Conceits and Deceits in Her Story

If you’re the kind of person that has ever used the phrase “but it’s not a game,” you should stop reading immediately and go play a real game instead.

herstory

Her Story stands proudly in that “Not Game” category. The obvious comparison is Gone Home, but Her Story jumps right past the exploration of physical spaces into the exploration of mental ones. The premise: you’re watching short clips of police interviews following a murder. That’s all there is to do (besides mess around with the sublime 1990s fictional operating system). You can watch the clips in any order if you know what to search for. This might not sound gripping, but trust me: it is. Like the game’s detectives posing questions (which are never audible), you are tasked with posing questions of your own. But which ones? How do you know what to ask? That’s the puzzle.  With the game being about deception (including one necessary deception within the game’s marketing itself), this isn’t a straightforward task.

And oh yes. It does feel like a meticulously crafted puzzle. One that is ultimately meant to be understood. Like Primer. Or any Christopher Nolan film (and one in particular). The perfect accompaniments to Her Story: a pen, a notebook, and Google on the ready.

On the other hand, sometimes I feel I’m listening to a perfectly crafted album. There’s a lot of layers to peel away here and a boat load of symbolism (wielded a bit too carelessly… one of the game’s only flaws IMHO).

But what I really want to talk about is one particularly clever design choice.

I’m no games scholar, but I’ve thought a lot about how one implements a nonlinear story line in games. Let’s say you want to make such a story. You want to split up a story into a jigsaw puzzle and have the player piece it back together, right? But how much freedom do you give the player?

Imagine giving someone a novel where all the pages are randomly ordered. What happens when the first page they read is the last page of the novel? Or a huge twist? Or the climax? You not only run into an almost guaranteed anticlimax, but the reader also has to waste time on tedious setup for the climatic parts they’ve already read. Obviously, a naive approach isn’t going to work.

So you take the BioShock approach. You take pages  1-5 and put them in the first section of the game. Then 5-10 in the next section. We’ve seen this before and it’s not particularly interesting. What if you want to give the player totally unfettered access to the story and STILL feed them the twists and turns of the plot at a reasonable pace? Is that possible?

Yup and the solution is rather brilliant.

The answer is poor technology. Not the game itself of course, but the fictional, in-game technology. It’s much like the way that movies prevent communication between characters with poor telephone reception. The fictional video database in Her Story only lets you see clips that you explicitly search for and then only 5 clips at a time for any given query. At first this appears like an arbitrary limitation, but it’s absolutely crucial to the pacing. First, it prevents you from finding all the clips by searching a handful of common English words. But more importantly it allows the game’s designer, Sam Barlow, to order the content perfectly. To make sure that you have to ask the right questions to get the right answers. You still could find any clip you wanted by searching the right term. But you won’t know to search for the term (some of these clips are only a few words). So you get to navigate large parts of the story however you want, but there’s still a loose ordering that tends to prevent you from totally screwing yourself by watching all the most interesting stuff first.

I’m really amazed that a few small limitations can enable such an interesting story to be told, but there it is. More games should use such devices or invent their own.

I really want to talk more about this game, but doing so would involve massive spoilers. Play Her Story and let’s talk about it.

International Roguelike Developer’s Conference: Stone Soup

It’s been a few weeks since IRDC 2015 in Atlanta, the first IRDC in the states. The dust has settled, several youtube videos of talks finally got uploaded (part of the reason this is 3 weeks late), and I’ve collected my thoughts. Here they are.

Kawa did a write-up on IRDC 2015 and called it “one of the most amazing experiences” of her life. I concur.

Serious talk: the people at this conference were cool as hell. I’ve been to a lot of developer’s conference and it was by far the nerdiest (I say that proudly), yet friendliest ones I’ve been too. In my online experience, the roguelike community has often seemed…. curmudgeonly. However, everyone in the audience was extremely supportive. Maybe real life just has this effect on people?

Throughout the conference, we stoked a rivalry (tongue in cheek of course) between our conference and the European one. Todd Page set the mood with a hilarious talk (seriously, just watch this 2 minutes) explaining that Darren Grey beats him at everything, but maybe we could beat Darren at hosting a conference? One meaningless data point to support this campaign: we had the devs behind three of the top five 7DRLs this year, while it looks like the Nottingham version will have only two. I’m glad I could personally help shift the balance in AMURICA’s favor (with help from Canada of course). 🙂

On that note, despite being quite introverted, I did manage to get up in front and talk briefly about DUMUZID and my own small contribution to debasing the Berlin Interpretation. You see, there’s a little stipulation in there saying that “Monsters (and the player) take up one tile, regardless of size.” I argued that this restriction is pointless and unnecessary. Despite my incoherent babbling, it was rather fun.

