Friday, 23 March 2012

Nuts and Bolts

With the recent (and long-awaited) release of Verdigris for the Droid platform I thought this would be a nice time to talk about my approach to writing multiple choice interactive fiction in general and Verdigris in specific. I grew up on the Choose Your Own Adventure game books as well as great computer games like Zork and its many cousins and descendents.

These games were and are great fun and I cannot recommend them too highly. Actually that's not quite true, if I were to say that playing interactive fiction games would forever end the threat of nuclear war in our lifetimes, I would be recommending them too highly. But short of that, they are pretty dang nifty. The thrill of interactive fiction (hereafter occasionally referred to as IF to save space and delay the inevitable onset of carpal tunnel) is much the same as that of role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons and all of its cousins and venerable descendents: Stepping outside of your own head and your own life, creating an alter ego and having adventures, solving mysteries and just generally dealing with problems that aren't the same old mundane ones you have to deal with in Real Life. As most people who have met me know, I am no great fan of Real Life.

The problem with a lot of interactive fiction games is that they are mostly constructed out of frustration. Many IF games require you to learn the language and structure of each game. That takes time and can be painful and - wait for it - frustrating. Anyone who has played an IF game has had screaming arguments with their computer that go something like this:

Computer says: You see an interesting umbrella, you should pick it up
Player types: Pick up umbrella
Computer replies: I don't see an umbrella here
Player types: Pick up parasol
Computer replies: I don't see a parasol here
Player types: Look around
Computer replies: You see an interesting umbrella, you should pick it up
Player types: Pick up the freaking umbrella!!!!!
Computer replies: There's no need to get upset here, I'm just doing my job. Did you want to pick up the umbrella?
Player types: Yes!
Computer replies: I don't understand what you mean.

At this point, Player often throws his computer through a convenient window. But once you get the hang of each program's specific quirks and requirements they're a lot of fun. Trust me here. But what Team Verdigris wanted to do was create a vibrant interactive world with lots of real choices and real consequences that was as close to frustration-free as we could manage. Unfortunately, that meant front-loading all the frustration onto ourselves. We used a structure that allows the players to choose whatever missions they want in pretty much any order they choose, and because it's all multiple choice, there was no need to learn the program's idiosyncratic language.

The consequence of this choice was what we began calling zombie chips. Small spoiler here: the consequences of your choices in the game can lead to the deaths of some of the characters you interact with. The problem with this is that some players will move forward in the game with a particular character being alive and others with that same character being dead. This was a ticklish logic problem that led to a bit of a walking dead problem, or in some cases, a bit of a lying down living problem. It's hard to keep a good character down in Verdigris, even when they're dead.

The other problem we had was the vanishing button conundrum. Many of the missions in Verdigris feature several different investigative paths that all lead to the same conclusion (more or less, your choices matter) but some require that the player follow every lead to piece together all the information. For these, we created structure that lets the player follow the leads in any order they choose, mostly because it's more fun that way. When each track was completed, the player is sent back to a central screen where they report back and then choose the next track. In theory, the button that leads to the tracks they've already completed will no longer appear. This is all well and good, but sometimes it led to a player getting back to a screen that had no buttons at all. There was literally no way out other then jumping around using the map mechanic or actually restarting your game. This may be my first game, but I rapidly concluded that this was a design flaw.

Tracking down the logic errors that causes these vanishing button dead ends was a mystery as challenging as any in the actual game. Some of these central screens have over 60 discrete code elements and figuring out which one is buggy ... well Dear Reader, it ain't easy. Team Verdigris has spent hundreds (and hundreds, and hundreds) of hours playing the heck of the game trying to find and fix all of these pesky problems. Did we get them all? Probably not. Will we fix them when players find them? Absolutely. Will it be easy? That would be a big nope. Is it worth it? I said is it worth it? Hello? Is this thing on? Anybody? Is it worth the late nights, the early mornings, the lonely SOs, and the crushing poverty?


Only you, Dear Reader can answer that question for us. Play Verdigris and let us know. That is all.

March 23, 2012
Chelmsford, MA