Pulp IF? – Applying the F-H system to text game plots

In the last blog post, I reviewed the Foster-Harris formula for creating (let’s face it) pulp plots.  I argued that the F-H system is the minimal system for creating an emotionally salient plot.  Therefore, presumably, a F-H plot in a text game is the minimal design we’d need to get an emotionally salient piece of interactive fiction.

And I’m not saying that there is no emotionally salient IF out there, but the word on the street is that IF generally falls short of qualifying as “literature,” in contrast to pulp fiction (which is bad literature, but literature nonetheless).

So, what do we need to do to bring IF “up” to the standards of bad literature, according to the F-H system?

The player is presented with an emotional conflict.  The two emotions are, at the design level, specified:  as game designers, we know this is a conflict between (say) love and honor.

The player tries in vain to mediate the conflict.  This is not to say the player’s action are futile — they may be rewarded with valuable information, tools, friendships or alliances with NPCs, etc — but the fundamental conflict is in fact worsened. 

The Big Choice is presented early.  The “easy” answer is wrong — dishonorable, wrong, whatever — the “hard” answer, which puts the PC at greater risk, imposes greater loss, etc, is moral, honorable, heroic, etc.  But the player does not yet have the opportunity to make this choice. 

So, let’s say the easy choice is to get out of town, and the hard choice is to have a gun fight with the bad guy, which the PC will certainly lose.  The PC can take steps to prepare for either of these options, but neither is yet ready — and, the more he prepares for one, the more pressure he gets to choose the other.  Alternatively, the PC can try to make the peace with the bad guy (to mediate the conflict), to no avail.

Things come to a head, and the player makes the Big Choice.  Ideally, this is sprung on the player.  So the player knows this choice is coming, and in a sense is prepared for it, but it all happens suddenly and fast.

The player makes the right choice, or the wrong choice.  Remember, we’re going for pulp here.

If the player makes the right choice, then there follows…

…the darkest hour, where it seems everything is ruined.  But, if the player hangs in there, the PC comes to the reversal of fortune.  This is caused by the long-term consequences, the identifiable side-effects, of the correct decision.

Consequently, the hero is able to satisfy both emotional needs

But if the player makes the wrong choice, then he finds himself on…

easy street, where it seems he will be able to satisfy both emotional goals.  But, this is an illusion, as he finds out when there is a reversal of fortune.  It is caused by the side-effects, the long-term consequences, of having made the wrong decision.

Consequently, the failed hero fails in both emotional goals.

It probably helps if there is some nice symmetry between the two endings, a few role reversals matching the ending with the big decision, the big decision with the initial problem, and the villian’s villany in Act One with his downfall (or victory!) in Act Three.

I suspect this can be done with existing technology; I’ve seen more complex programming in existing IF games.  I’m working my programming skills up to this level — meantime, anyone want to beat me to it?

Published in: on June 11, 2009 at 12:48 am  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hi Conrad, I’m finding your thoughts very … thought-provoking. :)

    I blogged about many interesting gameplay possibilities that open up when we don’t choose the player-character as the protagonist. The post is entitled “Six Choices Forbidden…” (My name should link there.)

  2. Ron,

    Yeah, these kinds of experiments are interesting. What you’re describing is the flip-side of the capacity most IF authoring systems have, seldom used, to allow the player to switch into another character.

    The notion of a PC who stands more-or-less outside the plot and tinkers with it by occasional intervention, in my view, kind of compartmentalizes the game and the story, in a way I’d think would decrease my involvement in either. And I’m not sure it would make programming the thing any easier.

    I’m for the experiment, in other words, but uncertain what the effects would be. It seems like you’d get a text version of the Sims, where you play a character rather than an eye in the sky.

    As far as the F-H system goes, there would be no necessry conflict, since the idea is that the fate of each character is identifiably the consequence of his own decisions.

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