Resonance: review of Comp reviews, and some thoughts

Some discussion of the reviews of _Resonance_, followed by some thoughts on what they tell us about how people play IF.

There will be SPOILERS further on down in this review.


Generally, I’ve been summarizing and quoting other reviewers here.  But for Resonance, I’m not going to do that as much.  I’m just going to quote a few reviews:

You can say with some justification that maga_dogg just didn’t get that Resonance was quite often meant to be funny.  (Indeed, often the humor is hard to lock onto.)  But, he has a real point here:

Chatting up Deirdre. Oh, right, noir. Some genres are colliding at odd angles here, I think; this is standard behaviour for Shabby Yet Smooth Detective Down On His Luck, but sits really oddly on Wife-Avenging Fugitive. Kind of weirdly sad, you know? He’s scared, he’s in shock, he’s in mourning, his whole world should be a mess of sick fear, the last thing on his mind should be chasing tail – but the only way he can think of to deal with Deirdre is tail-chasing mode.

–He’s right; that’s a real problem.  But, for some reason (perhaps because I forwent the haircut?) I didn’t get that conversation.

So, this is a blunder, and a pretty serious one.  And as a consequence of running into a few of these, and because he doesn’t seem to flash onto the fact that the game is often meant to be funny, he scratches his head over the tone.

What’s happening, I believe, is that the author writes with humor in an attempt to soften out any infelicities he may commit, as a new author.  And that’s a good move — often reviewers aren’t sure whether to consider something a joke that fell flat, or a problem in tone.

However well-disguised, there are serious problems in the tone.  Emily points out that the PI character we play in this game would be unlikely to be willing to answer cheesy riddles by the beat-cop who accosts him:  a similar infelicity that I *did* play through, and didn’t catch.  — Although, it seems it’s not really meant to be that kind of story, with real human emotions; which is exactly the reason the author’s joking tone was a clever idea.

Similarly to the emotional infelicities, the game had bugs that some users hit and some did not.  Jeremy reports the following rather serious bug in the conversation when Anton Kurnian shoots your brother:

Conversation Topics for Anton Kurnian:
1. (Throw a punch)
2. “What do you want, Kurnian?”

1 isn’t a valid conversation option.

2 isn’t a valid conversation option.

So then I tried typing 0, as this is the way in the game that you exit conversations, and I get:

“Hey Steve (dying), I really don’t have more to say or ask.”

“No problem, Jimmy. If you have any more questions, let me know.”

 –Ouch.  Another reviewer reports being told to get in his car, by both the game and some guards, and yet finding the car absent when he tried to get in it:  which resulted in him being absolutely stuck.  The one bug kills the game; the other kills the experience of it.

But the bugs and infelicities were largely minor, rarely encountered, and usually forgiven, mostly because the game is well-done all around.  And also because people mostly *wanted* to forgive them.

Now, if that weren’t true and reviewers just didn’t like the game, they wouldn’t cut it the same slack they do.  We might then find that we would get widely differing reports, almost to the point where we weren’t sure if the reviewers were playing the same game.  Reviewer game experiences will differ objectively, in some games more than others.

In Snowquest, for example, two user transcripts will be far more synchronized than those for other games, because of the gauntlet stop-and-go structure to the thing.  A player who is relatively incompetent at solving puzzles, like me, will enter a lot more useless commands before hitting on the right one, in comparison to someone who is good at solving IF puzzles, but the things we do right will all be the same.

Probably, the potential difference between transcripts for a game — which we’ll consider to be the difference between “objective experiences” — could be measured.  A game like Resonance offers far broader variation than one like Snowquest.  And that would be useful to know, because it allows you to predict the likelihood that one user’s report will apply to any other user’s play of the game.  (Also, you can easily see it would predict how difficult a game would be to de-bug, as it measures the logical space through which bugs could exist.)

Aside from this, we also have the subjective differences between game experiences.  Most everyone agrees that _Duel that Spanned_ is an action IF, but what that means to people differs broadly.  Victor loved it; Emily said gorefests weren’t her thing; one fellow deeply resented the violent manly-man image being portrayed.  To this last reviewer, I can personally relate — I’m not so much into war-porn generally — but I found DtStA, which pits you against robot spiders and the already-dead didn’t stir my defenses.

But there is again a great remove between a game like that, which has a clear topic about which one may have any range of feelings, and a game like _Snowquest_ or _Beta Tester_, where it is open to question what the story means or what is meant to be emotionally conveyed to the player.

