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September 30, 2008

The End of September Vespers Thing

Another month has come and gone, which means it's time for a quick Vespers update.

Nope, it's not finished yet.

Was September a good month? In general, I'd say it was pretty good. On the one hand, another student animator has left the project, which means we're down to three. At least I'm assuming he's left the project -- like so many that came before him, he's just no longer responding to e-mails. It's not too troublesome since he never really got off the blocks with this project, but it just animators, or are other people like this as well? In the face of overcommitment or disinterest, is it everybody's instinct to lie low and hope nobody notices? Or just animators?

On the other hand, the remaining three animators are progressing nicely, and one in particular, Shawn, has agreed to devote a good deal of time and effort over the next few months to get these animations done. That would really be fantastic. The slowest, most tedious part is getting the models rigged, setting up the faces for lip sync, and making sure the models and animations export properly and appear in the game engine the way they're supposed to appear. Once that's done, then the animations can be cranked out. We've just about reached that point with a couple of the characters, so I'm hopeful that we'll have a batch of new animations soon.

Guys, if you're reading this: don't do the vanishing act thing!

On the modeling front, N.R. and I have spent the past month mostly on two fronts: decorations and the calefactory. The decorations at this point have been mostly cobwebs, which look great. Animating them has been a challenge, however -- it's really difficult to replicate the typical motion of cobwebs blowing in a breeze. We'll use them sparingly to save on frame rates, but they should provide an extra little bit of atmosphere. Now all we need is a smattering of dead leaves around the place, and we should be set with the decorations.

Then there's the calefactory.

It's quite interesting how little information is readily available to describe precisely what a calefactory is and what typically went on inside one. I think that's part of the reason Jason left the calefactory description in the text game so limited -- in fact, other than the heat in the room, there isn't much description of it at all:


Positioned directly between the dormitory and your own room, the calefactory warms both, although lately it is less than adequate. While the calefactory itself is stiflingly hot, its heat stays confined. Your brow grows damp: your body, feverish. Slightly melted snow creeps in from the cloister to the northwest.

Nothing on the shape of the room, its contents, if it has any windows, even the source of the strong heat in the room. Is it a fireplace? A stove? Any chairs or tables? Jason is essentially giving us freedom to improvise, but it's a little tricky -- on the one hand, we need to figure out what a calefactory normally would look like and what would appear inside, while on the other we don't want to start adding a whole set of objects that the player would want or expect to be able to interact with and which might mess with the established game structure and mechanics.

It brings up one of those interesting differences between textual and graphical interfaces: with text, authors have the freedom to paint with broad strokes and allow the reader to fill in many of the details, while with graphics, designers are forced to provide those details. With respect to setting, this can work well both ways. In the text version of Vespers, for instance, Jason provides little detail in the descriptions of locations such as the calefactory and the kitchen, but it doesn't diminish their impact on the player's mental model of the game setting; despite not knowing what was actually in those rooms, they still felt real and not at all empty -- and Jason didn't have to worry about implementing all of the different items that would probably be there. But there's also something magical about recreating a setting visually down to the last detail and providing the audience the opportunity to experience that setting in ways they couldn't otherwise. To me, that is one of the pleasures of watching historical (fiction or non-fiction) movies.

Of course, that also means we have to go and figure all of this stuff out, and to try and retain some semblance of historical accuracy. I've done some rudimentary research on calefactories, but as I said it's surprising how little information is readily accessible. About all I know for certain is that there should be a fire source and probably some places to sit.

This is about as far as we've gotten so far. Look, a firepit!

Until next month...

September 27, 2008

A Treasure of LucasArts and Sierra Oddities

I caught this one from GameSetWatch, through A website by ATMachine that showcases a pretty impressive amount of info on some of the old LucasArts and Sierra adventure games, much of which was probably unseen. Not sure why or how it came to attention at this point in time, considering the site appears to have been around for a few years, but I'm glad it did since I hadn't noticed it before.

