Writing in Collaboration with the System

I’ve written in the past about the value of a systematic mechanic.

What I mean by this is something that most game designers wouldn’t bother to preface with “systematic”: it’s just the mechanic, the thing the player does in the game in order to influence the model world and make progress. But adventure games, including but not limited to parser IF, often have mechanics that boil down to “move”, “take thing”, “drop thing”, and then a host of specialized object applications and unique verbs. So I add the word “systematic” to indicate something more coherent and consistent than that, a design in which consistent verbs are used repeatedly across the course of the game, and the player is taught to interact with the model world in such a way as to gain in effective agency as they are able to anticipate more and more of the results of their actions.

I’ve mostly talked about this in terms of how a good mechanic makes puzzle design easier and more coherent, and how it allows for consistent coding.

There’s another angle to this as well, though: a well-defined mechanic becomes a writing prompt. It shapes the kind and amount of content we need to write. At its worst it imposes a large burden of excess work, but at its best it inspires thinking about our setting and story in a new way. I find that real stare-at-the-blankness-of-the-page I-can-think-of-nothing-at-all-to-write writer’s block is not a common problem when I’m working on IF, especially IF with a strong mechanic, and I think that’s partly because the machine is always there, offering me prompts.

(I should also caveat what follows by saying that this is my interpretation, as an author and a player: I am inspired in different ways by different systems, but that does not mean either that these are the only suitable uses of the systems, or that other people are or should be inspired in the same ways. I don’t want to lard what follows with too much “I think” and “I find” and “for me” disclaimers, but this is all somewhat subjective.)

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Magical Makeover (S. Woodson)

Magical Makeover is a fairy-tale game in which you, an ordinary-looking person, are preparing for a ball for the incredibly wealthy and/or exquisitely beautiful, so you must use the help of a magic mirror and an assortment of enchanted cosmetics to get ready. Your choices about cosmetic enhancement affect what happens next. As a result, you wind up on one of seven paths, which are themselves linear with no crossovers.

In this opening section where you’re choosing how to remake your look, there’s nothing you can choose that will throw the story off the rails: you’re tweaking various variables for later, in ways that aren’t quite predictable, but the narration has customized descriptions for any combination of products you might attempt. It’s only afterwards that you find out what it’s all done, when it’s too late to make a difference.

This is a rather unusual structure for CYOA. There’s no room for cumulative stakes-building, no way to change course once you’ve decided what you’re doing about your skin this evening; by branching widely but unpredictably at the very beginning, it maximizes the amount of work the author has to do writing the different branches while minimizing the player’s sense of agency at any point.

And yet despite the fact that it violates almost every generalization I could make about sensible CYOA structure, I really enjoyed this game.

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