What I Learned from “Echo Bazaar”

echobazaarBefore I get into Echo Bazaar, I want to talk a bit about the past “What I Learned” posts – “what I learned about ‘What I Learned’,” if you will.

I learned that a lot of people read those posts, and that while I had thought that this blog was primarily read by people who like writing and role-playing games with a few video game players, the reality is that I’m being read by a wide variety of people, and that I’m getting a lot of traffic from the “video game content designer” side of my fence. It doesn’t seem like I’m getting a whole lot of people sticking around here and chatting or becoming regular readers, but a couple of times now, these “What I Learned” posts have been linked on GameBanshee.com, and that’s caused a huge spike in readers, and prompted some conversations outside of my blog. Other people outside my company in the video game industry have mentioned reading them. (And yes, despite all my caveats, I got some flack on my stance on “The Path”.)

I admit, that surprised the hell out of me, and caused me to rethink my approach. Thus far I had been approaching things as “some dude just starting out in video games that might have some interesting thoughts for a handful of people,” and not “representative of a major video game company that might have his posts minutely examined by hundreds of people”. At the end of the day, it doesn’t change much of anything, but it does mean I’m writing for a different audience than I originally thought I was, so I suspect my approach to these will be subtly different. But more importantly, I’m hella pleased that people find these posts enlightening and worthy of discussion, and I will continue to do them when I have something insightful to glean from a recent game I’ve played (which won’t be restricted to video games).

So. Echo Bazaar.

I’ve been playing this for a year, I think. I was kind of holding off on talking about what I’ve learned because I was waiting for the inevitable point where I get bored with the game and stop playing, but that hasn’t happened. I don’t play it intensely, but every morning part of my work ritual has been to log in and take my actions before starting with the rest of my day. It seems like the game comes up in conversation more often than not around the office and around the Internet. And yet, on the surface it seems to be just another Mafia Wars clone. So what have I learned from Echo Bazaar that I didn’t learn from my (brief and uninteresting) run with Mafia Wars?

Non-linear storytelling can work. This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about, and even though I’ve looked at things like roguelikes and other games that stitch together random elements into a cohesive story, this is a great game that not only does it well, but very clearly shows the underpinnings of that style of storytelling to the players. The conceit of having a deck of “storylets” is strangely compelling, especially when you start to see patterns over the course of several cards. While I ‘m sure other games do this as well, this one is great for game designers because a lot of the moving parts are right on the surface.

States of failure are interesting. Something else I’ve been thinking about. While I haven’t actually died in the game, I am reliably informed that dying is interesting. However, I have gone insane from nightmares several times, and while it is indeed a state of failure (I have to stop working on whatever I had going on for a couple of days), time spent insane ends up adding to the overall experience.

Decisions have repercussions that I can see before they come. While many games are set up to have a player’s decisions resonate throughout the game, this one makes it a goal. There are several qualities based on decisions, such as being Sentimental or becoming the Friend of Demons. As the quality increases in value, you start to see storylets that relate to the value, but that you can’t quite unlock. At first, I thought this was bad sorting on the part of the software, but I soon realized that the game was helping me to set goals – I want to play in that cool story, so I need to increase that certain quality. Then the game gives me terrible choices to help me increase said quality. And sometimes the story I wanted to unlock also does terrible things. Which makes me feel all the more like it was my choices that made these terrible things happen.

Multiplayer doesn’t have to mean simultaneous. One remnant of the Mafia Wars style is that you can give gifts to other players. However, in Echo Bazaar this sometimes comes at a cost to you, or to the gift receiver, and it’s not always clear which will pay the price. Further, sometimes you need something another player has in order to progress. While I don’t feel like I’m necessarily playing the games with other people at my side, I do feel like I’m able to pop into my friend’s home for a quick cup of tea (or, more often, to share my terrible Nightmares with them).

They talk openly about their design. As much as I could go on about this game, I really don’t need to. The design company, Failbetter Games, has a blog that often digs into the guts of the game as it’s evolving. While I don’t agree with everything (naturally), it’s a great collection of design discussion that helps puts even more context to the already transparent game mechanics.

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