There's a wealth of cool stuff there. Development and design images from games, early (WIP) screenshots, alternate art and GUI interfaces that were never used, comparisons of the same games on different platforms, comparisons of demos and full releases, and other oddities. Some of the games featured include LucasArts' Monkey Island 1 and 2, some of the many Indiana Jones adventures, Loom (which I never played), Dark Forces (ah, the memories of that one), and Sierra's Space Quest and King's Quest VI.

I had the most fun looking at the page on Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, which includes a different fighting GUI, hidden background rooms, unseen inventory items, and so on. Same for the page on Monkey Island 1, which shows some GUI and other visual features that were changed during development. Not a lot of major discoveries here, just some good, comprehensive collections, comparisons, and documentations -- it's almost like a museum. I think most of my enjoyment came from seeing the game images again and reliving the experiences.

If you enjoyed some of those games way back when, I recommend checking it out. You'll likely emerge an hour or two later. At least.

September 20, 2008

Day Three (at the AGDC), Part Two

As I mentioned last time, there were some really intriguing presentations on the third day of the conference. One in particular was a technology demonstration given by representatives of two companies, Emotiv Systems and 3DV Systems, which are developing innovative ways for players to interface with computers or other entertainment devices.

Randy Breen from Emotiv Systems demonstrated what he called their "Brain-Computer Interface", a device that fits on the head and is based on EEG machines. It basically translates brain waves into actions after a period of training. It's compact (I didn't even notice him wearing it during his talk), lightweight, and wireless, and includes a gyro to detect head movements. It can also detect facial expressions (blinking, smiling, eyebrow movement) and can essentially monitor emotional states. It can also detect cognitive intent to manipulate objects. Wild, but apparently true.

During the demo, he displayed the tool's SDK which exposed the various detections, and displayed an avatar mimicing his behavior -- blinking when he blinked, raising eyebrows when he did, smiling along with him. He envisions the eventual ability to move lips along with audio to visually represent speech. His last demonstration was of cognitive action: he was able to move a 3D block on screen merely by thinking about it. He then showed how the tool can be trained to perform other cognitive actions, like making the block disappear just by thinking it. Very slick.

It looked as though the tool and its software still have a ways to go before it is fast, smooth, and widely applicable. But it was nevertheless impressive, and appears to offer a ton of possibilities for games in the future.

Next was Charles Bellfield from 3DV Systems, who demonstrated their camera-based tool for detecting and harnessing player motion. Although I didn't understand much of how it worked, it appears as though a sophisticated camera/detector sits on top of a computer screen or television and sends out light waves, measuring the amount of light that reflects back from the individual and using that information to generate a fairly detailed greyscale image of the person's shape -- parts of the person that are closer appear lighter, providing a real-time, three-dimensional, depth-based representation of the subject. They are also able to specify how far from the camera the light should be detected, making it easy to remove all background and focus entirely on the subject. And, though special techniques that I didn't catch, they're able to make the system track different targets on the subject, such as hands, fingertips, feet, and so on.

The demonstrations were very cool: a flight simulator application where the plane is steered by the players hands mimicing the holding of a yoke (and guns fired by the movement of his thumbs); a kickboxing simulation that responds accurately to the player's punching and kicking motions. Even height of the player becomes important, such as in the kickboxing simulation, since the tool can detect height and translate that into the application, providing a more accurate and detailed response.

This system appeared a little closer to being ready for prime time, and could advance the incorporation of player motion into gaming in a fashion similar to the Wiimote, only without the need for a remote at all. All in all, a very cool set of presentations, and I'd really like to see how these tools make it into the marketplace.

The last presentation that I went to was given by Adrian Hon from Six To Start, who discussed the "We Tell Stories" digital fiction project from Penguin Books. This was the project a little while back that presented six alternative stories by six different authors over six weeks, each using a unique form of presentation. "The 21 Steps" by Charles Cumming was a story told through Google Maps; "Slice" by Toby Litt was a slow-motion horror story that was blog- and twitter-based; "Fairy Tales" by Kevin Brooks was a fairy-tale-maker story with a simplistic, branching narrative similar to a CYOA; "Your Place and Mine" by Nicci French was a psychologic thriller/horror story written in real time, one hour per day over five days, similar to improvisational storytelling; "Hard Times" by Matt Mason and Nicholas Felton was more like an essay, and may have suceeded less because of this.

