I’ve been thinking again about actions and how they’re expressed, and how the communication of an action relates to player agency.
Let’s say, for now, that agency is the player’s ability to affect the world and story, and it depends, in turn, on whether the player can form a reasonable guess about the results of an action before taking that action. If the player cannot guess or does not care where the action will lead, there is no agency; the player is providing the energy for forward motion but is not meaningfully steering the work.
The thing is, different kinds of actions are themselves susceptible to different degrees of agency. We’ve been moving slowly (and with varying degrees of success) away from having all IF commands be of the sort appropriate to physical action.
If we consider the types of agency involved in different kinds of action in the real world, we will be able to come up with better ways for the player to command non-physical actions.
Physical Actions (Default)
Physical actions such as TAKE BOX, DROP MATCH, OPEN DOOR. The player has a clear, well-delimited idea of what should happen when he makes the action; there is a strong possibility of agency. This translates easily into other game media as well: shooters and many puzzle games allow the player a limited set of physical actions that can be performed within a consistent system.
If one wants to hang a narrative on this, the challenge is to find a way to make a story where physical acts are freighted with emotional meaning. Usually the way to handle this is to create set scenes of crisis (see: the end-game of Portal).
Since it is easier to act physically on bodies than on minds or emotions, these conclusions are often (though of course not universally) violent.
Undirected exploration such as EXAMINE CUP, THINK ABOUT SAMANTHA, and so on. The player usually(*) does not intend any particular specific result, but if the responses are implemented at all the exploration is likely to be successful, in the sense of revealing new information to the player. This is even more true of THINK than of EXAMINE, though THINK is relatively uncommon in IF. (On the other hand, sometimes EXAMINE produces the player character’s insights and commentary about an objects.)
One can safely “drive” this kind of interaction via keyword. Blue Lacuna relies a lot on this kind of interaction, which is one reason that its highlighted-keyword interface is effective in conveying so much of the possible action to the player.
Hypertext can do the same, which is perhaps why so much hypertext fiction is about mental experiences — memories, thoughts, juxtaposed visions — rather than physical ones.
When I think about a topic, I have no intention in advance about what I am going to conclude as a result of that thought. I may have some distant notion that thinking more about topic X may reveal a similarity between X and Y; or (on a more emotional plane) that thinking more about X will irritate me. But this information about the probable result of the thinking is often vague and intuitive rather than specific and verbal.
Hypertext about intellectual journeys sometimes, but not always, provides enough clues to replicate this aspect of thinking. One of my favorite examples is Le Reprobateur, about which I have written some agency-related comments before; it also has the advantage that there is an implicit goal, to find out as much as possible about the story, pursuing its themes in whichever order is most satisfactory. The Space Under the Window also gives some (limited) contextual cues about where it might lead to follow up on particular words, but its success here is variable.
As we dig deeper into the problem of characterizing the player character, I wonder whether we might not want to look again and more closely at this sort of interaction. There’s a lot of IF that has explored transferring mental and emotional states into a physical realm via metaphor. Some of it has been fairly effective and some rather overdone, but in all cases the metaphorical handling an intellectual maneuver that tends to distance the player from the very emotional states that the work is intended to investigate. On the other hand, many players have reported a direct visceral reaction to art games such as Jason Rohrer’s Passage or Gregory Weir’s (I Fell in Love With) The Majesty of Colors. These use extremely simple gameplay and narrative content but offers the player very intuitive controls and feedback.
The goal of exploring more in this direction would not be to convert IF into hypertext or to do away with the actions from a story, but instead to present interludes in the storytelling that would allow for internal monologue; and to allow the player not only to explore but perhaps even to establish the PC’s motivations without, on the other hand, being reduced to answering yes/no questions about them. In a comment on a previous post, Conrad wrote
Similarly, choice-points ought not be points. They ought to be networks of moves, each move clearly working toward the chosen effect… Plus, being able to move around inside the exploded view of a decision node is just more interesting than push-button contigencies.
At the time we were talking about a conversation scene that moved gradually towards one outcome or another, but the same could also happen in interior monologue, as the player character moves gradually towards one emotional state or degree of resolve rather than another.
I have some implementation ideas about how to hint to the player about the outcome of thinking/emotional choices, enough to endow these scenes with agency and give a more intuitive feel to traversing them. But I need to try a few out and see how they go.
Directed exploration. I said above that the player usually does not intend any particular result of exploration, but sometimes there is in fact very specific information that the player wants to extract. Proponents of heavily simulated worlds have touted as a benefit of such a system the fact that they would then be able to type questions like HOW BIG IS THE BOX? or WHAT COLOR IS THE KERCHIEF? and receive meaningful answers that, in turn, might improve their understanding of the pictured world and perhaps help them to solve puzzles. (See also: David Welbourn’s brand-new 69,105 Keys, where arguably the entire point is to get the player to ask more and more refined questions of the model world.)
One concern about this, in turn, is the fact that specifying all this data, even where it isn’t relevant, may place an undesirable burden on the author. A couple of further options would be to implement such commands with a “That doesn’t matter” response to most “how big/what color” sorts of questions, directing the player only to consider the qualities of objects that have puzzle value; or to rely upon invented specificity, which is probably what a human game-master would do.
Player: “What color is this kerchief?”
