Sunday, May 15, 2016

Gamebook Practice Lesson 3: Give the control back to the player (intergate Logical Conclusion Choices)

As mentioned earlier in an blogpost, measuring the performance in a video game has three aspects: speed, coordination and logic. Unfortunately, in the Gamebook Adventure genre, we don't have the tools to check the speed and coordination, which leaves us with the only other possible mechanic: testing the gamer logic.

So far, our example of a Gamebook Adventure is using only random mechanics (battles and treasure hunt) and the reader doesn't have any control over the final outcome just yet. The choices he had to make until now were based on random emotions (he had only the illusion of control), because he was not given enough information to be able to make any decisions based on strong logic. We can change all of that by creating a few Logical Conclusion Choices in our adventure.

I've already posted an article on the Theory of Logical Conclusion Choices earlier in this blog and I strongly recommend that you read it before proceeding any further with today's post. You should also give a try to the new adventure now, because the text below contains many spoilers of the game. You can download it here: PDF Short Gamebook Adventure + Logic

We will now create three small two-path diverging diamonds, one for each one of the following main terrains: the Mountain, the Wetlands and the Forest. The difficulty of the encounters will be changing from high to low as we proceed.

We may start with the Deadly Mountain! I propose that we make finding the Shield a little bit more difficult and a matter of good performance rather than just a lucky guess of choosing to hike the mountain passage. The following dilemma is very challenging, because it is about choosing between bad and worse outcome.

1. Naming the Challenge: The word "Deadly" in the name of the Mountain is a hint by itself, and it is not subtle at all, as it informs the reader what could possibly happen there.
2. Invent the Danger: following in our footsteps and the rules laid-out in the logical conclusion choice theory, we have to first invent the possible danger awaiting our protagonist there. I'd say that falling off the steep mountain is a great example here.
3. Create the Wrong Choice: our player will fall to his death if he chooses to walk by the edge of the mountain trail.
4. Apply the fog of war here by hiding the edge and use just the word mountain trail.
5. Give the reader a hint: add the word narrow to the mountain trail. This should evoke the logical conclusion that falling off is a real possibility.
6. Put the Wrong Choice in wording: Do you want to hike the mountain by following the narrow mountain trail or...
7. Create the Better Choice. Note that I didn't say "the good decision"! The most interesting challenges are the ones that force you to choose the lesser of two evils or the greater of two positive outcomes. That way the better decision is never too obvious. So, the alternative to the mountain trail is going to be taking the tunnels of the abandoned mines.
8. To make the choice even more difficult and interesting, confuse the reader a little bit by partially revealing the outcome of going in the tunnels: There are unknown creatures living in the abandoned mines.
9. Summarize to yourself, not to the reader: The choice now is practically between falling off the mountain trail or fighting creatures. First one would logically lead to certain death while the second one predicts only the possibility of death due to injuries suffered in a combat. Obviously, the second one is the lesser of the two evils.
10. Reward the reader for choosing the lesser evil: besides keeping him alive and despite of the fact that he just lost some health points in a battle, you will tell the player that he just found a Shield! Try to implement as many positive unexpected surprises as possible! We all love them. I call this "But Guess What Effect" after making a tough decision.
11. Apply the "God's Forgiveness" rule: always try to show mercy and give a way out of certain death to your readers: make him roll 1d6 and inform him that he falls down to his death if the result is 1 through 4. This allows 33% chance of survival or close to 50% if a Blessing point is used to re-roll.

Our focus is now moving onto the Wetlands. The challenge difficulty here will be easier, because the reward will be given regardless of the performance, but there will be other consequences for making a bad decision.

