Crimes Against Mimesis, Pt. 2

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Roger Giner-Sorolla

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Apr 18, 1996, 3:00:00 AM4/18/96
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[This part of the essay contains medium-grade spoilers for the games
Adventure, Christminster and Theater, and non-spoiler references to a
couple of the Zork puzzles.]

So far, I've been looking at the ways that IF games can lose their power
as works of fiction by poor contextualization of objects, locations and
puzzles. The second half of my critical rogues' gallery encloses a more
insidious set of offenses. In this part of the essay, and the next part,
I'll cover those "Crimes Against Mimesis" that are provoked by the
structure of the puzzle-based adventure game itself.

Problems of contextualization can usually be fixed by better writing and
planning of the existing game. But many of the problems I'll cover below
are harder to deal with. In these examples, a feature which offends the
sense of reality is often convenient to the programmer or game player. To
exclude it would make writing the game more difficult, or playing the game
less satisfying.

Still, striving toward this goal can do a lot to improve the quality of a
game as a work of fiction, while keeping its play enjoyable. My insidious
aim is to get the writer/programmer who would spend the same X hours doing
up a sprawling 200-room mega-dungeon to spend the same X hours
constructing a tighter, smaller, but fictionally more meaningful and
satisfying game. (Of course, some writers have been moving in that
direction on their own -- I'm thinking specifically of the improvement in
fictional atmosphere from Magnus Olsson's "Dunjin" to his "Uncle Zebulon's
Will"...)

Now, onwards.

4. Lock-and-Key, and Four Ways Out

The most common problem in any interactive game is the lock-and-key
puzzle. The solver starts out with an object, or "key", and has to find
a place where this key can be used to gain access to another "key", which
in turn allows access to another ... and so on, until the final goal is
reached.

Sometimes, a lock-and-key puzzle makes no pretensions to be anything
else, as with the red, blue and yellow keys in "Doom." And, of course,
literal locks and keys appear in more sophisticated games, most notably
"Christminster." Actual locks and keys can enhance or reduce a game's
fictional realism, depending on whether they are presented in appropriate
contexts. One can only find so many keys inside fishes' bellies, lost in
the wainscotting, dropped at random in corridors, or hanging around guard
dogs' necks before the artifice of the puzzle structure becomes painfully
clear. By contrast, all six of the keys in "Christminster" are hidden in
places where one might actually keep a key, and all their locks are
guarding places that one would expect to be locked; moreover, we end the
game with a pretty clear idea of who normally uses each key and why.

But more often, an IF game will keep the basic logic of the lock-and-key
puzzle, but use other objects to implement it. A hungry frog bars the
entrance; it will only let you pass if you give it a live fly. The bridge
is broken; you can only get across it using the plank you found at the
construction site. The key can be a found object, a character or creature
whom you've convinced to follow you, a piece of information like a
password; the lock can be an obstacle to another location, or an object
that requires another object to be useful, such as a corked bottle.

Disguising "locks-and-keys" as real-world objects may superficially
contribute to the realism of the atmosphere, but once the player figures
out what is going on, the artifice of the one-on-one mapping between
objects and problems becomes even more jarring. Graham Nelson identified
this, in "The Craft of Adventure", as the Get-X-Use-X syndrome. Give the
goat a tin can, and it will cough up a red handkerchief; wrap the
handkerchief around your head, and the gypsies will let you into the cave;
use the lantern you found in the cave to get past the giant mole; and so
on. These pat, lock-and-key solutions don't really do justice to the
complex process of real-world problem-solving, and after a while they get
boring even as abstract puzzles.

Fortunately, there are many structural remedies to the predictability of
the lock-and-key game. Let's consider five:

a) Solutions requiring more than one object

It's not a novel idea that a problem might require more than one object
to solve. Adventure and the original Zork both had a couple of
multi-object conundrums -- the chained bear; the exorcism in Hell; the
explosive and fuse -- and in general, these went a long way towards making
the puzzles more realistic and interesting.

Still, a multi-object puzzle can come off as artificial. In particular,
the scavenger hunt for the various components of a Very Significant Object
is one of the stalest chestnuts in modern fantasy literature, derived (as
usual) from Tolkien's _Lord of the Rings_ trilogy with its Nine Rings of
Power: Collect 'em all for World Domination!

