Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Games We Don't Play

So right now, between bouts of writing up bizarre encounters for my own Champions campaign, I'm playing this freaky little game called 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors, which plays like a cross between Saw, Professor Layton and the Diabolical Village, and Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. It's for the Nintendo DS series of handheld game console, and...

"I'm sorry, but what does this have to do with tabletop roleplaying, which is what this blog is ostensibly about?"

Frankly, nothing. And that's what I'm lamenting.

Bombs, Bracelets, and ...Italian Nobility?? Really?

See, I've worked a reference to a second game into this which will require even more explaining. And here I haven't even done the first explaining. Dropping back to punt...

You wake up in third class. Things go downhill from there.

9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors is part game but a fair amount of story about nine strangers (or so you think) trapped aboard a ship and forced to play a rather peculiar and desperate game. To escape, they have to go through a set of numbered doors in particular combinations to solve puzzles, to get keys to allow them to access more of the ship, in order to find the door that has a [9] on it.

When you play it through the first time, you know next to nothing, and are forced to stumble through it. Consequently, you're almost certain to get an unsatisfactory ending and death, close together but not necessarily in that order. On any of those play-throughs, you'll have to navigate six rooms full of puzzles.

Hardly seems fair, does it? You play through six situations (out of a possible set of twenty or so) and get killed? What the hell kind of game is that? On its own, not much.

Here's the trick, though. You can play through it any number of times, and on each play through, you—the player, not the hapless college student through whose viewpoint you perceive the game-world—learn a little more about the situation, become better able to thread it, and have other endings opened up to you.

The game is not simply to wander through the slaughterhouse and get knifed, axed, or shot. The game is to learn about the situation through multiple playings to find the best endings.

This is called accretive game play, and it refers to how the player's grasp of the situation improves, layer by layer, with each play-through. The game is not just any one play-through, it's the summation of all play-throughs in the search for victory. You're not so much replaying it each time as continuing one big long game to find all the bits and pieces and make them fit together in one big picture.

Interestingly, this isn't the first game which I'd heard of doing this...

From Being Bastarded At, To Doing the Bastarding

It's much older-style play, but the text adventure is rather well known for this kind of thing. Repeated play-throughs are in one sense like individual explorations and in another sense one great big exploration where you peel back the secrets of the game like the layers of an onion.

This was especially cited in one particular text adventure, an independent game called Varicella in which you play a low-ranking Italian noble to a court whose King has just died and the Prince is nowhere near ready to take over himself. The way to advance? Bump off everyone in your way. And you've got to do this in a particular order otherwise you'll probably end up dead yourself.

Most interactive fiction can be called accretive, since it seems sometimes random things can either kill you or make the game unwinnable. But this one game deserves the title engraved on a gold medallion the size of a manhole cover, dipped in chocolate, and then lightly dusted with cocaine. And it was first pointed out to me by Emily Short, modern-day interactive fiction author, in a "Homer in Silicon" column from June of 2009. Incidentally, it's also where I picked up the term "accretive" in the first place, so here's a shout-out to her for that.

From there, not to roleplaying? Yeah, that's about right.

Okay, imagine setting up something like this. You set the scene, drop the players' characters into this hopeless-looking situation, let them get killed off... and start them over again at the beginning.

A few of the players might understand that they're in a Groundhog Day-like scenario, but I fear that many won't see the humor or novelty. They may react as if they're having their noses rubbed in their failure, or think that it's boring, or dismiss it out-of-hand in some depressingly similar fashion. There's a reason we don't run many scenarios like this, or do them so infrequently that we never hear of scenarios like this being run.

And that's what's got me curious.

"Rarer" doesn't mean better. "More common" doesn't either.

A lot of these games run in a similar fashion. Characters encounter trouble, players thread their way cautiously through the trouble the GM has created, characters eventually break loose from said trouble (often by beating it to a bloody pulp). It's what most games are designed to do, and that's therefore how most of them play.

Novelty is the stuff we haven't done before. Innovation is finding a way to make the stuff we haven't done before work. So think about that in terms of RPGs: There are likely a great many ways of playing, different narrative structures and ways of telling the story within the game, that we aren't used to, but could make for an awesome experience if we could find a way of leveraging those structures.

(And no, I am emphatically not just talking about the class of amusement known as "story games." Any game will have some sort of narrative about it, to rescue the art of roleplaying from the number-heavy, context-light quagmire of tactical wargaming. If there are roles being played, there is a story of some sort being told, and therefore there is a narrative. Change the way the narrative is delivered, change the story, and change the experience.)

Accretive play is obviously only the first one to come to mind. There are likely others, including playing completely different characters through various parts of the adventure, making the players think they're playing their own characters when really they're playing other characters, give them other characters which really are their own characters (that one was done to me once, and it was cool), etc.

What other ways can you think of to twist the story or narrative to throw the players a curve ball?

1 comment:

  1. Yes, it was cool, wasn't it? To this day I'm proud of the looks on some of your faces when I described your "temporary" characters peeling off the disguises...