1. Naming the Challenge... or in this case, renaming it. I am going to change word "Forbidden" which carries a lot of danger (why would it be forbidden otherwise?) to "Forgotten" which hints that nobody has crossed it in a long time and it is unknown what could be found there, but in general, it sounds less dangerous than the first.
2. Invent the Danger: sinking deep in a Swamp (you could come up with a better one when you write your own adventure, I am sure)
3. Create the Wrong Choice: Walk through the Swamp
4. Apply "Fog of War" principle: telling the reader directly that he "could walk through a swamp" makes the wrong choice too obvious, so we will hide the swamp through giving a hint by listing plants that grow in swamp areas such as Cattail Plants, Duckweed, Milkweed and others (I use Google to do my research). Now, the wrong choice is not that obvious and it looks like this: "Do you want to walk through the Cattail Plants that are growing on top of duckweed..."
5. Give a false hint: reason why he would want to do that (note that this is not lying to the player as the reason is very valid): ".., so you are not easy to be seen". Well, technically, this is also a hint that the choice is wrong, because logically, you can't see anything either and you could easily step directly in a crocodile mouth without realizing it. That is not in our scenario, but the reader doesn't know that at the time of making the choice.
6. Invent the Good Choice: "... or you could just carefully walk down the path that is swerving through the wetlands". Let me remind you that the player hasn't been given a reason to think that something dangerous is awaiting him here, so this should, naturally be the right choice. You could reinforce that by using another hint such as telling the player that "birds are happily chirping" in the initial description of the Forgotten Wetlands (that would suggest that there is no dangerous creatures here). Also, note that I used the words "carefully walk", not "carelessly walk" as the later one would make this choice wrong, because not being careful in an unknown situation (Forgotten Wetlands) would be very wrong as well.
7. Punish the reader for making the wrong choice: "You may not have realized, but those plants grow in swamp areas, so as soon as you step in, you start sinking. Throw 1d6 to find how much energy it requires for you to get out of there and remove that number from your Health Points and then continue down the swerving path"
8. Give the player his reward for choosing the Forgotten Wetlands: "While following the path through the wetlands, you catch a glimpse of a very rare flower. They call it MystFlower and your mother was using it for healing wounds. You take the herb and put it in your inventory. You can use it at any time (except during battle) to heal your Health back to its initial 10 points"
! Note that the reward here is given regardless of making a good or a bad decision. The only consequence for bad performance is the punishment of losing Health Points.

As you can see, we are moving from difficult (the mountain provides choice between bad and worse) to normal (the wetlands provide clearly bad against good choice) and it is now time to create a dilemma that should be easy (neutral outcome against a good choice) in the Forest.

So, here is our last example: The Forest. Here, I would like to show how to present and teach a real life lesson in a gamebook adventure. The idea is that, if played well, during this encounter, our protagonist will meet an old monk, who is supposed to give him one Blessing point. As you can see, I am approaching it backwards now, starting with the reward and creating the encounter that protects it.

1. Naming the Challenge: We should rename the Cursed Forest (this name suggests too much trouble) to the Darkwood Forest (it sounds a little bit scary, but it doesn't hint towards a great danger)
2. Good outcome: As already decided, we will approach this encounter backwards and we will start with the gain, which in this case will be one point for the Blessing skill. Who could bless you better than a Monastery Monk?
3. Bad outcome: The negative consequence would be as simple as not receiving a blessing. Lets just say that the Monk could get scared and run away instead of giving you a blessing. That's the best I could come up with so far.
4. The good outcome is too obvious: It would be stupid to ask the player if he wants to meet with a monk in the forest. According to general knowledge, a Monastery Monk would definitely be on the friendly side and anybody in their right mind would prefer to meet with one. That is exactly why we should literally hide the monk in, lets say, the nearby bushes. Tell the reader that "there is something in the bushes" and don't give him any additional information, but create the bad decision: "Do you want to attack first and use the element of surprise?"
5. We might have gone too far now: Giving the option to attack first creates a lot of tension which is drawn from the illusion of danger, but that "false hint" could have tilted the scales too much in the wrong direction (almost cheating the reader into a trap) and we have to fix that in the next step