The Quest for Prefab Parts is to plot structure what the Quonset Hut is to
architecture. It shows up in innumerable role-playing game scenarios,
assembly-line sword-and-sorcery novels, and seasons of "Doctor Who"; and,
from what I've seen, not even the best IF games can completely keep away
from this device. If the author doesn't make the "pieces" interesting
objects in their own right, and plausibly integrate them into the
storyline, he or she can expect some eye-rolling from the sophisticated
reader ("Not the Six Shards of the Dinner Plate of the Gods again!") As an
example, the task of piecing together the diary in "Theater" is much more
believable than the task of collecting the four "eye gems" which comes
later on in the same game.

b) Objects relevant to more than one solution

Again, multi-purpose objects had their start early on in text adventure
games -- the original "Adventure", for one. As I recall, the second use
for the keys in that game popped up just about at the point where I
had arrived at the one-object, one-puzzle principle by induction, and
started confidently leaving things lying by the puzzles they solved. How
annoying to trek back to the surface for the keys!

But my assumptions were fair game for a clever designer, and nowadays
it's expected that a good IF game will require the player to find more
than one use for a number of objects. In general, fictional realism is
thereby improved; the player must jettison the comfortable "lock-and-key"
rule, which bore little resemblance to the messy process of real-world
problem-solving. However, most games nowadays allow near-unlimited
carrying capacity, and the result is an equally bizarre Model Player who
takes and keeps *everything* just in case it might prove useful later on
-- a Crime Against Mimesis in its own right; number 6, I believe.

c) Problems having more than one solution

To my mind, the crucial difference between a "puzzle" and a real-world
problem is that the real problem has more than one possible solution.
This is true even of such a barren, abstract task as knocking a banana down
from a 10-foot ceiling with only a chair and a yard-long pole. Chimps
are usually able to "stand on chair" and "hit banana with pole," proving
that Homo sapiens is not the only tool-user around. This human, not to be
outdone by a mere Pan Troglodytes, came up with:

> throw chair at banana
> balance chair on pole and hit banana with chair
> hold pole and jump at banana
> knock on door. shout for experimenter. threaten experimenter with
lawsuit. experimenter, get the banana

Perhaps the Model Adventure-game Player is a chimpanzee? But all joking
aside, few puzzles in any game are set up to admit this variety of
solutions, and the reason is simple: the Model Adventure-game Programmer
is only human. Game designers would rather spend time coding a variety of
locations than implementing every second-string solution to a problem like
the banana one, where the most likely solution is indeed the chimp's way.
Players would rather play a game with a variety of challenges, and to this
end, are willing to accept some restriction in possibilities, especially
where the alternative solutions are less obvious than the intended one.

All the same, nothing cries "This is a game, not a story!" louder than a
puzzle that ignores obvious and reasonable attempts to solve it. By
convention, some crude solutions are generally excluded: breaking things,
burning things, hitting or killing creatures. The default messages for
such actions in Inform and TADS imply that the protagonist is just not the
type to take a sword to the Gordian Knot -- a Doctor Who or Miss Marple,
not a Rambo. Even with this healthy assumption in place, many puzzles
break the fictional mood by accepting only one plausible, but rather
unusual solution, when there are more straightforward ways to go.

As an example, look at the opening scene of Christminster. The problem
is to rouse a man who is sleeping on a key, just enough so he'll roll over
without waking. The solution is to tickle him with a feather (this isn't
such a terrible spoiler, since getting the feather is really the hard
part). As a puzzle this makes sense, but as a real-world problem it's
hard to see why you can't just tickle the old codger with your fingers,
even though the game doesn't understand "hands," "fingers," or "tickle
man" without an indirect object. Anyway, the message to the player is
clear: "Be creative ... my way!" And the hand of the puzzle author
intrudes on the scene.

An IF writer who wants to avoid this problem has three options:

(1) to allow the alternative solution;

(2) to have the alternative solution turn out to be a wrong one even
though it apparently works at the time (e.g., tickling the man with your
hands is too strong a stimulation; he wakes up in the next turn and
catches you stealing the key);

(3) to program in a plausible, specific reason why the alternative
solution is not allowable, in place of the default "You can't do that"
message (e.g., "Touching a strange man with your hands would be ... well,
improper.").

