GDC 2013: Mordechai Buckman on Interactive Fiction Interfaces

Screen Shot 2013-04-21 at 2.45.21 PMAt GDC this year, I unfortunately wasn’t able to go to Mordechai Buckman’s poster session on interactive fiction because of schedule conflicts. (At any given time at GDC there are usually at least three things I urgently want to be doing…). The good news is that he was good enough to put up a video of that talk, which can be viewed here. I’m going to talk about what he says, but the talk itself is well worth viewing.

His first point is that CYOA and text adventures, and the point-and-click graphical adventures that came after them, are strongly hampered in the types of story they can tell and the variety of pacing they can provide because the interface elements remain fairly uniform throughout and because there are strong conventions about what they can be used for. He describes parser-based games as primarily evoking disorientation in the player; he argues that CYOA games always have to be high-stakes in order to make choices matter.

Throughout this portion of the presentation I found myself raising mental objections. The possibility space with existing tools is not nearly so narrow as he argues. There are a lot of IF games that incorporate some element of menu choice at key moments, or massively constrict the verb or object space in order to focus the player, or keep things moving so that actions keep playing out. There are a lot of CYOA games that present an IF-like world model under the surface, or that allow the player to explore multiple ideas in a leisurely fashion, or that reach for a lyrical experience. Mark Marino has just recently written about how the promise of hypertext, which had seemed long dead, has revised in new forms and formats of interactive literature. In the realm of visual novels and graphical adventures, too, there is a surprising diversity these days.

Nonetheless, though I thought his generalizations were way too general, Buckman’s not all wrong about CYOA and traditional parser IF. There’s a ton of fascinating work at the cutting edge, but a lot of that is coming about precisely because people are thinking about presenting options differently, dressing stories in different skins, and so on. I’d position Buckman’s pitch here not in contrast to what the IF and related communities are already doing, but as another natural contribution to this exploration of what all we can do.

Buckman’s second point is that it would be possible to explore a wide number of other emotional and play experiences by changing up how we display player choice, not just from one story to the next, but from one scene to another in the same story. He offers examples, and laudably they’re not just Photoshop mockups, but short playable sequences you can access on his site. Dialogue buttons change size and shape to communicate how the protagonist feels about saying those things. Boring options appear on just a to-do list to be checked off. In a time-pressured context, options pop up rapidly, obscuring old text. If some of this sounds familiar, you may have run into Buckman’s Gamer Mom at some point in the past. That work moves, expands, contracts buttons to reflect mood. Most of the concepts here have to do with implicitly and intuitively communicating the protagonist’s interior experience to the player without having to spell out how the protagonist feels about things, though there’s a curious minigame example about playing a difficult decision-making problem like a game of solitaire.

Some of Buckman’s mockups work better than others.

The sample involving a detective searching a crime scene confused me both about what I was meant to do and about what action was actually happening. And the examples are kind of rough, aesthetically, which need not be unforgivable, but is at least somewhat important when you’re making a point about the communicative value of such skins. I also know from experience that doing real-time interactive text — something he demonstrates in order to create a sense of urgency and overload — demands a lot from the player, and can make playtesters freak out when they feel that they can’t read fast enough to keep up with the game. Player reading speeds vary enormously, so that two players can find the exact same reading speed either tediously slow or so fast that they can’t keep up.

I’m not sanguine about the Wario Ware-like variety of choice presentations that he recommends, either. Over the course of a long game, it might get exhausting to find yourself wrestling with a new interface every minute or every five minutes. If one used many of these special effects, there’s a risk of winding up with a control mechanism that shares the worst aspects of Heavy Rain’s quick-time events: it’s easy to make mistakes because the buttons mean something different every time you see them, there’s no real way to acquire skill with the system, time pressure is frustrating and important misclicks can undermine the player’s attempts to make choices.

