Merits of surprise and expectation in narrative

With the latest surprise developments on the De Gustibus and Noman front I wanted to discuss the nature of surprise and expectation in a dynamic narrative. This is not intended to be a forum for airing grievances about De Gustibus (go here) or Noman (go here).

FBG legitimately wants to provide for surprise in their narrative. There are very good reasons for this. Surprise can be fun, it can be rewarding, it provide for a challenge. Also FBG need to consider the long term health of the game. As such, surprise can be a way of making existing content last longer. There are many other good reasons.

On the other hand, players have expectations. Some of these expectations are legitimate, others are not legitimate. Sometimes, where expectations are not met this can lead to surprise (usually, a good thing). Occasionally, it can lead to transient bemusement. Sometimes, though, it can lead to deep frustration and upset.

So what I want to discuss is what different types of expectation lead to surprise and other types to lead to frustration from the point of view narrative and game mechanics. I do not want this to be a discussion of FBG’s communication strategy (which is the current complaint being aired in the other threads and so those comments are best reserved for those threads, I think).

To get the ball rolling, I think the Advent Calendar is an excellent example where surprise is pleasant and not frustrating. The changing price of the Noman in the Wicket (I am talking purchase price, not the melting rate) is the kind of change that adds longevity/diversity to the content. Last year you needed Deep Amber, this year you don’t. It’s enough to pique people’s curiosity and raise the ambiguity of their purchase strategy without causing any great upsets.

So what do you, peeps, think? What makes for good surprise content?

I think it would be a fantastic surprise if the Noman’s End story were tweaked in mid-February with a fifth option that removed the Noman, but gave a “Noman’s Gratitude” quality which could be exchanged at Lilac’s for a statless “Melty Nose in the Snow” tattoo.

In other words: benevolent (but not generous) and unexpected condolences are nice surprises.

[quote=metasynthie]I think it would be a fantastic surprise if the Noman’s End story were tweaked in mid-February with a fifth option that removed the Noman, but gave a &quotNoman’s Gratitude&quot quality which could be exchanged at Lilac’s for a statless &quotMelty Nose in the Snow&quot tattoo.

In other words: benevolent (but not generous) and unexpected condolences are nice surprises.[/quote]
A better surprise would be if Lilac shows up right away instead of a week after the start of FoTER ;-)

There you go – trying to lower the value of your own Noman tattoo yet again! Why, you’d probably give it away if you could, you Seeker. :D

I suspect the economics of this game would be rather different if one of its grindiest players was not also one of its most generous! There are worlds where actual greed prevails over stories of love, you know

The thing with negative surprises in a game is that it tends to be more favorably received if someone is able to bounce back from it, or is accepting of unexpected nastiness before they start.

In a single player game, people are a lot more forgiving towards negative surprises, because the very worst cases is that their savegame get wiped (but they usually knew that before hand). They encounter an unexpected challenges, they either overcome it, retry on failure, or lose a save file and retry.

Unexpected penalty or challenges are hard to do well in a persistent, progress-based game, especially one where it is free-to-play with premium advantages.

If a game present itself as brutal and some such, players are more accepting of losing their progess - say, Realms of the Mad God is loud about their permadeath, and the playerbase accept that. Sure, players could still die from a lag spike and lose their precious characters topped up with rare potions, but they went in with the expectation to die.

The case with Noman, though, are probably because both the difficulty spike and the original challenge isn’t very interesting. You basically grind harder, grind faster, or grind more beforehand.

There isn’t anything &quotnarrative&quot in game so far with the difficulty spike - only the numbers on Time the Healer were changed - even something as simple as a Noman musing about his unusually prolonged would have added to the noman’s theme of a short but beautiful life. It doesn’t help that the reason of raising the cost is actually &quotWe want to preserve its prestige&quot. It is possible that I am just not a careful reader, but Rarity and Prestige never felt like parts of the Noman story to me.

(if only FBG decide to egg people into stabbing each other with a storylet claiming there’s not enough lacre to go around for all the noman)
edited by Estelle Knoht on 2/3/2016

I think the upsetting surprises are based around the magnitude of the loss. It’s not that the Noman was more melty, it was that content we thought was static wasn’t, and suddenly people are looking at losing a significant investment with nothing to show for it. The surprise can be good or bad, but if the surprise results in a loss, irrespective of whether the expectations that lead to the surprise were valid, then the surprise is seldom welcome.

