December 8, 2004

Head Games

by Andrew Stern · , 7:22 pm

Branching off our recent believable character discussion, I’d like to say something about writing, gameplay, and their interrelation. In that discussion, Ian W. suggested:

[Writers] are not likely to be engineers. Even if they are the roles are very different and their tools should reflect that.

I’d say, the roles aren’t very different actually. In fact, it will become necessary for writers to be engineers.

How are the roles not very different? Writers in any medium are creators of character behavior; they invent motivations for characters, and from that create what their characters do and say. In non-interactive media, such as books and plays, as a writer works, she plays these behaviors out in her mind and narrates them into pages of text. In interactive media, such as games, the behaviors themselves are written down, as procedures — pages of code annotated with surface text. The computer executes this program, animating the characters to speak and act. In each approach, the writer’s thought processes are very similar! Sure, it may be more work to write down the behaviors themselves, than to simulate them in your mind and narrate the results, but the creative thinking behind both is similar. It takes some training to learn how to write behaviors — that is, to program — but it’s do-able. If a writer for a game is only creating sentences of dialog, then she is only doing a subset of the actual task of writing; the engineer who coded the behaviors that play out the dialog has actually been a co-writer all along. And — all this answers why writers need to be engineers, or at least collaborate very closely together.

Ian W. also wrote,

would interactive writing really be procedural when the field is more mature?

I’ll flip this around — interactive writing will be more mature when it becomes procedural.

Related to this, speaking for what game developers are saying, Robin wrote:

[Developers] know what [they’d] like (believable actors who emote, who generate/support empathy, etc.) but… how does that dovetail with “gameplay”, exactly? How do [developers] make strong characters and still come away with “play” and not “entertainment”?

The gameplay will literally need to be about the characters themselves. The “state space” the player manipulates — the variables you affect, the values you change — need to be the feelings, emotions and thoughts of the characters, not just external counters, scores, levels and objects.

Rather than just firing a gun to cause an enemy’s health to decrease, or a crate to explode or a door to open, you’ll fire off discourse acts such as praise, criticism, expressions of feeling, requests and ideas; the other characters’ attitudes will immediately change, emotions will get generated, and new actions will become motivated and get performed.

What kind of game would that be? It could be the game of persuasion, or negotiation, seduction, or communication, for example. The kinds of games we play with each other all the time, really.

These psychological games can be integrated with action games — running, jumping, shooting, exploring. Games will become richer when players have to simultaneously play head games and action games, especially when the results of each game has secondary effects on the others.

Writing these psychological games will be about writing behaviors, as mentioned above. The behaviors will be part of the overall set of behaviors for the game; code to control how NPCs act physically are one and the same as the code that causing dialog to be spoken. After all, characters speak and act simultaneously! Speaking and action from the player can cause speaking and/or action from NPCs; it’s all the same thing.

One thing I’ve learned, these feelings, emotions and thoughts that the player are affecting will need to be displayed immediately, otherwise players won’t feel they are having an effect. This will be very challenging to do, but critical. I think this is one of the weaknesses of our interactive drama; too often, players don’t see the effects of their actions being displayed back to them in an instantaneous way. The truth is, it’s difficult to fully display the state of a character you are affecting in real-time — unlike displaying the state of a city or environment you are creating or demolishing.

And even if we did know for sure – how would we get the time/mandate to build it? Would it help sell games if we could only do this only *halfway*? A quarter of the way? What’s the low-hanging fruit? What’s the middle ground?’

To do this at all, a core requirement will be to give players a set of relational verbs — natural ways to express interpersonal feelings, attitudes and ideas. There’s little way around this hit; players will need more than controller buttons and joysticks for activating weapons and maneuvering. I’m not sure anything but language will work here — this means keyboard input, for example. (Does this mean consoles without keyboards are incapable of delivering this experience, short of robust speech input, which is much harder than understanding typed input?)

The fruit is lower than one might think; the domain of the game will limit what needs to be understood. In a war context for instance, between you and your NPC buddies or enemies, there’s a finite range of emotions and attitudes that needs to be understood by the system, and therefore hopefully a reasonably-sized state space to manage.

But I don’t think there’s any super-low hanging fruit. Anything interesting will require giving players, say, at least 10 juicy new verbs. But even a game with just 10 new verbs, that can be used at any time in any context of the game, would really go a long way towards enriching the play experience.