Of these, the second is the most interesting; it gives the player at
least a nudge in the right direction, while allowing the author to retain
control over the puzzle structure. In all fairness, the player should be
able to figure out beforehand that the alternative solution is not the
best one, or else be given a chance to do it over the right way. A good
example of a well-clued "wrong" alternative solution would be feeding a
hungry swine with a rare string of pearls that's needed later on, when the
beast will just as gladly wolf down a handful of acorns.

d) Objects irrelevant to problems and problems without solutions

A player who is only interested in the game tends to see irrelevant
objects and unsolvable problems as unsporting annoyances; "red herrings"
planted by a fiendish game designer, in defiance of the implicit rule that
everything is relevant and the task is to find out which thing is relevant
to which. Because coding up a lot of useless objects and locations is
hard work, designers generally agree. Most games today subsume irrelevant
objects into the scenery, leaving only a couple of ringers. Even then it
is considered sporting to flag useless items as such, usually with a hint
or a more-or-less witty pun on the phrase "red herring."

If we see the game as more than a collection of puzzles, though, a game
feature can have nothing to do with any puzzle and still contribute to the
atmosphere or the storyline. "Smart red herrings" like the gargoyle and
the chapel in Christminster strengthen the background of the game with
additional information (even if the meaning of the initials on the
gargoyle is somewhat, ahem, obscure). At the same time, they effectively
rebut the creeping suspicion that all the features in the environment are
dictated by one puzzle or another, and serve notice that the fictional
milieu has a life outside of the mere game which is being played out
inside it. Even the "shadowy figure" red herring in the original
Adventure is eventually explained in terms of the game's rudimentary
background (those vain dwarves!) Consequently, the player feels satisfied,
rather than frustrated, when its true nature is revealed. To sum up, in
the well-written IF game, every item and location should still serve
some purpose; but the puzzle-game shouldn't be the only purpose.

[In my next installment: thoughts on the IF protagonist, NPC's, and the
goals of the game itself]

Roger Giner-Sorolla New York University gi...@xp.psych.nyu.edu
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Department of Psychology ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Sur l'oreiller du mal c'est Satan Trismegiste
qui berce longuement notre esprit enchante' ..." -- Baudelaire


Jon Conrad

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Apr 21, 1996, 3:00:00 AM4/21/96
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Roger Giner-Sorolla <gi...@xp.psych.nyu.edu> wrote:

First, let me say that I (without aspirations to be an IF author, though
with interest in the theory of the form) much enjoy these essays and am
saving them for reference, and to read all through when the series is
complete.

That said, and feeling like a brash fool for my temerity in disagreeing
with the experts, I feel of two (or more) minds about all this. It's
good that somebody's proposing ideas that deal with the nature and
content and future of the form, but that doesn't mean that this is the
way for everybody, or that IF has to be all one thing.

I'm reminded of all the hoohah in the field of mystery writing some time
back, when in the US a hard-boiled author (Chandler?) "proved" how
useless the English murder mystery was, because it was so unlifelike,
and he cited examples that bolstered his points, and certainly his fans
think he did prove it for all time. And meanwhile in the UK Dorothy
Sayers was saying that mysteries had to become works of true fiction,
comedy of manners, if they were to have any chance of surviving.

Now, what both of these estimable authors were really saying was "This
is the sort of thing *I* would like to read, so I'm going to write it,
and what's more I'm going to say that it's the only right way to write."
And because they wrote well, their work succeeded, and they have their
followers and imitators, as they should.

And yet, the hard-core locked-room pure-puzzle sort of mystery, with
barely a breath of life among the characters in the hands of its masters
like John Dickson Carr or Agatha Christie, flourished too, and is still
being read and its successors still being writtten. Because that is
what *other* people (me included) like to read.

