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Games and books going bad


Student of Trinity

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We've got a thread about books and now a thread about games, and the game thread is pretty harsh on games. That's good, actually; sometimes you learn something by waking up grumpy. When I started thinking of things I didn't like in games, I realized I was essentially complaining that the games weren't good books. But then sometimes my complaints about books are essentially that the books are bad games. So I thought of making a thread about comparing the things that go wrong in books and in games.

 

Over the past year working on my hobby-book I've learned some things about how an adventure novel can go wrong, and one of the things I've noticed going wrong for me has been a tendency on my part to write like a Dungeon Master, carefully showcasing settings and situations and NPCs, but leaving the plot to be a series of improvised leaps between pre-ordained cutscenes concocted just to be cool. When I began my project I thought that I could make a good plot just by nitpicking those improvised leaps until the logic all checked out, but I've found that nitpicky logic just isn't a substitute for real plot coherence, where it's always clear what's basically happening, and what's basically happening makes sense and is interesting in itself. A reader's flow chart loops repeatedly through the 'Know what's happening?' decision node, and there is no line that leads from 'No' to a nitpicking subroutine of reconciling mechanical details. You have to make sure the answer is never No.

 

This constraint seems to be trickier for games, because there's a fine line between having plot momentum and feeling railroaded as a player.

 

Is the best game one for which an LP ('let's play' — a story-ization of a play-through) is a good book? Is the best book one that could easily be turned into a game?

 

Any other thoughts on books versus games?

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It might just be that it's 3 in the morning, but I'm having trouble spreading my brain over the piece of toast that is that post.

 

If I'm as peanut butter as I think I am, one of the things that tends to go wrong with games is the divide and at times imbalance between story and gameplay. Ideally I'd like a game whose story is as engaging as its gameplay, but where both halves of the whole are also linked such that they feed into the other. Portal was great about this because while the story didn't necessarily have a lot of volume, the plot that existed and the gameplay mechanics were indelibly linked in a way I haven't seen a lot of games replicate.

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I believe that the expectations are different. In a book, you simply follow the plot. In a game, you help change the plot. I have read only a few of the novelizations of games (and one movie of a first person shooter, but it wasn't my idea to watch it), and in this limited sample, it was necessary to add significant plot points to make a bad movie or meadiocre book. Most books that I have seen made into movies they had to drop a lot of plot. To me, games are often like bad action movies with just enough plot to get you from scene to scene, so very similar to SoT's dungeon master example. While a game could certainly be made with as much plot as a novel, even done with a whole bunch of branches (choose your own adventure on steroids), I am not sure that it would pass a cost-benefit analysis. How important is an elaborate plot to most of us when we are playing games versus when we are reading?

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Is the best game one for which an LP ('let's play' — a story-ization of a play-through) is a good book? Is the best book one that could easily be turned into a game?

 

As somebody who's seen (and made) more than her fair share of LPs: emphatically no. Some very successful LPs have been of games with interesting stories whose gameplay was either bland or impenetrable. Inevitably you get a few people posting in the thread to say they've bought the game on the strength of the LP, and inevitably a large proportion of those people end up disappointed in the actual game.

 

If you're interested in new media that blur the lines between book and game, though, there's been a recent revival of hypertext fiction thanks to the rise of engines like Twine, and the success of browser-based or phone-based text games like Fallen London or the stuff Choice of Games does. (Not necessarily endorsing the quality of any of those products; just providing the first worksafe examples of the trend that I could think of off the top of my head.)

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Is the best game one for which an LP ('let's play' — a story-ization of a play-through) is a good book? Is the best book one that could easily be turned into a game?

 

In addition to what Lilith said, there are a lot of games and books that have been adapted from each other. The results are. . . mixed. And I mean mixed, not universally awful. There's a lot more that goes into the quality of a work than how it relates to the other medium, I guess.

 

Also, some of the very best LPs are of games that are just absolutely terrible. :p

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Great LPs are at least as much performance art as they are game.

 

I agree that books and games are fundamentally different, but not about how. There are many, many games in which the player has no effect on the plot except to enact it. Games with responsive plots, or at least plots that are responsive to any meaningful extent, are the minority; games that offer really big differences beyond having several different endings, usually based on a decision point towards or at the end, are vanishingly rare.

