We were at Pax East last month and I watched a young woman playing a lovely little story-based game. I couldn’t help but notice a phenomenon that I have seen frequently in the game world. She clicked through every bit of text. At the fastest possible pace and without appearing to make any effort at all to read anything. It was like the text was being perceived as getting in the way of her fun. And my writer’s heart bled a little with every click. Because someone somewhere (hopefully) had labored to put together copy to illuminate, enrich and expand her digital experience. And maybe it was successful text, and maybe it wasn’t, but that player would never know. That player is probably clicking away from this post even as you read this — too wordy! Get to the point!
The point is that “Austen Translation” is all about capturing the essence of a particular sort of literary experience, so text (to one degree or another) is not really optional. As a writer I am willing to die on this particular game-design hill. The question then becomes, in a literary strategy game, how do you make it advantageous to the player to actually read the modest copy that appears in the game? Ideally without punishing the fast-clickers (because this is a game and punishment is not fun). Can we layer on a mechanic that encourages players to engage with the story text? The answer may lie in the brutal pressure of the conventions of polite society.
Austen and the women she wrote about were often educated, artistic, witty, charming and excellent conversationalists, but not because these accomplishments were valued for their own merits. No one thought these women would go on to use their knowledge of philosophy to teach at Oxford. They were educated so that they could hold their own in a dinner party conversation. The aristocracy needed intellectual discourse and art and performance to connect people and demonstrate value. Perhaps this thematically appropriate social engine can be put to work in the service of meaningful text?
We’re currently looking at ways to weave details about the bachelors’ likes and dislikes — clues, essentially — into the game text. In that way, an attentive reader (our version of a good social listener) could see some advantage in making choices that show she is being attentive to her preferred bachelor. Will he like her more if she also claims to favor the breed of hunting dog he prefers? Will his heart warm to her just a little bit if she remembers his sister’s name? This approach also interests us because it allows the player to actually do the thing their avatar is doing in the game (listening and remembering and signaling that) which strengthens immersion and connection to the game world and goals. Stay tuned as we explore methods for implementing this idea without breaking the game...
At its most basic level, "Austen Translation" is a game about making choices — choices which affect how the other characters in the game perceive you. So, if you were guest at a swanky lawn party, you might choose to “bedazzle your croquet mallet” to get a +1 to your BEAUTY score. Or maybe “fail to warn the other spectators of an incoming polo ball” to boost your RUTHLESSNESS score. It's pretty easy to see the cause and effect in these simple examples.
But recently we’ve been experimenting with some more complex interactions between a player's character and the other women vying to marry the same well-off bachelors. These might include actions where you gain *and* an opponent loses. Or maybe you both lose but she loses more. In this way, we’re hoping to make the choices of the rivals — or other players in the multi-player version — more meaningful, since they might well have a direct impact on you. We also wanted to enhance the sense of direct competition between the women. For instance, at the archery club outing you might choose “You ‘mistake’ an inattentive rival for the target” which would give you a boost to RUTHLESSNESS and the rival of your choice a reduction in WIT.
What was particularly interesting to me was the conversation that followed when some less obvious relationships between the text and the resulting changes to the stats cropped up. Take the action option “Offer a rival the last slice of pie at the church picnic." The original slated result was -1 WIT for you and -1 RUTHLESSNESS for your rival, the reasoning being that you have be pretty dumb to give away the last slice of delicious pie, and that your rival would feel warmly toward you and more happy with the world in general if they just had more delicious pie (my partisan “pro-pie-bias” is showing here). But, not so fast! There is also a good case to be made that this would be a -1 RUTHLESSNESS for you, and a -1 BEAUTY for your rival event, the reasoning being that you will look like a softy by giving away the pie and your rival may well look a bit of a glutton. A case could also be made that your BEAUTY might suffer (what with all the crying you’re doing having had to give up pie) and your opponent’s WIT might suffer (since they were too dumb to figure out just how much you love pie before they took it from you).
As a writer, these sorts of “self-constructing narratives” are a fascinating mechanic. How much content do we need to give players before they start connecting their own story dots? Do players feel a stronger sense of connection and commitment when they feel like storytelling partners with the developers? And how can we structure the narrative we do provide to encourage this sort of imaginative investment in the action?
We found a similar human delight in connecting implied narrative dots when we were working on our first game, "A Matter of Murder." In playthroughs and livestreams it was pretty common for players to draw strong conclusions about relationships, motives and events base on the *flimsiest* of cues. Most often these story elements weren’t intentional or integral to “winning” the game, but players seemed to revel in these serendipitous discoveries. It’s a tribute to all the ways our brains are wired to see pattern and meaning and story in the world all around us. It’s a beautiful thing.
Worthing and Moncrieff, LLC is an independent developer of video game stories founded in 2015.