There’s an aesthetic point, too, and that is that sometimes — often — what I want from my UI is for it to become second-nature to the player, to become so transparent that the player can perceive and interact with the game world without consciously thinking about how the choices are laid out. Some of Buckman’s examples are pretty intuitive and could, I think, yield that kind of experience. But that player comfort is, again, undermined if you change the UI constantly. That makes the player a perpetual novice, always having to think more about how to manipulate the game than about what she wants to achieve. Also, Buckman’s setup assumes that there’s not a lot that the interface needs to communicate about the options other than how the protagonist feels about them — which works for no-underlying-model CYOA just fine, but works significantly less well the more mechanically complex the model might be.

And that doesn’t even touch the development issues. Getting one good, attractive UI that performs acceptably on multiple platforms can be the result of massive amounts of iteration and effort. Having to design a new UI for every scene of the game? Yie.

All the same — and I know I just heaped up a lot of caveats — there was a lot to like about Buckman’s suggestions, especially in the context of short games where just 1-3 variant interfaces might suffice, or where communicating a protagonist attitude or feeling was the primary intent of the game. I don’t think these ideas are the cure-all he’s arguing for, but I do think they’re pretty cool in the appropriate context, and worth playing with. And I really strongly agree with the point that we should reconsider our mechanics for the kind of story we want to tell.

I started wondering how one might make a practical tool that would make such games both easier to write and more attractive when complete. Maybe a Vorple skin that could take in option data but dynamically build different styles of button for different contexts? Maybe a Twine add-on?

11 thoughts on “GDC 2013: Mordechai Buckman on Interactive Fiction Interfaces

    • That is hilarious. I was going for a slightly more respectful approach, where you are still (even with the pressure) ultimately a reasonably intelligent and articulate person, but it’s the same idea. (I also liked the idea that the pressure was mostly in the player character’s head, and the target of her interest would have no problem going out with her no matter what. It’s fun to fool the player into thinking what the character thinks.) I was not aware of this game, but I’m not surprised that it already exists. I thought it was weird that no one had done it yet.

      • “I also liked the idea that the pressure was mostly in the player character’s head, and the target of her interest would have no problem going out with her no matter what.”

        Ha ha, you must be much better at this game than I am. I find it very easy to get the flirtee not to go out with me. (It seems to be pretty easy to get stuck in a loop without enough available topics if you start talking about movies too soon.)

        I wonder exactly what the mechanisms are under the hood — it seems that you have to get a certain number of up arrows to succeed, but what’s the penalty for stumbling around awkwardly in your conversation? I think it might be that there’s a different countdown where if you fail to complete sentences enough the other person will just walk away.

        Anyway, I definitely see the difference between your approaches — Flirt-Off captures the feel of trying to string sentences together at the sort of party where it doesn’t really matter if your conversation is coherent while in Gamer Mom it’s the flow of the conversation that matters.

      • “Ha ha, you must be much better at this game than I am. I find it very easy to get the flirtee not to go out with me.”

        Sorry, I was unclear. I meant that I wanted to do that in my own scene, on gdc.gamism.org. It occurred to me that I had been unclear only after I posted the comment.

      • Oh! I hadn’t seen your scene page (just played Gamer Mom) so I didn’t know you had an asking-out game. Yes, I see the differences!

      • The experience of wandering off down threads of thought and not knowing where they’re going to lead (in Flirt-Off, not so much Mory’s example) also reminded me a bit of Argument Champion, where you may think you can see a connection you’re going to be able to make, but it’s just not there when you arrive.

    • Excellent. He liked me saying that I was studying Meme Forecasting, and we bonded over books, though there was one part where I started a sentence “Reading is for…” and then the only completion word I could see was “…nerds,” so I trailed off rather than fall into that obvious pitfall.

      Then he asked me my name and there seemed to be a bug such that my actual name was unavailable, or maybe I just couldn’t find it. Anyway, I told him I was zarf and he really wasn’t into that.

