I know I’ve posted about this a bunch already, but I continue to be addicted to Echo Bazaar, especially as more people I know have taken it up — which means that there are more people with whom to share the social actions and (more importantly) to compare notes about what’s really going on with the setting.
If you’re interested in reading more about the game from a couple of other perspectives, Pissy Little Sausages gives a wonderfully entertaining overview; Dan Shiovitz talks in detail about the game design, with a bunch of suggestions about balancing it for better gameplay (1, 2, 3, 4; possibly more to come). Edited to add: and Sam Kabo Ashwell’s take, too.
As is often the case when I become interested in a game, I wish I had access to a version of the underlying system so I could experiment with telling my own stor(ies) in it.
It is possibly just as well that I don’t right now, though, as I am also still poking around with ChoiceScript. This is something of an experiment (how much of a world model can I fit in there? how does a CYOA interface work with puzzles and a somewhat more game-like feel? if there is a world model of some depth, and the individual choices are more predictable in effect, is the CYOA interface still a bit distancing, a bit unimmersive?).
I’ve gotten to the point now where I acknowledge that the system is remarkably flexible for a CYOA system, but I miss having a full-powered programming language at my disposal. There keep being all these loops, and variables, and it would be nice if I could have some lists to keep track of things.
At the same time, because ChoiceScript works are presented in the browser but in a very bare-bones layout and style, I keep wanting to stop working on the game and start working on CSS to make it look prettier. For straight text in IF I am mostly forced to trust the player to have gotten and be using an interpreter that suits his personal typographical preferences. Once I can publish my Glulx works online, I’ll probably fuss a lot more about the presentation side of things. (Speaking of which, Wei-ju Wu has made some more progress on his browser-based Glulx interpreter. There are rough edges — most annoyingly, to my mind, the fact that the text jumps up to the top before scrolling down at each command entry — but I am impressed by how much of the functionality does work, with graphical windows and whatnot.)
The ChoiceScript project is focusing me a lot on exactly what I do and do not like about IF as an expressive medium.
I miss the groundedness and texture of an IF world. I miss the sense of creating a place. I miss being able to tuck odd details into the scenery, details that aren’t that important (and that the player knows aren’t that important) but that contribute to the worldbuilding nonetheless. I don’t have to implement all the furniture by hand in a ChoiceScript scene, which is a mercy and makes the project a lot faster than it otherwise would be, but also removes a lot of visceral appeal.
Good IF often has some quality of thereness that cannot be described as a purely writerly virtue. This is a point that seasoned static-fiction writers coming (or being brought) to IF do not always grasp; it’s easy to focus on the transcript of a playthrough because that represents the closest thing to the pages of a novel, and say “This prose isn’t very good! It keeps repeating itself! The player has knocked on the wood paneling three times in the last five minutes, and his character isn’t meant to be an idiot!” But this misses something fundamental. Perhaps a tactile fixation is, in some sense, out of character; but the player character is both protagonist of the story and the player’s proxy within the sculptural space of the game world. In graphical videogames it’s impossible to miss that you’re playing inside architecture and alongside sculpture. This is still true of many text games. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: the created space can be aesthetically pleasing and convey meaning in itself.
CYOA doesn’t feel like it has the sculptural/architectural quality, because it doesn’t let me engage directly with things.
At the same time, I’m savoring the freedom to include actions that would be quite hard to hint fairly to a player if we were in parser-land. The story I’m writing up now is one I’ve tried to code three or four times in conventional IF, and each time I’ve been overwhelmed by the scope of what I was trying to produce: it’s a piece very much about large social actions (bribery, betrayal, learning and keeping and giving away secrets, manipulating characters and groups of characters), played out in a very sizable physical space. When I went about this in a conventional way, each scene took so much effort to construct that I gave up on completing the whole. On the other hand, when I tried to kick the interaction up a level to something more abstract (using commands like BLACKMAIL), it was too difficult to keep the player aware of what all his options were.
After running through several disappointing IF prototypes, I started thinking about vastly different interfaces for the piece — like, say, a Flash game with pictures of the various characters, where you’d click on someone to bring up a Sims-like radial menu of things you could do to him at the moment. (Poison? Betray?) But the output has always wanted to be primarily text, and that seemed like a bad fit for a GUI. Moreover, my imagined interface would mean ditching a lot of elements of the original concept, which involved getting certain people together in the same place at the same time in order to do actions that involved both of them. I could never quite convince myself that that extra work and expense (implementing my world model anew in ActionScript, hiring an artist to help with the character portraits and graphic design) would be worthwhile for the awkward hybrid I suspected would result.
The CYOA version is less granular, and more forgiving if I decide I want to summarize something in order to move ahead to the next interesting choice. Something about the command line suggests that you ought to be offering the player control over every snippet of dialogue if he has control over any. But it also takes harder work on the writing to make things feel present and alive, because the level of attention required to click a button is so much lower than the level of attention required to analyze a situation and then type in a fully-formed new instruction that responds to it.