GM: (never having previously considered the question) “…Pink.” (It is now.)
In such a scenario, the game would default to most objects having indeterminate color, material, etc., but would select a plausible one (and some work would have to go into crafting the definition of plausibility here) in response to player inquiry; after which, the object would be permanently defined as a pink kerchief and retain that characteristic for the remainder of the game.
I think directed exploration may have some interesting potential, but I am not quite sure how it might improve narrative interactivity as we usually see it in IF. I can fantasize up some directed questions the player might ask about story, like WHY IS SAMANTHA ANGRY? or WHO KILLED STEPHEN? — and it might be really interesting to play a game that was able to introduce new scenes explaining the answers to these questions, though it would be a lot of work to program and would probably require conversation-like prompts in order to make the possibility space clear enough to the player.
Besides, the result is the player acting like a reader, not the player acting like a character — not necessarily a bad thing in interactive narrative, but a different thing than we usually do in IF.
In practice, I think something like this would come out a bit like a conversation game, only the interlocutor would be the parser/narrator rather than a character within the story.
Expressive actions such as SMILE, FROWN, and CRY. The player wishes to convey or connote something without necessarily having any effect on the game world at all. These are equivalent to the natural facial expressions, gestures, and expletives that we produce thoughtlessly during the course of daily life; they’re naturally low-agency actions, in that we tend not to think about or intend any consequence at all.
(I’m not counting, here, calculating gestures that people make with the intention of manipulating one another; those might go under the heading of Conversation instead.)
Along somewhat related lines, part of Chapter One of Blue Lacuna invites the player to type free-form responses to various events. If it recognizes specific keywords in these responses, it tweaks the replies accordingly; even if it does not, however, the fact that the player has been challenged to consider her reactions and feelings adds impact to the scene.
The questions to the player in The Baron are similar in some respects, in that they invite the player to consider moral questions and suggest answers; I found that a little more cerebral and distancing, though that may not be a bad thing. (Would I have wanted a deeper visceral connection to the protagonist of The Baron? I don’t think so.)
Expressive actions are the kind that can most benefit from completely freeform input, where the parser acknowledges whatever it can but never actually rejects anything (since no expressive reaction is ever “wrong”). Within the context of a mostly parsed game, of course, that’s a bit tricky, since the parser can and should reject physical action commands it doesn’t understand, and it will only recognize expressive commands if it has been explicitly programmed for all of them.
Blue Lacuna gets around this by dropping into a visibly different parsing mode. That works for its purposes, but part of the fun of expressive actions lies in being able to incorporate them freely into the rest of the gameplay (see: The Tale of the Kissing Bandit, Lost Pig).
I have one crazy idea that is probably lame: let the player type an escape character to shift the parsing into “expressive” mode, at which point it would respond to keywords if it could, but otherwise indicate a generic acceptance. Downsides: this feels a little unnatural to do; it is an additional convention that would have to be taught to the player; it requires the author to spend some time thinking about emotive responses the player might want to communicate at each stage of the game and build in keyword responses, which is an extra chunk of work that might or might not enhance the experience.
Possible upside: one of the things I enjoy about beta-testing is making little escape-charactered comments back to the game. I wonder what it would be like if the game were primed to respond to those but in a different register from the regular interaction. On the other hand, I may be totally alone in enjoying this.
Like I said, probably lame.
Haha, when I used my first spell I typed in “awesome” as a command and the game replied “Thanks.” I love that level of responsiveness.
This is obviously fun, but probably belongs in a different category, since it is communication with the game from the persona of the player rather than communication in character.
Conversation is itself a salad of all these things. It can express intended results in the emotional or physical model (INSULT QUEEN), (PERSUADE QUEEN TO DONATE MONEY FOR OCEAN VOYAGE); it can be undirected exploration (ASK QUEEN ABOUT THE KING) or directed (ASK QUEEN WHERE THE KING IS).
IF has developed a range of input conventions to allow the player to do all these kinds of things, depending on circumstances; and one of the things I like about hinted conversation (as seen in TADS 3 and in Eric Eve’s I7 conversation extensions) is that the same game can safely incorporate all of these different varieties of conversational agency in the same place.
If the prompts are written sensitively, they allow some characterization via the gap between intention and execution. For instance, imagine a scene in which the prompt is
You could flirt with the mariner or try to make him laugh. (Men like a lady with a sense of humor.)
The MAKE HIM LAUGH option could lead to the PC telling an awkward joke, making an offensive remark, or throwing a pie at his face. Which one happens will give us a lot of information about the player character, even if her action is not what the player intended. Rameses has a few bits where the player’s command and the player character’s execution have surprisingly little to do with one another, but in ways that illuminate the character.
Agency gap. This last point opens up a sticky issue. If the player’s actions always go exactly the way he intends, he has a lot of agency, but he’s probably bored by the narrative direction. If they never go the way he intends, he has little or no agency, and may feel that he is being toyed with by the author.
Input uniformity. Another problem is that mixing all different forms of command structure — free parser-based input, hinted conversational input, moments of multiple-choice decision, and hyperlinked exploration — may lead to an off-puttingly complex experience for the player.
On the other hand, some amount of this may be necessary if we are going to offer the player the different sorts of agency that pertain to non-physical acts.