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Meaningful Choices(Twine Developer Diary)

(this essay was originally published 10/18/16 on Playthepast.org)

This is the third in a series of posts intended to get readers thinking more about interactive text as a tool for history education and how students might be enabled to design their own researched, text-based historical simulation games using the interactive fiction design tool, Twine. The first post discussed the differences between Twine and Inform. Last week’s post was a Teacher’s Diary, recounting the set up of the Twine project in a high school senior history elective.

A little something different with this week’s post. I have placed the current, very incomplete and very rough start to Path of Honors, the Twine interactive history I am developing as my students create their own interactive histories for our Roman Republic Class. http://www.philome.la/gamingthepast/path-of-honors-experimental. If you do have a chance to try it and want to comment, go ahead and comment on this post

Path of Honors is intended to be an interactive text-based historical simulation game that allows players to experience vicariously some of the situations and choices a Roman aristocrat in the middle Republic might face when pursuing a political career. I have not produced a design document because there are so many unknowns. Based on experiences with the students, however, I have seen a definite tendency for students to want to avoid planning and immerse themselves in creating passages and

choices leading from those passages in an ad hoc fashion. This approach does not take advantage of the research and planning, however, that is supposed to be an important part of the project. So, it seems like a good idea to use the Twine passage-editing tool to lay out the basic structure of the game. I knew from the beginning, however, that I was attempting something of a pretty large scale and ambitious. I also knew I would learn more about the structure I wanted over time. So, I adopted a middle path, starting by laying out choices in the Twine editor with only the bare details written in. The plan is to go back later and write more interesting and detailed passages. Once the substantial size of the project became clear, I decided to write it in pieces, designing the choices revolving around the years before a young aristocrat ran for political office and getting that working before moving on to elections and offices.

Making Meaningful Choices

Making meaningful choices is the single most difficult and most important part of creating an interactive historical text whether with Twine or some other design tool. A meaningful choice in this context (and I have forgotten who phrased it this way, though I suspect it was Salen and Zimmerman in their excellent Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals) means, among other things

  • A clear choice between clear alternatives (that can be evaluated to some extent) must be presented
  • The choice must have a noticeable and ideally logical effect on the game world.

At first glance, it might seem like that is easy to do in a Twine/CYOA text adventure: Read the text of the current passage, look at the link choices that present what the character is to do, and select the preferred one. The player then goes to the next passage, experiencing the effect of the choice (of course the effect might be delayed)

It’s not at all that simple. One of the things I have always found difficult in practice about designing text adventures is that choices are quite limited and need to be presented rather clearly to keep the player engaged and accepting of the text world. Strategic video games with resource management, stocks and sliders create all manner of choices and degrees of choices. Should I spend all of my gold reserves to by an excellent unit? Should I only spend half of my reserves to by a unit that may be half as good? 75%? Do I engage in combat with my main army, my secondary army, some reallocation of the forces in the two, on this terrain, on that terrain? The total number of available choices is very large.

In a text game, however, the number of choices will be much smaller and it may appear too obvious to the player what the optimal choice is (e.g. jump off the 20 foot roof or climb down a ladder?) So there has to be some serious thought, I’m finding, devoted to the choices that the player can make at every stage of the game. For me, that precluded developing the whole structure ahead of time. Instead I wanted to get something up and running. So I focused on the preliminary stage of a political career, military service. Roman law or custom had it that a Roman male had to serve in the military for at least 10 campaigns before being eligible to hold political office, the decem stipendia.

The first decision my player encounters is a choice of running for political office or serving in the army, more specifically the cavalry. This is something of a false choice. If the player decides on running for office at this point, he is told that he lacks the years of required military service and directed to that branch of the text. Why include this option at all? Essentially I wanted students to encounter this restriction in an experiential way. The decem stipendia is mentioned before the choice and players can click on the term and learn that it is a 10 campaign military requirement. If they do this, they will likely understand that they are not yet eligible for political office and avoid the option of running for office. If they choose not to read that extra text, however, they may try to run for office and be told they are not yet eligible.

Once I got to the choices involved with military service, however, I really started seeing the difficulty of making authentic historical alternatives. Assuming, as we really must for this kind of exercise, that life is filled with choices and there is generally more than one way to go with a given situation, what meaninful choices were available to a young man in cavalry service? Skill-based encounters are right out, belonging to the graphical video game genre. One could institute RPG rules and create a combat system that the player plays with to determine whether she or he lives or dies. This seems very inauthentic for a game that is attempting to serve as a reasonable historical interpretation of an aristocrat’s climb up the ladder of political offices. It also turns the game into a tactical military one, which was not my goal (though perhaps this is something to explore for a version 2.0 someday). For a bit, I was stuck. The choices to me seemed to be limited to “Fight Well” and “Fight Poorly.” However, that’s really no choice at all. Given those two alternatives, why would someone who was hoping to succeed in the game ever choose “Fight Poorly” (of course one might choose it just to see what happens, but it’s hard to justify that a historical agent in these circumstances would).

I cannot detail all the false steps and tentative leads I followed here, but the design principle that arose and seems most important for myself and students trying to do text based history games is this: The designer must provide situations where there is more than one viable choice and the historical choice cannot always be the only viable choice. After some consideration, I decided that I needed to think about the trade-offs one could make in military service that were relevant to a political career. Games are all about trade-offs. You do one thing and pass up on doing another. What is the trade-off in cavalry service? Any Roman hoping to hold political office in the Republic had to have ten years of military service first. Avoiding service was not an option for an office-seeker, the role Path of Honors places the player in.

There are probably many trade-offs one could find in military service and many solutions to this design problem. What I came up with was a trade-off between earning a reputation for virtus, military virtue essentially, and keeping oneself relatively safe during military service. A reputation for virtus was certainly prized by members of the Roman political class during the Republic. Presumably one could best win a reputation for virtus through bravery in combat. Presumably, the more soldiers took risks in battle, the more opportunities they would have to display their virtus. Presumably too, the more risks they took in battle, the greater the chance that they might die in combat. I had found my first trade-off.

This led to another important step in the design, a set of quantifiable characteristics for the player that would be displayed as needed on a character sheet. For military service, there are two relevant characteristics.

  • virtus (your reputation for manliness, for military courage and behavior)
  • popularity (your popularity with the average citizen)

The idea is that popularity and virtus can both help advance an aristocrat on a political ladder. Risky service increases the chances of larger pay-offs, events that increase the player’s virtus and popularity, but they also bring a chance of death in battle. Avoiding unnecessary risks reduces the increases in these characteristics that a player receive, but eliminates the chance of death.

There is a lot more to say, but I’ll save it for later. The section of Path of Honors that I have completed a rough draft of, is available to examine online. It doesn’t do much, but it illustrates how I have approached decision-making in the years before a Roman aristocrat held political office. I welcome any and all comments.

In a couple of weeks I’ll report on the students’ work and my own.

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