Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Forward Motion and Immersion Cocoons

Ooh, my counter has hit 10,000. I'm not sure what it actually counts... but 10,000!

This caught my eye - presumably due to its claim to the 'experimental interactive narrative' throne.
Reviews are all acceptably favourable, with the same flaws being flagged across the board.
Intrigued, I followed the pixel trail to the dev's blog.

I have to say, I greatly admire Alexei for what he has achieved and for what he attempted to achieve. And throughout his blog, he references a canoe-ful of the major game design books, so he's clearly studied his craft. Most impressive is the way he's handled the recurring negatives (although you'd have to question his 'I agree' remarks for it's difficult to imagine that the public would give two marsupials whether he agreed with them or not).

Anyhoo, do go and take a looksee.

Sooo... two days from usability submission and I got to play the opening act today. Yep, two days to go and we start the playthrough. Sigh.
We're looking at major pacing issues, placeholder ui components, a HO scene with no HO, yet-to-be-implemented music, sound fx and vo, cursor inconsistencies, obscure leading and no exit button. It's a terrifying shambles.
But the wind effects are smashing.
As I maundered my way through the act compiling pages of notes, poor sweet coder Lucy turned rather pale. I do hope she's hardy enough to weather the approaching storm...

What the playthrough highlighted - or highlit - for me was the importance of immersion, and the influence that controlled forward motion wields over immersion. Every time a placeholder graphic sicked upon the screen, or a series of interactions invoked no aural response, or a line of dialogue came and went before I could register the meaning of its arcane shapes or even when a line of dialogue duelled for attention with the pretty coloured forms of a new zoom window, I was jolted further from the world. I can see the world there, interred in the earthy inadequacies and inconsistencies, and I even get to caress its bosom during those stolen moments of uninterrupted flow, but then she is dragged deeper beneath the soil, rent from my lips by the Valkyries of brokentude.

Silky forward motion is the womb of immersion, and credibility of meaning the, um, urethra. That would likely make sensory stuff the fallopian tubes.
Or, to put it another way, for the player to respond to any of the stimulae laced throughout the game like bear traps, the real world has to be kept apart from her conscious mind at all times. Hiccups within her artificial reality will fracture the cocoon which she willingly builds from the materials we provide for her. If the player isn't immersed, she won't care. It's one thing for me to state mid-blog post that Miss Thorn steps off a cliff, and quite another to immerse you into a vivid and interactive world of ethereal sights and sounds and lead you delicately to that one moment in time.
And that cocoon can be so very easily fractured at every single step.

MCF8: Escape from Ravenhearst came out. As predicted, the public reaction to this strange shaped wheel was mixed.
The two principal bones of contention were the morphing object scenes and the abstention from hints, followed closely by the text-less and user-unfriendly strategy guide, the invisible integration of CE material, the discriminatory minimum specs, and the question of taste, chased up by the omission of puzzles or mini-games.

There are two mechanical differences between a HO scene and a MO scene.
In a HO scene, the player is essentially given the instruction: Find several items in this scene.
In a MO scene, the instruction is: Find several items in this scene... oh, but they're only going to appear every five seconds or so.
You could also read the instructions this way:
HO scene: Find several items. Here's a list of those items.
MO scene: Find several items.
The results were:
* The momentum stalled as the player was required to wait for objects to reveal themselves. (The favoured simile was ' watching paint dry'.)
* In order to identify items from subtle changes on the screen, players developed headaches or migraines.

I personally didn't mind the MO scenes (although they did appear with a dogmatic frequency).
It's certainly no surprise seeing Big Fish attempting to breathe new life into a tired formula.
It was a marginally risky decision. The bad decision, though, was to penalize the player for misclicking. Select a non-morphing object and a previously discovered morphing object is returned to the scene.
Attempting to find items in a HO scene causes a lull in the forward motion (due to the repetition and isolation), but does not interrupt it for the items are findable at all times.
Waiting for items to appear in a MO scene stalls the game.
Returning items to the scene reverses the flow of the game - just as the author who attempts flashbacks runs the risk of facing backwards.
Yep, we're back to the importance of forward motion - of continuously developing towards, and promising, a satisfying denouement.

Another way to stall is to remove hints. Player noodles, player reaches impasse, player thinks for a bit, player presses hint button and is back on track.
Take the end off that sentence and you leave the player in limbo without sign of resolution.

Curiously, the stalling and the reversing were sustained for longer than expected due to the life-giving nutrients provided by a cocoon wrought of detail and atmosphere - of rain splashing on leaves and lightning burnished upon the Irish Sea. This immersion cocoon was barely even grazed by the bottle opener which was used to move a boulder.

You know that 'instant rejection' faux pas? - that phrase in the covering letter that instantaneously raises a literary agent's blood pressure and hackles..?

Please find attached chapters five and seventeen. I know you requested the opening two chapters, but chapters five and seventeen are much better.

Yes, it's blinkin' difficult taking a sack of nothing and turning it immediately into something riveting and meaningful. But that's one of the skills a decent writer needs. I had the privilege of reading the MCF8 journal a few weeks ago. It was compelling stuff. (The last page was missing and I found myself cursing!)
So why oh why did Big Fish choose to open so coquettishly?
And do you know what they posted in the MCF8 forums?
Link This game has many chapters with several twists and turns, so you may want to play through more than just the demo before leaving feedback.

Really? You keep all that juicy stuff out of the demo and expect people to assume that the game is going to improve and that they should take your word for it and buy the full game?

Righty, that's an evening of Skyrimming that I've sacrificed for you my lovely maggoteers (or, more likely, for the opportunity to alchemize formless thoughts into barely decipherable sentences to see if I have anything to be concerned about). Are we doomed, or simply at a necessary and inevitable point in the development cycle? In the spirit of forward motion: let's go find out. (Insert ellipsis here.)


Rob said...

nice post. it's impressive how much goes into developing a game

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solv said...

@Rob: I'm so sorry... I missed your comment amongst all the detritous! Thank you! Yep, there are a staggering amount of ways in which a game can be broken, and we need an equally staggering amount of solutions! Sheesh.

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