While following the recent threads on RAIF (rec.arts.int-fiction) "Defining the Newbie" and "Expanding the IF Audience/Community", I found myself most interested in these comments, in light of the recent blogs about characters as the focus of games:
"People love stories, and many will get excited by the idea of getting plunked down into the middle of a good one."
"I find new people most often clamor for better and more engaging stories that actually keep them interested in what the heck is going on. Or asking for characters that actually seem like they play a part in the story rather than just being another 'thing.'"
"Stories are about *characters*. The thing that IF does least well is representing characters in the fictional world. Doubtless you've already read all the threads about npc characterisation so I won't recapitulate all that except to say that I believe that if we were able to implement strong AI tomorrow it wouldn't mean that we'd be able to tell better stories, because the presence of an AI in the world would be the representation of an artificial /person/, and characters are not people. Characters are fictional simplifications of people constructed for a dramatic purpose. This is what gives me hope that IF can surmount the hurdle of presenting convincing characters and so come good on the 'Fiction' bit of IF."
"I think good coding can help a lot in creating realistic NPCs. Using the T3 StopEventList class, you can give an NPC a series of responses to each single topic, ending with something like, "I've already told you everything I know about that. Can't you see I'm busy?" (And even that response can include random variations.) Other techniques, such as giving the NPC AgendaItems to execute and various ActorStates in which they may respond differently to the same topics, are also easily achieved. It's just a lot of work, that's all."
"People liked the idea of having to work information out of people, like NPCs that would help further flesh out the story situation and what was going on. They felt there could be more work here in terms of making the NPCs not just machines that regurgitate information with the "press of the right button" (i.e., ask the right thing or select the right menu choice). It was felt that NPCs could be given a life of their own, so to speak. Not in the context of making them wander around "intelligently" -- but rather the potential for having their own motives and desires, often very much in conflict with that of the player/protagonist. Further, the actions taken by the player -- cumulatively -- would determine how the NPCs responded in the story. There weren't many techniques seen like this, but people felt that if it existed, it would be engaging and challenging."
I happen to agree that stories are about characters, and it seems to me that games in general have done a fairly poor job in the character department. As I've mentioned before, I think IF has done better overall than other types of game, but it's still a pleasant surprise to find a work of IF that is truly centered around characters, their emotions, their struggles, and their relationships -- at least, in a meaningful and/or powerful way. Yet, with most traditional media like literature, theater, and film, there doesn't appear to be that same issue.
As Maher states, we love stories, and I think a lot of people like the ability to be part of a story. So it would seem that the important thing is to figure out how to make those stories in IF (and games in general) center around characters and character interaction rather than object manipulation.
So what's the problem?
Of course, good writing skills are essential -- as Aikin stated elsewhere, "With rare exceptions, the IF I've attempted to wade through reads, at best, like the amateur stories submitted to critters.org." Or, as Maher has said in one of his comments here, "We don't see many interesting PCs or NPCs, but that's more down to the fact most videogame writers have yet to achieve the basic competence of the average Star Wars novel author."
Still, there are a number of skilled IF authors that do very good jobs of creating PCs and NPCs with some depth and humanity, and yet there seems to remain a sizable gap between the current state of characters and character interaction and the goal above that some of us would like to see.
There was another excellent thread recently on RAIF that I found fascinating, one titled "The Totally Unbelievable Game", in which Aikin asked:
Someone has recently released a Totally Unbelievable Game (text-based, of course). Word on the street has reached fever pitch, and the servers are chugging trying to keep up with the download requests. My question is: What are the features of this game?
This is the type of awesome question I truly believe needs to be asked more often about...well, about practically everything, but certainly with games. It's the kind of question that establishes far-reaching goals and sets the bar unreasonably high. But to me, that's what we all should be striving for: that which is unreasonable and seemingly out of reach. Enough small steps and what was once completely unreasonable may one day become entirely reasonable.
I found it surprising that none of the responses included a mention of something along the lines of "Convincing NPCs with independent emotions and motivations" or "a more satisfying method of interaction with NPCs". I'm not sure why that is. (Of course, I didn't respond myself. Why? Who knows. Shame on me.)
In terms of conversation, one of the important things pointed out in that, and other, threads is that this type of evolution does not -- and, perhaps more importantly, should not -- imply that we need significant improvements to parsers. A parser that can accept any kind of input from the player is certainly unreasonable, but so too is the creation of a game that can even dream of handling the vast possibility of player input. It's completely unreasonable, but also not particularly desirable.
What, then? Are we really satisfied with the methods available for character interaction? The persistent debate about dialog systems, with some on the side of IF's ASK/TELL/TALK TO system and others who prefer dialog menus and trees, has persisted for good reason: neither really seems to get the job done in a truly satisfying way. On the one hand, players can direct the verbal action of the PC (ASK LUCCA ABOUT CONSTANTIN) but with no ability to be more specific or descriptive (ask about what in particular about Constantin?). On the other, players can ask specific questions in particular ways, but are always limited to the few options that the author makes available (what if I want to talk about something else?), and the menu structure can come across as too revealing. There are, of course, other options for conversation systems, as Emily Short has compiled, but it could be argued that the two mentioned above are the two most popular (in IF, at least) for a reason.
And, of course, the above really only deals with mechanism of conversation; there are other forms of interaction and character responsiveness that lie outside this domain but are similarly underdeveloped. Is it all just a matter of exhaustive hard coding? Or do we really need some significant evolution in how characters and interaction is largely implemented?
Maybe it is the right question to ask: what would we imagine Totally Unbelievable Characters in a game to be like?