Now, I don’t think that there will be an outcry next year when the Nomen melt at a different rate because we know now that the rate of melt is variable. The actual value of that rate will be a surprise, and some people will be pleasantly surprised and some will be disappointed, but they won’t be upset (we hope).

There’s a difference between losing a gamble, and not realising that one was gambling in the first place. We didn’t know we were gambling.

[quote=metasynthie]There you go – trying to lower the value of your own Noman tattoo yet again! Why, you’d probably give it away if you could, you Seeker. :D

I suspect the economics of this game would be rather different if one of its grindiest players was not also one of its most generous! There are worlds where actual greed prevails over stories of love, you know[/quote]
I’ve always valued people over things. To me the value of the noman was how everyone could pour their hopes and dreams and love into it despite there being no real reward to speak of. It was a testament to the idea that you could love something and wish it well even if its only here for a little while and leaves you with little more than a memory. Everyone knew it wasn’t a guarantee to succeed. However it feels a bit disrespectful to say that its value is increased by excluding X% of players. A symbol of hopes and dreams, I feel, isn’t really made more hopey or dreamy by treating people as a number to be thrown under a bus at a whim in the name of value. Not to mention ever increasing difficulty actually harms the &quotvalue&quot of people who come before. I’ll probably never hear the end of &quotoh sure you got the tattoo, but that was back when it was -easy-. Practically doesn’t count&quot and how do you respond to that? We’d all have to do the grind every year just to keep up with the difficulty scaling, just to avoid being called less hard core. Its a catch 22 :P

I’m doing my best to stay positive, and guide people to success so this isn’t really a complaint. It’s more I don’t really understand this concept of lowered value people keep talking about haha.

&quotEveryone knows there’s no such thing as a magic tattoo. But there is a snobby tattoo, a face in the snow with eyes of Gant.&quot

^- I am kneeling
edited by Estelle Knoht on 2/3/2016

I’ll stop with this post, due to the intentions of the original post in this thread – but I didn’t see any mention that the Noman tattoo would ever be balanced to exclude a certain % of players, as if it was simply a lottery. It still appears to be a grind challenge where you can reach 100% certainty if you grind enough, and if you grind less than that it’s a gamble – much like say, a Black Ribbon duel, except vastly longer and murkier. It’s the length of preparation and partial information that was the problem – but the Noman tattoo is still a 100% certainty for every single endgame player who prepared thoroughly enough. It’s just that players understandably thought they knew how much &quotthoroughly enough&quot was, how much they had to grind to reduce their risk, when they actually did not know this (and couldn’t – the lack of information is even more deadly than the length of preparation, clearly).

I think that some stories have a &quotright&quot to subvert expectations, especially those stories that relate to entirely cosmetic content (like the tattoo, or acquiring the Passion Destiny.) A world without unknown unknowns would be boring indeed.

That said, I’m certainly the kind of player who extensively pores over the wiki and forum before making a decision. A few years ago I played the game a for while and then rage-quit after losing my several months of accumulated dreams to an accidental slip into Nightmare. Being told all that time and effort was worth nothing, and that I’d have to do it all again was devastating.

Done right though, it can have meaning. When I lost my Noman unexpectedly, just 2-3 cp from finishing the story for the first time, I was devastated. I spent several days unable to play, hoping there was some trick or exploit I could use to forestall his death. I’ve never been more emotional about an event in a videogame, and I do think the absolute shock of having him be ripped away when he was so full of life played a large part in it.

…I don’t really have an easy answer for this one. At the end of the day, game design is art, and sometimes there aren’t right answers in art.

De gustibus was valid. Sub-optimal, but we were overplanning it, and it went against the intent of the season, to leave almost all pails un-used. if de gustibus were certain, for new players that could well be the optimal choice, so making it clear that it isn’t is fair, and the devs had little reason to recognize our expectations until it was too late.

The noman, though, is unpleasant. It should offer some warning, that the grind got progressively harder each year. I do hope the holiday content gets more diverse, but i won’t grumble if it stas the same, or gets harder with no change in value.

Part of it is definitely magnitude, though. A noman tatoo can cost sums comparable to half an overgoat grind already to aquire, in one of the harder items to aquire, and it’d be even worse next time.

