Thursday, April 5, 2012

E: Even more discussions of Mars 2112

Hello All,

I fell off the wagon for a few days, but I'm jumping back on and trying to get caught up with posting E, F, G and H all today. Big day!

To start with, I wanted to pick up where I left off with E: Even more discussion of Mars 2112.

We left off on the "D" blog post after section 4. On section four, the player is given the only choice that significantly diverges the storyline. Traditionally, such choices are geographical. In this case, you have the option to go straight into the building, or try to sneak in underneath. As these are literally different paths, I had to write different plot paths as well. Something I would like to see more of, however, is branching plot paths based on character-driven choices, rather than geographical choices.

In this case, let's follow the "charge straight in" path first.

As we discussed last week, the choice you make in 4 is tactical, because what equipment you chose back in section 1 will make a difference now. In this case, if you charge straight in, you'd better have the EMP bomb, or it's Game Over. In a longer gamebook, there may be other options; perhaps instead of instant death if you don't have the right equipment, it could be a more challenging fight. But, as an author, it's always important to make the player's previous decisions matter. If I had provided the choice of the EMP bomb or invisibility early on, and then it never came up again, the player would feel cheated.

If you take the other route, of attempting to sneak in under the building, you end up with the exact same type of test, only it's required to have the Personal Camouflage Unit in order to survive and continue. There's no real choice, it's just, you succeed if you have the right equipment, and you don't if you don't--but it's rewarding to the player for the reasons we discussed above. Either way, if you pick the right path for your equipment, you continue to Section 11, where you find a hatch to the control center.

In Section 11, I included an example of a "Which Door" choice, asking the player if you go right or left, without providing any information about either path to give the player a reason to choose one over the other. "Which Door" choices are a big pet peeve of mine. Although I have to admit they do have a place, I think gamebooks in general, and especially the older gamebooks, heavily overuse this type of choice.

The important thing to realize is that a "Which Door" choice is not a choice. It's a randomizer. Just like there are times when you want the player to roll dice to determine a random result, there are also times when you can give them multiple choices with no information as to what leads where as a method of leading them in a random direction. But never make the mistake of thinking it's a choice.

In this case, it's especially bad because the choice doesn't even matter in the end. It's what I call an "Illusionary Choice." If you take the wrong path, you'll simply run into a dead end and have no option except to go back and re-unite with the main path. This is another thing I included as an example of what not to do. This doesn't even have the redeeming characteristics that a "Which Door" choice has. As far as I can tell, an Illusionary Choice has no purpose, and should never be used. Does anybody disagree?

In Section 13, you finally get to the actual control room (whether you want to or not). Here, I provided another example of what not to do: the "Shell Game" choice. The player is given a choice of whether to investigate the controls immediately, or attempt to radio command for tech support. The player might imagine there might be time constraints; perhaps if you take the time to radio in for tech support, you won't fix it in time. But if you blunder in without advice, you may make it worse. Or you may imagine that radioing to the commander might alert enemy forces to your position.

In truth, none of these considerations are relevant. The only outcome of your decision is to determine whether it's you or your assistant Amanda who gets shot by the terrorist plastic still in hiding here. You think you're getting one thing, but you're actually getting another. That's why I call it a "Shell Game" choice.

Like the "Which Door" choice, I object to the "Shell Game" choice in principle, but like the "Which Door," it does have a place. The danger is that the player will feel cheated because what they thought they were getting is taken away. Like the "Which Door" choice, it's essentially a randomizer, but in a sense it's even meaner to the player, because it asks the player to make a thoughtful choice based on certain considerations, and then rips that away. The considerations and the choice and the effort the player made are rendered meaningless because the results are wholly unrelated to the decision the player thought they were making.

This type of choice can have a place. In fact, this example, despite my best efforts to make it awful, turned out to be not too bad. It's a surprise, yes, but it's a point in the story where a surprise is called for. It's random, but it at least logically follows, to some degree. If you knew all the information when you were making the choice, the results that followed would make sense. This happens in real life; why not in gamebooks? Much worse examples of a "Shell Game" choice can be found in many gamebooks, especially the old "Choose Your Own Adventure" books. I read a CYOA book once, in which if you sat down at a certain table with a certain man early in the game, you would then fly to Africa and win the book, without a single other narrative choice. The end. Congratulations, you win! There's no way this logically follows, no matter how much you stretch it. Worse are the ones where you lose based on a Shell Game choice. Like if you decide to make a certain phone call, you wind up falling out of the airlock and dying, with no other chance to save yourself. My hackles rise whenever I see this kind of choice.

I was hoping to wrap up my discussion of Mars 2112 with this post, but I've run out of space, and there's still more to say. I apologize for the length of this discussion! I hope it is at least of some interest :)

See you next time with "F: Final Thoughts on Mars 2112!"

1 comment:

  1. Great breakdown of a gamebook Ashton and nice terminology for the types of choices.