The sixth and last story was "The (Former) General in His Labyrinth" by Mohsin Hamid, a tale about the now former Pakistani leader written in a CYOA with HTML style, a sort-of hybrid CYOA/text adventure/dungeon map, as Hon put it, although I think that's a slight bit of a stretch. Still, the design is intriguing. The player essentially chooses the path through the story by clicking on different directional arrows; although the movement through the story is tracked visually with a "storymap", the movement is not location-based but rather story node-based. That is to say, movement to one particular node represents a particular choice and reveals a specific portion of the narrative, with the map showing which nodes have been visited, and the story changes based on the nodes that have been visited. What's interesting is that the author designed it such that there is no repetition when re-visiting nodes -- the story changes, even if slightly, when backtracking, and some portions of the storymap are designed as loops that "play" differently when traversed clockwise as opposed to counterclockwise. It sounded like a clever design, and I'll have to try that one for certain.

The remainder of Hon's talk was about storytelling in games, and although it covered much of the usual ground, it was refreshing to hear it from the perspective of the literary scene rather than the gaming scene. One point he specifically made was that most readers (as opposed to gamers) have little to no desire to see interactivity in their stories -- or, alternatively, they don't think interactivity automatically makes story better -- which is interesting in light of the desire of some IF supporters to see the medium reach out to a more reader-oriented audience. He himself believed that stories in games are (or will be) better because they are interactive, but we still have a long way to go -- its not easy to write a story, as he said, and a good story in a game requires writers with sufficient independence and the trust and respect of the designers. Like Andrew Stern's talk earlier in the day, it triggered a good deal of stimulating discussion from the audience, which was refreshing to see, and the sign of a thoughtful, engaging talk.

September 18, 2008

Day Three (at the AGDC): Stern on Linear Storytelling

The last day of AGDC was an excellent day, with two talks in particular that led to a good deal of spirited, academic discussion about storytelling and a third lecture that demonstrated some very slick next-gen controllers that could have a significant impact in the future on game design and interface.

The first talk of the day was given by Andrew Stern, he of Fa├žade fame, although he did not focus specifically on the accomplishments of that project. Instead, his talk, provocatively titled "Linearity is Hell: Achieving Truly Dynamic Stories in Games," explored the possibility of truly dynamic storytelling in games and how a system like that might be designed. Stern did acknowledge that this was more of a theoretical talk and that he has no claim to a solution for this; rather, he was hoping to express his understanding of what such a system might entail.

He began by describing the well-known problem of combinatorial explosiveness that typically characterizes systems that try to accomodate branching storylines, and proceeded to offer that one solution to this would be "story generativity", or a system that generates story nodes on the fly (akin to "procedural storytelling"), which would be capable of providing players with the Big Three game elements we seem to most covet: freedom, well-formed story, and agency; whereas most games these days are typically able to provide at most two of those three.

Without going into too much detail here, he related this type of system most closely with improvisational theater, and the Oz Project in particular, where improv actors received direction through headsets for a single independent participant. The idea for a dynamic storytelling game, generally speaking, is to accomplish something similar through the creation of behaviors for NPCs which help direct and guide them through a narrative scene, encompassing such things as motivations, goals, dynamics, and dialog.

Interestingly, Stern briefly discussed what he called a "calculus" for NPC dynamics, which comprised defining different narrative states to track, and then using various approaches to compute the narrative state; for instance, with a narrative state of romantic interest, the idea is to use a calculus (fuzzy, algebraic, statistical, etc.) to evaluate things like flirtations, responses to NPC advances, tone and language of the player, and so on. It immediately brough to mind some of the approaches embraced by Chris Crawford, specifically the use of mathematics and algorithms for different aspects of character appraisal and storytelling, so perhaps there are some similarities there.

