No Time To Play
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Weekly Links #205

Hello, everyone. After a relatively slow start of the year, this week was unusually busy, so I'll keep this short. For one thing, I had a headache on Monday, and was sick on Tuesday, so on Wednesday I took a break from coding, and guess what? Not only I got a lot of other things done, some of them long delayed, but felt a lot better, too. Taking care of yourself doesn't have to hit your productivity hard.

In related news, for the same two days I had serious doubts about my ability to complete the game as initially intended. The resulting stress and bad feelings probably contributed to my physical state, too. But with a little persistence I got over the hurdle, and now things are looking especially good. Another lesson to keep in mind for the future.

But my Internet connection is flaky these days and I'd better post this while I can, so let's get on with the news.

We're off to an auspicious start of the week, as it turns out that not one but two of my friends entered the 2018 Global Game Jam. While waiting for Kelketek's promised guest post describing the experience of participating in the event, watch this short gameplay video of a strange little game with abstract graphics and mechanics that blend puzzle and team shooter. (Edit: the promised post is here!)

Meanwhile, over on Gamasutra we have a blog post explaining the origins of Engare, a game that turned heads last year with its original puzzle mechanics based on reproducing arabesques of Middle Eastern inspiration by mastering a device almost but not entirely unlike a spirograph. It's no wonder such a game was born out of a dual interest in the beautiful side of mathematics and a centuries-long artistic tradition. Yes, math can be beautiful, as anyone who grew up playing with turtle graphics on 8-bit home computers can attest. If only they still taught that in schools instead of Java, or for that matter polynomials and simultaneous equations (at least at first when you have to catch the kids' interest).

But more importantly, always look outside of videogames for ideas, or else you'll be stuck repeating echoes of echoes, each iteration more distorted than the last.

Over on the intfiction.org forums, Brian Rushton -- better known as Mathbrush in the interactive fiction community where he is one of the most active people today -- writes about the pitfalls of adapting classic literature into a parser-based game format. As other people point out in the ensuing discussion, this has been an infamous problem for a while now. But remember that the recommended way to design an original parser work is to write an ideal transcript first and implement that before adding all the side paths, secondary descriptions, other things the player might try and so on. Which, what a surprise, also leads to overly linear games. It's not just an issue of adaptation. Moreover, even adapting from one linear medium to another, such as film, is known to be tricky. Different media are different, and the best adaptations just take the original premise and run away with it to become their own thing (often to the dismay of fans and original authors alike).

If I was to adapt a piece of classic literature, my approach would be to keep it linear, like a kinetic novel or one of those "click next" Twines, in which interactivity is mostly about the pacing. On top of that I'd add the possibility of going down side paths to read more about certain things, the kind of detail an author has to leave out in static fiction so as not to unduly bog down the reader -- the kind of detail fanfic authors then have to fill in. That, and ways for the player to signal how they perceive certain situations or characters, maybe changing how the same fixed events unfold down the road. In other words, exactly the kind of interactivity good old books provide, taken to its logical conclusion.

We've always interacted with the fiction we love. The trick is remembering how.

If you grew up with Elite as I have, you'll like this article on the origin of space trading games recounting how they were born of the first tabletop RPGs to successfully tackle sci-fi, and how they went on to influence the entire genre of open world games, stressing the importance of the British school back in the 8-bit era. Funny how I never before stopped to think that oft-discussed features such as permadeath, or character creation so complex it's a minigame in itself, also have their origins in tabletop, even while knowing that as a matter of fact. Another good point is how a few simple mechanics that can be used in many different ways give the game designer a lot more bang for the buck than lots and lots of shallow content. And yes, since Sunless Sea gets a mention, other games with a naval theme were also influenced by Elite, for instance Maelstrom, built on the same StoryNexus platform as Fallen London.

But I should let you read the whole thing. It's worth the trouble.

We have yet more reading for game designers this week, namely about basing RPG magic in historical practices from the real world. Not that you have to, but it's a fascinating topic in its own right, and will provide familiarity for your players. Just consider what role you want magic to play in your own game. I struggled with that question for my work in progress before recalling my own principle: the whole point of magic is to achieve what mundane means cannot. I doubt you'll find any spells in a medieval grimoire for sharpening blades when a grindstone does the job just fine; but passing unseen and unheard through the middle of a whole crowd? For that you need supernatural help.

Not that game mechanics can't overlap somewhat, or be there mostly for flavor. But you need a starting point and a guiding line, and the wants of people are your best bet.

To end with the usual progress report, this Thursday marks the fourth week since I started work on The Fairy's Throne. I was sick for two days, and so discouraged by balance issues that I was ready to tear out and replace the entire gameplay. But after adding character progression and a couple of important tweaks, things are falling into place for a change. Now to create all the content for the remaining three quarters of the game, and hopefully the magic system as well...