Aspel (Emily Short), a Back Garden entry in Spring Thing, a Seltani world designed explicitly for cooperative multiplayer play. I played on the first of the announced tour dates, with the author watching and offering occasional guidance.
The story begins in a dirigible floating over an island landscape; after playing around for a while with the controls, and discovering a form of magic whereby eating the flesh of creatures recalls their memories, the group defeat the automated defences of an abandoned castle and explore its ruins, figuring out who lived there and why they were destroyed. In its basic form, this is a very traditional IF experience – search around an abandoned building, examining evocative artefacts to piece together a history – but the multiplayer aspect means that information must be shared, interpreted.
One of the big – I don’t want to call it a problem, but certainly a mismatch of tastes – that I have with Seltani in general is that, in line with its Myst heritage, it has a strong assumption of treating the PCs like AFGNCAAPs, since they might be close avatars of their player, or else a pre-constructed persona. That’s something that a lot of players enjoy, but I generally find that it forces a certain degree of distance from the story; the Myst protagonist is always an outsider, however warmly Atrus speaks to you. Aspel works to offset this a little bit by assigning players one of three roles – scholar, engineer or soldier – which allow different actions, imply some elements of personal history in this world, and offer different information, though to a significantly less extreme degree than Heroes.
The final decision – of whether to raze or restore the building – felt a shade arbitrary, but I can see glimmers of how the game could have used storygame-like techniques to develop a more personal agenda for my character over the course of play.
The pacing of play reminded me quite a lot, in some respects, of theatre LARP and of physical puzzle challenges like Puzzle Break. In both, there are climactic moments – big dramatic group scenes in LARP, the opening of a new room in puzzle rooms – that suddenly offer a lot of new content, and which cause everybody to rush to get in on it at once, often in competition with other players. In Puzzle Break that works, both because quick action is important, and the competition is spatial and easily navigated – if I’m already searching the wardrobe, you can quickly see that I’m doing that and avoid pushing in on it. In theatre LARP it’s more of a social challenge, because everybody wants to push their character’s agenda in the climactic scene, and that becomes socially and dramatically unwieldy when there are 20-30 characters involved.
And that was the trick in Aspel, kind of. You want to see as much as possible, and some information can only be seen once by anybody; you also want to be the first to find useful new information, so that you have something to share with the group rather than being a passive participant. I think this cycle is basically good and fun – periods of self-directed experimentation, each followed by group debriefing and interpretation, which is a pattern I’ve seen emerge in mystery RPGs before. The trick is that the experiment phase shouldn’t be too frenetic, and the debrief shouldn’t be too long and inconclusive; I think we nailed the second part, but the first could have been better.
At times there was a lot of information showing up in rapid succession, and not enough leisure to process it, and blended in with a fair amount of noise as everybody tried out the same actions. And some of that later turned out to be one-shot information, and it also meant that the most dramatic scene, at the very end, felt hurried and confusing. Seltani does not offer very much scrollback, which is a big problem when you’re trying to piece a history together, some of it from text that appears only once and to a single character.
So I think that this might have worked a lot better if we had just had three characters, one of each class, so that everyone could be assured of having a special role; and if we had moved around together more. That seems to be more a matter of player expectations and social organisation than of technology, and it’s a solved problem in other fields like MMORPGs. If we had been a self-organised group rather than a collection of randoms who showed up for a tour, that might have made for a more cohesive social dynamic.
In any case, this was a highly intriguing experiment, and I’d very much like to see aspects of it developed in future works.