Jesse brought up: it makes some wishes come true. Most of all, it is huge. It may not seem like it at first, but it really is gigantic. A partial list of characters available on line just begins to show the depth and subletly of Proust’s world, how it is multilayered and how every small piece has meaning. Unlike the other worlds that Jesse showed, Proust’s world does not have supernatural elements, but, very much like Star Wars, or Tolkien, there is a deep, meaningful philosophy present throughout the whole narrative, the philosophy of the two “ways,” Swann’s Way and the Guermantes Way, what they mean, how they relate, who fits in which and how they can be applied.

The number of pages that compose The Remembrance of Things Past varies from one edition to the next, of course, but the estimate that’s given most of the time is three thousand pages. That’s if you stick to one version. The last three volumes, composed of the “Albertine novels,” The Captive and The Fugitive, as well as the seventh and final volume, Time Regained, are posthumous and unfinished, that’s why they’re only about two hundred pages each. What makes it into the final book depends on the editor, and of all the current French editions, each picks a slightly different variation. I’m not sure where to show sources for this assertion, as I personally stuck to the Gallimard versions, but I heard this from a Proust expert, Pascal Fouché. The Pleiade edition, also from Gallimard, is supposed to have all known variations.

But the variety of versions for a single, huge, coherent world does fit within Jesse’s definition of a world suitable for transmedia. At note about the “coherent” part: Proust’s story is notoriously incoherent, particularly when it comes to time. Time is basically “bent” in Proust. In the first volume, the narrator remembers seeing a woman whom he refers to as “the lady in pink” when he was about ten years old and was visiting a philandering uncle of his. Spoiler alert: the lady in pink is, a few volumes later, revealed to be none other than Mrs. Swann. But, by that time, it is also made clear that Gilberte Swann is the same age as narrator, so when the narrator saw the lady in pink at the age of 10, Gilberte was also 10 years old and at that time Mrs Swann was married and no longer called on single gentlemen at all. So really the narrator, at the age of ten, was visiting the version of Mrs Swann from several years before he was born. This point is never made explicitly, but such inconsistencies do not stand out it Proust. The story of The Rememberance of Things Past is made to be as vague as possible and these details, more than anything, give it an organic texture, like something you’d remember but that is on the tip of your tongue. And three thousand pages long.

The idea of a transmedia world that has in inconsistent story is not that unusual. The canon of Star Wars varies from one medium to the next: there are in fact several “levels of canon” for Star Wars. And Doctor Who has an immensely incoherent story. One of the writers, either Russel T Davies or Stephen Moffat (I’ll admit I don’t remember which one) actually recently said that it doesn’t really matter if the story of Doctor Who is consistent: you can always explain that the timeline has changed because of some sort of time travel. What was important was for the world to be consistent. And in that measure, Star Wars, Doctor Who and Proust all pass.

At the time of writing, the slides for last lecture were not up, and I was relying on them to see how much Proust followed Jesse’s guidelines for a good transmedia world. But at the time, when i was looking at the list on the screen, I was thinking, “That’s pretty much it.” So what’s missing?

Simplicity and transcedance

I’d say that what’s missing is simplicity and transcendance. Proust has neither of those. There are no situations in Proust where the social interactions or personal goals are streamlined to something that can be stated in one sentence. Anything in Proust requires explanations of several pages made of extremely long sentences. Some paragraphs go on for several pages. Proust is, if anything, complex. As for transcendence, there really isn’t any either. I don’t know if transcendence in that context actually means a supernatural element. I don’t think so. But whatever transcendence means, Proust’s world doesn’t have it. The greatest thing his characters can aspire to is some sort of underappreciated artistic achievement and a tiny bit of social mobility. M. Bontemps is gently mocked in the narration at some point because he is a simple diplomat and doesn’t know much about the finer things of life. An occupation that most people at the time as well as nowadays would consider a tremendous accomplishment is still no big thing in Proust’s world.

From then on, the question poses itself: is it a shortcoming of transmedia worlds that they require simplicity and transcendence? Pokémon definitely has it in every form. It is not a world as deep as Proust by any means. Harry Potter is a complex metaphor, but it falls short by the way it fails to address many important issues. The one that always disturbs me every time I think about it is that the wizards definitely have the ability to cure cancer and many other illnesses, they also have the ability to fix many of our social and economic problems. If the world of Harry Potter were to be taken literally, wouldn’t the whole wizard community be guilty of possibly criminal negligence towards muggles? That’s one of the attributes of simplicity and transcendence, the complexities of the real world don’t “map” into it. They do map into Proust.

So are such works, the transmedia works, the works that do embody the principles of simplicity and transcendence, are they inferior to more finite ones? If they are, is it by nature or only the current instances? And if it’s only the current instances, are deeper, more complex worlds about to come when the time is right and the public and maybe authors and technology ready for them?

That, I don’t know. Would Proust be making games today? Would Shakespeare? Maybe. It’s fun to extrapolate but not really useful. Maybe Proust, had he grown up in the seventies or eighties would have been reprimanded for being lazy and pretentious and given up on literature altogether and gone into banking. Who knows? But the question about how deeply simplicity and transcendence it tied to interaction is a serious one. And I have absolutely no clue as to where to start looking to answer it.