Outclassed

I met A LOT of talented people:

Squirrel Eiserloh & Ken Harward, developers and professors at SMU Guildhall. They shared great stories about their game Square Logic, whose puzzles are procedurally generated and verified by AI (like Desert Golfing!) and which has the highest ratio of positive (174) to negative (1) reviews I recall seeing on Steam. I was blown away when Squirrel mentioned that he worked at Ion Storm and even got a mention in Masters of Doom. And then Ken told us he had once beat NetHack without spoilers.

 giphy
We are not worthy!

Jeff Lait. What can I say? He puts the rest of us to shame with how many amazing roguelikes he’s written. Jeff gave a lightning speed talk in which he did not apologize for the Berlin Interpretation, but did explain why balance is unimportant.

Jared Corduan. While the rest of the conference made me feel like quite the knuckle dragger (compared to everyone else), Jared momentarily made me feel clever. In his talk, he described several math puzzles. And I figured out the 2nd puzzle while he was giving the talk. Thanks Jared!

Sheridan Rathbun. Sheridan gave a very sincere talk about his experience developing Barony. There were several ups and downs in the story, but the happy ending was getting Barony greenlit. Well, Barony was just released on Steam today. Pretty cool to see that hapen after the conference!

Ascension

The conference got me fired up to play roguelikes of course! I played a little while there and within a week, I got my first 15 rune ascension in DCSS (despite playing for years).

Takeaways

The importance of handcrafted content in addition to straight up random/procedural generation. Jim Shepard had a lot to say on this including “text files are nature’s perfect fruit” (when arguing against making your own level editor). Darius Kazemi’s article/tool on Spelunky’s level generation got brought up at least TWICE (in very interesting talks by Cameron Kunzelman and Brett Gildersleeve). That piece never fails to impress.

Composition over inheritance. Yes, yes we’ve heard this before, but I for one needed a kick in the butt to actually do it. Brian Bucklew described how a very simple architecture allowed for the insanely complex behaviors in Caves of Qud.

Beneath Apple Manor – You may know that the first roguelike was actually released two years before Rogue. I had assumed that Beneath Apple Manor was way too simple to deserve any attention, but one M̻͙̭̦Y͖̖̪͎̪̹̞͝S͖̰̖̳͠T̷͍̝̤ER͈̲̗̤͟I̤̰̫̫͜O̝US͘ ̵̘̜̬ͅS̰͓̬̭̩̹͉ŢR҉̘̱̪͙Á̘̯̺͔ṆG̰̻̤E̞̮̳R̸͙͉͕͈͎̤ showed us that BAM was, in fact, very ahead of its time. Just take a peek at its gorgeous rulebook.

Pareidolia and friends. This concept got tossed around repeatedly. Pareidolia is the tendency for us to see patterns that may or may not exist (e.g. faces on Mars). One implication is that you don’t have to provide 100% of the detail behind your lore or mechanics because any gaps will naturally be filled in by the player themselves. If you’ve ever seen a Let’s Play of your game, you know exactly what I mean. If your combat system is not fully explained, players will derive their own superstitions about how it works out of thin air. Probably not good for a combat system, but good for creating the feeling of an expansive and lived-in world.

Symmetry. OK, this was some low hanging fruit, but I had not thought of it. Both Bob Saunders and Thom Roberston showed how 2 or 4 way symmetry (i.e. is generating something and then mirroring it) produces shockingly good results when trying to create spaceships and I imagine it applies well to buildings of all sorts.

Awesome, right? Well, IRDC Nottingham is this weekend. My advice is to go if you can (I wish I could). If you’re not a developer, no worries; I was happy to meet several roguelike enthusiasts in Atlanta.

Finally, let me explain the title of this blog post. The earliest speaker to be confirmed was Mark Johnson. Mark eventually had to cancel, but before he did, his name drew in a lot of interest and more speakers (it is Ultima Ratio Regum we’re talking about after all). Folks, that’s a stone soup if I ever heard one. 🙂

 

Howdy

Hi. I’m Jeremiah and this is the blog for Golden Krone Hotel, a roguelike about sunlight, stealth, and vampires. I plan to talk about Golden Krone Hotel specifically, but also roguelikes and game design in general.

Check out the trailer and if you like it, please vote for the game on Steam Greenlight.

If you have feedback, please feel free to email me or say hi on Twitter.