(2020-05-10) Sloan Overworld Week6 Mechanic Or Bust
Robin Sloan: Overworld Week 6, mechanic or bust. Regarding the actual mechanism of this so-called game I am making, my initial strategy was basically to ignore it. Seriously: this was a considered strategy! The main attraction of Perils of the Overworld, I figured, would be the writing, and the basic push-pull of making choices—the “what next?” of a Choose Your Own Adventure book—would be mechanism enough to keep the player tapping. I still think there’s a kernel of truth there—“what next?” is one of the most powerful forces in the universe—but the no-strategy strategy did not work. Here’s why
At one end of the spectrum, there’s total transparency and predictability. For example: in the Mass Effect series of video games, your dialogue choices affect the development of your character, and the direction of this development is telegraphed bluntly with red and blue text. Selecting a blue dialogue option reliably makes you more of a “paragon,” red more of a “renegade
Way at the other end of the spectrum lies the very cruelest Choose Your Own Adventure books, in which your choice to, for example, “explore the laboratory” would be rewarded with: "You trip a hidden sensor. You are incinerated by lasers. YOU HAVE DIED".
I really had no idea where to place POTO on this spectrum
the problem was that I didn’t know what the connection was between those core values and the choices I was presenting to the player. “What next?” needed a companion: “…and why?”
I wanted the player to have to balance one value against another, without making it feel like a spreadsheet. (Indeed, I wanted to actively prevent them from treating the game like a spreadsheet.)
Turns out, there is a very famous and popular game that provides all this! It’s blackjack.
The new structure is: In every location, you “draw two cards,” which is to say, you play through two short adventures of unpredictable intensity/weirdness. From those, you receive adventure points—the equivalent of your blackjack hand.
Then, the overworld deals itself in. The game “draws two cards,” which means you play through two short episodes that pull you into the community of the place you’re exploring. Those episodes increment a different tally: attachment. And, as in blackjack, only one component of that point total is shown. The other remains hidden.
Then comes the critical moment: do you “draw another card,” which is to say, seek out another adventure? Doing so can nurture your sense of ambition and restlessness. It can also send you tumbling over the edge.
A benefit of this quasi-blackjack gameplay loop is that it has given discrete structure—almost an exoskeleton—to the concept of a “location” in POTO.
You know what part of the capture above doesn’t require any caveats? Jesse Solomon Clark’s wonderful tap-by-tap score. My system for selecting and playing Jesse’s “plonks” is still very rough, but even now, his music is working with the text to deliver some lovely moments!
If you tap quickly, the plonks pile up, producing surprising new chords. If you tap slowly, they become a kind of tentative pulse. That unpredictability is the whole point. A reactive score (rather than a static MP3) is the state of the art for games these days, but/and I do think POTO’s approach, molding the music tap-by-tap to your actions, produces a novel feeling; almost as if you’re the conductor.
The power of music together with a moving image is widely understood, widely sought. I think music with text is a bit underrated. Jesse’s development of the “plonk score” deserves its own edition of the newsletter, and it will have it.
Just one more note before I go. I want to kind of amplify something from the very beginning: the experience I had, earlier this week, of a single Tuesday completely transforming and unlocking this project.
something I’ve discovered, which is that the importance of different days’ efforts to the final product is extremely uneven.
Of course, knowing that wonder weeks occur, it’s not like you can plan for them, or call them forth: “Oh, sorry, I’m busy; I put a wonder week on my calendar.” But I think you can learn to recognize them, and, having done so, lean into them: clear the decks, stay up late.