6. Give another reasonable option: While not using the advantage of attacking first could be wrong in many situations, giving the player the possibility of "drawing the sword out and waiting to see what comes out of the bushes" would make this encounter dilemma perfectly balanced due to the real world rule of "one shouldn't jump to conclusions" which translates here to "you shouldn't jump to the premature conclusion that the thing in the bushes is necessarily dangerous, before collecting enough information about it". The later is further backed up by the fact that the name of the forest is "Darkwood" instead of "The Cursed Forest", which should hint the reader that dangerous creatures could be living there.
7. Use a Historical Hint: We could make this encounter a little bit easier if we integrate another hint earlier in the adventure. Now, that is a little bit tricky, because if we just include the following line "there are monks living in the forest", that could be a little bit too obvious and it creates a memory challenge rather than a logical conclusion hint. To avoid that problem, we could make up a story about the childhood of our protagonist and write something like this: "When our hero was young he often suffered injuries and wounds while playing "warriors" outside with the other boys from the village and his mother used a healing recipe given to her by her brother, who was one of the monks living in a monastery beyond the forest". We could also include a hint about the MystFlower located at the Wetlands by saying that "The main ingredient of the healing recipe was a flower that only grows in swamp areas". Logically, the reader should conclude that he would encounter a monk if he goes to the forest or he would find a healing herb if he chooses to explore the wetlands. Naturally, we don't have to include any further hints about the mountain besides the name "Deadly Mountain" that suggests well enough what fate could be possibly awaiting there. Also, according to the general rules of games as well as in real life, the reward given for choosing the most difficult path should be the greatest one of them all.
8. Create the negative outcome: It would be cruel to kill the monk if our reader decides to attack him in surprise, so lets make up a different story where the monk gets scared shitless and runs away screaming. We will tell the reader that he should have not jumped to conclusions before collecting enough sufficient information (which was the other option of waiting patiently with the sword in hands) and we will leave it at that.
9. Create the positive outcome: We should reward the reader if he makes the right choice of waiting to see what or who comes out of the bushes. That, my friends, relates directly to the real life wisdom of being patient enough to collect the minimum required information for making an educated decision before jumping to premature conclusions. These are my personal favorite encounters, the ones where the reader is forced to recognize that the given situation is an actual simulation of a real life dilemma and, if not solved as expected, it would teach him a valuable lesson that can be applied in the physical world for his future success in life.

In conclusion, I have to share with you that while reading back this blogpost, I realized that the steps I listed in the Theory of Logical Conclusion Choices don't have to be used in the same sequence nor you have to use all of them to create a good choice. As a matter of fact, you can use some of them multiple times during the creation of one encounter and you can skip other steps, if you please. Neither, the Theory nor the Practice Lesson on Logical Conclusion Choices should be seen as a strict guideline. The steps listed in both are just a suggestion and an example of how a good choice is created by hiding information and presenting it to the reader in the form of clues and hints, so he can draw the logical conclusion for himself and provide the input necessary for the game to test the quality of his performance. It is entirely up to the author's discretion to decide how exactly to approach the design process of the encounters in such a way that they are neither too obvious nor too confusing, so the general feeling of the game is that the final outcome depends entirely on the quality of the choices made by our readers rather than some random guessing of which path to follow. The bottom line here is that a writer must be able to force his readers into paying close attention to the story while looking for specific helpful clues and memorizing them for later use when making logical decisions that are a product of critical thinking and educated guessing, so the eventual success or failure is based entirely on the performance of the player and not on some lucky guesses.

I must also stress out that it is of extreme importance for the correct choice to never be too obvious, while at the same time, the available clues and hints are not cheating the player into the wrong decision. Because of the fact that Logical Conclusion Choices are arguably the best mechanic that allows measuring the reader's performance in the genre of gamebook adventures, creating encounters that are perfectly balanced should be the most important goal for each self-respecting author.

Remember that the main rule for creating Logical Conclusion Choices is that a writer should never, ever cheat the player into making the wrong decision by hiding too much valuable information while, at the same time, presenting too many despicable false hints. It is also true that in order to keep the adventure interesting, gamebooks still need to surprise the reader every now and then, but every author should make it a priority for all those surprises to be positive, because the negative ones would make any game unfair to the gamer and therefore the final product will be unpleasant to play.

P.S. I can totally imagine Ashton Saylor arguing here that having the approach of Logical Conclusion Choices and Fog of War would make any adventure boring for future re-playing. My response is that reading any book or watching any movie more than once makes up for somewhat boring experience, because we already know what to expect or what will happen. Unlike that, in a gamebook, the player is given the chance to alter the outcome by making different choices especially at places where his previous performance was unsatisfactory. Either way, a gamebook adventure shouldn't be designed to be read more than three times, because in addition to being boring, it will also become frustrating and it will be put aside along with the unpleasant feeling of failure. The rule is that an average gamer should be able to achieve victory in about three consecutive attempts.

Peter Agapov
Game Designer at
President and Chief Executive Officer of American Limo Naperville
Former Road Captain of Marine One at Operation "Welcome You Home"

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