IF Comp 2014: Paradox Corps

Paradox Corps, by John Evans, is a Choicescript game following the adventures of a rookie in a Time Police Force. (Y’know, those guys. The ones who chase after our time-traveling heroes and try to ruin their fun.)

Paradox Corps is in a decidedly Whovian vein, albeit with the serial numbers filed off. There’s a dashingly eccentric Professor, there are ‘multitools’ that feel distinctly sonic-screwdriverish, there’s a rag-tag cast of companions gathered together from across the cosmos. This is not quite fanfic; it’s that thing adjacent to fanfic where you want to provide essentially the same central experience without concerning yourself with the details of canon.

One of the things I’ve noticed a fair amount of in choice-based games: it’s quite easy to make sure that the story keeps moving forwards, and this can obscure the fact that good pacing in interactive media is inherently quite hard to do. This leads to a lot of games where the plot rolls along just fine, at the expense of what I call ‘velocity’ over here. (With parser IF, the problem is often too-slow pacing, and making the plot move along snappily takes more craft.) It’s not so much that the author has a mostly-linear story to tell and is not very interested in diverging from it: it’s that they’re in such a great hurry to tell it that they lose sight of bringing the player along.

There’s a moment in Paradox Corps, for instance, at which a character is identified as a time-traveler because she’s using idiomatic language which is too late for her milieu: normally this would be precisely the kind of language-nerd moment that I would relish the crap out of. But for me it was undercut because I couldn’t for the life of me remember which point of history we were at any more – the narration had probably mentioned that we were jumping back to the 1860s, but I hadn’t really registered it, in part because so many steps of the action were non-interactive.

Paradox Corps‘ pacing issues have as much to do with the writing as the interaction, though; the story is trying to pack a novel’s worth of plot – a dozen or so characters, a whole bunch of worlds – into something that can handily be played through in an hour. This is a fairly common issue that I see with new game authors: they have a big plot that really excites them, and their enthusiasm makes them reluctant either to cut anything or to spend five years finishing it. (Choice-based platforms can free you from a lot of the implementation work that makes game-making slow, but that doesn’t make the writing part any easier.) So, for instance, there’s one section where you only have a time machine that works for specific destinations, and you need to build a generalised one: there’s a list of those destinations, and a list of parts, and it seems like a safe assumption that the next phase of the game will be to travel to all the locations, collecting parts, maybe backtracking to use things gained in one area to overcome problems in another – but instead most of the story nodes are scenery, and the one correct choice plunges* you headlong into the story.

I get it. I strongly prefer arcs that are around novel-length myself. The second piece of IF I failed to complete was a centuries-spanning epic with over twenty major characters**.  Alas, there’s no way to do large-scale narrative alone, quickly and well.

A technique that I haven’t seen before in a Choicescript game is what the game refers to as No Stress Mode, in which the mechanical effects of each option are spelled out by the option. This is an interesting idea, but implementing it within the framework of Choicescript makes the button-options interface feel a bit awkward. It mostly makes me wish that that information could be relegated to a tool-tip.

The game definitely has a concept of better and worse options; No Stress makes it very clear which are which, and thus makes them non-options. But it mostly just does this for the stat-training choices – which, if you’re familiar with the assumptions of typical Choicescript games, are not the stressful options. Usually the stat-training options are easy: focus on training one or two stats, then later on, when challenges arise, focus on the options which use those stats. The tricky choices are the ones with specific story consequences – because those are less predictable. There’s some justification for the no-stress mode, because Corps‘ choices are not as obviously tied to their stats as is typical in Choicescript. There are only three – Combat, Diplomacy and Engima – and they’re principally trained by social actions (being aggressive and confrontational increases Combat; being friendly and avoiding conflict increases Diplomacy; focusing on information increases Enigma). But I never found a part in the story where having a higher stat appeared to matter.

Partly this is because the story abruptly cuts off at a particular point – the bad guys catch you, the end. I played again, and it happened again – so I think a particular branch just kills you every time. And Choicescript doesn’t have an undo/rewind function, so every failure ending means a complete replay. Practically speaking, this means that the entire no-stress system makes less difference than a single unexpected losing ending.

There’s nothing in the story that feels intentionally sexist or racist; indeed, it feels as though the author is making a conscious effort to include diverse characters with active roles. But there’s a sense of mild discomfort with depicting women and people of colour that is illustrative of the game’s general writing problems:

The man has black hair and epicanthic folds, but pale, sallow skin. Of course that last might be because he’s dead.

That ‘but’ in there is awkward – black hair and epicanthic folds show up in a wide range of skin tones, so why ‘but’? Sallow is a really awkward word to be using around race, because, well:

(of a person’s face or complexion) of an unhealthy yellow or pale brown color.

so historically it has been a convenient word to use of people whose skin tone is pale, but the wrong kind of pale. And the backpedal on ‘because he’s dead’ feels as though the writer has got to the end of the sentence and thought ‘crap, that sounds bad, what I mean is…’

I don’t think this is representative of any particular malice on the author’s part; it’s just infelicitous phrasing. Which is a mild problem in the rest of the writing, but becomes more jarring here. Talking about the race of characters, or depicting women as attractive from the protagonist’s viewpoint without making the narrative voice feel creepy, is a fine art requiring careful attention to words: in the grand scheme of things the failures here aren’t terrible, but just… at a constant low level of not-quite-there.

Finally, I really have to repeat this, just because it’s a great example of how Protagonists Are Different:

“Good question.” Frankie spins slowly in her chair. “If it were me, I’d try to rescue them or something. But me, actually me, I don’t have the training or experience. But you might, trainee though you are.” She smiles.

“Great,” you say. “But how?”

 Score: 4

* That’s the dominant feeling of playing Paradox Corps: plunge. There are a handful of authors who create this effect and get away with it; Diana Wynne Jones, in particular, has many stories in which a great deal happens, much of it off-screen, some of it is acknowledged very briefly, and you’d better pay close attention if you want to keep up. So, like all writing advice, the don’t-plunge principle can be waived if you are a writer of world-class ability and that’s just your thing.

** Frankly it was a damn good thing it never got finished, because I was an idiot teenager who, e.g., thought that killing off the protagonist’s girlfriend at the end of Act I was a really gutsy move.

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3 Responses to IF Comp 2014: Paradox Corps

  1. Pingback: IF Comp 2014: Paradox Corps (John Evans) | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

  2. Jason Dyer says:

    There seems to be one ending each for Diplomacy, Combat, and Enigma. Enigma requires an insanely high level and I had to pick the enigma-stat-increasing option every time to get it, the other two are gentler but still you need to focus your stat-building to get them.

    This seems like the absolute worst way to use stats. To pick an example where it goes better, in one of the recent Choice games you get a hand paralyzed, but have a chance to use your resolve to get it to move again. If you fail you still get an achievement and can play the rest (although it harms one of your other stats meaning you have fewer options later). Not having a high enough stat isn’t an absolute shutdown, it just changes what’s possible.

    Paradox Corps is more like “if you didn’t pick enough of the right options … you die! Even though it is fairly cryptic in some cases that particular choices lift particular skills!”

    • Yeah. Even if you’re going to be building towards some kind of major crisis, it seems as though some preliminary training in how challenges are going to work is important. In both of my playthroughs I focused on one primary stat and one secondary stat, neglecting the third.

      The losing ending I got was also kind of opaque about how higher stats might have helped: I never saw anything that made me go ‘oh, if I’d only put more points into Combat…’

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