We have, then, built up the following, doubtless very incomplete, scheme:

Game play ->

The player’s unique objective experience of the game.  (The transcript.)

-> Interpretation ->

The topic and content of the game, as understood by the player.  (The meaning.)

-> Evaluation ->

The player’s attitude toward that understood content.

And we’re inclined to think that reviewers will tend to collapse this chain:  if someone doesn’t like combat fiction, they’re more inclined to rate a combat game poorly than if they do.  But people don’t entirely:  we saw in the reviews that people are really pretty good at separating out their opinions of playability issues from their evaluation of the meaning.

I’m not so certain, that people are equally good at separating out issues of interpretation from evaluation.  Perhaps a question for another post.

This scheme doesn’t take into account a great deal.  For example, narrative voice is a story-telling tool that will greatly shape the audience’s emotional response to a game.  Where and how that comes in I’m not dealing with here.  And probably the process isn’t even linear — the player will bounce around in their minds from their attitude toward the game, to the transcript, to what the transcript means, asking themselves questions and answering them until they reach stability.  A kind of feedback loop.

But it ought to be clear that a major goal of writing a Comp game, as in any kind of writing, is to get the audience emotionally on your side, and the way you do that is by controlling their understanding of the game’s topic and presenting that topic in a way which will be emotionally salient and that they will be favorable toward.

For example, the reviewer who had a problem with the manly-man routine in _DtStA_ might have been eased into the story with the traditional martial arts / Western trick of building up the bad guys:  you have them shoot the protagonist’s family and rape his cattle, and indeed all the cattle of the town, until the protagonist (and the audience) are convinced that Something Must Be Done.  It’s cheap, but it largely works.

It also seems that reviewers have emotional values and intellectual values.  Intellectual values, from what I’m reading, are mostly negative values — people don’t like it when words are misspelled, or when English is non-standard; people don’t like it when things are improperly formatted; people don’t like it when items are listed twice, once by the author and once by the engine.  There are also the positive intellectual values, for example of good puzzle design — but many games don’t have those and yet do fairly well.

Emotional values, on the other hand, seem to be largely positive.  These are things the game must actively get right.  The game must be about something that makes us care, or at least entertains us.  I didn’t care about the people in _Resonance_ — not really.  But the game was emotionally salient to me; I could get a grip on what it was about, and therefore overlooked the emotional unlikeliness of the riddling cop — I was too distracted by the practical unlikeliness; and perhaps I felt too much of the PI’s impatience to step back and marvel that the PI was able to be as patient as he was.

So, appealing to the emotions causes your audience to forgive problems; appealing to the intellect largely means the audience finds no problems.  That’s an over-simplification, but it seems to accurately describe the commonest cases.

It might also be worth noting that we get to emotional values differently than we get to intellectual values.  When we look at a bit of the transcript in our heads and ask, “What are the ramifications of this fact?” — trying to work out what has caused it to happen (the premises of the story), or what it will cause to happen later, those are intellectual questions.  And we sort for contradictions or near-contradictions.  Thus, intellectual values are negative:  avoid contradictions and you’ve met the base standards.

But with emotional values, we ask, “What does this mean?” — and we have to come back with *something*, and something we care about, or it feels hollow.  And if we’re sold on the emotional meaning of a work, the positive value, then we tend to overlook contradictions, whereas if we’re not, we won’t.  That’s because we’ll *feel* satisfied or dissatisfied with a work primarily on emotional grounds, but when we talk about it in language what is most available to the languagey parts of our brains is the game’s logic.

One of the things neurologists have discovered about the human brain is that it’s sorted into a logicky, languagy part (usually the left hemisphere), and an analogy-making, emotional part (usually the right hemisphere).  And these two parts normally have incomplete access to each other, and usually have developed specialized mental languages, so they don’t always share information well.  (see

That’s why you get, for any given game, some people saying, “I don’t know…  it just didn’t make sense to me,” while others say, “It was random and off-beat, and a lot of fun!”  –The player is in great part responding to whether it satisfied him emotionally, but expressing that feeling by talking about the game’s logic.  That doesn’t go so far as to alter a reviewer’s reports of the game logic — people aren’t crazy, after all — but only their attitudes toward it.

Published in: on November 5, 2009 at 11:21 am  Leave a Comment  
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