Small scale investments getting worse is fine, even good, but large scale ones getting worse is never appreciated, even when it’s neccassary, so more heads-up is always better.
edited by Grenem on 2/4/2016

One of the tricks of this game is that we, as players, don’t really know the rules. Oh, we know the basics. Click on things and stuff will happen. But there is an expectation that we might not know what that stuff is. Discovery is a large part of the game both narratively and mechanically. For example, when you first start the game you don’t know what happens when Nightmares get too high; although you can guess it’s probably bad. So we watch, we discuss, we gather data, and we theorize as to what the rules might be. This is one of the game’s great strengths. But it can also be a weakness when we get the rules wrong (as has been observed recently).

I like surprises in the game. Even negative ones. I distinctly remember first drawing the &quotA Voice from a Well&quot card when I just started and getting slapped with Nightmares when I looked in. It was a great surprise. It set the atmosphere, filled in some story, and created a mystery (ie. what was that about?). But the trick with a good negative surprise though is that it doesn’t last that long. A sudden and unexpected trip to the river can be a great surprise but you can drag yourself back after not too long and get back to what you were doing.

Bad surprises are ones that significantly reduce you’re forward progress. There are two reasons for this. The first, is that you don’t want the player to feel like there’s no way they’ll get back to where they were. A good example of this is one of the above posters talked about unexpectedly losing all their dream qualities. Dreams take a long time to accumulate. Clawing you’re way out of the Mirror Marches takes an afternoon. Increasing a dream quality can take months or even years. You don’t want to risk players just giving up. The other reason is best illustrated by the events that lead to the end of Seeking. For better or worse, gathering resources in this game is largely a function of actions. For a fee, actions can be purchased which means pretty much everything can have a real price tag put on it. When money becomes involved, unexpected losing said purchased goods, while completely fair by the rules of the game, can lead to conflicts with customers.

Of course, what we’ve run into recently is the dangerous case where we as a community thought we knew the rules and we didn’t. The Noman, and De Gustibus rules didn’t change. We just thought we knew more about them than we did. The unfortunate price of this though is that a large number of people invested heavily in resources thinking they knew what to expect and in discovering that they were wrong lost basically all of said resources. The result being a lot of people getting a &quotbad surprise&quot completely unintentionally. I’m not sure what can be done about that. The mysterious nature of the game that makes it so intriguing is the same thing that sets up these kinds of scenarios.

To circle back around to the original question though, what makes a good surprise? I’d say, anything narratively satisfying that doesn’t set you’re progress back too far. How far is too far? That will depend on the player and the expectations set by the story. For example, getting you’re stats halved would be unacceptably brutal as part of normal content. Having it happen when Seeking the Name though? Still harsh but a little more expected. You know generally what you’re signing up for there.

Surprises that add or expand content are good. Surprises that retire, cut or restrict content are bad.
Surprises that do both in equal measure (for example, ephemeral content like the Hour of Sunlight) still feel mostly bad thanks to loss aversion.

A nice kind of surprise: when you’re surprised at how much you care, at how upset you are when you lose something, at how big of a risk you’re willing to take. When you come face-to- face with what some players (of games like poker) describe as &quottilt,&quot the swell of feelings that could cause you to &quotlose it.&quot One of the greatest living poker players, Phil Ivey, once said that the things he liked the most about poker were the moments of &quotlosing so much money that you feel like you can’t even breathe.&quot That’s not masochism – it’s staring deeply into your own soul and being simultaneously awed and horrified. Or it’s like the vertigo of a sudden drop, on a rollercoaster or bungee jump. There’s something of SMEN in that, I think.

So what would be a good surprise of that sort? Imagine if you were making your way through a long story – an epic adventure like Flint, or a huge grind towards some goal – but instead of letting you set your level of risk earlier on, like Flint does when it lets you decide if All Shall Be Well the moment you step onto the Elder Continent, you were asked how much you’re willing to risk at a crucial turning point? And then… what if you lost? Or what if you didn’t?

This is some of the great potential of a random surprise, or information hidden enough that it’s hard to find on the wiki or in this forum. FL does this well sometimes, especially if you don’t &quotread ahead&quot in spoilers. A giddy, disorienting vertigo: a shock! But you did it, you decided, you took that step – not Time: the Healer, which ebbs away at you like grief.
edited by metasynthie on 2/3/2016

Sorry to necro an old-ish thread, but did De Gustibus happen this year? I’ve been trying to keep an eye on it, because Zzoup, but it’s June already and I haven’t noticed it at all. :-/

In a sense. You could go to the Apicius Club and dine with Miriam Plenty if you pay FBG enough real monies!

(No, De Gustibus hasn’t happened yet.)