Robert Barnard, in his book on Agatha Christie, pointed out eventually
that "light" fiction does not have to aspire to the reality and depth of
"heavy" fiction to be good; that there is a place for well-crafted genre
fiction that does not leave us changed afterwards, but satisfies our
need for a diverting secondary world to enter, one whose demands on us
will be limited. And if one doesn't want that sort of light reading in
mysteries, OK; then find it in romances, or science fiction, or
adventure yarns, or *some*thing. It's a shame to get totally out of
touch with the simple pleasures of light reading.

So I guess my point in this too-lengthy analogue is that some of this
excellent essay strikes me as doctrinaire and prone to easy assumptions
about relative virtues of different genres.

> Still, striving toward this goal can do a lot to improve the quality of a
>game as a work of fiction, while keeping its play enjoyable. My insidious
>aim is to get the writer/programmer who would spend the same X hours doing
>up a sprawling 200-room mega-dungeon to spend the same X hours
>constructing a tighter, smaller, but fictionally more meaningful and
>satisfying game.

Again, let me stress that I have no quarrel with this statement as far
as it goes....

>Give the
>goat a tin can, and it will cough up a red handkerchief; wrap the
>handkerchief around your head, and the gypsies will let you into the cave;
>use the lantern you found in the cave to get past the giant mole; and so
>on. These pat, lock-and-key solutions don't really do justice to the
>complex process of real-world problem-solving, and after a while they get
>boring even as abstract puzzles.

But are they supposed to mimic real-world problem-solving? I dare say
some of us turn to these games as a *relief* from the real world and its
complexities. (I do appreciate that it's a matter of degree.)

> Still, a multi-object puzzle can come off as artificial. In particular,
>the scavenger hunt for the various components of a Very Significant Object
>is one of the stalest chestnuts in modern fantasy literature, derived (as
>usual) from Tolkien's _Lord of the Rings_ trilogy with its Nine Rings of
>Power: Collect 'em all for World Domination!

Of course, for those of us who found LORD OF THE RINGS one of the
all-time satisfying pieces of reading, to resemble it might seem a
compliment more than anything else. I don't find myself tiring of the
scavenger hunt (if well done), just because it's been done before. To
be fair, you qualify your displeasure in the next paragraph, and just
say that the pieces have to be interesting and plausible. Fine; but
there's nothing wrong with the basic device, and in fact it always gives
me kind of a thrill to start on this kind of story, hoping that the
author will be up to the challenge. (Of course, most of the time he
or she isn't.)

Jon Alan Conrad

Richard G Clegg

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Apr 22, 1996, 3:00:00 AM4/22/96
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Roger Giner-Sorolla (gi...@xp.psych.nyu.edu) wrote:

{Much snippage}
: c) Problems having more than one solution

.
.
.

: An IF writer who wants to avoid this problem has three options:

: (1) to allow the alternative solution...

I think that you miss a very important point here Roger - it's fine
to say "Allow/explain the alternative solution" in the situation where
the objects available are a banana, a pole and a chair. However, I think
the problem here is that puzzles in IF are necessarily an artificial
construct - "problems" in real life have such a large number of solutions
that it's impossible for the coding to be anything near to realistic.

Let's take that opening scene of Christminster again - the problem
is to get the key to open the gate when it's under someone who's asleep.
Even before you've picked up any objects, were you to be in this situation
IRL, there's a vast number of solutions which would occur to you first.

1) Find out from the policeman what time the gate will open and
go to a pub to wait.
2) Phone the college and ask them to open the gate (I know there's
no phone in the game - but this again reinforces the fact that it's not
a real situation - there's no such thing as a university city where a
phone is not within walking distance).
3) Phone whoever you were supposed to meet and get them to let you in.
4) Depending on the lock type you might be able to find a bit of metal
to pick it. (If you happen to know lock-picking well enough - I don't).
5) Climb over the wall by finding something to put over the glass
on top of it - you must be wearing something that would do the job.
6) Grab the key-string and pull hard enough - let's face it no matter how
heavy the guy lying on it is you're going to get the key like that.

And this is even before we've got any other objects. To return
to the original question, how many ways can we get a banana from a ceiling
using a chair, a pole, a locked strongbox, a babel fish, a rusty knife,
a saw, a pile of lumber, a robot companion, a minx and 20,000 zorkmids.
(Answers on a postcard please).

