Monday, February 16, 2009

Blue Lacuna - Usable Interactive Fiction

I've just spent the past several days Blue Lacuna. I won't say go play it now; it will suck you in and you may be in the middle of something. Also, it may not be your kind of game. I do, however, encourage you to at least take a look at it when you have a free moment.

Blue Lacuna (which you can get here) is a work of Interactive Fiction(IF) -- the modern evolution of now-ancient text games like Zork or The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Unlike graphical adventure games like Day of the Tentacle or Monkey Island, IF games stick with the text based interface. The games have little to nothing in the way of graphics, and all interaction is typing things like "get rope" and "go west" (or "west" or simply "w" to the veterans).

Interactive Fiction is not a big budget business. It's no longer a commercially viable medium; Interactive Fiction is kept alive today by an incredibly active amateur community. As a medium it doesn't focus on graphical innovation. It can't because there are no graphics. Instead, all of the innovation centers around gameplay and story. Blue Lacuna is a wonderful example of this kind of innovation.

Some of Blue Lacuna's biggest innovations are in the areas of developing relationships through interaction with NPCs and in player decisions affecting gameplay. Others have written about this in far more depth than I can and I encourage you to read more there. What I'm going to talk about here are the simple gameplay innovations that are added -- the convenience measures that breathe some fresh air into gaming via typing.

The standards of the IF medium go back a ways, back to when games were expected to be hard. In many works of IF, you have to guess at the right verb -- "eat" or "taste", "punch" or "hit"? A good game is well tested so that the game recognizes most different words. Still, it can often be very difficult to pick the important details out of a scene -- to know what can be interacted with (is that painting important?), and what is just window dressing.

Blue Lacuna does something very simple to make this style of interaction more acceptable to the modern gaming pallete: it highlights keywords. For instance, the first description reads:

The tutorial pretty much says it all (and incidentally, the tutorial is another innovation that is missing from almost all modern IF, and is well done on top of it). Every object that you need to interact with to get through the game and to get most of the story is highlighted in blue so you're very rarely stuck guessing at words and objects that may be important, trying to lift the bed because you're stuck, etc.

The other big gameplay innovation in Blue Lacuna is player movement. Moving around the world in IF is generally a fairly klunky affair. Drawing from the dungeon-crawling beginnings of the medium, most interactive fiction worlds are set up as a series of rooms laid out in a grid. The player navigates between rooms by moving in compass directions -- east, west, north, south, southeast, up, down, etc. Older games often had mazes - dating back to Adventure's maze of twisty little passages, where players were expected to take graph paper and map out the dungeon.

In Blue Lacuna, you navigate by keywords and landmarks instead. Rather than going "east", you go to the "forest" or the "rocks" or the "rise" etc.

This offers a more intuitive way for players to remember what lies in relation to what especially when the number of "rooms" gets fairly large. This approach actually comes close to what graphical adventure games ended up doing -- certain objects in the world would be "exits" and when you clicked on them you would move to another location. The following image shows exits in a screen from "The Secret of Monkey Island" by LucasArts:

In addition to allowing navigation by keyword, the game also contains a compass that you find relatively early on -- when you open the compass, the game reverts to a traditional model -- all the sudden you can "go east" instead of typing "forest". When you close the compass, the game reverts to the default state.

In addition to the basic keyword navigation Blue Lacuna also features "Landmarks" which are general areas that you can quickly travel between. You might, for example, want to travel from where you are back to the "bedroom" but don't want to have to type "stairs", then, "bridge", then, "ladder", then, "door", etc. This works much the same way having a map with quick travel points might work. It cuts down on a lot of tedious typing.

Keyword navigation and highlighting important objects are two mechanics that could improve nearly all interactive fiction. Both features not only make the medium more accessible to the novice, they also cut down on frustration for the experienced IF player. I applaud Aaron Reed for his inclusion of these elements and encourage all those who create Interactive Fiction to think about including usability mechanics like these in their works.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Wii Fit - Motivational Mechanics

Recently my fiancee and I got a new Wii Fit. We'd been looking for one for a few weeks and we finally saw them on sale. For the past three days I have been on an exciting fitness journey with my Wii Fit, and I have come to share my experiences with you, the reader.

The genius of the Wii Fit is that it does essentially everything in its power to make you want to get fit. I would be lying if I said that I am in tip-top shape. The fact of the matter is that I have only ever been thin while I was a heavy smoker, and I have never really gotten into regular excercise when it wasn't a part of a medically mandated physical therapy plan.

The reason that physical therapy worked for me was because I had 1) serious back issues that prevented me from being productive 2) a damn good physical therapist 3)enough free time to set aside half an hour a day to exercising.

Twice a week I would go to the therapists office, he would walk me through my exercises to make sure I was doing them right, and he would check in on the progress I made. When I had been working he would approve, when I slacked he would know about it. After a while I noticed the progress I was making myself. After that not only did I do my exersices, I actually pushed myself. About a month after I stopped therapy, I stopped doing my exercises.

