Wednesday, January 9, 2013

I spent Friday night finally playing through Christine Love's Analogue: A Hate Story. 

I failed to notice a key UI detail. You can click on a portrait of the AI character guiding you through the game to get commentary on whatever text log you're reading and to unlock additional texts. This is told to you explicitly, but I misread the icon and thought that its washed-out colors meant that it was inactive.  I spent more than a half and hour reading and rereading 5 text logs and a family tree to try to ferret out the true name of the "Pale Bride" and gain admin access to the in-game terminal.

It was a clear instance of misapprehending the rules of a game. I thought I'd stumbled into a sneaky logic puzzle, that I was expected to be deciphering a riddle with the barest of context and some very indirect clues. On a stray envelope I drew a second family tree from the one text log that described the rival family and tried resolved every relationship that could be resolved logic-puzzle style from the few fragments I had. I walked through each log and made sure I understood who the subject of every sentence was and what their relationship was to every other person I could see mention of.

After none of my attempts to guess the admin password panned out, I checked online for hints and was met by a slew of "you should have no problem getting to the end of this game" posts where I was expecting puzzle game style walkthroughs. I finally found a post suggesting that if I didn't know the password maybe I hadn't clicked on the portrait for every piece of text and I realized I hadn't done it for any of them.

This unlocked the game and I played through to an ending without getting stuck again. But the experience of grappling with that text changed my relationship with the game. I didn't skim any of the text logs from that point on. I had a detailed mental model that contextualized every character that got introduced or deepened. Every new log felt like a revelation. And even though there weren't any logic puzzles that relied on the kind of close reading I had assumed was necessary, I still engaged with the game as though there were. And the game is well enough written that this was very rewarding.

When I played through my first few Infinity Engine games in 2000, I paid careful attention to the in-game calendar/clock. It was very prominent. Except for a few hours of Daggerfall, I hadn't played a PC RPG since The Bard's Tale, but I'd read about how "sophisticated" they were compared to their console counterparts. I assumed that meant that the in-game times and dates were important. When people ascribed urgency to tasks or described impending events or menaces, I gave them credence and tried to glean WHEN these things would happen and handle them at or before the appropriate times. When I realized that the time and date were essentially meaningless except in a few cases, the games lost some of their richness for me.

I wrote this out because I wanted to figure out why in the former case my love of the game was increased, but in the latter case it was diminished. In both cases I misread the rules of the game I was playing and thought I was being asked to handle more complex challenges than were being presented. Both mistakes were also based on my misreading the significance of prominent UI elements.

I think it's because in the case of Analogue: A Hate Story the additional challenge functioned as a kind of membrane on top of the explicit role you're playing in the game. My misapprehension was consistent with the fiction in the game, and the fiction stretched as the mode of reading I was forced into was rewarded with internal consistency and tantalizing blind avenues. When I was freed to explore the rest, that time and effort didn't feel wasted. I never read any of the other logs as closely or as carefully, but I saw much more in them than I would have and I reread them to check my mental model against what was there. Apart from spending a little more time than I might have, no effort was wasted.

In the case of the Infinity Engine games, the Baldur's Gates in particular, when I realized that the clock was unimportant,  what broke was the not just the illusion that the simulation was tracking time in a meaningful way, but the whole illusion that events could happen in that world. The world of the fiction grew smaller and less reactive.

It's unfair to make this comparison; both are based on errors I made and have very little to do with the relative merits of 2 games in 2 very different genres with some very different verbs. But I think there are lessons there.

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