Nov 29, 2012

>fall in love with Annah

Imagine that. Imagine being able to input anything you wished into a game, and have it provide a meaningful response.

Is there any reason we can't do this?

I remember debating the point some time ago with a fellow design enthusiast. They argued that mouse based interaction allowed a designer just as much freedom as a text parser, and this was my counter argument. The text parser, theoretically, allows us to append all the usual additional flourishes that make our languages work. Can mouse based input effectively allow us to ">pretend to be interested in what Adam is saying". Can it allow us to ">fall asleep", to ">remember my mother" or to ">pretend to cry"?

More to the point, can any method of interaction allow this?

Sure, we could build a parser that accomodates all these and more. It'd require an extraordinarily large library, but it'd be possible. That's hardly the point, however.

What I want to know, is can we do so in a way where it's truly effective as a method through which we allow players to propel themselves through our narratives?

Freelancer allows you to travel freely between missions, and talk to a huge range of characters, but the interactions quickly become bland and similar.

Providing the player to do any of these things is simple enough in terms of design philosophy - all we need to do is to construct a database that supports all of this input. Building a reactive, dynamic world to make these valuable interactions, however, is a completely different thing.

I don't think it's merely a matter of building an artificial intelligence or forgetting about the idea completely. Realistically, it's possible to build a world that not only accepts the inputs, but also reacts to it.

I suppose, then, that the real question is: "Is this worthwhile?"

There are two types of content for games - created content, and generated content. Dynamically generated content is an amazing idea - the possibility for replaying a game in which the dungeons are totally different each time you play it seems fantastic. But if you're killing the same enemies for the same reasons in a place that's laid out slightly differently to last time, is that really a unique experience? Personally, I much prefer content that was created by a human being and provides me with a dynamic experience that varies based on my input, not a random level generating algorithm. Give me one piece of meaningful feedback, and it will compel me to become invested in the game. A dungeon that changes each time I play it requires no real investment at all.

Which brings us back to the "Is this worthwhile?" question. Let's envision a game that allowed a near infinite parser library. Let's say we could get our character to ">feel guilt for stealing socks" or ">hope that I get to see my mother before she dies" or ">fall in love with Annah". There's no doubt that this provides an electric, reactive, dynamic world for us to participate in - an exciting playground in which every possible action is rich with potential consequence, without the burden of not being able to start over with a fresh reputation and health that often dictates much of our conservatism in real life.

But is that what we want from our games? I'm not so sure. To me, there seems the slightest chance that perhaps we like being led through games. Perhaps we don't really want the ultimate in escapism, but to partake in a story with the added ability to influence some of the outcome.

After all, what would Beyond Good and Evil be like if Michel Ancel hadn't led us through the story in the way he did? What would Baldur's Gate have been like if we'd never been compelled to do what Gorion wished of us and were left to do our own thing? Sure, games like The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion and Fallout: New Vegas can be far more rewarding when we're left to our own devices and don't follow the central plot, but I don't think that's what I want from all of my games. Sometimes, I want to be told a story, and as much as I want to take part and be given difficult choices with interesting consequences, I also want to be carried along a narrative path.

Aquanox is far more linear - restricting your activities between missions to a small area, but as a result the characters are more unique and the world feels far richer despite being much smaller and more restricted.

Is there any reason we can't ">fall in love with Annah"? No, not really. But will it add to games as narrative devices? I'm not so sure. If I want a dynamic, reactive and free form environment, I'll turn off my computer and go outside. I don't think I need all that freedom to enjoy a game. Games as a narrative vehicle can be absolutely compelling, and while I think consequence adds a lot to a game, I also think there's a point at which it stops a game from being a medium through which we can deliver a story and turns it into a sandbox type situation.

Narrative in games is beautiful. I don't think we've really seen it hit its true potential, and until it does, I'm quite happy to be a little limited with my input, provided I'm given a good story in return.

Of course, if someone does build a game with all that freedom, let me know about that. I'd play the heck out of any game that lets me ">make bus driver feel guilty about staring at me".


  1. Replies
    1. Those thoughts required some serious taming before they allowed themselves to be captured in type. I'm still not sure they're as well arranged as they could be. :)

  2. I feel exactly the same about this as Ben. In fact I wouldn't like playing games where the game accommodates every action that comes into your mind.

    I even dislike my adventure games having a custom-written, verbose response to every single item-on-object interaction. That seems pointless, because the texts are mostly just extra filler, and I feel tired analyzing all that content for meaningful clues.

    The only time I enjoyed such huge amount of extra blabber was in the Ben & Dan games - perhaps because excessive experimentation and overthinking each crazy idea seemed so natural inside that particular game world.

    1. I remember we discussed this with regards to Edna Konrad and Harvey - although I would say that, much like your experience with Ben and Dan, it makes sense to me that Edna would come up with all sorts of crazy ideas, and that "using scissors on car" or "talking to carpet" would seem like a natural thing for someone like her to consider.

      I do agree, though, that games that clutter the experience can be tiring. I like exploring as much as the next person, but if a lack of streamlining means the experience becomes frustrating and my progress is constantly impeded by an overwhelming amount of data to analyze, I too will wish for a simpler, less cluttered approach to game design.

  3. I'll say this: there's not a single degree of balance between fully procedural and fully predesigned experience that isn't interesting if done properly. Fully open worlds with unlimited freedom and consequences are interesting (even though no one really did this properly yet). Fully handcrafted story is also interesting (don't need to give examples for this one, do I? Anachronox, Torment, Gray Matter, Runaway 3, list goes on). Any sort of compromise between the two is seemingly even more interesting (no has even *attempted* this, it seems). I wouldn't want to choose between any of these kinds. I want it all. I need freedom to enjoy games, but I also need meaningful ideas to enjoy games. So I welcome all attempts to marry them and to sacrifice one when it's necessary to save another.

    1. I agree that there's plenty of room for experimentation here, but I've yet to see anybody really explore the possibilies of this. Skyrim apparently tried a sort of procedural quest generation that was paper thin upon observation because such a thing requires a lot in order to be blessed with anything involving personality.

      I wouldn't say I *need* freedom to enjoy games - in fact, I find freedom often distracts me from enjoying games, but I do enjoy it when I am allowed to explore and experiment with a game world. As I said, I'd play the heck out of a game that allowed me a massive amount of freedom - but I doubt I'd find as much narrative satisfaction in such a thing as I would in a handcrafted tale. I absolutely agree with your point, though!

  4. It's true that a hand-crafted narrative will always trump anything that's procedurally generated, however I do think there's massive potential for user-generated storytelling or quests to be woven into procedurally-generated RPGs. The author would not script based on named characters, but reference protagonist, antagonists, foil etc. These roles would then be applied to generated NPCs within the game based on criteria provided by the author. SeedWorld!

    1. This system of creation absolutely has potential, but it could also fall prey to appearing thinly disguised to the player. If such a thing were able to, for example, give evil dictators reason for sending you on noble quests, or vice-versa, then it'd be splendidly replayable - but I'm seeing this as a world *filled* with entropy as well! :D