How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Rhapsodies on games, gaming, and why we play.

Category: game theory

This might not be the place

by anbrewk

This year, I participated in the IFComp, a place for interactive fiction to convene and be judged. Though the competition is very real and the judging taken very seriously, I take it that at least in some way the competition is simply an excuse for IF writers and enthusiasts to create and share things.

What I’m discovering in my first foray into this community as one to be judged (or, whose work is to be judged) is that the kind of work that is expected and highlighted and adored is maybe not what I’m into… My work, Labyrinth of Loci, is not off to a great reception and not for no good reason. The one review I’ve read is quite damning and the other feedback I’ve received give me the stark impression that I did not judge my audience very well. While the review I read (which can be found here) brought up critical bugs I was unaware of (a damning indictment of any game (and a real bummer that I didn’t find them despite my efforts…)), some of the other criticisms were about the effectiveness of binary choices and the game’s failure to evoke a sense of ownership of the character. Criticisms which I took to be well thought out and not untrue. Given these were my two main goals, I’m distressed to have failed.

Even if I decide I might not really like the kind of IF that is praised by the community, I still respect the IF judges devotion to substantive criticism, regardless of whether I subscribe to their conclusions or even premises.

Given that choice was the main goal of my game, what I am most interested in, rather than my placing in the IFComp (especially since that is looking to be very poor), is the efficacy of my use of choice in the design and implementation of my project. The review quoted above thought the binary choices at the beginning of the game epitomized the problem of player ownership as the player must, at the outset, choose between two things they have no reason to care about. Yet, in those uninformed choices the player is given who their character is and what their character can and cant accomplish (in terms of paths and unlocks or what have you). Not unfair criticisms and not untrue.

My intention (not in my defense) was to provide the player with some context for the character they would then create by playing the game. I can see how that might just be a misunderstanding of a well known genre-conceit (it’s called character creation for a reason) and not at all a realistic expectation on the player.  Yet, I wonder now how I might have changed my approach to actually accomplish what I set out to do. My vision was for a ADOM-light character creation through narrative, where in-lieu of assigning points, you make narrative decisions which then assign points (of a sort).

Or NEO Scavenger where the character is a blank slate minus some simple characteristics (up until you discover who you truly are, though, that is optional and not all that definitive either).

Yet, I just said I didn’t really want it to be character creation at all, at least not in the sense that you are taking a fully formed individual and putting them in the world. I wanted it to be the creation of character context for the player to then make more substantive choices in a world they themselves were discovering. I can see how my implementation of that idea may have been misguided.

I wanted to avoid a linear narrative, to avoid given the character any sense of self whatsoever. Even the character choices at the beginning are, for better or worse, intentionally lacking in character. They’re just blank slates.

I wanted to create a little place where a player could experience a narrative arc of their own experience (yet of my design). I expected the player to make choices because they wanted to avoid, or experience, certain things. I thought that the more absent the character was, the more the player would fill that in. Yet, it may just be a (not so well-made) standard high-fantasy dungeon crawl. Oh well, not for trying.

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Losing and other such nonsense

by anbrewk

Despite my enjoyment of playing games, I do sometimes get frustrated when a game is not going my way – that is to say, when I am losing.  I’ve spent some time thinking about those feelings afterward and wondering what causes them – if it is really my losing that makes me frustrated or something else.  There is an inconsistency in my feeling frustrated that does not always coincide with losing. Sometimes I lose, or am losing, and I am perfectly happy to continue playing.  Other times I lose, or am losing and I want to quit or leave.  Recently, I had a similar feeling of frustrating and coupled with a desire to escape that mirrored this feeling of frustration I feel when losing in games: I was a guest at a persons home who kept insulting me (probably unintentionally) yet consistently enough and in such a way that I felt there was little I could do to stop it. I wanted to escape. In that situation, I had a similar desire to quit and leave. I had the desire to quit the activity which was frustrating me and leave the situation which marked my frustration.  I wanted to distance myself from something that wasn’t working for me.

The common denominator in my frustration is not that I am losing, because sometimes when I am losing I don’t feel like leaving or quitting and I often lose and have a great time. It isn’t as though every game I play I win and only the games I win at I have fun at. I have never won a single game of Brass yet I like that game very much.  I have won games of Through The Ages that I have been frustrated with because I felt my decisions didn’t matter and I won for arbitrary reasons.  More so than in either of those cases, I have won and lost games of Roma that I thought were trivial in both cases: I would now just as likely ignore a request to play a game of “flip the coin!” then play Roma.

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The powerful nature of games.

by anbrewk

First, the idea that games have a ‘nature’ requires some kind of explication which I am totally unprepared to do.  However short-sighted my title may be, I’m am excited enough about games as to consider that ‘game’ is some kind of limiting concept that not everything falls into and in this very liberal sense, I think games have a nature that other things don’t have.  Essentially I am saying there are things that are games and there are things that are not games and that the things that are games are of the same kind, despite perhaps appearing different. In this limited sense I’m saying they have a ‘nature’ – something that ties them together as being the same kind. Before I continue with what I know is going to be a feeble attempt to describe what strikes me as the nature of games, allow me to direct you to another post on another blog that does a really nice job talking about games. Now that you have that, I feel less bad about what I am going to write and what you’re going to end up reading.

I don’t really want to set out to define games so I don’t know why I started with such an epic opening paragraph. And I don’t even like the term ‘nature.’ It’s so messy and normative. But I’m going to leave that paragraph up anyway and continue on just like we were talking. All I really want to do is talk about games. I want to express my enthusiasm for play and gaming and maybe organize the thoughts I’m having in my head.  I think I’ll start by saying that play and games are different.  While play may be described as a  joyous expression, games are structured events.  If play was an ephemeral moment of joy, a game would be a mechanism to capture that moment.  Though maybe not all games. War games are not about joy, they are about practice and training. Play amongst predatory animals is closer to war games than hopscotch and hopscotch isn’t much of a game at all.  But let’s not worry ourselves with answering the questions these examples seem to bring up. Let’s worry ourselves with thinking of examples and then maybe try to sort them. I don’t want to solve anything here. I just want to talk about games and then maybe make a couple helpful distinctions here and there.

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