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May 30, 2008

Being Indie, Being Resourceful

Being indie can definitely be tough sometimes. I've often said that indie game projects are kind of like fish eggs: thousands are laid but few manage to survive to adulthood. Content for a 2D or 3D game, whether it's artwork, music, voicework, or animation, can be a real problem for a small team on a shoestring budget. It's no secret that content, specifically character animation, has been the biggest challenge for Vespers.

Sometimes, it takes a little creative thinking to figure out ways to stretch those limited resources.

A while back, when I was looking for help with voiceover work, one idea I had was to try tapping into some good but inexpensive local talent -- theater students at the University of Utah, where I work. The casting call I posted ended up being picked up by a local talent company, which brought in a lot of additional talent, but the end result was exactly what I needed: great people with great voices who enjoyed working on a fun project for what essentially amounted to peanuts.

Animation, however, is a different beast that requires a bit more of a commitment, so I was never very keen on trying a similar approach. Nevertheless, recently I learned that the University of Utah also has a new interdisciplinary program for undergraduates called Entertainment Arts & Engineering, which is a joint program between the School of Computing and the College of Fine Arts. It's basically a curriculum to prepare students for careers in the digital media and entertainment industry, specifically for videogames, digital animation, and computer-generated special effects. How enticing.

So I contacted one of the program directors and told him about Vespers, to see if it might be possible to work something out with a few of the animation students who might be looking for some experience and a chance to showcase their talent. He circulated it among the faculty, and before long I had an informal face-to-face with one of the teaching faculty who specializes in graphics and animation, and has worked in the computer graphics industry since 1985.

The meeting went very well. He seemed to like the idea behind Vespers, and thought it would be a good opportunity for some of his students, many of whom he thinks would really appreciate the chance to work on something like this.

What I found just amazingly generous is that he essentially volunteered to be something of a faculty representative for the students, and take on the tasks of finding interested students, teaching them the pipeline, providing help when needed, and holding them to the task. It's difficult to overstate the value of someone in this position; having a person that knows all the details about the animation, exporting, and file preparation process, and who also knows the students and is in a position to manage and organize them, is worth more than I can imagine. I'm still just astonished that he is willing to take on this effort.

It will still be some time before things get rolling, though. The biggest issue is that we've done all of our models and animations to this point in 3DS Max, and he and the students basically work only in Maya. So first there is the issue of converting our character models to Maya format, which is not nearly as simple as it should be. Then there's the task of getting him familiar with creating and exporting animations from Maya to files that work with the Torque Game Engine, which is a quirky process that anyone familiar with TGE will tell you requires some time to learn. Once we reach that point, he can then be in a position to get the students up to speed, and so far there are at least a handful who have expressed interest in working on the project.

I'm really excited about the arrangement, and if things work out it could be the real boost this project needs. I'd also like to think that it could lead to other projects down the line, since it seems to fill a need on both ends. We'll see how it goes.

May 27, 2008

A Triumph of Sheer Will and Determination

Not terribly related to adventure gaming, I realize, but it's something I feel needs to be said. I don't do a lot of game playing these days, preferring to spend my spare time on developing, but recently I had some extra time and I thought I'd spend it trying to catch up on some old, unfinished business. That business, unfortunately for me, was Doom 3.

Okay, all snickering aside -- yes, it's an unabashedly vapid action FPS game, and a relatively aged one at that -- I had purchased it some time ago, played it for a few hours, and shelved it, not entirely because I wasn't enjoying it but because of other games and commitments. And since I have the tendency these days to stop playing games before finishing them, I decided this was one I was actually going to return to, and finish. And finish it I did.

But only through a prolonged and maniacal act of sheer will and determination.

I was reading through an article on Gamasutra today on designing happiness, and came across a portion particularly relevant to this experience for me:

For example, we all know friends who play a certain game constantly while complaining about its every flaw, like my wife when she plays World of Warcraft. She gets no happiness, having played the game to death, alone and guildless. But she gets a visceral pleasure in continuing to kill mobs, farm items, and level new characters.

Conversely, playing Dragon's Lair for me was a happy but pleasure-less affair (the play mechanics are merely rote memorization), but the participation in (and completion of) such a challenge, and getting rewarded with a beautiful animated movie satisfied my dedication, even if I hated every unfair death I had to die to get there. The idea of unhappy pleasure versus pleasure-less happiness is a bit extreme, but can be an enlightening distinction.



Clearly, the experience and completion of Doom 3 for me was an unhappy pleasure. Actually, I'm not even that sure how much pleasure I got from it -- after a while, the only reason I kept playing is not because killing wave after freaking wave of the same mutated aliens gave me any pleasure, but only because, damn it, I was going to finish that !@#$% game or collapse trying. It was like it was taunting me with level after painful level of worthless PDA stories, key fetching, ammo collections, storage containers, and "surprise!" enemy spawns behind me, all of which was designed purely and entirely for the purpose of prolonging the inevitable end just a little bit longer.

