Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Bleak and Twisted

Enough reviews of Blue Lacuna have come in that I've launched a page collecting them on the official site.

David Monath's review in the new issue of SPAG is the latest. He has a lot of praise for the game, and a lot of good criticism, but the second half of the review seems to veer into scorn and vitriol, which has been a surprisingly common if unexpected reaction.

For one thing, I don't understand why people get so nasty when talking about bugs. I don't like them either. I spent six months beta testing with a dozen people. I want you to tell me about the remaining problems so I can fix them. Sneering at me as you do so is unproductive.

More significantly: a few sentences in the review caused me physical pain. Like "Don't make the mistake of becoming attached to the characters."

Or, "It's important to understand just how irrelevant you the player will be at the end of the game."

Ouch. Did I really fail that completely?

Most of David's statements about the endgame mechanics are catastrophically wrong, and it's intensely frustrating that he phrases his assumptions as if they were absolute truths about the game. There are a lot more possible outcomes and alternatives present than he discovered. But then, that's my fault, isn't it? If bugs or poor design kept people from discovering all the options available, I have only myself to blame.

Other people have found paths that led them to emotionally satisfying endings. I've had reports of players shedding tears over the conclusions they reached with Rume or Progue; one described the character arc he created for his protagonist as "intensely therapeutic." But is it equally accidental that these people found endings they thought were meaningful, rather than ones that led David to call my work a "bleak and twisted" portrait of humanity, a "training simulator for sociopaths?"

I've known for a while that Blue Lacuna has a lot of stories inside it. I guess it only makes sense that some of them are not very good.


Jimmy Maher said...

I feel bad that you found the review painful, having been the one to publish it. It's very hard sometimes not to take cricism personally. I have had some occasions where I felt wounded and wanted to lash back out just from comments testers made about the game I am working on. I can only imagine how it will feel when it gets the inevitable lukewarm or downright negative public reviews. It's not easy to see your baby that represents literally years out of your life dissected so heartlessly in public.

I would say a few things to you at this point. First of all, I think just about everyone is in awe at the sheer scale of what you attempted in Blue Lacuna, and I think that just about everyone -- David included -- thinks you got a hell of a lot right. Blue Lacuna was quite possibly the most ambitious IF project anyone has ever undertaken, and the sheer number of things you tried meant that some of them were probably not going to work. Perhaps reviewers have not always spent enough time talking about what DOES work in the game, but it's rather inevitable if unfortunate to fixate on the things that bother us.

I am still working my way through the game, and will have more to say about it later. (I'm already contemplating a SPAG Specifics piece for next issue.) I have an idea of what might have gone somewhat wrong with the romantic relationship at the heart of the story, and it has to do with the difference between storytelling games and storymaking games. I think, in short, that Blue Lacuna might have worked better with a single strongly characterized PC -- male or female, gay or straight, it doesn't matter, just so long as you picked a character and went with it. You tried to tell a deep, compelling story but introduced too many variables for it to be completely satisfying for every permutation... I think. I may change my opinion completely by the time I get to the end of the game.

One difficulty with reviewing an interactive medium like IF is the simple fact that everyone will have a different experience. One can watch a movie, or read a novel, one time and speak fairly authoritatively about the experience. For a work of IF, especially a complex one like Blue Lacuna, perhaps not. And yet who wants to play the same game over and over in different ways to see what changes?

I am quite sure David did not mean his review to be scornful or cruel. Even where Blue Lacuna fails it's valuable for future efforts, and it's a fine piece of work on its own just as it is. Every published writer knows that when you get a rejected manuscript back with red ink all over it this means you are getting close to publishable quality. When you get a rejected manuscript back that is still pristinely white, that means you have a long way to go still as a writer. The point is, the fact that people criticize Blue Lacuna at some length is because they find there a work worth thinking about seriously and worth discussing. That's a kind of victory in itself.

Scixual said...

Well, yeah. If it sucked, the reviewer wouldn't even review it at all, or would simply say "this sucks". That's a pretty extensive and detailed review. He wouldn't have written so much if Blue Raccoon-a hadn't gotten under his skin.

emshort said...

I've already posted on my own blog about the more negative parts of this review. But re. getting game mechanics wrong in a review: this is really really hard to handle well as a reviewer; some people make more of an effort than others to try a variety of things, but with Blue Lacuna there are so many options and possibilities that you'd have to play the whole game over and over and over again, taking meticulous notes, in order to begin to piece together what is going on under the surface... and when you were done, what you had would not reflect the probable playing experience of any possible player.

So I think it's fair for reviewers to talk about the perceived mechanics: here is how the gameplay worked out for me, and the restrictions as I understood them.

I also think it's fair -- and really useful! -- for authors to talk knowledgeably about the mechanics of their own games. Not as a defense against negative reviews -- people will say what they say, and works should stand on their own (and Blue Lacuna is more than able to do so) -- but because it contributes to community understanding of craft more than the guesses of third-party reviewers possibly can.

Andrew Plotkin said...

It's an old IF truism that if you provide two paths for the player, every player will find the path that suits him *least*, complain about it, and then also complain about the lack of alternatives.

(Man, we've been doing this long enough to have "old IF truisms". Ack.)

The gap between giving the player control over aspects of the game, and giving the player *a sense of control*, is right in the middle of all this discussion of game design. And we exploit the gap as often as we fall into it -- maybe that's the underlying trouble. We have lots of players (not just old-school IF players, but all kinds of gamers) edcuated to take the high-level storyline as a fixed framework within which gameplay is suspended. They're willing to accept an illusionary sense of "making the plot happen", for the sake of immersion. Certainly my IF design is all about reinforcing that illusion. Which is great, but then you have to break people out of that model when there really is high-level gameplay.

Aaron A. Reed said...

Thanks, all, for the comments. This morning the post seems a little more whiny than I intended it to be. The best criticism *is* the kind that hurts; please do keep it coming.

Relsqui said...

It's an old IF truism that if you provide two paths for the player, every player will find the path that suits him *least*, complain about it, and then also complain about the lack of alternatives.

Yup! That was me!

Well, okay, not exactly. But I found that acting the way that came most naturally to me brought me to a very unsatisfying ending--and as several people observed, it's hard to go through the whole thing over again, acting unnaturally, to reach a better ending (cf. the fact that I still haven't finished doing that). Oddly enough, that's a downside to the level of control you have from the very beginning of the game. I can't start from a midgame savefile and see a different ending; I need to lay the groundwork from the first scene.

By the way, you might be amused that Alexei and I tried to discuss Blue Lacuna at a party a couple of weeks ago, in a room full of people who hadn't played or hadn't finished it.

"Oh man, and the thing at the end, where the ... you know, the things, are the same?"

"Yes!! The green things?"

"... wait, the GREEN things?!"

I found out later where the difference came from (we were talking about the same thing) but it was very startling.

Ron Newcomb said...

I wouldn't worry about it too much, Aaron, especially if you know he didn't see much of the game. If he had, his review would've been more in line with everyone else's who had. Besides, I-F is a surprisingly frustrating form to play, so I'm not surprised most all reviews list bugs and gripes, even minor. It's like, even with the most polished works, we collectively go out of our way to find something to quibble about.

One thing I liked about Snack Time was the after-game "did you try this?" report. It let me know how much I had (or might have) missed. Because of that, I have a lovely visual of a pudgy bulldog, soda can in mouth, and he just SHAKES the ever-loving bubbles out of it before handing it to his pet. ~lol!~