He did acknowledge that the type of system he described would be more adept at generating sequences rather than sentences, and in that respect the system would probably not be generative enough to be a true end product. But to me it seemed that the real challenge is precisely in going from structure to presentation; that is, while the mechanics of creating and manipulating the components of story, including character motivations and behaviors in response to (or in lieu of) player actions, do appear to have features amenable to mathematical or algorithmic control, it's the process of taking the product of those calculations and algorithms and working them into a coherent narrative where the true challenges lie ahead. And I would propose that this final step, the delivery of the story, is where much of the art of storytelling exists -- stories can easily be broken down to reveal their components and structure, but the presentation of that structure is dependent on the skill of the storyteller. Can that ever be done procedurally? In a way that is artistic and moving?

I'm reminded again of Crawford, this time of the product of his work on the Storytron, after playing a bit with the online demo of Balance of Power: 21st Century. There's much I could write about the system, and it's clear a massive amount of work has gone into the modeling and implementation of relationships and character interactions -- certainly a significant accomplishment. I don't know Crawford's intentions for the system beyond BoP:21K, or whether future storygames (like the one in progress by his colleague, Laura Mixon) will look or play differently, so I could be off base; right now, though, the presentation has the look and feel of a basic story structure and its components, with none of the crucial dressing of language and style that an author provides. That is to say, the storygame is plenty of substance without any style. Does this work? Perhaps for others, not so much for me. Could it be more? I'm not sure.

The discussion that followed the talk was spirited and entertaining. Points raised included how a system like this could incorporate certain issues with language, writing style, and humor, which are notoriously difficult to reproduce procedurally. Others noted that the system he described sounds like something better suited to drama management than actual end-dialog or behavior generation, and that perhaps it matters more how the story is delivered rather than constructed. Stern argued that this type of system does not have to entirely remove the author's voice from the output, and that he sees it as more of a 50/50 relationship. I think the system is still too theoretical to be able to envision that myself.

I guess it really comes down to the question of what we really want from the stories in our games, and which we find more influential: substance, or style? Personally, I think both play an important role, but it's still too difficult to imagine a system that can procedurally handle both with equal skill.

It's fair to say, though, that Stern's talk was accepted by the speaker and audience as mostly hypothesis, with the intention of stimulating discussion and debate. And in that sense, I think the talk succeeded far better than most at the conference. Plenty of people stayed behind afterward to continue the discussion, and it's likely to continue even longer on e-mail discussions and blogs. And it made for a very entertaining and enjoyable experience.

More to come later on the rest of Day Three as I get back in the swing of things.

September 16, 2008

Day Two (at the AGDC)

The second day of AGDC was pretty fun, although perhaps not quite as informative as the first day. For me, the day started off with a lecture by Andrew Walsh on the topic of "On-Demand Storytelling" as it applied to Prince of Persia, subtitled "The Death of Linearity." It seems that non-linear storytelling is all the rage these days, with all sorts of mechanisms for implementing it, some of which sound very creative. I have no idea if they work, though -- or, if they do, how effective the resulting story is.

One thing that was clear from Walsh's talk is that he falls on the side of those who support and promote the use of cutscenes, when used properly. I'm a cutscene fan myself, so that was good to hear. But at one point, Walsh hammered developers who allow cutscenes to be bypassed (like with a "skip" button), arguing that if you do that, you communicate to the player that the information in the cutscene is basically unimportant -- and if that's truly the case, you shouldn't use a cutscene at all.

Interestingly, he later went on to describe the system of "on-demand storytelling" used in PoP, which essentially equates to "on-demand dialogue" (a term he actually uses in its place). Already, he's simplifying storytelling to essentially just dialogue, which may very well be the case for PoP. But then he described a complex system where on-demand dialogue (ODD) is layered in multiple levels on top of the required main narrative; layers include narrative ODD, relationship ODD (dialogue pertaining only to the relationship between the player character and the main NPC), and ingredient and foundation ODD, which are essentially just extra dialogues at higher levels. The point is that all of this different dialogue is optional and available on-demand -- if the player wants to explore the underlying story, he is given the ability to do this by basically spamming the "talk" button. But if he doesn't care about it, he doesn't have to hear any of it -- the game can be played and finished without bothering with any of the "on-demand" stuff.

