Friday, September 25, 2020

"Fog of War" and Logical Conclusion Choice

Note: "Fog of War" is terminology established by Ashton Saylor in his blog on Gamebook Theory. Unfortunately, he never came up with a specific step by step formula on how to apply the fog of war in a gamebook, so I decided to try analyzing the whole process and arrived at the theory of the Logical Conclusion Choice. While this is, by my own account, the greatest of my achievements in the game design theory, please look at it as a suggestive process instead of an exact science.

Keep in mind that not all the steps listed below are my own invention. On the contrary, most of them have been discussed in depth by other authors and designers, but nobody (as far as I know) has presented them in a form that is clearly defined and easy to apply when writing a gamebook adventure.

I believe that the father of Logical Conclusion Choice is Michael Mindcrime (a nickname of Dimitar Slaveikov). According to his own words, he was disappointed by the arcade approach of blind decisions and random choices in the well established series "Fighting Fantasy" and "Choose Your Own Adventure" and started writing gamebooks back in the 1990s, implementing some innovative ideas, where the choices were based on strong logic and therefore positive outcome of the adventure was a direct result and in direct proportion to the reader's performance quality. He quickly became the best selling author in the genre of gamebooks in Bulgaria and some of his work reached the top of bestseller book charts in the country.

To better illustrate the process below, let me once again use the example of a Logical Conclusion Choice I presented in my last blogpost (this scenario is courtesy of the Bulgarian gamebook "The Master of Darkness" by George M George - a nickname of George Mindizov). Here it is: The protagonist is crossing a wide open field. There are mountains in the distance to the west, with visible caves carved in them. A dark, almost black, thunderstorm front is approaching fast from the east. The choice is between running for the caves or seeking shelter under a nearby tree.

Lets dissect the above example!

Part 1. Hide the danger by applying the 'fog of war'

1. Danger. Design the danger your protagonist would be facing: being hit by a lightning. At the moment, this choice is between being hit by a lightning or taking shelter in the caves: this is a cake or death (too obvious) choice and no self-respecting author would write it in this very form.

2. Clues and Hints. Take the exact wording out of the text and replace it with clues and hints: don't mention a lightning in the text, but provide clues and hints by listing the conditions, under which the danger may exist or occur: thunderstorm, wide open field, the tree is the only tall object in the vicinity. Note: You don't have to start out from a loss point of view. Instead, write a paragraph with a specific gain in mind. Example: dead body with a bag of gold coins next to it. Hide it by writing that there are vultures circling high in the air, far away in the distance. Now, keep in mind that, this is also a warning of a possible grave danger awaiting there, so the outcome, positive or negative, is still a matter of chance, not the result of an informed decision. To avoid such randomness in your gamebooks, adjust the difficulty of the choice, using the steps listed below.

Part 2. Adjust the difficulty of the choice accordingly

3. Move clues and hints. Move some of the clues and hints to previous paragraphs: if you need to make the choice more difficult, move some of the conditions to a previous paragraph. Example: mention wide open field and the lonely tree in the same paragraph as the choice, but move the information of the approaching thunderstorm to a previous paragraph. This step increases the difficulty of the choice by measuring the attention and the memory of our readers.

4. Inform the Reader. Make the dilemma a little bit easier: inform the reader that the tree can't provide full protection against the forces of nature (this is a wide term that doesn't directly hint towards a lightning) and let him guess and decide what those forces could be and how much damage they could possibly cause. Note that without this step, the player could be tricked into making the wrong choice and that is something an experienced author would never do to his readers.

5. Partially Reveal. Make the choice harder: if we stop at the previous step, the choice could be a little bit too easy (which could be acceptable early in the adventure), so we may want to adjust it to more difficult (especially later in the adventure) by forcing the reader to choose the lesser evil from two bad outcomes. To do so, we could reveal that if he decides to run for the caves, he will suffer the loss of 10 points of health due to exhaustion. Alternatively, we can design paragraphs where the player chooses the greater good from two or more positive outcomes. The dilemma is now similar to a lot of everyday choices we face, where one of the outcomes is well defined and expected, while the other outcome could be better or worse due to unknown or unforeseen factors.

6. Adjust Further. Adjust the difficulty further by mixing and matching more of positive or negative clues in step 4 and step 5 as much as you think is necessary. Why not adding some positive to each negative like this: there could be provisions or gold left under the tree by other travelers, who took shelter under it or rested there, but at the same time, there are probably artifacts hidden in the mountain caves. See what we did back there? "A thunderstorm is approaching fast. There could be provisions or gold left under the tree by other travelers, but it can't provide full protection against nature's forces. However, if you run for the caves, you'd lose 10 points of health due to exhaustion, but you've heard that there are artifacts hidden in the mountain. Do you take shelter under the tree or do you run for the caves?". Now we have a choice between the lesser of two evils and the greater of two goods. How about mixing them in order to make the choice less obvious? The lesser evil provides the greater good and vice-versa. Actually, to make the above example more difficult, I would move the information about the artifacts to an earlier paragraph, where another person tells you a legend that there are artifacts in the mountains and I wouldn't even mention them in the paragraph where the choice is.

Part 3. Provide deserved feedback after the choice was made

7. Explain Yourself to the Reader. Very limited number of authors inform their readers how and why the consequences of each choice are in direct proportion to the performance and logic during gameplay. It wouldn't hurt to tell the player that while he is running for the caves, a lightning hits the tree under which he had a chance to seek shelter. While subtle enough, that information provides necessary feedback to the player that he chose wisely. In the opposite scenario, feel free to openly criticize the reader extensively for choosing to go under the tree. Inform him that he missed very important clues and tell him that he is running the risk of being hit by a lightning. Keep the feedback short when a good choice was made, but explain in detail why the player is being punished for a mistake he made. This is the only way to provide your readers the satisfaction that they are in control (the human creatures looooove to be in control) even when they are being punished and, and at the same time, teach them a lesson they may benefit from sometime in the future. Teach good and valuable lessons in your games! Being the adventure designer, you are the God of their game world. "With great power comes great responsibility". Use it wisely!

