Pure Narrative Gaps
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
I missed a small and important part of the interface of The Shrouded Isle when I first played it and that actually led to my engaging with the game in a fun and immersive way that I'd like to write a bit about.
The Shrouded Isle
The gameplay of The Shrouded Isle revolves around figuring out which of your advisors have which virtues and which vices. There are five categories for both of these and three degrees in each of those. Additionally, the terrifying God followed by your cult often asks for you to sacrifice one particular sinner, identified by such commands as "the Swindler ... Give him to Me!".
Through a combination of asking people about their family members and working with the individuals, you can learn who is what and so sacrifice the appropriate person at the end of each season.
Putting Things Together
A twist to this is that you often learn the category of the vice before you learn of the degree. Thus, if you need to find someone like the Swindler, it makes sense to learn more about the people whom you know exhibit a vice of that category over the people you know nothing about or the people whose vices are not of that category.
The game actually lists out the mapping of vice to category in the UI, but I didn't realize this for quite a large part of my playtime with the game. So, I would try to figure out which category of sin was most likely to contain the exact vice that I was trying to find. For instance, is a Swindler more likely to be the result of a lack of Discipline or Penitence or even Obedience or Fervor?
This is a non-trivial question (at least for me) that can only be resolved by considering the actual meaning of the vices and the virtues. As a result, I'm pushed into thinking more about what they actually mean. This makes them feel less like arbitrary categories and helps me immerse myself in the story of the game. A game like this easily slips into feeling like a spreadsheet with a skin and these questions help to mitigate that issue by making the player think about what the categories actually represent.
On Decision Making
A very broad way to classify decisions in games is by whether they are a function of the systems of the game or whether they are informed by things outside the game. For instance, all of your decisions in Tetris are purely a result of the systems of the game and choosing a conversation path in IF tends to be made as though you were talking to someone in the real world, and so is decided by information from outside the game.
Not all decisions cleanly fall into one of these categories. When I play Sid Meier's Civilization 6, I often build a Theatre District because I like getting great writers and artists because I like the idea of having an empire that houses these people and not for an in-game reason. However, I will only do that if it is a reasonable move and not if it's going to have a major effect on my chances of winning. Additionally, many games mix both of these decisions together with different sections having different types of decisions.
Deducing the category of sin is a decision of the second type. This pushes players to consider the game from a different angle and so deepens their understanding of the game as a whole and not just an arbitrary system. Other decisions of this sort exist in the game in the form of narrative events, but this one was in the core loop and so was a decision that I kept returning to.
The Shrouded Isle isn't actually the game that I played though. This information is always available to the player and so the decision becomes completely endogenous. Once I learn that this information is available, I cannot help but to use it. Like most players, I want to win more than I want to have fun.
There are costs associated with hiding data of this sort:
- Players gain an advantage by keeping track of these relations manually. So, either you need to provide space for these notes yourself, have the players keep notes themselves or have the players feel unsatisfied because they are playing less than optimally. Every time that the player forgets something that they saw before and messes up due to it will be very frustrating for that player.
- It can feel like the game is being unfair when you make a mistake due to this as a player. Asking players to read the mind of the designer is always a risky proposition.
The Quiet Sleep
When building The Quiet Sleep (out now in Early Access on Steam), I had to make a decision about which way to build out some similar points in my game. For example, early in my second story Songcraft, the player is asked to generate self-esteem to work on the song that they are making. The only way to get that self-esteem at this point is to complete the goal of fishing for compliments. At this point, I had to decide if the benefits of hiding this information from the player was worth the costs.
I think that it's quite easy to understand that fishing for compliments will build your self-esteem but I think that it's a lot harder to pick out fishing for compliments out a large list of potential actions. Flipping between the mental contexts of the systems of the game and the things they represent is something that I value, but is also something that the game naturally has a lot of. As a result, I decided to err on the side of accessibility. This choice was reinforced by the fact that the game is quite opaque independent of this information. Nevertheless, it is a decision that is best made with intentionality and so one worth considering in games you make.