Thursday, 24 March 2011

White Rabbits

The Butcher Bunny

Hurrah! Today I finished (bar a few minor holes still to plug) the M4 design doc!

One of the great challenges of designing a multi-hour game is creating the illusion of freewill whilst surreptitiously leading the player around the map.
It's quite a tricky skill to master. White rabbits.
It becomes exponentially more tricky when you're attempting to maximize the sense of freedom by choking events in parallel. It's akin to weaving multiple sub-plots in and out of a narrative; but this narrative is interactive. Man, games would be so much easier to design if they didn't involve players!

To encourage the sense of freedom (using parallelism), I've devised a system of soft and hard chokes. A hard choke constitutes something that the player must accomplish before being allowed to progress. Key in keyhole, if you will. A soft choke constitutes something that the player can unlock immediately, thereby opening up a new set of stuff, or can leave 'til later - at a point where the soft choke hardens.

Using these techniques, it's possible to progress through the narrative in many different ways, using the soft chokes to govern sub-plots and the hard chokes to control the narrative's spine. Whilst I relinquish some control over pace, it's only the pacing of the major developments. The player needs regular developments for sure, but is largely unconcerned with the scale of each development. Furthermore, I still get to regulate the maximum space between two major developments by controlling the amount of available soft chokes in any area.
I'll be honest with you though: the amount of actual control I have over the pacing of an interactive medium ain't great anyhoo: one woman's brief caprice is another woman's Fermat theorum.
Also, by permitting variations in the order in which certain events are triggered, I expose the emotional topography to a degree of peril! I test the topography's integrity by imagining the worst abuse a player can inflict with her gifted freedom.

This isn't a major headache until you consider that the player needs to be led around the world. Where do I lead her, and how? And how much?

I refuse to use screwdrivers, spanners, crowbars and the like! You can't make me!
They do the job of leading alright: player finds panel attached to wall with screws; player mooches and finds screwdriver; player returns to panel and uses screwdriver to unscrew screws, thereby releasing panel.
Once we understand how a mechanic works, we can dress it in the most enticing bespoke garments.
(Today I choked a giant three-eyed doll named Madeleine with a stripy sock. Just as key leads to keyhole, stripy sock leads to giant three-eyed doll with one stripy sock and one bare foot. And best of all, I reused the sock: it was used earlier to clean blackbird poopings from an affable metal head.)

In M3, I invited the player into a cottage, and subsequently detained her within the cottage walls (knowing that she would be so intent on exploring the cottage that she would be very unlikely to ever discover that she couldn't actually leave because, if she tried, Cassandra would insist that she help out in the kitchen). Player discovers piano. Piano is interactive. Eddie makes piano remark. Piano is branded upon player's mind.
With the interactive piano established, I could then open up anything I wanted, safe in the knowledge that I could coerce the player back to the cottage on a whim by rewarding her with sheet music.
Same applies to the gramophone: hand a gramophone record to the player and she'll make her way back to the gramophone in the guests' bedroom. (There's an interesting discussion here which we can save for later: if she had just discovered a new area, would she take the record and immediately hurry back to the cottage, or would she fully explore the new area first before returning? Clear danger here is that, if she is presented with an expansive new area and she chooses to explore it, she might utterly forget that she has collected a gramophone record - in which case, the white rabbit becomes a ghost.)

The Ecstasy of Cecelia

So obvious connections between two points in the map allow us to lead between the two.
Another way, and again, this mechanic is dressed in the same hand-me-down costume from game to game, is to make a character appear and then scuttle away in the direction of x.

In Maestro: Music of Death, a woman hangs around the town square until player clicks on her, then she hurries off down the street. In the latest Puppet Show, a mechanical creature kidnaps a young girl and bounds away into the caves; it stops to rest every couple of screens, waiting for the player to catch up, and then springs away again. In Flux Family Secrets: The Rabbit Hole, the player is invited to follow a... well, say no more.

By constantly leading the player, we ensure that the forward momentum is sustained.
Without leading the player, we run the risk of stalling as our player ambles through inactive rooms or pokes at yet-to-be-triggered events.
(I'll have to exhume my sandwich idea. Essentially, it works on the notion of creating maximum propulsion by placing the protagonist between a hunter and an enticing goal, often wrapped in a countdown. I used Wolf Brother as an example, if memory serves.)
Our producer was keen to introduce as many inactive items as early as possible. She reasoned that people like to see stuff that they can't activate yet. I think this reasoning is flawed, and that a balance must be struck between creating anticipation, and actually developing stuff. I trialled the latest Puppet Show and was a tad dismayed when my 'to do' list started getting out of hand.

Too much choice induces panic. Place a player into a room with thirty open doors and any sense of freewill you present is utterly negated by confusion and insecurity.
To counter this, simply send a white rabbit through one of the doors and the player has something to latch on to. However, the designer has to be prepared for the player to choose any of the other twenty-nine doors!
So, the amount of leading required is dictated by the amount of choices the player has at her disposal.
Lord of Mirrors sidestepped the problem almost entirely. Player is placed in room and required to solve all puzzles in room; player enters next room and previous room is discarded. Navigation was entirely linear. Any leading was reserved for simple connections between scene items.


I simply don't have that kind of luxury. Relatively speaking, our budget allows for a small map, less than half the size of something like an MCF game. (I do occasionally slide a sketch to Ben and we wink at each other and make a new scene on the sly. If it's really good - and they always are - and if I can get creative with the schedules - and I always can - there are never any complaints :o)
This means I have two options. I can go linear and squeeze the player from one end of the map through to the other, holding her in each location until she has solved an amount of puzzles; or I can shepherd the player around the map, constantly introducing beautiful new scenes, and then reuse these scenes by developing them, changing their function with altered context or abilities, keeping them fresh and exciting and surprising for many hours.

Righty, it's the weekend. I should do proper things like what other people do. If it's pleasant tomorrow I might weed the garden and sit out with a cup of Earl Grey and the Penguin History of the Second World War. It's spring 1940 and the Battle of Britain is about to kick off...

The Butcher Bunny, the Ecstasy of Cecelia, and YHWH are the astonishing accomplishments of Mark Ryden.

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