The first article in the reader is the famous Crimes against Mimesis, by Roger Sorolla. For the greatest part, it reads as a discussion of what was wrong with old-school adventure games:
- Objects that make no sense in the fictional context, but are just there to enable the player to solve puzzles.
- Different literary genres mixed together without rhyme or reason.
- Puzzles that have no connection with the fiction -- especially gratuitous mazes, riddles, and so on.
- The lock-and-key syndrome, where the whole world is ordered by a one-on-one correspondence between movable objects and puzzles to be solved.
- Shallow NPCs that are obviously just a puzzle that talks.
- Charaterisation of the PC.
Sorolla's proposed solutions to the lock-and-key problem bear additional scrutiny. He suggest that we (a) have solutions require more than one object; (b) have objects be necessary for more than one problem; (c) make sure that problems have more than one solution; and (d) incorporate irrelevant objects and problems. This is good advice. But it is also advice that doesn't address the real problem, which is the whole "here is a problem, now go and find the right object"-design of puzzles. Let's look at the nominees for the "best individual puzzle" XYZZY of this year (mostly free of spoilers):
- Deciding what to do with the [...] in The Warbler's Nest.
- Dividing up the oxygen reserves in Oxygen.
- Getting the lighter from Kai in Allein mit Kai.
- Roof tile repair in The 12:54 to Asgard.
- Saving Dr. Ephart in One Eye Open.
- Crossing the river in Aotearoa.
In this context, it is also worth commenting on Roger Sorolla's claim that one way to solve the problem is to have 'false' solutions, as long as these are well-clued; and that:
[a] good example of a well-clued “wrong” alternative solution would be feeding a hungry swine with a rare string of pearls that’s needed later on, when the beast will just as gladly wolf down a handful of acorns.A contemporary reader would be very dismayed to find out that the rare string of pearls she had fed to the swine was needed later on in the story! As our tolerance for unwinnable situations has decreased, so has our perception not just of what fair game design is, but also of what counts as a clue.
The most interesting part of the piece, in my opinion, is that about the player character. Some of Sorolla's discussion is about the relative virtues of the everyman and the strongly characterised protagonist; surprisingly, he weighs in on the side of the everyman, because this helps "identification".
Such a protagonist would be experienced more as a “he” or “she” than as an “I,” robbing the second-person narrative of its potency, and character identification would suffer at the expense of character definition.The idea here seems to be that IF gains strength from the player identifying with the PC; and that such identification becomes problematic when the PC is evidently not the player. I doubt this is the case in general; but there is probably some truth here. Perhaps the important thing for identification is that the player's decision equal the protagonist's decisions? We identify with whatever the character may be as long as what we decide is what the character decides. (This theory receives support from the fact that in games like LASH and Fail-Safe, we identify with the 'commander', even though he/she is only a very small part of the fiction.)
Sorolla also makes a distinction between the "Game Protagonist" and the "Story Protagonist". It is the former who walks into a full kitchen and notices that only the cab opener is "relevant" and should be taken in order to solve problems later; it is the latter who walks into the kitchen worried sick about the fate of her crazy uncle Zarf who mysteriously disappeared last week. On the one hand, this is a distinction we have been making less important by having less puzzles and having better integration of puzzles and story; on the other hand, it is a distinction we silently accept as a gameplay convention. Perhaps we mentally filter out some of the interaction with a work of IF as "not really part of the story", for instance, most inventory management?
Not all of it is relevant anymore, but Crimes against Mimesis remains an interesting article.