PAX East Storytelling in IF Panel Notes

March 27, 2010

(Warning:  this transcript contains spoilers for Pantomime, because the panel itself contained spoilers for Pantomime.  Robb Sherwin totally spoiled his own game.  Then he said “spoilers!” which was cute.  Actually I think I’m’a ROT13 that bit, now that you know he said “spoilers!” and it was cute.)

I’m’a just transcribe these verbatim, which will be the cue for whoever has video of the panel to go ahead and post it, thus totally obsoleting the sad little notes that I took on actual paper with my actual fingers.  Poor sad little me.

Dramatis Personae:
Emily Short
J. Robinson Wheeler
Andrew Plotkin
some guy I thought was J. Robinson Wheeler the whole time because J. Robinson Wheeler introduced himself as Rob and I got all kinds of confused – sorry, dude I have no idea who you are!  I’m sure someone will tell me eventually!  [I figure it out myself later down the page.  He’s Robb Sherwin.]
Aaron Reed

limitation of games as medium [for  storytelling] is what people talk about – finds this frustrating
should focus on what hasn’t been done before
recognizing that the player & PC are not the same
lot left to do with branching narrative & moral choice – beyond good & evil [which reminds me, I gotta finish playing that]
when you’re playing a game you have to accept the game’s universe
replayability – experience of replaying forms something bigger

has no manifesto
conventions of IF are difficult to learn [i.e. standard ways to communicate with a parser, that kinda shit]
interface bot [this is the part when the awesome dude sitting next to me loaned me an actual pad of paper to write on (instead of some stupid shiny thing from my swag bag because I am awesomely prepared) and I got a little distracted, so I have no idea why I wrote “interface bot.”  It could even be short for “interface bottle” or “interface botany” or “interface botulism.”  I really do not know.]
IF’s interface is both simple and complicated
simple interface (keyboard) through what command, what decision, what overall story choice – layers of complexity
future of gaming is in blurring the layers [he came up with a manifesto really quickly]

enjoys dialoguing with the author [through the parser]

that’s not unique to text games

schism between player & player character – give some examples?

Violet – parser is personified, most realistic character in the game

Rameses – PC is recalcitrant and moody
can advance state of the art on shorter timeframe [IF is what can do this, I think?  Could be botulism.]

Prince of Persia:  Sands of Time

don’t have to please a dev team [when you’re writing IF, probably.  Someone made a joke here about having to please the rabid community but I didn’t write down who.]

[wrote a] character you like less and less as time goes on, you think “wow, I don’t want to be that guy” then go play something else (Pantomime) [oh hey that is how I could figure out who that guy was!  One sec.  Oh, Robb Sherwin!  No wonder I was so confused; J. Robinson Wheeler took the Rob slot in my brain.]

experiments – major goal – significant choice – has repercussions on story much earlier than the end [maybe I need to play Blue Lacuna again – oh, man, he’s self-published the source code to that game; it is intense]

NPCs [let’s talk about them I guess?  Rob was doing most of the moderating]

been hampered in commercial games by lure of the conversation tree – very easy to do – [makes it] more difficult to create dynamic situations with give & take between conversation partners – [the more you] move away from static trees, [the more you allow for] more dynamic emotions – actually establishing a relationship over time

Alabaster will be good for that

[talking about Alabaster] can add dialogue within the game [authors can do this]
put out on blog, became group thing [insert your own “put out” joke – hee hee I said “insert,” you should make a joke about that too]

[Alabaster’s gameplay is essentially a] very deep conversation, plot points important

tracks more variables than usual conversation, deeper experience

IF does NPCs in the background reacting really well
if the game had a way to model your actions at a high narrative level, the NPCs could react to you at a high level [think he was talking about non-IF here]

NPC I wrote had a bunch of dialogue but didn’t help in a firefight and it made me sad

are you going to fix that in your next game?

Yeah, the NPCs in this one aren’t your friends, so there’s no way they’d help you.  [Awesomest moment in the panel.  Award one Meretzky.*]

puzzles for pacing narrative

definition of “puzzle” has become broad – might key the next bit of text to item desc [an item that jumps out at you when you enter a room – basically he was saying he considers examining that item and thus advancing the plot to be the solution to a puzzle]

puzzles have changed a lot since the adventure game
a traditional puzzle is either “use random thing on random thing”

Andrew (?):
Or Towers of Hanoi.