But what this is really saying is that most of the dialogue (and, by extension, story) in the game is optional. Really, how different is that from the concept of allowing players to bypass cutscenes with a "skip" button? Doesn't this setup also communicate to players that the story is essentially meaningless and unimportant?

I won't go into my thoughts about a dialogue system that consists entirely of mashing a single button.

After a fun keynote talk on the future of gaming, I took in a lecture on the creation of story in MMOs by James Portnow of Divide By Zero. I'm not an MMO player or fan, so I didn't have a big stake in the discussion, but had a passing interest in some of the techniques used to create story in these player-driven environments. I didn't take away much from the talk, except for a brief discussion about the use of "real DMs" for some games -- a really interesting concept I hadn't heard used before. Basically, he argued that, in some instances, using actual people to act as DMs in online game worlds -- controlling NPCs, creating events, and so on -- can be cost-effective for companies and transforming for players.

It's a fascinating idea, although it's hard to imagine for really large worlds; I'm not sure how people could handle the potential workload that would confront them, or the large number of people that would require.

The only other interesting talk I attended was by Dave Grossman fromTelltale Games on "Writing and Designing Episodic Games." Grossman is a good speaker and his talk was well organized, and he provided some really good insight into Telltale's philosophy and approach for series like Sam & Max. He also tried to describe how they address the issue of losing control of story event sequence and pacing in an interactive medium such as games, and outlined the algorithmic approach they take in constructing possible story pathways. All in all, an entertaining talk.

The approaches described by Grossman and Walsh reminded me to some extent of the techniques used by Emily Short and others to construct sophisticated conversation and narrative structure in IF, and for a moment it seemed like the mainstream games industry was finally starting to catch on to some of these concepts -- somewhat. It just serves to reinforce my opinion that the games industry really can learn some things from the world of interactive fiction, if it would only take notice. Maybe next year that really would make a good lecture or roundtable -- I'll have to consider submitting that.

September 15, 2008

Day One (at the AGDC)

It was an entertaining first day at the AGDC. It's certainly more fun listening to talks about interactive storytelling, cinematic design, and writing characters in games than it is listening to talks about pharmaceuticals and obscure research findings.

As expected, Chris Crawford's talk was, to a large extent, a rehash of material that I believe he has presented previously. Still, seeing it in person, particularly with his entertaining delivery, was worth it. His talk was titled "15 Conceptual Shifts: Moving From Games to Interactive Storytelling," and it reviewed many of the points he has tried to make over the years -- among other things: stories are about people, not things; the importance of interactivity; and the role of verbs as opposed to nouns. And, of course, the last few concepts dealt largely with his Storytron project, although unfortunately he did not provide a demonstration.

Much of this is material from his book , and there didn't seem to be any radical new concepts introduced in the talk. I will say that I hadn't previously heard him refer to the ideal interface as a "linguistic user interface" or LUI, which sounds like it could be the right approach. He also re-emphasized his distaste for graphics, plot, and spatial relationships -- points that, I think, have some merit, although his inflexibility is curious and, in some ways, probably counter-productive. Still, I enjoyed the presentation, and regardless of your acceptance of his views I think everyone with an interest in interactive storytelling should hear him speak in person at least once.

The presentation also included a portion given by one of his colleagues, Laura Mixon, a science fiction writer who is authoring one of the first Storytron storyworlds. She gave the "storyteller's perspective" on interactive storytelling, discussing things like the components of story and storytelling, and some of the key elements to interactivity in the context of a storyworld. I thought it was good to hear a few words about Storytron from someone other than Crawford, although I can't say I took away very much from the talk, and she did not demo the storyworld she is working on. Then again, she did make reference to the movie "The Red Violin," which is never bad in my book.

