March 14, 2008

Transparency, or Not? It Remains Unclear

by Andrew Stern · , 12:20 am

Noah’s analysis of The Sims suggests that The Sims succeeds as a game experience because it exposes the characters’ inner processes to the player. In reaction, Richard Evans, working on a related to-be-announced product, describes the debate he and his colleagues are having over how much of their NPCs’ inner workings to expose. Richard’s position is that players need “a clear mental model” of how the characters operate in order to for players to “project” themselves onto the characters — in particular, to allow players to believe the characters are deeper than they actually are, to believe in them as true characters.

This is a perfect opportunity for me to revive a discussion from about a year ago, “Transparency in the Behavior of and Interface to NPCs“. A very good discussion was just getting underway at the time, that due to time constraints I never added further comments to.

I’d like to continue that discussion, if any of you would like to. Please (re-)read that post, or my attempt here to summarize the discussion’s essential points:

I (Andrew) wrote: when interacting with a system/simulation/world, transparency is highly desirable, since transparency makes a system easy to learn, understand, and use. Simultaneously, we desire to make humanistic NPCs that, via interaction, allow players to experience and gain understanding of the nature of real people, e.g. human behavior, psychology, and culture. An essential human quality is our messiness: people are complicated, mysterious, nuanced, moody, fickle, often surprising and unpredictable under pressure. Similarly (and problematically), compelling characters are not transparent; you can’t control them, and that’s the point. That’s why they’re interesting to interact with. Real people aren’t machines that can be fiddled with once you understand their mechanism. In fact we should build our NPCs to get annoyed if you try to break them or crack them! Furthermore, exposing the inner workings of NPCs can hamper players from believing in them as flesh-and-blood characters, since their artificiality is made so obvious.

In the discussion, Nicolas H. agreed: “We can’t read minds. We can’t be in other people’s heads. … I know many Non-Gamers (especially women) who think that this is the fun in human interaction: Guessing what other people are up to, how they ‘tick’ inside.”

Breslin countered with several insightful points, with a similar view to Richard’s now. “I think it’s wrong to conceal the mechanism entirely, to try to make the mechanism too smart to be gamed, and so on. Artificiality is inevitable, there’s always going to be cracks in the façade, but the most compelling reason against gameproofing the mechanism is not the impossibility of the task. … The reason this is crucial is that otherwise you don’t get agency. Sure, you might be able to get the appearance or perception of agency, but you don’t get true agency unless the mechanism behaves according to some logic that is more-or-less intuitive or learnable in one traversal. The various interactions have to behave in roughly the same way, or the whole gameplay will seem arbitrary and capricious. … [T]here’s no need to pass the Turing test at all, and in fact it’s important to fail the test or the whole magic of the experience is lost. What you need to do more precisely is pass the Turing test for brief moments in time, to make that fleeting emotional connection, but then pull the curtain back and show for all to see that it was a trick. — And perhaps even show how it was done.” Breslin said players want to gain super-knowledge of the system, allowing them to master it upon replay; “a major part of what you’re enjoying is the superhuman mastery of and familiarity with lines which in life are opaque”.

DocMara countered Breslin, using the example of Bill Murray’s character in the movie Groundhog Day, suggesting that Murray’s character actually gets bored with his super-knowledge of the system he’s trapped within; that predictable characters are melodramatic, which gets boring. “Drama isn’t control. It’s much more interesting than that.”

Yet Gilbert Bernstein reminded us that “NPCs actually are machines, and you are controlling them. Furthermore, controlling things, that is making choices that affect the game state and express agency is a huge part of what a game is. … [I]t’s worth expecting players to view the NPCs with varying shades of grey between machine and person, possibly even laterally from there if you consider fictional characters to be something else.”

Okay. I appreciate Richard, Breslin and Gilbert’s points. Let me try to integrate them into my original take on this issue.

As you probably know, I too believe agency is of primary importance for satisfying interactive characters and stories.

I also agree that the system needs to react consistently and coherently to the player’s actions, to make it possible for the player to build a mental model of how the characters tick.

I’ll concede that it should be possible for players to gain superhuman mastery over the characters; that after replaying the game/story many times, the player can gain enough knowledge to be highly and successfully manipulative of the characters. I had said “compelling characters are not transparent; you can’t control them”; I’ll change that to say that compelling characters are not simplistic and quickly understood, but over time, they can be manipulatable.

Yet I maintain that it is very desirable to not expose the literal inner workings of the NPCs. As a designer, I want to assist the player in believing in the characters are real — though of course players know the characters are artificial, as all fictional characters in all media are.

So the question I’d like to ponder is, how to design an NPC/story/game that allows a player to construct an accurate mental model of character behavior, without “showing the data” (e.g., numeric stats and sliders) of the characters?

My belief is, it should be possible for the player to discern a character’s inner motivations and tendencies — how they “tick”, and therefore how they can be manipulated — by interacting and conversing with them in a variety of ways over time, in the same naturalistic way we learn over time how people in real life tick.

This is assuming the character is expressive enough in their dialog and action, to allow for this accurate mental model to be created in the player’s mind. Further, dramatic compression (i.e., making interesting things happen with an efficient pace) can speed up the process, without veering into melodrama, if desired.

Allowing a mental model of a character to be learned solely by NPCs’ dramatic performance is a much, much harder design and technology challenge than NPC expression via exposing numeric stats and sliders. For that reason, it’s probably too risky for a multi-million-dollar commerical game project to do more than incremental advances towards it.

Let me add: exposing an NPC’s inner workings, and thereby losing that suspension of disbelief I desire, doesn’t make the experience bad, just different.

In fact, perhaps a player could have the best of both: the option to successfully play purely by interpreting the NPCs’ dramatic performance, then getting to peek under the hood of the AI, then covering it back up again (as Breslin alluded to). It would be the equivalent of turning on or off the director’s audio commentary on a DVD movie.

In a sense, I’m agreeing with Noah when he says players can learn the system model through gameplay, but I’m not satisfied The Sims‘s reliance on expression via exposed numeric stats/sliders.