  1. “There are a lot of IF games that (1) incorporate some element of menu choice at key moments, or (2) massively constrict the verb or object space in order to focus the player, or (3) keep things moving so that actions keep playing out.”

    The first is a willingness to switch interfaces, which I explicitly praise in my talk in reference to The Walking Dead. The second is thinking along similar lines to rule 2b on my poster: “Think about who your character is and how he would (and would not) act in each situation. Never show the player any options which the character wouldn’t think to do.”. (Which I find is a good rule of thumb for deciding what sorts of actions fit the context.) The third usually makes the player character into a passive observer rather than an active participant, which has led to some great games which I’ve played (and which were not constrained by the problems I attribute to text adventures) but which also is not ideal for most stories. Still, with most of what you’re saying here I agree. It is good to incorporate the multiple-choice approach occasionally in text adventures, and it is good to constrict the verb or object space. Both of these are ways of escaping the limitations of the text adventure tradition.

    “There are a lot of CYOA games that present an IF-like world model under the surface, or that allow the player to explore multiple ideas in a leisurely fashion, or that reach for a lyrical experience.”

    Here, unfortunately, I have to completely accept your criticism. I’ve replayed some of my old interactive blog posts, which do some of the things you’re describing, and I admit the criticisms I leveled at multiple-choice games don’t make much sense there. The player’s choices didn’t matter that much in my earlier works, and yet I do think they were engaging. So I regret painting all multiple choice games with the same brush stroke. There is certainly a lot of room for good and exciting storytelling there. I was thinking of many multiple choice games which rely too heavily on the player’s feeling of control, and somehow I never put two and two together to realize that the more character-driven work I’ve experienced is the same format. Mea culpa.

    One of your criticisms of my concepts is that “there’s no real way to acquire skill”. If you’re telling a story where the character goes through an arc of getting better at something specific, then it makes perfect sense to give the player a repeating system that they can get better at. The difficulty curve shouldn’t look much like the ones we’re familiar with from other kinds of games, though – at first there should be way too many options and a complicated interface, making the player feel ill-equipped to deal with the situation, and the player will need to use their wits and patience to make it through. By the middle, some of the complexity of the interface and its associated gameplay should be taken away, so that it’s challenging but always manageable. By the end, there should be very little challenge at all, with the interface being efficient and taking away a lot of the micromanagement steps that the player would have been doing by rote already, because the character is now comfortable and confident at whatever it is we’re simulating. (It makes no sense whatsoever for a competent person to suddenly act really incompetent. If you even give the player that option, it diminishes the character and risks destroying the believability of the plot.) This sort of character arc is beyond the scope of these tiny examples which I’ve made, in which my goal was to suggest the breadth of possibilities with different kinds of interfaces, but in a longer game it’s quite doable, and the player will certainly feel that they are getting better at dealing with things. But if you’re not telling a story with a deliberate character arc of getting better at something, then giving the player pride in getting better at a system (while the character does not feel pride, and in fact might feel emotions which conflict with pride!) is not a great idea. It always needs to come from the character, and what makes sense for the story.

    I apologize for the unclear graphics. You’re not the only one to tell me that they didn’t understand what was going on in the detective scene. There were some serious time constraints at play, which made me nervous to pull in an artist, so I chose to rely instead on what little bits of art I could get from my wife and a friend. It was the wrong choice. I kept saying that all the graphics needed to do was get the point across, but it’s clear that they did not do that adequately. Next time, I’ll ask for help even if it means driving the artist insane with tight deadlines. The job was worth doing properly.

    If by “real-time interactive text” you’re referring to the buttons of things that need to be done, that’s a problem which I was aware of and accounted for. Time subtly slows down if there are a lot of things that need to be done. Try playing it while deliberately reading more slowly than you normally do. You’ll find it still works. The growing buttons create a sense of urgency, even though the player can really take all the time they need. As with the skill-building arc I mentioned, as well as the trick I mentioned in response to matt w of making the player feel that there’s a possibility of failure, I find that it’s often as effective to trick the player into feeling something, as to actually arrive there through systems.