8. Punish or Reward Appropriately. Lets be fair, but also realistic: a lightning can't cause partial damage, it is a total annihilation event. Tell the reader to subtract 10 points of life due to exhaustion, if he chose to run for the caves (you promised him that in the previous paragraph), and also reward him with a magic sword, but don't tell him that the tree was hit by a lightning, if he decided to seek shelter under it, and then ask him to reduce his health points by 40 or so! That is simply not realistic. Instead, give the player some provisions, which he apparently found under the tree and then inform him that he made a mistake, so he will be facing the grave danger of being totally fried up. Then apply, what I call, the rule of God's Forgiveness.

9. God Forgives. Most authors agree that instant death in gamebooks should be reduced to a minimum. If the reader gets to a dead end, it must be the result of multiple bad mistakes and unsatisfactory performance (he dies only after he loses all points of health) or it should be a combination of extremely bad choice and unfortunate luck (the later approach is the God's Forgiveness approach). For the purpose of applying this rule, I suggest that the author tells his reader that, even though being hit by a lightning is a very likely outcome, the chance of it is only a 1/3 or 33% and then ask him to roll a die. If the roll is 1 or 2, the protagonist gets annihilated by a lightning in an instant death, but if the roll is greater than 2, God (the designer of this world) forgives the mistake and allows him to move on. I believe that most readers would see this as a very fair mechanic.

10. Add a layer of emotional and moral choices: Add more implications to make the choice more interesting: having two final goals in a gamebook instead of just one would be a great addition to the difficulty and will add another layer of game mechanics: balancing between two goals, which also provides a much greater replayability value. I love it when authors add a romance plot to another well defined ultimate goal. Let just say that the cop is not only asked to do good in the world and get to the mafia boss in town, but is also given a parallel plot of meeting a beautiful woman, whom he is supposed to attract. It should be nearly impossible to achieve both during the first read, but gaining more knowledge about the game world should allow the player to achieve complete success in both plotlines after a couple or three consecutive attempts. More on the subject of Emotional and Moral Choices could be found in the blog of Ashton Saylor here.

Classification of Hints and Clues:

General Knowledge or Storyline Specific. General Knowledge hint is a piece of information, which is assumed to be a well known fact in the real world. Example: lightnings strike during a thunderstorm. Storyline Specific clue is information received in the course of the adventure. Example: the village elder tells you that there are artifacts hidden in the caves up in the mountain.

A game could be a lot of fun and very sexy if well designed
Storyline Specific hints have two subcategories: Storyline Revelation and Immediate Paragraph hint. Storyline Revelation is information received sometime earlier in the adventure, which could be of help to the reader for the choice he is facing in a later paragraph. Example: while at the tavern, you hear a legend about a magic sword, which could be found in the cave to the left (use that information when you get to the mountains). Application: this kind of hint normally has a higher difficulty level and is used to measure the attention and memory of the player. Immediate Paragraph clue is information presented to the reader, directly related to the choice he is facing in the current paragraph. Example: there is an immediate danger of a thunderstorm front approaching very fast from the east. Application: this kind of hint usually has a lower difficulty level and doesn't require the use of memory, it measures only the reader's attention instead.

A very good alternative of Logical Conclusion Choices is the School Test Choice (Statistical Probability Choice), which is created by finding (in your memory or in a textbook) the correct answer to a question, modifying it to fit the gamebook storyline, coming up with the wrong answer(s) and then designing the outcome punishment and reward. Using this approach doesn't even require the application of hints and clues, the author could even openly warn his readers of the positive and negative outcomes. Example: "Our hero must hurry to the rescue of a beautiful princess, who is held captive in a cursed castle to the north. Should he go in the direction moss is growing on trees or the opposite way? Is moss growing on the north side or the south side of trees (given the adventure is taking place in medieval Europe)"? If the reader chooses South, we punish him by lowering his health 10 points due to being lost in the forest. If the reader goes North, we reward him with successfully finding the dame in distress.

The most difficult choice for every gamer: Save the World or Coin and Cleavage?
At the end of this post, I'd like to point out that Logical Conclusion Choice is one of many possible  mechanics in the genre of gamebook adventures. A book based entirely on Logical Conclusion Choices could feel like taking a test at school, bringing back some unpleasant memories. However, this kind of choice is one of the very limited amount of mechanics in the genre of gamebooks that keeps the player in full control over the outcome of the adventure. Al Toro pointed out that an author must never cheat the player into the wrong decision by applying false clues. He also criticized me that I didn't mention choices that are not absolute, where the same choice could be either good or bad depending on the current stats of the protagonist. That would be the Strategic Choice approach Ashton Saylor had already talked about and I strongly recommend reading his post on the subject. Before you go off wandering to his blog, let me point out that Strategic (also known as Tactical) Choices also require application of "fog of war", hints and clues, because it should never be too obvious which way the player should go, otherwise there is no choice, it is simple "if - then" statement.

The Adventure Map of Short Gamebook Adventure

Here is a very Short Gamebook Adventure designed entirely on Logical Conclusion Choice Theory. You can also follow the step by step process of creating it at my personal blog 

Please remember, whatever you do, don't ever make your readers feel that the final outcome is the unjustified result of pure chance and blind guessing rather than a product of good performance and informed decisions.

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"