Puzzles or Not?
(This section contains major spoilers for Bad Machine and non-spoiler discussion of Photopia, Varicella, and Exhibition.)
Largely unacknowledged in the game design section of the Designer's Manual is the possibility of puzzleless, or puzzle-light, IF. (The manual does, however, quote Dave Baggett as saying "I've found it incredibly hard to keep the puzzles from leading the whole story.") The Craft of Adventure had given us the image of "a narrative at war with a crossword," and noted that, in early IF, "the crossword had won without a fight." In recent years, though, the pendulum has swung the other way; there have been several recent examples of IF where puzzles are largely or entirely eschewed in favor of story. To be sure, it's still much easier to find IF that makes a token nod toward a story than IF that plays down its puzzles, but puzzleless IF does exist; perhaps more to the point, many IF authors, conscious of mimesis problems, take pains to avoid the feeling that puzzles have been randomly dropped into the game's world, and many have succeeded in integrating story and puzzles much more than, say, Infocom. Those who have followed the IF community know that Things Have Changed.
As such, it's worth discussing (briefly, anyway) some things for designers of IF that's more story than game to consider. There's an obvious problem that generally confronts such designers: how to tell a specific story without forfeiting interactivity (in the memorable phrase of Craft of Adventure, leaving the player feeling "that the designer has tied him to a chair in order to shout the plot at him"). One way the designer might bring out the interactivity of a game is to consider why the game's being told as IF rather than as static fiction -- what does the medium add? And one of the most important things that the IF medium is capable of adding is the sense of complicity, as the discussion of Varicella indicates: the IF player shouldn't feel like he or she's just along for the ride, and when there are actions there should be consequences. Having the PC be a real person is almost invariably necessary for that sense of complicity: it's hard to be complicit with a parser, or even an NPC. Arguably, the player becomes an enabler in Varicella; the PC has become, through the player's intervention, someone he wasn't before; he certainly doesn't seem to have done much about his "plan" before the game begins. (Granted, there's little data about what the PC was before. It seems, though, that the deviousness shown by the PC in a successful game, if applied to his life before then, would have propelled him to somewhat loftier heights than he occupied at the start of the game.) A distinctly different sort of enabling goes on in Dan Shiovitz's Bad Machine, in which the PC is a robot made sentient and intelligent by the player's presence (and concealing the PC's sentience and intelligence from the other denizens of the factory is the primary challenge of the game).
Related challenges in the design of story-oriented IF are pacing and structure: when the familiar intro-middlegame-endgame pattern doesn't apply (because there's no "game" there), the designer needs to consider how to divide up the story into cognitive chunks that maximize its impact. In a sense, the pacing problem is easier when puzzles are few or absent, since the rate at which the player moves through the story is somewhat more predictable -- but it's not entirely predictable, and it's not necessarily clear when the player might stop to smell some metaphorical flowers for 30 turns. (Making the scenery uninteresting, so that the player won't be tempted to do this, is not a good solution.) One good way to get past this is to give the player strong and clear motivations to do particular things at particular times, and it's hard to do that without a well-developed PC. (Another way is to set lots of obvious time limits, but, again, that's not such a great solution.) If the PC's goals and motivations are present enough that they drive the action (and here describing the PC's emotions and reactions helps), not having puzzles whose solutions advance the plot isn't as much of a problem. Two examples: Adam Cadre's Photopia gives the player a variety of PCs to play, so there isn't much time to identify with any of them, but in every scene there's a clear objective, even if it doesn't mean solving a puzzle: you need to ask someone about something, or find something, or get out of somewhere. Photopia isn't puzzleless, but the puzzles are far from the point of the story; the game manages to keep the player involved partly because there's always something to do (as opposed to passive landscape-exploration), and the PC of the moment defines what's to be done. Photopia has been widely praised for the quality of its storytelling; conversely, Ian Finley's Exhibition, in which the player inhabits four PCs and thereby looks through four sets of eyes at a series of paintings, drew some criticism (though it was still warmly received, on the whole), in part because there's no pacing to it and the game gives the player no objectives.
One final thing to consider is what I'll call subtlety, for lack of a better way to put it; a good IF story, like any story, shouldn't bash the player over the head with the points it wants to make (and if it's not making any points, chances are it's a little too aimless to be a good story). There should be room for inference, for making connections -- and while a PC with an identity isn't essential to a story that works at more than the "duh" level, such a PC might well be a good starting point. Relationships are both fertile ground for interesting story ideas (in that they often have intricacies not apparent on first glance) and still largely unexplored territory in IF, for instance, and obviously it's hard to write IF about relationships if there's no PC for the NPCs to relate to.
Many of the player-PC relationship innovations in IF have been, one way or another, experiments that wouldn't work twice -- there's a reason why the "gimmicks" section above is so long -- or might feel derivative if tried again. And conventional puzzle-oriented IF doesn't really need much PC identity to work -- and let me stress that puzzle-oriented IF can be both entertaining and just as creative and thought-provoking as story-oriented IF. (The medium didn't just spring up out of nowhere in 1996, after all.) But it also seems to me that there are plenty of avenues in story-oriented IF that remain to be explored. Players like to be challenged, to have their minds stretched (why would puzzles be so enduringly popular if not?), and exploring PC identity is a fruitful way to do that.
This article copyright © 2001, Duncan Stevens