“let’s see how clever we can make ourselves feel” [and how dumb we can make the player feel]

Make it Good – you wind up having to play it several times – core of it is manipulating NPCs – feels like expression of character and story and not arbitrary puzzles
may decide you’re not in sympathy with protag, but you’re so invested in the challenge and the characters [that you go ahead and try to “win” anyway]

someone [deliberately] chose an ending [to Blue Lacuna] where Progue is happy and they’re [the PC is] not, ’cause they felt he deserved it

Centipede?  We sometimes do minicomps… dunno what to say about it [I missed why we’re suddenly talking about Centipede and I think maybe Rob did too.  Anyway, he talks about the comp where the theme was adapting old-school vidjo games a little here.  Mainly he says that such a thing happened.]  What other minicomps were fruitful?

JIG comp

IF opposite of casual games really

all on the same plane ultimately – there is such a thing as the hardcore casual gaming market
(Andrew’s getting IF to work on iPad)

you can give a player a mini-goal and a larger goal [forget why we’re talking about this, but he’s right; you can]

yeah, that’s important the way I write games
surprised commercial games don’t have more little bits of text in them

better voice acting killed it

Floatpoint – player has to decide whether to let them [a race of expatriate former humans whose world is going through an ice age] come back to Earth & on what terms – wanted that to not be easy & for the player to have to explore the implications – big open concept – how to structure with immediate goals – few small tasks when you arrive, then a sort of quest log

if you have to write things on paper, the game’s failed

commercial games are better at maps and quest journals

non-violent exploration is something IF does that few other games do – 1893 [a game where you’re basically exploring the 1893 World’s Fair, which I totally want now; can’t remember if Jason Scott said he’d be selling it at his merch booth or not]

parallels between Myst & Zork are very strong

lot of discussion of how to convey world through exploration [takes place in commercial game design]

Half-Life 2 – [would happily play a whole game that was just the first part but] as soon as you had to start shooting people it got boring

trick is if the cool thing to do is let the player find things out at their own pace, they still have to know where to go [“what bits to push on”] to find those things out

Question and Answer Session

Q:  If we’re moving towards more immersive storytelling, it seems like there’s always one aspect left in the dust – is the trick collaboration?  If it was, why don’t commercial games [who have huge teams] do it [knock immersive storytelling out of the park, I guess]?

creative focus is not a bad thing
collaboration [is good] and better tools
(everyone says better tools) [now you say it too!  BETTER TOOLS!]

Q:  [this guy had two questions and they never got to the second one] 1) pretentious indie games – moral choices [“pretentious” games like Tale of Tales’ etc. do moral choice really well, I think was the point?] 2) what narrative legacy have we picked up from other media [I am trying to think how I would answer this question if it were posed to me, and am leaning towards “buhhhhhh.”]

people want to get hands dirty and see if things work [as opposed to experimentation for the sake of feeling conceptual, arty, and smug] – pretension is a question of subject matter

Q:  world experimentation and quest log – have you tried combining the two – letting the player specify what they’re interested in?  [as in you could say “I am interested in this dude” and then start noticing him in crowds, etc.]

thought about letting the player signify a moment they found narratively important – flirted with a guy then let him get killed by bandits [in Fable, and unintentionally] – should mention The Baron, which asks you to justify your actions

Q:  nuance and ambiguity – different endings – preferred ending [is it bad if the player has one, I guess?]

[Amanda Goodenough (?) quote, paraphrased] Just because you’re creating an interactive story doesn’t mean you’re off the hook to tell a good story.
six different satisfying endings [is what you want if you’re going to have multiple endings]

might be different endings [preferred by different people]

more interested in the journey to a single ending – not about replayability except in the way you’d reread a novel

Q:  thought about IF that calls home so you can see what people are doing?  [as they play the game]

A (multiple people):
yeah, more for beta testing – Aaron got to watch 70 to 80 people at Slamdance play his game

Q:  I like watching my expectations get knocked on their ass – appealing to write that?

Man, that’s the only thing I ever want to do.

Cnagbzvzr – gur CP vf npghnyyl gur fba, fcbvyref

And there you go, that’s the panel.  Oh, and afterwards Stephen Granade showed me a picture of the robot unicorn from Robot Unicorn Attack sucking its own dick.  (Do I have to say that it’s not safe for work?)  Also Christopher Huang shared his delicious unagi with me.  The IF community has been really nice you guys.  (Like, ulterior-motive nice.  It’s terrifying.  If I don’t blog from PAX again call the police and tell them Paul O’Brian is wearing me as a dress.)

* A Meretzky is a unit of measurement for how awesome a panel was, because Steve Meretzky was fucking awesome awesome on the Get Lamp panel.  I could have just left that as an unexplained in-joke but man that’s not cool.



  1. […] assured that the panel was recorded and will be made available in the future, though; and there are some notes online courtesy of Jenni […]

  2. thanks for the notes PLS.


  3. “Interface bottleneck,” perhaps?

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