Friday, May 10, 2013

Why include Randomness?

A few weeks ago, Dave Morris raised an interesting question on his blog, "Does interactive fiction need randomness?"

One of the things I like about Dave is that he's always at the forefront of gamebooks (a term I'm using generically for our type of interactive fiction, as the term "interactive fiction" has been claimed by a slightly different genre). Dave pushes the limits of the field, questioning assumptions and imagining the genre not as it is, but as it could be. I admire this a lot, but it doesn't mean I always agree with him on each of the particulars ;)

In this case, I would like to make a defense of randomness in interactive fiction. I won't argue that every gamebook should have a random element. Like ice cream, sometimes you want one flavor and sometimes another. Sometimes one person has the flavor they prefer, and they aren't interested in any other. What I do want to argue is that randomness can be additive, and here's why:  unpredictable results create interesting choices.

A while back, I wrote about the types of choices that one finds in gamebooks. To sum up the main points... A) The core game mechanic in a gamebook (regardless of the presence or absence of other rules) is the sequence of narrative choices the player makes. B) It is very important that those choices be interesting in order for a gamebook to be fun. C) For a choice to be interesting, the player has to have enough information to make an educated guess, but not so much information that the best option is obvious.

In short, to give the reader an interesting choice, the author must reveal some information, but also conceal some information.

Think of the classic "Which Door" choice: the reader is presented with something along the lines of, "at the end of the tunnel are two identical doors. Do you open the one on the left, or the one on the right?" What the reader doesn't know is that one of these doors leads to instant death, while the other leads to tasty cake! This sort of crap may have been what dudes were into in the 70's and 80's, but by today's standards, no part of that is a good game experience. If you lose, it feels arbitrary and abrupt. But even if you make the right choice, it's not like you can take any credit for it. Success isn't satisfying if you didn't earn it.

On the other extreme, what if you knew right off the bat what was behind each door? This is, literally, the classic, "Cake or Death" choice. This is also a complete flop as a game experience, because the answer is obvious (unless you're some sort of death-seeking masochist, in which case I think you have better things to worry about than the quality of a gamebook.)

The point is, any situation in which the player has complete knowledge of the results of their choice will eliminate the existence of the choice. A choice has to do with predicting results. If you know the results with 100% certainty, the preferable choice will always be apparent. Even if all options lead equally to success or failure, then there is still no choice to be made, because the direction you choose is irrelevant to the results.

This is where randomness comes in. Randomness introduces a fog of war to the scene. Even if the player could read ahead and see all the future paragraph sections, if there is an element of randomness, the outcome is no longer certain.

Of course, information can also be concealed narratively. This is an excellent way of solving the problem, which gamebooks should always use. The only caveat is that it has no replay value.

If you take those two doors and draw a symbol of cake on one and a symbol of death on the other, then the player has an interesting choice. Is the dungeon being honest, or lying to him? Perhaps something has come up earlier to lead him to trust, or mistrust, the signs in this dungeon. The player has to think about it, predict a result, and make a choice. But once the player has read through that scene once, the next time he comes down that hallway with Character McHammenheimer the Second, the player immediately knows what's behind the door--there's no choice any longer.

Contrast this to taking the cake and death, and putting them both behind one door, but there's only a 10% chance of death, and a 90% chance of cake. Or you can go through the other door and continue on your day without taking the risk.

Whoa... now you have a choice. Just how tasty does that cake look? Is it worth a 10% chance of immediate death? Mmm... it looks pretty tasty, but immediate death?

Best of all, this remains an interesting choice, no matter how many times the player reads through the game.

Afterword: I do not think that cake is a very good reward, nor death a very good punishment. Obviously these should both be replaced with positive results that do not rely on virtual taste buds, and negative results that do not instantly kick the player out of your game. You do want people to be playing your game, right? So why did you just boot them out again? How to design positive consequences that are meaningful without being gamebreaking, and negative consequences that are meaningful without being crippling is a different topic entirely.


  1. I think multiple endings can fix any problem brought about by removing randomness. I stuffed all my arguments into part 2.

    There is a funny and relevant youtube video about the choices issue brought up here:

    Majestic Loincloth episode 4

  2. Ashton, I am extremely happy that I rediscovered the Gamebook Adventures and I am reading your blog for the SECOND time. I already read Stuart's blog on Gamebook Design too, but I find your approach a little bit more organized and easier to comprehend. (Stuart, if you read this, I am a very big fan of your work too)

    I just want to note that both of you, Ashton and Stuart, give us excellent guidance what NOT to do in Gamebooks. The thing you never got to is explaining the right balance of WHAT TO DO and how to well balance an adventure just like both of you do in your outstanding work.

    Ashton, in your own words and promises, in Gamebook Theory you would write about: "including clues in the text to hint to the player which choice is the correct one" as well as "the illusion of danger".

    I believe that those two subjects are vitally important for any game and especially for a Gamebook, but unfortunately, there isn't much written on any of those two subjects anywhere to be found (as far as I researched).

    Please get to the subjects mentioned above sooner than later as I am really eager to hear your opinion!

    P.S. As far as terminology goes, I am proposing to have the hints be divided in two groups: internal (those given through clues in the storyline) and external (based on common knowledge and moral values from the real life facts and experience)

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