Week 6, mechanism or bust

This is an edition of Robin Sloan’s video game development diary.

Welcome: to returning readers as well as everyone newly subscribed. If you missed it, week 1 sets up the motivation behind this project. All the previous editions are available over on my blog.

The k in the headine at the top of the page is doubling down.

Wot I got

This past Tuesday was probably the most important day in the lifetime of this project so far. I had been struggling with a core question; I addressed it at last; I had an idea; I implemented it.

And now I’ve got a gameplay mechanism.

The Cloisters Playing Cards

The Cloisters Playing Cards, ca. 1475–80

I always chose blue, of course

Regarding the actual mechanism of this so-called game I am making, my initial strategy was basically to ignore it. Seriously: this was a considered strategy! The main attraction of Perils of the Overworld, I figured, would be the writing, and the basic push-pull of making choices—the “what next?” of a Choose Your Own Adventure book—would be mechanism enough to keep the player tapping.

I still think there’s a kernel of truth there—“what next?” is one of the most powerful forces in the universe—but the no-strategy strategy did not work. Here’s why.

Whenever a narrative game’s choices affect its outcome, its designer has to decide whether, or how clearly, to indicate what the result of those choices will be.

At one end of the spectrum, there’s total transparency and predictability. For example: in the Mass Effect series of video games, your dialogue choices affect the development of your character, and the direction of this development is telegraphed bluntly with red and blue text. Selecting a blue dialogue option reliably makes you more of a “paragon,” red more of a “renegade,” like so:

Mass Effect conversation interface

(I need to thank Simon Mattes for that screenshot, which came with the filename masseffect-best-line-ever.jpg 😗)

Mass Effect’s paragon/renegade distinction has implications for the game’s story; it also affects your avatar’s appearance. (The fully “renegade” avatar sports glowing facial scars. Woo!) Not to worry: if you wish to follow the path of the paragon, you can just select the blue dialogue options. That’s it. You don’t even have to read them!

Way at the other end of the spectrum you will find the very cruelest of the Choose Your Own Adventure books, in which your choice to, for example, “explore the laboratory” might be rewarded with

You trip a hidden sensor. You are incinerated by lasers. YOU HAVE DIED

And you’re like, WHAT sensor? What lasers??

In CYOA books, death was swift and, worse than random, it could be spiteful: a bite from a deadly snake, its presence in the lifeboat totally unforseeable, might be your punishment for choosing the “safe” option.

Game designers generally dislike this end of the spectrum. The conventional wisdom is that the player (or reader) should have SOME idea what kind of choice they’re making; otherwise, the consequences feels capricious, unfair, and just generally bad.

However, the totally deterministic end of the spectrum is pretty uninspiring, too. When the results of every choice are foreshadowed perfectly, the story sort of collapses into a spreadsheet.

So… I really had no idea where to place POTO on this spectrum.

I knew I wanted to set up competing values of “adventure” and “attachment.” I knew accumulating too much of either would be bad. But I didn’t know if the values were going to be displayed as like, meters, or as counters, or as little faces (with expressions that slowly changed?), or not at all. And, writing Ink—the code that specifies the game’s branching story—I didn’t know how to communicate the connection between those core values and the choices I was presenting to the player.

You have seen it already: the problem was that I didn’t know what the connection was between those core values and the choices I was presenting to the player.

“What next?” needed a companion: “…and why?”

The witch’s game

Feeling stuck, I took a step back and considered the feelings I was trying to produce. I wanted the player to have to balance one value against another, without making it feel like a spreadsheet. (Indeed, I wanted to actively prevent them from treating the game like a spreadsheet.) I wanted to entice the player to reach further and further—with the risk, always, that they might go too far. I wanted that walking-a-tightrope feeling.

Turns out, there is a very famous and popular game that provides all this!

It’s blackjack.

