November 6, 2007

Playing it Safe

by Andrew Stern · , 10:19 am

This week’s The Escapist is about stories in games, including articles about the literary significance of the Half Life series, roleplaying in online Myst worlds, and advanced facial animation in David Cage’s new game.

And most interesting to me, an article by Mark Yohalem suggesting that game developers should back off on making character-driven games with interactive dialog, and instead make physical action-oriented games that reveal some sort of backstory as you play. For example, how the original Myst did it.

Why? Because making good interactive characters is somewhere between really hard to impossible. Yohalem says developers have a “misguided notion that it’s worth sacrificing a player-driven game to achieve a character-driven story”.

True, avoiding interactive characters is a safe bet. The techniques and technologies for dialog-speaking procedural characters don’t exist yet, and it’s not clear how to get there. If developers that create games with problematic interactions, they risk frustrating players, and losing sales.

No one can disagree that games should be “player-driven”, another way of saying games with high agency. I take a purist’s view on this; I quickly lose interest in games that tell me a linear story, especially in large fixed chunks of exposition, such as cut scenes. I’d rather play a good action game with no storytelling, or if I want a linear story, I’d rather read a good book or watch a good movie.

But Yohalem’s suggestions are misguided in not leaving room for games that make incremental innovation toward being both character-driven and player-driven. Surely there are stepping stones, without the glaring imperfections that can frustrate players, that make progress toward procedural characters with narrative intelligence. For example, The Sims 3 looks to be doing this. I’m guessing those characters will go further towards creating high-agency interactive stories than previous versions, while still speaking abstract Simlish, not natural dialog.

How does Procedural Arts’ work fit into this? We’re pushing hard toward highly procedural dialog-speaking characters, knowing that even if we achieve our design and technology goals, the characters will still be imperfect, and there will be inevitable player frustration. Given that, we’re attempting to minimize player frustration, and we’re hoping some players will forgive some imperfection in order to gain glimmers of experiencing true interactive drama in digital games, and a few even be willing to pay for it.