 

But books are entirely plot, if the word is used expansively to include people, places, events, actions, ideas, and all those other things that go together into making a story. Games also have gameplay and some degree of freedom that lets the player supply something of his or her own. Protagonists need less motivation when the protagonist is just a player avatar; the player is motivated to play the game. They won't balk at going behind enemy lines solo on a suicide mission because that's the game they're playing.

 

—Alorael, who suspects that the best games have great story, great gameplay, or both. It's definitely an or; Tetris is great and has no story, Planescape is great despite having pretty execrable combat and being only middling mechanically otherwise, and Mass Effect earned its acclaim by having gameplay and story (and it has plenty of detractors who hate one part while liking the other). But even a great game story isn't necessarily a great book story. Games can be exciting because of how responsive the story is. Books can't be responsive, but they can be more carefully plotted because there's no unpredictable player element.

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As somebody who's seen (and made) more than her fair share of LPs

LINKS FOR THE LINK THRONE

Edited by drone riots
on topic: games are getting better and worse, depending on genre, music is going downhill fast, and so is literature. this is in an edit so you cant argue with me :P
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We've got a thread about books and now a thread about games, and the game thread is pretty harsh on games.

To be fair, it's not really a game discussion thread so much as Death Knight being Death Knight.

 

But then sometimes my complaints about books are essentially that the books are bad games.

Yeah, the gameplay is so boring. You just flip a page every few minutes. What sort of fun is that? (And don't even get Dikiyoba started on the crappy graphics.)

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Yeah, the gameplay is so boring. You just flip a page every few minutes. What sort of fun is that? (And don't even get Dikiyoba started on the crappy graphics.)

What's wrong with ASCII graphics? I grew up playing games with them. At least with book versions I don't lose my game when the power goes.
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LINKS FOR THE LINK THRONE

 

warning: they're all screenshot LPs, so if you're interested primarily in video there's not going to be much there for you. warning #2: i made them for the something awful forums and so had to make no particular effort to be family-friendly. there's definitely some blue humour in them, probably some swearing here and there, and the occasional thing that's genuinely offensive and that i'd have written differently in hindsight. adjust expectations accordingly and please be forgiving of my past self

 

having said all that King's Bounty is the first one i've made that i'd actually recommend to a general audience. once you're done with that you can check out my LPs of Might & Magic 1, 2 and 3 on the same site. i'm very gradually working through an LP of Might & Magic: World of Xeen on the SA forums right now, and that'll go up on the archive too once it's done

 

i've got some older stuff on there too but those are less funny, have some formatting errors that crept in during the archiving process and are generally in serious need of a re-edit

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In a book, you simply follow the plot. In a game, you help change the plot

 

Mostly, but "Give yourself Goosebumps" from my childhood was rather more interesting. It's similar to how the talk-node system works in SW games, as each page contains a scene of action and a list of options each of which leads you to another page. It's a personal version of the classic Goosebumps horror, as you yourself are the protagonist of the book's story.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

You enter a dark, foul-smelling and evil-looking house at midnight. You look around the place, wondering what to do. You see two big, black demons guarding the front door, but there is also a door to the right, which is locked, but the lock looks rusty and easily break-able. What do you do ?

  • Try to kill the demons and open the door (Toss a coin. If Heads, turn to Page 25 and if Tails turn to Page 28)
  • Try to break the lock and open the door to the right (Turn to Page 37)

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

I'm sure such books come under a general category, but the most I could get out of Wikipedia was that G-Y-Goosebumps is derived from the Choose Your Own Adventure series.

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I'm sure such books come under a general category, but the most I could get out of Wikipedia was that G-Y-Goosebumps is derived from the Choose Your Own Adventure series.

 

yeah, the generic term for interactive print books is either "CYOAs" or "gamebooks" -- "CYOA" normally refers to ones where the gamelike elements are limited to deciding what page to go to next, while "gamebook" tends to imply more gamelike elements and tracking of the player character's current state (health, equipment, etc.) as in the Fighting Fantasy or Lone Wolf series.