The Wii fit provides the same kind of structure that my therapist did. For one, it gives me a small scale pat-on-the-back reward message every day that I do it, and reinforces more if I practice every day. This is just enough to make me think about how to fit the Wii fit into my daily schedule, or at least has been enough to do so for the past few days.

Next, it provides a look at progress over time. I can see where I started weight wise (I'm not telling), and "Wii Fit Age"-wise (40) . While my weight has not dramatically decreased over the past three days, I have noticed a significant drop in my Wii Fit Age (to 27) and, you know what? This is enough to make me want to keep playing.

Thirdly, it actually monitors my progress in each of the exercises I'm doing. Now, I'm not going to fool myself into thinking that a balance board is going to tell me whether I'm doing an exercise exactly right or not, but between the balance feedback and the model of the person doing the exercises on screen I no longer have the crippling "I can't be doing this right" feeling that I get when trying to do exercises on my own.

The last thing I want to talk about is the co-motivation it uses. Every time you see your score on a particular exercise, you see it in a full leaderboard of everyone who uses the wii fit. If my fiancee does better than me in an activity this gives me a powerful motivation to do a little better. It also periodically asks us to notice how the other one is doing, encouraging co-motivation outside of the game as well.

As my studies have shown me, motivation is the biggest component to education and behavior change. You want someone to do something, you have to make sure they want to do it. So far, Wii fit is doing a great job of really making me want to spend a little time every day exercising.

At the moment I don't have any real criticisms of Wii Fit. Yes, it requires exercise but I signed on for that. Yes, it's more of a tool than a game but, you know what, it's a really neat tool for motivating exercise at a fraction of the cost of a personal trainer. What I would love to see is an in-gym version of this kind of program with the same constant support, schedule flexibility, and convenience factor.

We'll see how I feel about it in a couple weeks.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Tower Defense

My first exposure to the tower defense genre was the bonus tower defense map included with either Warcraft III or the expansion. I'll give a short description of tower defense shortly but the quickest way to get a handle on the genre is to go play desktop tower defense. Seriously, go now. It will take you like five minutes. Then you can skip the next paragraph.

Tower Defense is a fairly self-explanatory concept. You are in charge of guarding some objective against waves of enemies, which I'm going to call creeps. You do this by building and upgrading towers. Towers shoot at creeps and, depending on the game, might be used as walls to guide creep progress. Every time you kill a creep, you get more money to build more towers. Every time a creep gets through, you take damage. Take enough damage and you lose.

It's a survival game. The creeps themselves get harder and harder to kill and/or more numerous with every wave. Typically different creeps will be resistant to some forms of damage and weak against others. This forces players to build different kinds of turrets and to generalize their builds.

Just this past year commercial tower defense games have started to hit the market. Defense Grid is a great example; a well playing, polished looking game available over at Greenhouse for $20. Lock's Quest, a recent DS game, has many aspects of tower defense gameplay. And, of course, there are a few iPhone implementations, Fieldrunners capturing the feel very well and Crystal Defenders cashing in on the FF Tactics license (don't get me wrong, it's still fun, but I paid for fieldrunners).

This rising tide of tower defense games is due in large part to the success of Desktop Tower Defense. RTS map mods and flash tower defense games have been around for years as I mentioned above, but Desktop Tower Defense refined the formula and somehow caught a wave of public opinion that got it played by a lot of game designers.

Tower defense is fun. Incredibly fun. When you think about it it would almost have to be -- otherwise it would still be some forgotten mod map on someone's hard drive. Instead, someone saw something fun they could do with an RTS engine and map editor and other people, finding it fun, made flash versions. These were refined until commercial game designers took notice, and wanted to make something fun. Tower defense isn't engineered to be entertainting, it's naturally selected.

What makes it fun? First, tower defense successfully captures the feeling of base building in an RTS without nearly as much micromanagement. Now, a lot of people like playing RTS's and like micro. I can find myself in that mood from time to time. But mostly I like building. I was a big SimCity fan and when I played the single player Starcraft campaigns, my favorite maps were the ones where you had to defense yourself from a neverending Zerg onslaught until the dropships showed up. Tower defense distills this aspect of play, letting the player stay focused on base building, allowing them to feel that groove instead of having to constantly switch attention between offense and defense.

The really addictive quality of Tower Defense is not, however, the building. Rather, it is the constant presence of the approaching apocalypse. Destruction is always around the corner, the tide is always rising. I've always loved this element when I find it in games -- one of my favorite examples being Fantasy Flight's remake of the classic Arkham Horror board game. This keeps the players constantly engaged. There is no downtime in tower defense. You are always on guard, always just short of the resources you need. It's a feeling similar to survival horror, a genre that some say has been on the wane for a while now. You are going to die, it's just a matter of when. I hear Gears of War 2 has a mode that captures this feeling as well.

Tower Defense recaptures that fear of death and the feeling of going against impossible odds that I love about hardcore games. Moreover, it is a genre in its infancy, a genuine mutation into something different from the nth generational shooters, rts's, etc. I'm excited about its future.