    So I’m also not entirely clear on why it’s so important to have complex mechanical simulations underneath the interactivity as you suggest (Still waiting to try Versu!), but if you need a world simulation, I don’t see why you insist it wouldn’t work with a dynamic interface. Gamer Mom had a lot of little details being held on to under the hood (and without the player’s knowledge), things that the player character was keeping in mind for later or grudges that the non-player characters were holding while staying silent. The interface design was always complicated, because I had to keep so many different possibilities in mind, but it was doable. Maybe you could explain the conflict that you’re seeing?

    “Over the course of a long game, it might get exhausting to find yourself wrestling with a new interface every minute or every five minutes.”
    And in some cases, that makes sense. Sometimes the character is exhausted. And sometimes things will be more comfortable and familiar, and you’ll want to rely on reusable systems more. Not every story needs to be hyperactive. The important thing is to know that you don’t need to stick with the interface you started with past the point where it’s not telling your story right. Depending on your story, that might mean one rigid interface for the whole game, three alternating interfaces, or fifty. It all depends on the story, and on how multifaceted you want the character’s experiences to be. Perhaps my examples were a bit overindulgent, but I was trying to make a point as quickly as possible. A longer game might have just a touch more restraint. Or not; depends on the style of the story. Also, you can use visual similarities to tie different kinds of interfaces together, so that it feels less disorienting. You’ll see some of this when I finish the first scene in a few days.

    As for the difficulty of making this stuff multiplatform, I’m right there with you. I did this in CSS3 and Javascript, because I wanted the GDC attendees to be able to play the games on their smartphones. But every smartphone is different, and every browser is different, and every version of every browser is different, and a mouse is different from a touch screen, and most of those browsers on most devices will not play these games exactly right. That’s before you even get into the matter of fitting the game to the aspect ratio of the device, though I guess that could be dealt with by always making sure you have some “optional” space on the side which has background detail that’s not critical, and then if the program decides it absolutely does not have enough space it can bring in the dreaded Black Bars of Aspect Ratio Compliance. So yeah. I understand how problematic it is to design something for more than one system, and I appreciate how much more difficult this makes it. There were tiny little parts of Gamer Mom that worked slightly differently from everything else, and took extra time to fix for touch screens.

    A standardized (and preferably graphical) tool for designing interfaces of all sorts would be supremely useful. That much is doable. The coding part is less doable, because by the nature of the beast you’ve got a different kind of code for every part of the game. You can reuse parts, but if you get too reliant on reusing everything then you lose the flexibility to tell your story the way that best suits it. The good news is that you can get a tremendous amount of emotional mileage out the simplest kinds of code, which can theoretically be transferred to other systems rather painlessly. The bad news is that even things as simple as timers seem to work differently on some devices than others. I’ve got no answers here.

    The solitaire game was an attempt at some more poetic abstraction. Sorry it didn’t work for you. I didn’t want all the examples to feel like they came from the same game.

    • Thanks for the lengthy response. A couple of thoughts.

      First, broadly: I am not against the ideas you present here; most of my objections add up to “this seems to be presented as a Solution To Everything,” and I don’t think either that Everything needs a solution or that this would be it if so. But there are still some very cool and interesting ideas.

      The solitaire game was an attempt at some more poetic abstraction. Sorry it didn’t work for you.

      I liked the concept of the solitaire game! Sorry it sounded like maybe I didn’t. I thought it was cool, if not yet very refined, and that I would have liked to see an expansion of that idea; but also that it was not very much like the rest of what you were suggesting. It feels more explicitly minigame-ish than a lot of the rest.

      Have you, incidentally, ever tried Dangerous High School Girls In Trouble? It overtly makes minigames out of a range of different social interaction styles, including flirting or dealing with authority figures.

      So I’m also not entirely clear on why it’s so important to have complex mechanical simulations underneath the interactivity as you suggest (Still waiting to try Versu!), but if you need a world simulation, I don’t see why you insist it wouldn’t work with a dynamic interface.