I believe that, with any creative project, there are portions in which you are attempting something truly new, and portions in which you just want stuff to work. For those latter portions—this is very important—you should be shameless about stealing things that are already proven.

Here are some nice properties of blackjack:

That last one I didn’t know before I started googling. People have been playing blackjack and blackjack-likes for hundreds of years, and there’s a whole host of related games. There’s kvitlech, played with a deck of just 24 cards. There’s cuccù, which has some truly strange cards. (“Big Pants”??)

And, deliciously, there is hexenspiel, the witch’s game. Look at these cards!

Hexenspiel cards

The presence of “the inn” and “sausages” among them made this connection feel fated. There was already an inn in my game. There were already sausages!

In short order, I discovered that blackjack not only mapped neatly onto the game I was making, but also offered a discrete structure—a kind of exoskeleton—I’d been missing.

Let me walk you through it. The previous structure was:

In every location, you made a series of choices, divining the meaning behind the text, hoping for the best.

The new structure is:

In every location, you “draw two cards,” which is to say, you play through two short adventures of unpredictable intensity/weirdness. From those, you receive adventure points—the equivalent of your blackjack hand.

Let’s say your total is 14. So far, so good.

Then, the overworld deals itself in. The game “draws two cards,” which means you play through two short episodes that pull you into the community of the place you’re exploring. Those episodes increment a different tally: attachment. And, as in blackjack, only one component of that point total is shown. The other remains hidden.

Let’s say the overworld holds a 10 and a mystery card.

Then comes the critical moment: do you “draw another card,” which is to say, seek out another adventure? Doing so can nurture your sense of ambition and restlessness. It can also send you tumbling over the edge.

The alternative is to hold steady, confident your 14 will be sufficient.

Decide what you will. If you beat the overworld’s total, your sense of adventure propels you onward to a new location of your choosing. If you fail, your game ends with a pleasant vignette.

(If you “bust,” going over the limit—which might or might not be 21 in the final game—then you die a classic adventurer’s death. Dagger in the night, pit of spikes, that sort of thing. A touch of the vintage CYOA frisson.)

Chance plays an important role, but, as in blackjack, the risks are all calculated. You know what you know, and you know what you don’t know. You do your best.

This mechanism is now up and running in the game, if crudely, and: it’s fun?!

Here is a quick capture of the gameplay as it exists now. As with previous captures, I am showing this to you incandescent with the knowledge that it looks like shit (we have ahem not yet achieved perfect typesetting) and, additionally, that it is tough to follow along when it’s not you doing the tapping, advancing the text at your own reading speed. So, sorry about that. And, excuse my cursor.

Press play to check out a sliver of blackjack-as-quest:

Sound snack

You know what part of the capture above doesn’t require any caveats? Jesse Solomon Clark’s wonderful tap-by-tap score. My system for selecting and playing Jesse’s “plonks” is still very rough, but even now, his music is working with the text to deliver some lovely moments!

This week’s sound snack is just one of those plonks, isolated; my favorite one. Every time this was selected to play with a bit of text, I honestly got chills:

As I’ve wired these plonks into the game, it’s been fun and interesting to hear the effects that emerge. If you tap quickly, the plonks pile up, producing surprising new chords. If you tap slowly, they become a kind of tentative pulse. That unpredictability is the whole point. A dynamic, reactive score is the state of the art for games these days (rather than a soundtrack played straight through) but/and I do think POTO’s approach, molding the music tap-by-tap to your actions, produces a novel feeling; almost as if you’re the conductor.

The power of music and moving images together is widely understood, widely sought; I think music and text together are a bit underrated. Jesse’s development of POTO’s “plonk score” deserves its own edition of the newsletter, and it will have it.

Postcards from possibility space

Those of you who took a journey across the uneven terrain of possibility space: thank you sincerely. It was a weird request, but/and the votes you submitted are very helpful, and the specific phrases that many of you emailed to me are wonderful. I haven’t been able to read all of your selections yet, but I pledge to do so.