As for the idea that if the player uses a "wrong" solution it will
fail in some way (the example given being that the man would wake up and
stop you) this merely serves to introduce new artificialities. To be
perfectly frank, the suggestion that tickling someone with your fingers
means that you tickle them "too hard" and wake them up is probably more
of a stretch to the credibility than the original puzzle was.

To my mind, the puzzles in an adventure are artificial and will always
be artificial. Sure, it's annoying if the author has missed an "obvious"
second solution or if the original problem is a bit of a strain to the
credibility. (I'm rather afraid to say that while trying to solve the
Christminster problem I repeatedly kicked the sleeper in the ribs and
he dozed on oblivious - if I ever found anyone that sound asleep I'd
probably call an ambulance). However, the alternatives are:

a) No puzzles
b) You are in a completely empty white room with soft walls. You can
see a locked box and a key which fits the box. What now?

IMHO it will be a long time before an adventure game can hope to
realistically simulate all the possible uses of as simple an object
as a humble Pepsi can (which can be opened, used to contain anything
small enough, bent, flexed, torn into metal strips, folded, formed into
a crude shovel, made into a rough screwdriver, used as a cutting edge,
crushed into a puck shape, balanced on the nose and even, in emergencies,
drunk from). Until then, it might be best just to accept that the
adventure puzzle will never have all the solutions that a real-life
puzzle would have.

Besides, what would a realistic adventure game be? A series of
irritating frustrations which slowed you down and tripped you up.

--
Richard G. Clegg There ain't no getting round getting round
Dept. of Mathematics (Network Control group) Uni. of York.
email: ric...@manor.york.ac.uk
www: http://manor.york.ac.uk/top.html


Roger Giner-Sorolla

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Apr 23, 1996, 3:00:00 AM4/23/96
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I'm glad my essays are generating this kind of response. If anything, I
think people are being too deferential to my "expertise" -- I certainly
hold no degree in IF design or even literature. Worse still, apart from
mucking around on MOOs, I've never actually tried to design a text game.

I'm writing these articles in response to a desire for stronger stories
and more coherent settings in IF, which *some* people on this list have
expressed. There are some ways in which the ease of writing a game, and
the enjoyment of playing it, might suffer at the expense of achieving
fictional integrity; I think I've been honest about this wherever
possible. But I've also been writing as a defender of the goal of greater
fictional integrity, partly because I see this as a neglected goal in IF
design, partly to make my job as a writer easier and more interesting.
Not everyone -- not even myself -- necessarily takes fictional integrity
as the only yardstick by which an IF game should be measured, and it's
good that the "defenders of the game" are joining the dialogue.

Jon Conrad writes:

> But are they supposed to mimic real-world problem-solving? I dare say
> some of us turn to these games as a *relief* from the real world and its
> complexities. (I do appreciate that it's a matter of degree.)

A good point. Fiction, let's not forget, is also a form of escapism, but
one that binds itself more tightly to the task of representing a
perspective on the real world, or on a possible world. Reading fiction may
even be a more escapist pursuit than playing a transparently artificial
game, in the sense that it's easier for the game player to maintain an
ironic distance from the game's attempts to simulate reality. (Maybe
that's why I laughed so hard at MST3K:Detective...)

Richard Clegg writes:

> To my mind, the puzzles in an adventure are artificial and will always
> be artificial. Sure, it's annoying if the author has missed an "obvious"
> second solution or if the original problem is a bit of a strain to the
> credibility. (I'm rather afraid to say that while trying to solve the
> Christminster problem I repeatedly kicked the sleeper in the ribs and
> he dozed on oblivious - if I ever found anyone that sound asleep I'd
> probably call an ambulance). However, the alternatives are:
>
> a) No puzzles
> b) You are in a completely empty white room with soft walls. You can
> see a locked box and a key which fits the box. What now?

Right, and I think I also admitted that it would be too much to ask a
writer to code in every oddball alternative solution to the problem, or
to write a perfectly responsive VR world.

But I don't think that a puzzle necessarily has to be as artificial
as the task of waking the don in Christminster. As proof to the contrary,
consider what the player has to do afterwards to hold on to the key.
(Sorry to be coy, but I'm trying not to give spoilers away.) This action
is plausible by the standards of realism, and just as importantly, it's
satisfying by the standards of fiction, as it wraps up an earlier theme in
the gameplay.

