Sunday, May 27, 2018

Testing input and performance: Attention, Memory, Knowledge and Logic

Some time ago, I published a post on mechanics of games (input - test of performance - feedback), which proved that the only valid form of player input, in the genre of Gamebook Adventures, happens in the form of choices and decisions. Later on, I shared with you my ideas about Meaningful Choices and the Logical Conclusion Choice Theory. At that point of my research project, I had nothing else to say about mechanics of gamebooks, but at the same time, I felt as if something very important was still missing.

Recently, it downed on me that I could zoom in further, just like the scientists did when they discovered the smaller particles of the atom. The result of this experiment was absolutely astonishing. The conclusion it led me to, and the information it uncovered for me, were unexpected to such extent that I was forced to entirely change my core beliefs of the whole gamebook genre.

Before I share with you exactly what I meant in the statement above, I'd like to tell you that dissecting the structure of the Meaningful Choice, helped me realize that, if applied properly, it gives the author many necessary tools to test the following four reader skills: attention, memory, knowledge and logic.

Attention Challenges: in a world of Short Attention Span, in an age of growing Attention Deficit Disorder and also looking into a future of extremely impatient people, this is a very good choice of skill to undergo testing in any game. After all, even the great Stuart Lloyd openly admitted that he is used to "quick scan the text for the outcome and for the next choice".

Mechanics: the author could create a choice, which is related to information presented earlier in the book or earlier in the same paragraph.

Example: from "Mars 2112" by Ashton Saylor, where Commander Blint warns the protagonist about the terrorists: "They refuse to negotiate. They already killed Bernie when he went in unarmed". Shortly after the above information, the reader is faced with the choice to (1) go in and negotiate with the terrorists or (2) examine the area and come up with another plan. The danger in (1) seems obvious, but it is so, only if the reader actually paid attention to the information that the terrorists are refusing to negotiate and they already killed the previous negotiator.
do you prefer to (1) negotiate with the artificial terrorists or (2) examine the area?

Short-Term Memory: checking if the reader has memorized important information, mentioned earlier in the book, creates a challenge, which is closely associated with the Attention Skill test. After all, the information must be noticed first, before it could be memorized. In times when people are literally bombarded with information and given the fact that our brains can't store it all, so they are forced to discard most of it, this kind of choices are a great way to test the player's performance.

Mechanics: the author designs a choice, the answer to which requires taking in consideration important information, presented in the text, sometime earlier in the book.

Example: imagine that the protagonist, while having a meal one night at the local tavern, overhears a legend being told about the only weak spot in the body of a fire dragon. The only way to kill the creature is to strike it in the head, right between the eyes. This all happens in the beginning of the gamebook. However, when facing the dragon in the final battle of the adventure, the author gives a choice between striking the fearsome creature (1) in the heart, (2) in the back of the scull or (3) between the eyes.
you strike the dragon (1) in the heart, (2) in the back of the skull or (3) between the eyes?

General Knowledge: testing the reader's general knowledge and competence on the subject of the gamebook. This one is similar to the short-term memory challenge explained above with the important difference that the information needed to succeed is not present in the book, but is expected to be known to the reader from another source, outside of the gamebook he is currently reading.

Mechanics: it requires of the player to make a decision based on his general knowledge. This type of challenge is similar to the multiple-choice tests in school.

Example: from "Dark Side of the Earth" by Michael Mindcrime, where the protagonist is trying to kill a sleeping Vampire Lord, by stabbing him in the heart. The test given by the author is about the protagonist's weapon of choice for this specific task: (1) golden arrow, (2) iron sword or (3) wooden stake. Do you know the right answer? It is expected that the reader would be able to make the correct decision based on the horror movies he has seen, scary old legends he's been told or even simple Halloween mythology he's been exposed to.
stab the Vampire Queen in the heart using (1) golden arrow, (2) iron sword or (3) wooden stake?

Logical Thinking: a performance test which requires critical thinking and logic. In this kind of choice, any of the aforementioned methods - attention, memory or knowledge - could become a logic challenge, provided that "fog of war" was applied accurately to make some of the circumstances, presented to the reader, less obvious. This kind of test requires of the player to unveil the actual question through logic, before being able to properly answer it. This challenge comes in the form of Logical Conclusion Choice, Logic Riddle, Tactical Choice and others. I have a soft spot for this kind of challenges in gamebooks, because in recent times, when emotional decision making TRUMPs rational thinking and logic, it is of extreme importance to force the reader to use vitally important skills such as risk management, damage control, resource management, educated guessing and critical thinking.

Mechanics: the author must take a simple test of attention, memory or knowledge choice, replace words and circumstances with hints, riddles and clues, scattered throughout the book.

Example 1 - Logical Conclusion Choice: our protagonist, an artifact hunter just like Indiana Jones, has already obtained a strangely shaped object, which fits very well in a mummy sarcophagus that is located by the east wall of a hidden pyramid room. The script on the wall behind it reads "the key, when put in place, must be illuminated by sunlight". However, there is only one way for outside light to get into the confined space: through a small hole, positioned right in the middle of the ceiling. What time of day does the protagonist have to be there for the sarcophagus to open up: (1) morning, (2) early afternoon or (3) evening? I got you thinking here, didn't I?! Hint: take in consideration the position of the sun throughout the day! This question distills down to: what time of day does the sun shine from the west (the side of sunshine in a room reverses angles). I sure hope that I don't have to explain any further.

Example 2 - Logic Riddle Choice: three people met at a corner of a street. They all are dressed like cops, so they don't know who the thief is. The real police officers will always tell the truth and the thief will tell the truth too, to make himself appear like a good cop. Given that Alex says: "Calvin is not the thief."; Bruce adds: "One of you both is the thief"; and Calvin states: "I am not the thief". Which one of the three would you accuse of the crime?

Example 3 - Tactical Choice: the protagonist is a superhero, who is in pursuit of the villain. The choice given to the reader is between (1) shooting the evil antagonist from a distance or to (2) chase him down on foot. There is no ultimately better decision. The outcome depends on a choice the reader had to make earlier in the gamebook. It could have been a choice between visiting the shooting range or spending more time jogging.

Before I finish talking about categories of choices in the genre of gamebooks (attention, memory, knowledge and logic), I would like to point out that I presented them to you in the order of difficulty, building it up, starting from an easy and simple attention challenge, and then ending with the more complicated and sophisticated logic challenges. Use all of them at your own discretion, but keep in mind that the difficulty of the adventure must grow with the progress of the story, so create easy challenges in the beginning and keep the tougher ones for the end.

Every gamebook reader wants to be a superhero. Make them feel like one!

In conclusion, I have to be honest and admit that I have been wrong about gamebooks, which implement flawed choices. Even a bunch of consecutive random "which door" choices, the ones that have no value on their own, could potentially create an enjoyable game experience, which measures the reader performance through testing his attention skill and short-term memory. That happens by making him to keep track of the path he's walked and forcing him to create a map of the adventure either on paper or in his mind, so he can avoid all the dangers and dead ends in the next attempt to achieve success. Don't get me wrong! I still urge the authors to avoid such mechanics at all cost and to use as many logic test choices in their games as possible, but the conclusion of this blogpost is that flawed adventures still test reader's performance. This came to me as a tremendous surprise.

Here is a final word of wisdom: Force your readers to use their brains, not their pens!

Peter Agapov
Game Designer at
President and Chief Executive Officer of American Limo Naperville
Former Road Captain of Marine One at Operation "Welcome You Home"