Fixing Silent Conversation

I like the concept behind my game “Silent Conversation.” The words of a piece form the physical structure of a level that is shaped by the setting, events, and feelings of the work’s content. Unfortunately, “Silent Conversation” is, well, not a very good game. It’s slow, because I wanted to encourage people to read the pieces. But it’s way too slow to be fun. The idea of certain words being “powerful” is promising, but the dodge-dark-red-things gameplay is more annoying than engaging.

A lot of people really resonated with the idea. I heard plenty of compliments for the visual interpretation of the text, and for making the text interesting to read, and for the potential of the game for education… but no one really said the game was fun. So here’s a question for you: how can I make a spiritual successor to “Silent Conversation” that’s actually fun? I’m seeking your help here.

Here are the criteria for the sort of game I’m trying to design:

  1. The words of a textual work are arranged into a physical level structure that relates to the content of the work.
  2. The game encourages reading and comprehension; the player shouldn’t want to just skip through the work without reading it. Likewise, playing through a work involves the linear traversal of the entire work.
  3. The game is fun, with challenge that is tied somehow to the content of the story. Something that’s not explicitly violent would be great.
  4. The game design is not tied to a specific work; players should be able to create their own levels from arbitrary works (with a bit of work arranging the words) and share them with other players.
  5. The game should have very low amounts of punishment. It should offer variable challenge for various skill levels, preferably without players having to choose a difficulty explicitly.

So, I’m open to suggestions. What do you think the sort of game I just described should be like?

38 thoughts on “Fixing Silent Conversation

  1. Thing for me is that it seems like you could pull it in two directions.

    If you wanted to make it more fun, the fun aspect of this is that it’s essentially a platformer but built from the text. However you don’t have enough platforming mechanics in there to make it fun. You could enhance by adding things like words that spring players to higher places, getting them to jump on and destroy object that are obscuring words. Moving word platforms. Basically borrow more from Mario.

    I think that might achieve the objective of making it fun but personally that’s not what I’d do with it.

    For me the most interesting elements where how you’d used the text to make it feel like the worlds you were describing. Like the sandstorms, the moon and the caves in the Lovecraft story. Those were fantastic. They weren’t fun as such but they made it feel like reading the story was in part exploring its world. Peronsally I’d prefer to see it taken in that direction. Maybe adding interactivity, making people open words like door or climbing words like ladder. More world building than platforming.

    1. I’m certainly not married to the platforming mechanics. You’ve hit on my dilemma; it seems that there are many fun things I can do that distract from the reading of the text.

      I liked the world-building as well. I can imagine that if I made a spiritual sequel that allowed level building, I could enable a series of generic interactive features; I wouldn’t want them to be too story-specific, to encourage the creation and sharing of new levels. Doors and climbable ladders are definitely doable, however.

      1. Yeah I don’t have any good suggestions with that dilemma. I too am worried fun elements would be a distraction and people might focus on that instead. But will be checking back on this thread to see if you or others can come up with anything.

        If you do make a spiritual sequel with a level editor, I’d love it if you could play with the colours, font face, orientation and size of the text. I’m a big fan of those videos you find with “kinetic typography”. If you could do more with the text you could create some interesting worlds stealing ideas from there.

  2. At the risk of sounding a little glib, one might consider basing the levels around naughty limericks, and have them be puzzle-based. I can’t even think of any concrete examples, but maybe you have to solve some sort of pun, or figure out a metaphor to be able to take the action required to finish the level. Maybe something like the puzzle in miroslav’s game ‘I Love You’ ( ).

    1. I like that idea. I still want to do a more serious one, but a naughty limerick side project would be great. I love “I Love You,” and there’s all sorts of fun transformations you could do with naughty limericks.

  3. First : Sorry for my english.

    Then : I don’t agree with you when you say Silent conversation isn’t fun. It would means that reading isn’t fun…but it is.

    The paradox is :
    Playing Silent conversation is funnier than reading a book
    and I have to admitt : Silent conversation is less fun than a mere plateform game.
    But, strangely (and this according to me) : A book is funnier than a plateform game.

    The fact is that the fun of Silent conversation depends on what it is compared to. By creating a challenge (“dodge-dark-red-things”), you compare Silent conversation to a plateform game, and it’s bad, because silent conversation is an awfull plateform game (no offense ^^).

    But if, as said Perrin, you focalise on words and their representations (“blue” is blue, “noisy” is noisy, “falling” is falling….), Silent conversation will no longer be a plateformer, but a reading experience. And i’m sure it’ll be one of the funnier reading experience.

    Sorry again if it wasn’t very clear…in french in my head it was.

    1. I agree with you. As a platformer, it’s not fun, but as a piece of reading it is fun. It just seems to me that the reading experience could be improved by more ludic elements.

      Do you think it would work better if you were, say, just scrolling through the story without having to deal with jumping at all?

      1. sorry sorry i was misunderstood : The jumping is important, the character is the eye jumping frome word to word. It’s was only talking about the dodging stuff. The concept of powerful words is great though, but these words should’t be agressive. I don’t know…some important words could be read when you came uppon, some other could be sticky, or brake. The phrase turn into an environnement, making the game more an exploration one than a plateformer…

        If it would be less boring for someones? I don’t know…I don’t even understand how someone can think Silent Conversation is boring :)

  4. I think it is rather fun, but it seems like a game where being “fun” isn’t one of its goals. Which is fine, honestly! Plenty of good games are not fun. It is enjoyable, however.

    1. “Fun” may not be the right word, but I do want it to be engaging. I want to minimize the number of people who abandon the game because they find it boring.

  5. Hey, I enjoyed the game. First one of yours I ever played, and now I play them all.

  6. Ugh, I had a really nice comment typed out and it got erased because I forgot to put in my e-mail address. >:(

    Anyway, if you haven’t already, you should really read Mark Z. Danielewski’s ‘House of Leaves,’ since there are a lot of interesting text- and typography-based ideas that I think you could use and push a lot farther in the context of a game than he was able to in the book. For example, there’s a really cool chapter on labyrinths that forces the reader to run around a ‘maze’ of sorts through a series of bizarre self-referential footnotes. The only problem is that it’s incredibly tedious and boring to read, and by the time I figured out what he was trying to do I’d lost interest 10 minutes earlier. But if you could actually make the reader physically navigate a maze, like say making the text double back on itself so you’re navigating a new area that you could see but not reach before, or teleporting to a new area to get through, that would be a lot more interesting, both from a reader and a player’s perspective.

    I think if you allowed the contents of the text itself to inspire you to create a level around it – say, slowly illuminating the text in a horror story, or having words jump out at you suddenly – it would facilitate the process a little bit better than just making a set formula for the construction of every story “world.” Really the only thing that strings together most stories is the fact that you’re reading them, so the rules for every story/level could vary dramatically, and would help keep each one fresh and interesting.

    1. Yeah, I’ve totally read House of Leaves, and it is awesome. I think the idea of less physically linear spaces is great, especially with the idea of seeing but not reaching areas; it’s like glancing at the end of a page and noticing a particularly juicy sentence, or flipping ahead to check out chapter titles.

      One thing I’m definitely hearing is a call for more interactivity. I’ll need to figure out a way to genericize that, so that a broad range of interaction is possible with standardized level-creation tools.

  7. One issue I had with Silent Conversation is that, for the Lovecraft level, the platforming distracted me from the text. So I didn’t actually wind up reading the text. (Also, the level was too long.) This isn’t a constructive suggestion, though it makes me think increpare might be right that a good idea would be to have the text change gradually. I do think that the gameplay mechanism slows down the rate at which we can process text, so you probably want to take account of that.

    There’s a game somewhere which consists of branching lines of text scrolling by, that you click on to send the hero down a certain path (you can miss your chance to click if you’re not fast enough); and the story is a parody of adventure games, getting pretty homoerotic if I remember correctly. But I’ve totally forgotten what it’s called. There’s a pretty good chance I found out about it from you, anyway. Anyone have any idea what I’m talking about?

    1. Pacing is definitely an issue. Reading is slow, and reading while gaming is slower, but gaming slowed down to that point becomes tedious. I don’t yet have a solution to that problem.

      Could the game you’re recalling be ERGON/LOGOS?

    1. Excellent suggestion. I’ve seen and appreciated “typographically-aware aesthetics” in the past, but I can’t call myself a typography buff. I’ll make sure and do some research and reading in the area, and try to be more interesting in that way.

  8. I remember, from reading Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics” (an excellent read) that language is the ultimately abstracted representation of an idea, besides the idea itself. Silent Conversation unabstracts words, makes them concrete, and while it’s an extremely interesting idea, it’s also incredibly hard to have work well, as I can’t help but get the idea that abstracted and physical representation must be at odds with each other (for instance, if a different version of Silent Conversation existed where the user surfs over different styles of paintings, I can see this being much more entertaining, as paintings, even the most abstract, are much less abstract than words).

    Am I making sense? I’m not sure. Anyway, “Understanding Comics” was, for all intents and purposes, about comics, but like Silent Conversation comics are an attempt to meld the abstract and concrete, although for comics the concrete is pictures, while for you the concrete is words, the same as the abstract.

    I don’t think having words be both concrete and abstract is necessarily antithetical to making a pleasing experience, I just think Silent Conversation is handling more more directly than pretty much any other piece of art out there, and a whole new group of considerations need to be made.

    Silent Conversation has two sides of a very difficult coin, conceptual understanding and physical execution. However, I think this can be used advantageously. On pieces that do not stress as much understanding (i.e. song lyrics people know, the famous William Carlos Williams poem, constantly repeated words), you can emphasize gameplay, modifying the structure of the words without truly impeding understanding. On something like HP Lovecraft, emphasize understanding of the text, using interaction as cues to elements or set pieces that may increase the user’s understanding of the text. Don’t emphasize interaction; Lovecraft tends to make people struggle even when his writings are just on paper. Then there can be median pieces, which would probably be the most difficult (I suggest something symbolically rich but linguistically simple. Maybe bits of The Stranger?) which would use both to collaborative effect.

    I hope that helps/makes sense.

    1. I suggest something symbolically rich but linguistically simple.

      Oooh, this is a good idea. I think some of Samuel Beckett’s fiction might provide good sources here — gameplay that reinforced repetition (you have to jump and start over) would actually be thematically suitable to this prose, and the repetition would help absorb the prose, which is too dense and unpunctuated to make sense at a first reading. This might go against your points 3 and 5, but as I said, it might work thematically.

      For examples of the kind of prose I mean, check “How It Is” and the last (pages-long) sentence of “The Unnameable.” Some of the more incantatory later plays like “Rockaby” and “That Time” could work well too. (In looking this up, I realized that Fail Better Games, who do Echo Bazaar, took their name from Beckett’s Worstward Ho.)

  9. Maybe an alternative to platforming gameplay could be exploration. So if there’s a particularly long passage of exposition that isn’t strictly necessary to the sense of the text (“I’m looking at you here, William Wordsworth”) it could branch off, kind of like a side-quest, or alternatively the player can continue through to the end asap. That would also give it some degree of replayability, as there would remain the challenge of going through and getting to all the things you missed on the first time around.

    You could also try making it impossible to pass certain parts of the text unless you’ve reached earlier, essential parts, so you could make the reader backtrack and repeat key parts of the story. This would admittedly be frustrating as all hell in prose, but in poetry, where you’re supposed to linger over things anyway, it might even help people appreciate what they might not otherwise have the patience for.

  10. I like Silent Conversation, but I think it could be /more/ fun.

    I would actually remove the need to touch every word. It slows down the pace of the game, and makes it less replayable. Instead, treat the text like an exploration game with beautiful backgrounds. Reading the text should be its own reward.

    Then, amp up the use of de-abstracted text. Like when you had the moon made out of the word “moon”, and the winds blowing in the Lovecraft tale. Let the player pick up useful items and use them on obstacles. Let them gather weapons and use them on dangerous characters. Let them activate footnotes to warp into bonus rooms! Have destructable terrain. Have some text impenetrable, other text could act as jump-boosters or ladders.

    Keeping it simple, you could have some basic lock/key puzzles where you need to pick up a word whose color or font lets the player know it’s an “item” of some kind, and then they can pass through a phrase that is obviously blocking their progress (possibly the font or color is consistent for impenetrable text) Reading comprehension should be needed to realize what “key” opens what “lock”.

    Weapons could also be color-coded, and their ammunition could be limited to the number of letters. Pick up the word “gun” and you can press a key to fire the letter “g” horizontally forward. This would kill the word “thug” or “Moriarty” which is marching back and forth on top of a block of text like a goomba, obviously spawned by the same word that’s present in the text. You could decide some enemies should have more health than others. You could also let weapon and enemies respawn if the player traverses that area again. The act doesn’t represent killing off that character, just battling it so you can move forward in the text. Killing an enemy could place a strikethrough over the text as part of a cute death animation.

    I like the idea someone had above about letting long passages of descriptive text be optional explorable areas. If you make reading comprehension an important part of the game, these areas could contain hints or tools that help you proceed later. Reading comprehension would also tell you which part of the level is the main text and which is the “side quest”.

    1. Personally, and I know this is just brain storming, but I’d really dislike fetch quests and weapons in this. Especially in conjunction with no longer needing to touch the text I think it would make reading the text a distraction from the action platformer you were now playing. I would fear a lot of players would focus on the objectives and enemies and stop reading the story. :(

  11. Grinding. It needs grinding. Like the Linear RPG.


    Actually, I think a notgames approach could be the most interesting. Or something like LittleBigPlanet, where you can build the words into environments while you play, and share with other players.

    1. I definitely want to encourage content generation and sharing; in part because it’s the most requested feature from comments on Silent Conversation, and in part because it fits quite well with the reading-promotion theme. Figuring out how to respect authors’ copyright will be tricky, though, since users won’t restrict themselves to public domain stuff like I did.

  12. Just sort of thinking-out-loud about the type of game I want to play:

    I remember thinking that the game would be more fun with a more versatile “I” character. Though it’s sort of clever that “I” (me) is playing as “I” (letter), I don’t think that cleverness is enough to make up for the stiffness in the way the “I” just glides along or pops up to jump. A little guy would be more enjoyable to watch and to control, especially if he could do more than just run and jump. I mean, if the player isn’t going to be fighting or collecting or puzzle solving (which I don’t think they should be) then moving around the game world should be fun, and there should be lots of ways to do it. I am thinking things like wall-jumping, edge-grabbing (not automatically like in Smash Brothers, but by button-press like Abe’s Oddyssey or Shadow of the Colossus), double-jumps (though I am not fond of them, they at least add variation), and tricks (…maybe…) that will be necessary to get to harder-to-reach places, and which can be mastered to get through the course quicker and in more expressive ways. Maybe an ability to climb up through a word from below under certain circumstances (with a long animation to prevent over use)? Perhaps a bonus can be added to touching words in the correct order, as an incentive to travel the words as if reading, rather than simply jumping around the-order-be-damned.

    I keep thinking of how much fun it is to collect the letters “S-K-A-T-E” in the correct order in the Tony Hawk Pro Skater games. You can always collect them and succeed if you mess up and do them out of order, but there’s a real sense of accomplishment in seeing the linear path that’s been set up for you, and in mastering the way your character moves so well that you can show off with little flourishes and tricks while you do it. I also keep thinking of Uniracer for the SNES, where flourishes were simple flips that gave speed boosts. It made them rewarding on one hand, and necessary in more competetive races on the other, while still proving that flourishes don’t need to be a big spectacle.

    Another element you might consider is that each word is shaped differently;
    In the current build, the “I” moves along all text as if it were flat terrain, but it could be fun to include a stepping or bumping (or occasional tripping, to add character if it’s a little guy) animation as it traverses the ascenders in each letter. Tails and descenders hanging below text could be grabbed on and swung from, sides of words stacked vertically could be interesting to explore, maybe some aspect of letter anatomy could add benefits to movement in other ways. Or if you increase the size of the type dramatically, then the player can begin climbing inside of the actual words themselves, wall-jumping between the two “l”s in “wall” for instance. Falling through the word could cause an immediate respawn earlier in the word (not very punishing), or a floor could be placed so that the cracks in the words are just little ditches that the character would have to climb out of by wall jumping or edge-grabbing. If the control is smooth enough, people will be able to move from word to word just as fast as before, though they won’t see as far ahead, since the words will take up more of the screen. Whenever I thought about climibing around on the page of a book, I would always imagine being much smaller than the height of the text itself anyway, and isn’t that where this idea originated?

    Also, I agree that the “Say What Again” type thing was very fun to watch, and it would be amazing if a whole piece could be converted in an explorable format like that. Maybe the text moving is not navigable enough for this concept, but it would be great to have a lot of variation in size, angle, and orientation of the text.

    1. That’s not the first time I’ve heard the suggestion for a more personable avatar. I may need to design a player character that’s anthropomorphic, but has a typographic aesthetic: feet like serifs, or variable width around a head circle like on many fonts’ O’s and Q’s.

      I very much like the SKATE comparison (although I more readily remember Donkey Kong Country’s equivalent). I think that some sort of encouragement to traverse words in order is good from both a ludic and a comprehension standpoint.

      1. How about the player being a ragdoll blob like Gish, rendered as a letter-like shape? That would give you your acrobatics without requiring an awkward character design.

      2. I like this words-as-Gish-platformer-level idea a lot. It might not do everything you plan to do with this Silent Conversation remake, but it could be an interesting side experiment.

        You could have some words that are small, so you can just roll over them indiscriminately like paving stones, and you could make some words really big (powerful words?) so you have to climb over each letter in a physical way and really get the feel of them.

        Maybe if you could also pick up certain words that are small enough, and carry them to other places? Maybe touching certain sequences of words could also have an effect, like the SKATE idea? These could somehow be used to make the gameplay relevant to content…

        What would be the equivalent of coins? Maybe some words could be like coins? It’s always nice to have things to collect in exchange for a little boost of rewarding feedback. Something like that could be nicer than having to hit every single word.

        Multiple layers of text, in pseudo 3D, that you could move between could be nice too.

        You’ve got me thinking about this now… :)

  13. “Say What Again” reminds me of Primiti too taa. I’d completely play a game that played like that, but I think that’s specifically too closely tied to the sound to work as a game (without a big budget, at least).

  14. Just wanted to tell you how much I /adore/ Silent Conversation. I’m rather a hopeless bookworm, and I can’t tell you how phenomenally happy I was to find a reading game with pieces by people like Lovecraft! And there were even new things to learn – the first time I read The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock was playing Silent Conversation, and I fell in love with the piece. I’ve been waiting for a sequel ever since I played the game, and I’m thrilled that you’re coming back to the concept. It’s like Christmas came early!

    I thought it was very engaging, but I am also easily distracted by shiny things and literature. There is, however, room for improvement. For one, I’d like a brighter colour for those powerful words so I don’t keep accidentally running into them! As well, those instances where one has to continuously hop to hit every word in a sentence (the tunnels in Nameless City come to mind) are a bit…mmm, they irk me a bit, partly because they’re apt to turn into the player mashing the up arrow like a lunatic for a few sentences and not really reading the text. I love your arrangement of the words and how they relate to the text, but sometimes I felt that it might not have been pushed like it could have? Like, the difference between there being a passage about a mountain and making the player think either “oh, that’s cute, it looks like a mountain” or “Oh my God, I’m climbing a bloody mountain.” I’m not sure if I made a whole lot of sense there, but. Along those same lines, when you do this sort of thing with the text, maybe make super sure that the player can, indeed, reach every word without wanting to throw the keyboard through a window. At times I found my poor cursor jumping into the abyss over and over again in a futile attempt to hit that pair of sodding. Words. Right. THERE.

    If you’re taking suggestions for works to put in the next game, I’d love to see something from House of Leaves (I haven’t a clue if that HTML worked, but let it never be said that I pass up an opportunity to write out that title correctly). Not only is the format rather perfect for this, it’s…well, my favourite book, aha. And more from Lovecraft would be fantastic – I could see Rats in the Walls translating into this spectacularly. The Haunter of the Dark or The Outsider would be great, too – think of having the player climb a spiraling tower of text!

    1. Er, that was supposedly supposed to turn House blue. Ah, foiled again by coding!

  15. I enjoy the fact that people, by posting and reading comments here, are having a silent conversation about Silent Conversation. very meta.

  16. Just read this and thought I’d drop some ideas

    I only played the first 3 levels, so sorry If I say anthing stupid.

    I felt that by not reading I played better (which goes against your initial idea, I guess). But there was one exception: the first level. I think it’s because in that case the text was directly related to the “game part”.

    “You can jump HERE”, etc. That was great.

    But to do design a system that could work with ANY text… That’s a challenge.

    I like the idea a lot (the game itself is pretty cool – like Pierre said, it’s not a GREAT game but it definetly is a fantastic reading experience :)

    2 Ideas:
    1) Dont limit yourself in having only text. Maybe by using less text, you can always be sure it will “work” (and that the player will actually read).
    2) Maybe inspiration could come if you think about what “playing” and “reading” have in common – that’s were your game may be.

    I wanted to elaborate more on these, but I figued I’d just post this then maybe come back later with more :)

  17. A curious difficulty specific to poems: If I want to aim for an A, I have to notice which word is last, then deliberately not hit it. This can interfere with the back-and-forth holistic reading the poem levels otherwise encourage.

  18. Tried playing it again. I still resent the ludic intrusion every time I run across a powerful word.

  19. Wow, am I late to the party or what?

    I personally thought that you implemented Silent Conversation very well. The high points are these:

    1) The backgrounds. I loved how you would take words or phrases from the story and use them to create the scenery, especially in the first part of The Nameless City.

    2) The music. It was dark, beautiful, powerful, and relaxing all at once. You should make more like this and you should definitely make a public release of it.

    3) Powerful Words. This is a great concept and should be kept.

    Now for my suggestions.

    1) Add more stuff. Seriously, add more stories and poems. You made some great picks.

    2) Don’t make everything mandatory. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, after all, so you should definitely find a way of providing access to later levels without forcing the player to complete levels that they find boring.

    3) Figure out some way of marking the last word of the story or poem to make it easier to identify.

    4) There are a lot of ways you could add variety to Powerful Words. You could also add Bold, Underline, and Italics to create a variety of powerful words with different effects. You could also include a color-picker for those who can’t see certain colors.

    5) Just a thought continuing from #4, but say you include a story that has some kind of creature in it- Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth” for instance, which has an appearance by the Deep Ones. Perhaps you could include enemies in that level? Clumps of words that are arranged at odd (or hideous) but readable angles to represent the thing. Touching them could provide some of the same penalties as Powerful Words.

    6) Level Creation and Submission? Players can write their own stories and poems and then design their own levels. Should have a maximum word count, though.

    7) Color picker for your Letter I? I don’t think “upgrades” or weapons should be included in this game, but a color picker for the player’s I could be fine.

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