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When numbers and narrative live in harmony

Hanako Games' visual novel Black Closet balances narrative with tabletop-style dice rolls without getting bogged down in a meaningless numbers game, says columnist Katherine Cross.

Numbers are a compulsion, it seems.

So many memorable experiences in games (whether vexatious, pleasant, or the sort that somehow combines both) seem to revolve around a toss of the dice; we’ve yet to perfect a better way of simulating the vagaries of fortune than the random number generator, after all.

But even the sophisticated algorithms that hold tomorrow’s promise still keep us in the orbit of numbers. If games can take on the properties of a Skinner Box, then it is RNG-based games that often become the most truly Skinnerian, doling out small rewards for mastering behaviors that tilt the odds in your favor.

When you get right down to it, after all, that’s what defines success in stat-based games; acquiring weapons, armor, trinkets, or other odds and ends that put an ever-heavier finger on the scale of random number generation.

Hanako Games and Spiky Caterpillar’s latest visual novel, Black Closet, has an interesting take on the use of digital dice that shows how to make a game compelling without putting players on a rapacious stat-acquisition treadmill or subjecting them to utterly merciless randomness. Hanako Games and Spiky Caterpillar are no strangers to the RNG; the independent developers specialize in visual novel/RPG blends, from the relaxing Magical Diary to the numerical bullet-hell of Long Live the Queen. But unlike the latter, whose skill-checks and deployment of stats were somewhat opaque, hidden behind a richly ornamented veil of dialogue and story, Black Closet puts the math front and center.

"Black Closet's use of digital dice shows how to make a game compelling without putting players on a rapacious stat-acquisition treadmill, or subjecting them to merciless randomness."

Black Closet is, essentially, “Absurdly Powerful Student Council: The Video Game.” You play Elsa, a newly elected class president at a prestigious girls’ boarding school. With your minions--er, fellow councilors--you solve mysteries, help keep the school running, and discipline unruly students. Like most visual novels of its type, your progress marches along a calendar and action consists of strategically assigning actions each day. You roll the stats of your minions against those of the students or environments you’re targeting for nearly every action worth mentioning. The game (which, like so many Hanako Games titles, is a love letter to nerds) even provides neatly animated D20 dice to show your “Chance” roll for each round of play.

 

The difficulty levels are stratified by how much of a weight is put on the dice. This can give you an advantage from the start, and that completely changes the dynamics of play. Whereas the numbers were (deliberately) translucent and pitiless in Hanako's game Long Live the Queen, their transparency and fluidity here provides an interesting guide to those looking to master the Randomness/Playability balance.

***

Numbers games are all part of the fun for me. From poring over the Elitist Jerks World of Warcraft forums to maximize my Priest’s healing output, to toying with endless calculators for different MMO/RPGs, they provide a roadmap to game mastery. The convenience of their use for developers merges quite happily with a certain instinct some players have for finding ways to inflate their stats as much as possible, unearthing the developers’ submerged formulae like lost artifacts and putting them on display for the world to tinker with. “Theorycraft,” as it’s sometimes called, is a game within a game.

As I played Black Closet, I was absorbed in its sharply written drama for hours, the speed and certainty of each dice roll driving me forward until I realized my partner was grumpily going to bed without me (we made up the next morning). Of course, half of the addiction lay in learning exactly how to cultivate those precious numbers to produce the outcomes I desired. But the game pushed me away from the pure instrumentalism that so often results from playing the RNG. Black Closet does something that, while hardly unique, is superbly well executed; on all except its hardest difficulty setting, it uses loaded dice to smooth gameplay and penalizes the player for ignoring story context when proceeding through the cases.

It makes a genuine effort at linking numerical and narrative strategy.

Although the cases are randomly generated, both in theme and in outcome, they follow a certain logic. Simply “questioning” students suspected of taking drugs will never yield a useful answer beyond the usual pabulum all students are trained to repeat; one has to use other skills to investigate more deeply, even though “questioning” is usually strategically advantageous.

The game also has a “final boss” of sorts, which is particularly interesting because of how it uses Black Closet’s dice rolls to simulate what amounts to a rhetorical battle. It’s a garden variety mechanic in the world of tabletop games, but one that almost never makes an appearance in a video game. It’s an interesting choice that’s entirely in keeping with the game’s themes of drama, and a welcome alternative to the use of violence as an idiom of progress.

But this battle also shows a frontier yet to be breached by RNG-based mechanics: in order to achieve this ludic experience, Black Closet’s final boss is mostly numerical strategy (rolling the right stats against opposing stats), which is then lightly garnished with some repetitive dialogue that scrolls along the side of the screen. It is also possible to lock yourself into a statistically unwinnable endgame that leaves you with no recourse but to start over either from the beginning or several in-game months before the fight. Still, Hanako Games and Spiky Caterpillar deserve credit for exploring this territory, and I’m intrigued to see where they go next with it.

***

The simulation of chance is a necessary challenge-component in games like this. But it’s easy to overdo it and let the numbers run away with you and your players, becoming a cruel master that suffocates the fun. Theorycraft is its own reward for some of us, but others will certainly appreciate the dethroning of that spinning D20.

Black Closet does feel like a game of chance betimes; “gambling” as The Mary Sue’s review put it bluntly, but it’s well under control, in my estimation. Through its well-designed difficulty levels, and the availability of a Supply Closet that dispenses items to help with rolls (to the tune of +5 to +15), it gives the chancy dice just the right amount of power: not too much, not too little, and provides players with enough flexibility to adjust that balance to their taste.

It would still be just an elaborate math equation without the story and meaning to garland it all, however, and that’s the touch that makes it all worth slogging through. Just as Darkest Dungeon managed to use a modified RNG to create genuinely interesting characters for your party, Hanako Games makes great use of its student council conceit to wrap the numbers in beautiful packages that take on a life of their own.

I love min/max calculating some days. But in the end, living numbers are the best kind.

Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.

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