Zimmerman on narrative coherence

One of the hardest things to do with interactive plots is to write it so it makes sense in whatever order the player or user accesses the text. Plot is about cause and effect, and so having lots of possible points-of-entry is hard to design for. I just read a short piece by game designer Eric Zimmerman on a graduate school experiment he did years ago, where he explains how he tackled the problem.

Life in the Garden” is an “interactive paper book” — box set of cards with text and images. You shuffle them in any order and reading them produces a coherent narrative. In the essay he wrote for Second Person [PDF], Zimmerman describes the strategies he used:

Appropriating Eden
The garden of Eden is a set of characters, situations, themes, and ideas that are incredibly pregnant with meanings and possible interpretation. Members of the cast (Eve, God, Adam, the serpent, and the occasional anonymous angel) can be invoked without resorting to backstory exposition. By writing into a story-world that already exists, I take advantage of the reader’s presumed knowledge of that world, and the personal meanings that the reader brings.

Strategic Writing
Creating the text for Life in the Garden was part story-writing part building-block design.  Like a set of LEGO bricks, the pages are modular, and must work well in any configuration. Any individual page needs to be able to function as a first page, as an ending page, or as something in the middle. At the same time, the content of the pages must add up to an expressive and varied experience.

Thematic Coherence
Part of the “sense” of a Life in the Garden story results from a limited number of content themes that are repeated often. Sleeping and dreaming, the time-based processes of nature and their inevitable decay, and the mythologized origin of writing and naming occur throughout the pages. Chances are that in any given story, themes mentioned on some of the pages will overlap.

Size Mix
The pages are a set of ingredients for a procedural stew, and the parts had to be balanced to result in a properly variegated texture each time. My playtesting process resulted in a very specific ratio of “short” one-line pages, “medium” pages with two or three lines, and “long” pages of several lines. Themes and content were also parsed carefully into the mix. For example, by only including a handful of genuinely perverse incidents (such as the serpent crawling up Adam’s anus) these pages retain their pleasurable surprise, even upon repeat reading.


“there are two different ways to introduce humor into a game”…

Nodding…I look forward to releasing DIY SPY and describing the comedy design in that.

“I think there are two different ways to introduce humor into a game. The easiest is with component-based humor, like funny names on cards, or cute flavor text.  Munchkin is based on this type of humor, and I’m sure you can think of many others. The problem with this type of humor is that it can get unfunny very quickly, as you see the same card for the tenth time.  That’s why these games need lots of expansions, to keep the humor fresh.  Fortunately for game companies, this can also lead to lots of cash as players keep buying them, but that’s a separate topic. The second type of humor is to create a situation where the players and game systems create the humor. That’s a lot harder to do, but ultimately is more sustainable.” Geoff Engelstein

Dev notes – puzzles and surprise

Just some notes for a new game I’m developing.


“[A] puzzle has a solution, while a mystery may never be solved. A puzzle must make sense, but a mystery may well not.” – Jake Elliot (will add the reference shortly)

“We value puzzles not because we like struggling, but because we like having mechanical phenomena revealed to us.” – Hamish Todd

“The point of the puzzle is to show some truth. Know what that truth is. Eliminate anything that is not about that truth. […] Have a puzzle be part of a sequence or superstructure. […] Removing arbitrary steps hopefully drastically reduces the number of puzzle steps. […] A good balance between low number of steps and low chance of a random successful attempt creates good puzzles. […] The designer is abdicating authorship over the puzzle. ‘The Universe’ is the real designer of the puzzle. It is not about reading the mind of the designer, but about reading the mind of ‘mother nature’.” Jonathan Blow and Marc Ten Bosch


“An easy way to surprise the player is in the way mechanics combine. [Also] Surprise with high-level expressions built from your low-level concepts.” Jonathan Blow