I’ll soon take those thousands of city descriptions offline, and there’s something a bit melancholy about it. Is this a new 21st-century feeling, or is there some historical analogue? You produce a mountain of material so large you can’t possibly review all of it—no one can—and so, in the end, inevitably, you have to just… throw most of it away.

Here are a few highlights skimmed from my inbox.

Jasper found this very complete and appealing setup:

A traveler in Facto Shibokawa had to beware the witch and the dragon, the dragon who devoured the people of the city, and the witch who knew all about the sacrifices that had been made to gain the city’s wealth. One must always beware of the witch and the dragon in Facto Shibokawa.

Kip found this gnomic line:

Inside Ambiacco, the magic was so cunning that it had the appearance of a grey hair falling on the belly of a hog.

Thomas found this passage, which is, honestly, a tiny hybrid William Gibson story:

Therefore, Forta Altilla was a major concentration of training for anyone wanting to stretch one’s kinesis edge in all possible directions. Yet when the young Teck guys like you traveled from place to place, they would be anomalous: their outerwear was exquisite. They favored silk.

“They favored silk”!!

Márton highlighted this evocative description:

Because Borosnes was ancient before it was built, it was essentially a human city from before the rise of men. Borosnes was old.

This discovery of Dan’s is not, I don’t think, right for POTO—

The city of Spadevalen was located somewhere in the North, and around the lake and below the waves it had fifty one-story residences. It was surrounded by a wall to keep out unwanted foreigners. With here and there one or two exceptions, the whole population was treated like servants and taxed. Inside Spadevalen, there were two families that lived in several apartments. Both families were sufficiently superior to one another.

—but I would absolutely read that short story.

Samantha spotted this line, fit for a fable;

The river had little to do, and the mountain was happy.

Finally, Annie found this:

The main export of Ptera was candor. Its residents were of all ages and professions. All of them were gentle, kind, and honest.

Ptera sounds like a dangerous place for an adventurer.

An adventurer could get attached to Ptera.

This week

A bit of a twist: I’ve just signed on to a very cool writing project with a VERY fast timeline, necessitating two weeks working at Warren Ellis speed, or as near as I can muster. (Can I hit… 0.6 WEUs?) That task will command all of my attention, so this will be a bye week for POTO work. There will probably not be a newsletter next Sunday; I’ll resume on Sunday, May 24th.

I don’t mean to be cryptic; I’ll describe this project—this rival for my time!—as soon as I’m permitted, first through my Society of the Double Dagger newsletter, and eventually, I’m sure, on Twitter.

Wonder weeks

The Cloisters Playing Cards

The Cloisters Playing Cards, ca. 1475–80

Just one more note before I go. I want to amplify something from the very beginning: the experience I had, earlier this week, of a single Tuesday completely transforming and unlocking this project.

A lot of advice about creative work—writing in particular—calls for a commitment to the steady day-to-day application of effort. “You’ve got to get in your daily word count” and so forth. And: that advice is good! However, it elides something I’ve observed, which is the extremely uneven importance of different days’ efforts to the final product.

In early childhood development, there’s this concept of “wonder weeks” scattered throughout the first year of a baby’s life, during which they exhibit sudden, startling leaps in their awareness and abilities. Maybe this has been totally debunked or something; I don’t know. But even if it has, I will hang on to the analogy, because, honestly, I have experienced “wonder weeks” in the course of every project I’ve ever produced.

Of course, knowing that wonder weeks occur, it’s not like you can plan for them or call them forth: “Oh, sorry, I’m busy; I put a wonder week on my calendar.” But I think you can learn to recognize them—they’re not always weeks—and, having done so, lean into them: clear the decks, stay up late.

Just an observation from my own life and work. Tuesday was a really important day.

From Oakland,


This has been an edition of my video game development diary, sent by email every Sunday. You are hereby invited to subscribe: