You may well have played a rather odd browser game called Frog Fractions sometime in the last week. The Twinbeard Studios title has been doing the rounds on social media networks, with the usual reaction being "I love this game, but I don't know why."
Creator Jim Crawford knows exactly what he was doing when he injected Frog Fractions with its bizarre twists and turns. We'd suggest giving the game a play before reading on -- much of what Crawford discusses here is spoiler-territory.
"My intent was to make a game about the joy of discovery," he explains. "It took me a lot of messing around to come around to this intent."
Frog Fractions was nearly a very different experience although. "Here's my big shameful secret about the development of Frog Fractions: I initially had pop-up tips that walked the player through every mechanic in the game, including diving underwater," he says.
"Then, Tim Ambrogi, an old friend of mine -- and lead programmer on Jamestown -- playtested it and refused to read anything, taking half an hour to dive even after buying the 'diving helmet' upgrade. I was pulling my hair out!"
It was Ambrogi's comparison with the discovery that you can burn bushes with a candle in The Legend of Zelda that really made Crawford sit up and listen. "That was when I realized that I could do something really special," he tells us.
"People like mysteries," he adds. "People usually like mysteries more than they like the solutions, because it's way easier to ask a thrilling question than to come up with a thrilling answer."
He takes the example of renowned author H. P. Lovecraft, whose stories would regularly explore the mysteries of the universe, thanks to his living during the uprising of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics theories.
"As his protagonists so often find out, once you actually internalize the mysteries of the Old Ones, it's not thrilling any more than any other aspect of history or law of physics, just more gross probably," says Crowford. "Luckily for his readers, Lovecraft usually did a good job walking the fine line between leaving the door shut and opening it entirely."
He continues, "In Frog Fractions, I play up the mystery a lot, especially early on. Half of the upgrade selections seem to be jokes. How does the scoring system work? What's in the gift boxes? How am I supposed to afford the Warp Drive? I do all this to keep the player engaged. Then, when it comes to the payoff, I sidestep the whole finesse issue effectively by brute force, making sure there's so much there that nobody's going to be disappointed."
Crawford also touches on the idea of creating in-game events for which the outcomes don't matter at all -- in particular, Frog Fractions players are subjected to a grilling in a court of law, yet it does not matter how to answer any of the questions provided.
"One thing I believe very strongly, that a lot of gamers seem to disagree with, is that making a narrative interactive fundamentally changes the experience, making it much more powerful than that of a story that is merely told to you," he explains. "This is one of the great strengths of interactive storytelling, that they can make a story about you in a way that no other medium can."
He argues, "The frisson you can get out of the threat of explicit failure is strong, but it is by no means necessary to make a game engaging."
For example, he says, gamers may choose to completely give up on a tricky puzzle, rather than sticking at it. By providing an experience where success is inevitable, yet players still continue to enjoy themselves because they are actively participating -- like in the aforementioned courtroom scene -- you can keep players engaged without providing fundamental choices that affect the gameplay.