Writing puzzle-centered versus fiction-centered IF are tasks that almost
require two different mindsets, it would seem. The puzzle-centered writer
asks the question, "Given this setting, how can I engineer a chain of
actions that will allow the protagonist to solve the problem?" The
fiction-centered writer asks, "Given this setting, what action could the
protagonist take to solve the problem?" A subtle shift in perspective is
all that differentiates these two approaches, but the results can be
quite different.

Trevor Barrie

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Apr 24, 1996, 3:00:00 AM4/24/96
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con...@copland.udel.edu (Jon Conrad) wrote:

>That said, and feeling like a brash fool for my temerity in disagreeing
>with the experts, I feel of two (or more) minds about all this. It's
>good that somebody's proposing ideas that deal with the nature and
>content and future of the form, but that doesn't mean that this is the
>way for everybody, or that IF has to be all one thing.

Well, I doubt that Roger was trying to suggest that it was. Anybody
who disagrees is perfectly free to post an essay of their own. (Which,
come to think of it, you seem to have done a fair job yourself.)

Magnus Olsson

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Apr 25, 1996, 3:00:00 AM4/25/96
to

In article <4lebsh$l...@copland.udel.edu>,
Jon Conrad <con...@copland.udel.edu> wrote:

>Roger Giner-Sorolla <gi...@xp.psych.nyu.edu> wrote:
>So I guess my point in this too-lengthy analogue is that some of this
>excellent essay strikes me as doctrinaire and prone to easy assumptions
>about relative virtues of different genres.

Well, maybe the author's personal preferences show through to a
certain extent? Still, I think that Roger makes some very important
points. What he's actually doing is not laying down rules for writing
good adventures, but analyzing the reasons for his liking or not
liking some works of IF. It seems as if Roger prefers works of IF that
work well as fiction as well as being good games to those that where
the game aspects take over (in Graham Nelson's words, where the
crossword wins over the narrative). The "breaking of mimesis" is one
case where the game aspects destroy the literary qualities.

>>Give the
>>goat a tin can, and it will cough up a red handkerchief; wrap the
>>handkerchief around your head, and the gypsies will let you into the cave;
>>use the lantern you found in the cave to get past the giant mole; and so
>>on. These pat, lock-and-key solutions don't really do justice to the
>>complex process of real-world problem-solving, and after a while they get
>>boring even as abstract puzzles.
>
>But are they supposed to mimic real-world problem-solving? I dare say
>some of us turn to these games as a *relief* from the real world and its
>complexities. (I do appreciate that it's a matter of degree.)

I think the problem with one-object-one-use puzzles is not that they
are unrealistic as individual puzzles, but the fact that if *all*
objects in your world have one and only one use, then the world feels
strange and contrived. And this is exactly where mimesis breaks down.

Also, even from pure game-playing aspects, this is bad: the game feels
mechanical if you know that once you've used an object, you can safely
ditch it. It's much more interesting to have more varied puzzles.

>> Still, a multi-object puzzle can come off as artificial. In particular,
>>the scavenger hunt for the various components of a Very Significant Object
>>is one of the stalest chestnuts in modern fantasy literature, derived (as
>>usual) from Tolkien's _Lord of the Rings_ trilogy with its Nine Rings of
>>Power: Collect 'em all for World Domination!
>
>Of course, for those of us who found LORD OF THE RINGS one of the
>all-time satisfying pieces of reading, to resemble it might seem a
>compliment more than anything else.

The problem is not that one or two authors imitate Tolkein, it's that
*everybody* does it. It's simply boring to read 200 novels about
retrieveing object X from the forces of Darkness to save the World As
We Know It.

> I don't find myself tiring of the
>scavenger hunt (if well done), just because it's been done before. To
>be fair, you qualify your displeasure in the next paragraph, and just
>say that the pieces have to be interesting and plausible. Fine; but
>there's nothing wrong with the basic device, and in fact it always gives
>me kind of a thrill to start on this kind of story, hoping that the
>author will be up to the challenge. (Of course, most of the time he
>or she isn't.)