      It’s not always important. Some games do terrific things without this.

      But some pieces are really about the experience and the reality that emerges from contact with rules — from simulationism and game-y-ness becoming a critical part of the story. The shining example of this that comes to mind immediately is Cart Life (about which so much more needs to be said here). It gives the player a system that makes moments like “hm, should I help this guy out with some money when I’m so broke myself?” come out naturally, in the player’s head and based on the dynamic situation, rather than because the author has explicitly set that up. Cart Life is at least partly a story about how the systems in which we live make things very difficult for people with few resources. And the fact that it is a system defeats the player thinking, “oh, this was a set-up” or “oh, if only my character had done things more intelligently.” You can go back and replay and sometimes do a thing over again better, but there’s no degree of willpower or skill you’ll ever be able to perform that doesn’t make life fundamentally quite challenging, which is part of the point.

      So (pardon the digression), when a game’s story is about system like this, the rules typically do need to be implemented. In that case, the interface may need to convey something to the player about how the system works, how it’s implemented, and so on. A lot of CRPGs and MMOs have dialogue trees that incorporate stats or hints (this dialogue can be spoken only if you’re sneaky! or whatever); or if you have a more resource-management or strategy-esque aspect, that probably needs an interface that communicates things like the relative risk of different choices, how much resources you need to unlock something, etc. I’m thinking also of some of the Ren’Py dating/day-planning sorts of stories, some of the stuff that Hanako Games has done, for instance.

      Even Fallen London, which is highly choice-based, incorporates a fair amount of imagery and standardized visual clues to help the player quickly evaluate, “this option is more likely to fail, that option is going to cost me three units of Extract of Nudewing Bat, this other thing costs money to unlock or is going to use up five actions to do.”

      My suspicion is that the more systemic information you have to convey and the more long-term planning is meant to be a feature of the player’s agency, the more challenging it will be to add on a layer of experientially-based option-styling on top of the information you already need to display.

      This is just a design instinct I have. I could be wrong.

      If by “real-time interactive text” you’re referring to the buttons of things that need to be done, that’s a problem which I was aware of and accounted for. Time subtly slows down if there are a lot of things that need to be done.

      One of the things I talked about at the longer Versu post mortem was the challenges we experienced when we were working on a realtime UI for it. We did a number of different versions: placing the options in different places, giving the player ways to pause or speed up or slow down the text, making the game automatically pause for longer if more text had just been displayed, and so on. But we never found the sweet spot for it; playtesting always revealed at least a few people who felt pressured or overwhelmed by the experience, disoriented if they had to look away from the screen for a moment, unable to keep up because they weren’t first-language readers of English, etc. Some playtesters said they felt judged by the game for not reading speedily enough. Even the act of using the slow slider made some readers feel bad about themselves, which was, needless to say, not the emotional experience we were trying to offer them.

      I’m not saying that your example didn’t work for me. It did. I’m saying that I have serious doubts about the effectiveness of using interactive real-time text interfaces, where the player must both keep up with reading and also be making choices, as anything more than a very short-term kind of element, because of what I observed about trying to do this over longer text passages. I think the warning is especially true if some of the choices go away again or become invalidated in realtime. I don’t say it’s completely impossible to do interactive real-time text in a way that doesn’t turn off players; there may be something we missed trying, and of course it’s a bit different if you have the explicit purpose of making people feel pressured. But experience has made me wary on that one, all the same.

      ANyway, all that said, I do entirely agree about how desirable it is to match up the mechanics you’re using with the content. I’m very much on board with that. I was mostly trying to address elements of the talk that seemed to me off-putting (why do I need to consign all existing design, some of which I like, to the heap in order to like your ideas?) or that I think might not yet be a thorough solution — definitely not to discourage more thought along these lines.

  2. Pingback: 2015 in Interactive Fiction So Far | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

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