The Story of N

What can IF authors and mud builders learn from stick figure physics, levels, roaming mindless drone robots, and a 50s cold war gray on gray aesthetic?


I’m talking about N of course, and OK, maybe the aesthetic is more like blue-gray on gray, but there are key elements in this video game you can use in writing a text adventure.

N uses a consistent and relevant aesthetic that’s not complex, appropriate, and looks good. Your character is very small so that, of course, one level fits on a screen, and secondly, a stick figure looks much more interesting from far away than up close. In simulating a world and NPCs you also want the player to see things ‘from far away’, because for practical and contextual reasons you can’t show everything to the player. You only need to show what’s important.

However, though the aesthetic is not complex, it is not simplistic, as it builds on a small repertoire of primary shapes and elements to create very interesting place for your ninja to jump around. Similarly, its use of three commands (jump, run left, and run right) fully interacts with the elements of the level. This is better than a surfeit of commands, like jump, run, shoot, duck, punch, and kick, and IF authors will understand why it helps to limit verbs to what’s important in context. Mud builders should also use this idea to create interesting game play within their zones, using the basic commands of their codebase within scripts, rather than relying on a ton of extra verbs in scripted commands.

N’s ‘NPCs’, the robots, embody random predictableness, in that their actions might as well be random, but they contain elements of pattern that make you believe what they’re doing is happening for a reason. Of course, randomness is easier to create than some fully modeled NPC ecology, so the lone IF author coding a NPC should look at ways to emphasize RP when you don’t need a full simulation.

Hey, let’s hear it for goal-oriented play, OK? Mud builders, use mini-quests and episodes. IF authors, you can fully explicate the score to tell the player what they did and didn’t accomplish.

Finally, remember this. Just because you’re a stick figure, it doesn’t mean you can’t explode into a thousand little pieces.


3 comments so far

  1. Dentin on

    One of the things mentioned here really got my attention: tons of extra verbs in scripted commands.

    The fact of the matter is that MUD command sets are offputtingly large. AA has 500+ commands in the parser; granted, only a few of those are used with any regularity, but it’s still a tremendous number. Even the dozen or so core commands (excluding directions) are too much for most new players.

    It reminds me of Unix. Powerful, but at a steep learning curve cost.

  2. georgek on

    Dentin, diving deep into the archives! ;D

    Looking back on this post I think I would have revised it a little. Wide command sets have cosmetic value (helping with immersion) and create opportunities for player skill mastery. It’s probably all about the interface. Is it possible to give a new player 5-7 commands and have them be successful? Five to seven seems good if you go by the rule of thumb of what people can keep in their head at one time.

    While directional commands might seem like ‘one command’, I think there’s a little more friction there. What if you had an alternative interface for newbies that used a landmark system, like ‘go home’, ‘go bank’, ‘go store’. Of course this would be convenient for experienced players as well. Some muds such as Maiden Desmodus and God Wars 2 use similar systems to good effect.

    Then you probably want get, drop, equip (wield/wear could be subsumed into equip I suppose), ‘i’nventory, and score/stat.

    That’s about seven. It’d be interesting to see if you could make that work. Notice there’s no kill, say, tell, etcetera.

    Might be a lost cause ;D.

    But — some of that stuff can be folded into a graphical UI, such as inventory and score. It would even help with equipping and so on, and with clickable words in the text, getting stuff, attacking, and so on. Maiden Desmodus again does this well with MXP. But, and this is big, you close out new blind players with that interface. I wonder if more could be done with audio interfaces (that is, native to audio, not tts)? Or maybe that’s not preferred by blind players. Would be interesting to find that out.

  3. Dentin on

    The graphical UI really does tend to lower the number of required commands, but why exactly is that? If I had to take a guess, it would be that they’re more visible or easier to get at.

    Menus are another example of this: unless it’s buried really deep in the menu system, people know that they can find it. There may be a hundred different selections, but they get to pick from lists instead of having to remember it outright.

    Perhaps the menu style systems are a way to deal with this. The Sims does very well in this regard.

    I’ll take a closer look at Maiden Desmodus. I’ve heard a lot of good things about the development work there.

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