Don’t Poke That – Narrative Engineering Principles, Part 1

By Failbetter, July 8, 2011 · Tagged with ,

[Tagged as Alexis, written by Nigel]
Yasmeen has talked in recent posts about the process and style of our writing. I’d like to complement that by talking about some principles of narrative engineering. This is about game design and how we structure the various moving parts of a narrative, so do feel free to walk on by if you’re just here for the tight writing and the threesomes.

The principles that I’m about to describe have come through the experience of building Echo Bazaar. I’m not going to claim that they’re universal across storytelling or gaming. However, they’re useful for us and games like us. So pay attention if you’re planning on building something stateful and built on layered micronarratives. Yes, both of you.

Keep it Simple, Stupid

This is a fine rule for any engineering endeavour. It was brought home to me when I did my first ever bit of complex-structured Echo Bazaar content. That happened to be the Watchful 60-85 content where the player is on the trail of a certain eye-watering alphabet. Now, a lot of people have enjoyed that content, and the alphabet in question continues to be one of the best-loved motifs of Fallen London. But let me tell you something. That content is fragile. Oh it works. Actions are spent, snippets of text are delivered and people get where they’re going. But behind the scenes, the scaffolding creaks. Plaster falls on the stagehands and we approach the thing with care in case it comes crashing down.

And why? It’s too complex. Again, from the player’s point of view, it’s not really apparent. A bunch of things happen in a fairly sensible order. But there are too many qualities controlling things, too many assumptions about what will happen when. Quality based narrative isn’t good at having a series of things that need to happen in order, unless they’re controlled by a single quality. When multiple qualities are controlling a story where things need to happen in order, it quickly becomes difficult to read the structure, and unexpected behaviour creeps in. Happily, though, I’ve learned my lesson. I won’t do that again. Promise.

Parsimony of Qualities

This one is interesting, because it is at once the oldest and the newest of our narrative engineering principles. Very early on in the life of EBZ, Alexis did a lot of jumping and shouting about keeping the number of qualities in any piece of content to a bare minimum. There were some technical and UI reasons to want to do this, but it just makes sense: it keeps things simple for authors, and minimises the number of things players have to remember to make sense of stories. But it has caused a bad habit, which is something we’re just realising.

We’ve been using a single quality to do different things in different places. This isn’t really parsimony – and it has been causing us problems of consistency and exploitation. Not only do we need to keep the number of qualities down, we need to ensure that they are being used in a way that is consistent whenever a quality appears. There are a few occasions where that still isn’t the case, and we might have to do some surgery on those bits of content to bring them in line. Still, it’s good to know that we’re still learning and still improving.

I’ll just do one more for now. But it’s a juicy one:

Show them the Implements

Sometimes, we are rather unkind to our poor player characters. We shoot them or drive them mad or cover them in slug-slime. But that’s all fairly expected in the two-fisted-romp parts of the game, and we’re sure you wouldn’t have it any other way.

But sometimes, we’re really quite unpleasant. Sometimes, we really want to hurt you. In our defence, you asked for it. You came back for more, despite the warnings. Yes, I’m talking about the seeking of a certain name. Anyway, for this sort of content, you expect abuse. And abuse you we will. But here’s an interesting thing. If we’re making you suffer, you want to know how long you’re going to be up on that cross. It’s no fun to just be up there and not know when we’re going to let you down. So we’re making a point in our more robustly unsympathetic content to let you know just how much more of this shit you’re going to have to take. We’re kind like that, sort of*.

We’ve a few more buckets of this stuff, so I’m sure that a part 2 of this series will be along in a bit.



*Not that kind. My initial plan for the end of the Seeking the Name story was to have it cost 1000 Fate and delete the character in question. The others were too concerned with being murdered in their beds to recognise the genius of this.


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Useful Posts for Writers · Failbetter Games May 12, 2:29pm

[…] Don’t Poke That – Narrative Engineering Principles […]

bezrouki Aug 6, 12:16am

I'll mention that some of your "showing the implements" hasn't completely cleared up confusion. There's a regular-bordered card requiring 21 instances of abuse that at the moment isn't clear whether it is a fundamental part of the storyline or an optional add-on to the gold-bordered cards.

Little The Jul 18, 4:55pm

@ Vael Victus: So, something like a "New Game Plus" feature? An interesting concept, but not once that would really work for this format, I think...

Vael Victus Jul 17, 2:47am

Wonderful article, I particularly enjoyed the last few sentences. @Genny: I was thinking that myself. Really, the reason I didn't care what happened with the Name was because I have nothing to do otherwise. The way you describe it with the connected and "all your stuff" is a bit dramatic, but I could definitely see some path of righteousness, or some incredible sacrifice at the farthest end of the Unterzee, that would give effects similar to Stormy Eyed.

travellersside Jul 14, 8:43pm

The problem with a full reset, where you lose absolutely everything, is that you might as well just create a new account. In fact, you're worse off than if you'd created a new account, because you no longer have access to a high level account that can play with any new content that comes out later. Any resets would have to keep at least something of what was there before, or else why bother.

Genny Jul 12, 12:29pm

Actually I was just thinking the other day that somewhere, there should be a Terrible Juncture where one of the options was to lose it all ... all your connected, all your stuff, back in New Newgate with no qualities at all. Once people are up at the limit on all four qualities, starting back at the beginning might look more fun than waiting to pass the Content Barriers.

Nigel Jul 11, 7:36pm

@Chris the qualities all have notes that authors can see but players can't. These help a great deal with keeping things straight. We don't have a formal use guide, but we're a tiny team, and getting consensus isn't hard. @Zintis little hangovers like that are a good example of what I'm talking about.

Kdansky Jul 11, 3:57pm

There is someone else (you mention two people, and I'm one of them) writing something along these lines? I'm intrigued!

Peter Jul 11, 10:49am

"My initial plan for the end of the Seeking the Name story was to have it cost 1000 Fate and delete the character in question. The others were too concerned with being murdered in their beds to recognise the genius of this." There's actually an extant game that does this, more or less, except less "requiring you to pay lots of money" and more "requires you to have spent a good deal of time collecting things across multiple playthroughs". And yes, it's totally genius. But now I can't tell you what game it is because it's a spoiler.

DannyboyO1 Jul 9, 9:33am

Personally, I think the "delete character" option would have been extremely brilliant. I salute your brand of madness.

Emain Ablach Jul 9, 3:48am

[quote]My initial plan for the end of the Seeking the Name story was to have it cost 1000 Fate and delete the character in question. [/quote] Why do I find it a good idea ?!... What did this name do to my sanity !? I find interesting what you say about the number of qualities in a storylet. I use a system of my own when creating stories for my home-made RPG, which contain qualities, and I just recently realized that it complicates everything for very little. I can imagine how more difficult it must be with a plateform like the one used for EBZ. (sorry for the bad english)

Zintis Jul 9, 12:18am

Interesting about the eye-watering alphabet content - my Orthos' Progress quality seems to be perpetually stuck at 3. I imagine that must be positively infuriating for the good doctor.

Chris Cowger Jul 8, 9:46pm

I'm curious, for the parsimony of qualities issue, do you now maintain an internal style/use-case guide for qualities? Or are you able to maintain consistency without one?