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When I was a kid we got a couple of Tracker books. These were some very early CYOA books that were half graphical. Every left-hand page was an illustration, and sometimes the pictures had clues that would help you deduce the best choice on each page. In Codebreaker the best ending was actually reached by decrypting a message in the second-last page's illustration, and finding that it told you to turn to a fourth page, not listed as one of the three options in the text. The only other book we tried in the series was much more straightforward, though, and you could get the best ending just by always taking options that seemed brave. Thinking back, I'm pretty sure that there was a lot of convergence in the plot trees in both the Tracker books we had. If you avoided fairly obvious goofs, then you got funneled into the one climactic page with three final choices, whatever you did. It's probably a lot harder to make CYOA books that aren't like that.

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Thinking back, I'm pretty sure that there was a lot of convergence in the plot trees in both the Tracker books we had. If you avoided fairly obvious goofs, then you got funneled into the one climactic page with three final choices, whatever you did. It's probably a lot harder to make CYOA books that aren't like that.

 

This was quite common with the more "gamebook"-style books, especially the Lone Wolf series: some paths would be easier than others depending on the skillset you chose for your character, but the vast majority of choices could at least potentially lead to a successful ending.

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I flipped through one such book years ago and discovered that while there was a best ending, one that was foreshadowed early in the plot, but there were no paths (Turn to page X) that led there. Maybe there was some secret buried in the text, but I found the idea hilarious.

 

—Alorael, who thinks CYOA is not quite like a game or a book, but probably closer to the latter. It still doesn't really have gameplay; even gamebooks are pretty light mechanically, generally. You just have to write a plot that holds together even with branching points.

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I flipped through one such book years ago and discovered that while there was a best ending, one that was foreshadowed early in the plot, but there were no paths (Turn to page X) that led there. Maybe there was some secret buried in the text, but I found the idea hilarious.

 

If the book you're thinking of was Inside UFO 54-40, then yeah, that was totally deliberate. The book straight-up tells you that that place can't be reached "by making a decision or following instructions".

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An odd thing I came across once was a multiplayer CYOA book. The idea was that someone else would read a complementary book at the same time, and things they did would affect you, and vice versa.

 

I didn't have the other book, or someone else to read it, so for all I know it was terrible, but I liked the idea.

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The Blood Sword books had a multiplayer option of sorts, too. You could control a party of up to 4 characters between up to 4 players, and many of the options in the text were only available to specific characters. I mean, actually doing it as a multiplayer thing didn't really work that well since all four of you were huddled around one book and there were some decisions you had to make as a group, but.

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It may have been Inside UFO 54-40. It was a long time ago and I don't remember anything except the oddity of the unreachable ending. I assumed a misprint from shoddy production values at the time. Maybe it was a kind of literary device after all.

 

—Alorael, who also considers Rayuela (English: Hopscotch) to be something of an achievement in CYOA. It's just a normal novel, except about half of it is "optional" and you aren't necessarily supposed to read the chapters in order. Not that they're chronological anyway. It's a weird book; "just a normal novel" is actually nearly a complete lie.

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A colleague of mine once speculated that people are either story-thinkers or game-thinkers. You either focus on what does happen, or on the range of what could happen. Like most such insights it has a limited range, but I think it's interesting. I interpret game-thinking as not wanting to lose the untaken options, and story-thinking as not wanting to lose the taken one.

 

What I think I'm learning from trying to write a novel is that it's much harder than I thought just to have a finite set of identifiable options. You can have a cartoon story of featureless stock elements, or you can have an incomprehensible mass of meandering detail, but it's surprisingly hard to balance between those limits, and have vivid details that nonetheless cohere into recognizable narrative chunks. Perhaps writing is like necromancy. It's easy enough to string together a very bony skeleton, or to conjure a massive blob of quivering flesh, but a properly animated zombie with flesh knit to bones is a bit of a trick.

 

CYOA books are a nice way to think of the issue, actually: every page of text has to bring three clear alternatives into focus. Most books don't have to do that quite so crudely, nor do most games; but books and games both have to do something like that. And now that I'm thinking of this newly recognized issue as the core issue of making a good story, or perhaps a good game, I'm wondering whether books and games differ in some important way, in how they handle this issue. Maybe it's very simple, that a book has to always put one option most strongly in focus, whereas a game has to keep at least two options in the spotlight. The way I'm thinking now, that probably has more ramifications than one might naively guess. I bet it means that things have to stay more simple and cartoonish in a game than in a book, because you need to have at least twice as much stuff, but your audience's brain still has the same bandwidth, so your stuff all needs to be thinner.

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