After the talk there was a brief, informal Q&A session with Crawford. I didn't know he would be speaking at AGDC, so I didn't have time to prepare any good questions beforehand, but I had to bring up the subject of interactive fiction. So I mentioned how I had read his book a while back and, although I recognized his disapproval of IF, I didn't feel like his explanation was sufficiently convincing, given some of the very sophisticated works that have been produced over the past few years. Suffice it to say that I don't think he was prepared to give an answer -- he just referred to the primitive nature of IF as a medium, which to me only reflected the fact that he likely hasn't kept up with the field.

Although he did not provide a demo of Storytron, he did briefly show the website and described how one of the storyworlds, Balance of Power: 21st Century, is currently playable. I checked it out briefly. There's a lot that could be said about it, so perhaps I'll leave that to another post. I'll just say that, although I can see some of the sophistication that is possible, the system could still use some major work.

I went to a few other talks, mostly centered around interactive storytelling, writing, and design, and although there were some interesting viewpoints and entertaining presentations, there was little in the way of new groundbreaking material.

I will say this, though: I had great anticipation for the last talk of the day that I attended, which was titled "Galatea 3.0: Designing and Writing Great Game Characters" and given by Tom Abernathy of Microsoft Game Studios. I applaud Tom for placing such enormous emphasis on character design and development in games and for preaching and teaching this point in such detail -- it's a lesson that most game designers would be wise to learn. But seriously: can you really have a lecture titled "Galatea 3.0" about great game characters, and not once mention what is widely perceived as one of the groundbreaking interactive fiction games of the past decade by the same name, precisely because of its outstanding game character?

Brewing at the AGDC

So it's been a crazy September to this point, and it's been tough finding time to blog. But with the mad rush of work, at least temporarily, in the rear-view, I find myself relaxing at my first GDC. I've made it to Austin, and I'm now sitting in Ballroom B with a couple of other stragglers waiting for the first session, a lecture by Chris Crawford. In fact, Chris is right now sitting about 10 feet away typing on his MacBook Pro, probably finalizing his talk.

It's a little odd; I've read much about the man, and even watched one of his talks from many years ago on YouTube. But I've never seen him in person. I'm looking forward to his talk on Interactive Storytelling, although I expect it will contain considerable material from other recent talks he has given. I'm sure he'll focus on his Storytron, but I haven't been keeping up with that lately, so if he does it will be interesting to see what kind of progress the group has made.

It's a strange sensation being here for this conference. I've attended many conferences in my life, but they have all been scientific in nature and have tended to be quite dry for the most part. It's weird seeing the same overall conference structure and design, but instead of research talks and pharmaceutical displays, I'm preparing for game design talks and game industry displays. It's a bizarre sort of frameshift.

There is a whole list of lectures today on storytelling in games, which should make for some interesting, if not excessively hypothetical, discussion. I'll try to update my thoughts on the lectures and other highlights as the conference proceeds.

September 2, 2008

Holidays Are Good For Gaming (And Coding)

Following on the heels of Scorpia's and Coyote's posts, I just felt the need to say how great long weekends can be for gaming. Especially game coding. I had a mess of spare time to myself over the weekend, so I was able to get in some quality gaming and coding sessions that I hadn't had in some time.

I had an itch to replay Doukustu (Cave Story), so I downloaded it again and fired it up. It never ceases to amaze me. Such simple gameplay, and yet it's so engrossing. Everything just seems to work well in that game -- the graphics, story, interface, music, you name it. Even though there is never any direct communication depicted between the protagonist and the other characters, and even though your only communication is equivalent to the simple "TALK" mechanic, it still manages to feel like a series of conversations that nicely advance the story. A lot we could learn from that one.

As for Vespers, I was able to implement some things I had on the list for a long time. One was getting the fireplace in the locutory working, which meant putting together the mechanics for flames, smoke, and firelight, and then implementing the BURN (not to mention EXTINGUISH) verbs. Also got to put in a mess of N.R.'s new models, which have some really nice textures. Got some straw on the floor, cobwebs on the walls, and a slick new (well, old) desk for the Abbot's bedroom. I got a lot done, and it felt good. Couple screenies for you below; click to see the big version if you like.

Now to figure out a response to Corvus...