There's nothing wrong with the basic device. However, it's been beaten
to death; it's very hard for new authors to come up with an even
remotely original variation on the theme and to do it well. That's not
to say that it doesn't happen, but it would be nice if not everybody
were trying to follow the same hackneyed pattern.

--
Magnus Olsson (m...@df.lth.se)

Christopher E. Forman

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Apr 26, 1996, 3:00:00 AM4/26/96
to

Magnus Olsson (m...@marvin.df.lth.se) wrote:
: The problem is not that one or two authors imitate Tolkein, it's that

: *everybody* does it. It's simply boring to read 200 novels about
: retrieveing object X from the forces of Darkness to save the World As
: We Know It.

I agree. Too many novels take this approach. But when you're talking about
I-F, this plot _works_. The potential destruction of the world is a good
way to draw the player's intervention. It's a goal, one that's been proven
in a tremendous number of games, because in traditional I-F, the player
_has_ to have an impact on the world. If you're a nobody who can't do
anything to change the situation, what's the point? It's the age-old
concept of "winning" rearing its ugly head again, and deviation from this
would mean deviating from I-F convention as well. Not to imply that that's
bad, as it would make a terrific experiment. But the traditional approach,
the one that got us hooked on I-F in the first place, is making the player
into a hero of some sort. What does that better than saving the world?

: There's nothing wrong with the basic device. However, it's been beaten


: to death; it's very hard for new authors to come up with an even
: remotely original variation on the theme and to do it well. That's not
: to say that it doesn't happen, but it would be nice if not everybody
: were trying to follow the same hackneyed pattern.

The I-F "scavenger hunt" is another convention that's been proven to work,
because I-F has always been a hunt for items to solve problems. A series
of closely-related items lends itself well to a puzzle structure, giving
players a gauge against which to chart their progress. ("Okay, I've got
12 of the 16 jigsaw pieces -- I'm definitely getting close!")

I think some of us are a bit too quick to label such devices as "tired,"
simply because they've been done before. I mean, how many TRULY original
games, novels, movies, etc. have you seen in your life? How many of these
used absolutely _nothing_ from existing works? As in any other art form,
an I-F author builds on top of the foundations of others. Very rarely is
a new foundation laid, and even when it is, authors are then free to build
on that as well. The apparent overuse of some techniques is an unfortunate
side effect, but aside from scrapping current tradition and looking at I-F
in a whole new way, there's not much to be done.

--
C.E. Forman cef...@rs6000.cmp.ilstu.edu
Read the I-F e-zine XYZZYnews, at ftp.gmd.de:/if-archive/magazines/xyzzynews,
or on the Web at http://www.interport.net/~eileen/design/xyzzynews.html

Jarle Brinchmann

unread,
May 1, 1996, 3:00:00 AM5/1/96
to

Christopher E. Forman writes:
I think some of us are a bit too quick to label such devices as "tired,"
simply because they've been done before. I mean, how many TRULY original
games, novels, movies, etc. have you seen in your life?

I think this is a very valid point. After I read "Lord of the Rings"
for the first time, I decided to go back and read a lot of old
mythology, and lo and behold, when I turned to the Silmarillon it was
nothing new. Most of the stories are "just" twists on old mythology,
the only point was that Tolkien rewrote/adapted/got inspired by these
stories in a way that caught my mind.

And really, if you look at a bunch of old myths, the Bible, old sagas
etc. you will get almost all normal story elements. But that is not
really the point, our lives repeat, people fall in love, people die,
people get born, it's the same tired story. But it will continue to
fascinate.

Much of the arguments in this discussion are targeted at the slightly
seasoned IF veteran. I think that most of what we look upon as "tired"
ideas will appeal to the newcomers. Personally I loved looking for
items, discovering new rooms, mapping out underground empires &c, when
I started with IF. There will still be a (large) audience for the
"simplistic" games.

I guess I believe that you should not be afraid of using these
standard methods as long as you have read something like Roger's
excellent essays to get a perspective on how people might view it. In
the end it all boils down to how creative you are, and how well you
are at judging the taste of your audience.

Cheers,
Jarle.

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