I remember at multiple points during the game thinking, "Finally, I've reached this level. Please tell me I'm near the end," only to realize that I was, in fact, nowhere near the end. I thought reaching the Delta labs was an achievement, until I found that the labs had levels 1, 2A, 2B, 3, 4, and 5. Ugh. Then I reached Hell, which of course could have any number of areas it wanted. Close to the end? Nope. Next it was back to Mars, and finally confronting Sarge, which certainly had to be near the end. Wrong again! After that it was down into the caverns, with area after area of the same minions, same fights, same slow aching progression. By that point, I had lost most interest in the game, and just wanted desperately for it to end.

Then, finally, it did. Strangely, I almost didn't know how to react -- I think I was convinced there would still be another level afterward. Was I happy? No, I'd say just relieved that I didn't have to play it anymore, satisfied that it was, at last, finished.

Doom 3 is now something like 4 years old, and even though that's not a long time, I'd like to think we've learned something about gameplay and design in the time since. To me, this game is the paradigm of the formulaic big budget FPS genre. Beautiful graphics, some clever level design, and clearly professional, but it has nothing beyond the first couple of hours of play. This was, without a doubt, a game with maybe 6 hours of gameplay stretched out to 15 or 20 hours. Beautiful, empty, filler. Like it was trying to somehow justify its production values and price tag.

Would people have really been upset if the game ended in half the time?

Now that Doom is out of the way, I can turn whatever extra play time I may find toward other games. Given the amount of effort I spend thinking and writing about concepts like story in games, I figure I really need to experience first-hand the one everybody has talked about: Bioshock. I picked up a copy recently. But maybe because I overdosed on the FPS genre, I'm finding it difficult to get into. I'm finding a lot of the same things -- beautiful scenery, nice level designs, tedious recordings, wave upon wave of bad guys to plow through, ammo collections and containers, trivial fetching tasks. I've only played a little bit, so maybe it will get better. Maybe not. I have the sense it will be one of those games I set down and come back to some time later when I regenerate my determination.

In the meantime, I think maybe I'll start playing some IF classics, and perhaps concentrate on how the characters were implemented and developed. That sounds much more appealing.

May 23, 2008

Nineteen Years Later, The Record Is Still Skipping

Yesterday was a birthday, of sorts; it was the birthday of The Grumpy Gamer, the blog site belonging to Ron Gilbert (of Monkey Island fame) for his "often incoherent and bitter ramblings about the Game Industry." Four years ago yesterday he posted his first blog, a reprint of an article he wrote in 1989 which, he says, became the foundation for the design of Monkey Island. And at the time of its reprint, in 2004, Gilbert made the proclamation that "Adventure Games are officially dead."

What I find fascinating is that the article, titled "Why Adventure Games Suck (And What We Can Do About It)", discusses so many of the ongoing issues surrounding storytelling in games that people like me continue to blather about nearly two decades later. This is going all the way back to 1989. Infocom still (barely) existed, and Interplay's Neuromancer was the adventure game of the year.

Apparently, the more things change, the more they really do stay the same.

Rather than just reproducing the whole article verbatim, I thought it would be more interesting to highlight some of the important passages that I think remain relevant and continue to be debated to this day.

The element that brings adventure games to life for me is the stories around which they are woven. When done right, it is a form of storytelling that can be engrossing in a way that only interaction can bring. The key here is "done right", which it seldom is.



We continue to talk about the great advantages that interaction can provide, yet it still seems like we don't have a good handle on what those advantages really are, or how to best take advantage of them. And I'm not so sure, all these years later, that we could yet define what "done right" actually is. We might be able to point at a few good examples, but I suppose it's just another one of those things like porn: it's tough to define it, but you know it when you see it.

They are interactive, but they are not movies...Movies came from stage plays, but the references are long lost and movies have come into their own. The same thing needs to happen to story games.



Nearly twenty years later...but have story-based games really separated themselves from other media like movies? We still hear this same point being made over and over again. The same thing does need to happen to story games. When will it?

In a story game, the player is given the freedom to explore the story. But the player doesn’t always do what the designer intended, and this causes problems. It is hard to create a cohesive plot when you have no idea what part of the story the player will trip over next. This problem calls for a special kind of storytelling, and we have just begun to scratch the surface of this art form.



I, like many others, have made this point in the past -- and of course, back when I did, I'm sure I thought I was all too clever for bringing it up. We continue to gnash our teeth over how to deal with player choice and freedom within a traditionally linear environment. But it's fascinating that, nearly two decades ago, we were just beginning to scratch the surface. If I hadn't read this piece, I probably would have described the current state of affairs the same way. We're still scratching away, and it's tough to know if we're any deeper than we were back in 1989.

Nothing is more frustrating than wandering around wondering what you should be doing and if what you have been doing is going to get you anywhere.



This is clearly true, and as true today as it was back then. I bring it up only because this was one of the criticisms I saw repeatedly for the text version of Vespers, at least at the very beginning of the game. It takes a little while before the seminal event takes place in the game, and some players griped about not knowing what they were supposed to be doing from the start. It's one of those things I'm a little nervous about for the 3D game. I'll have to see what the initial feedback is like, when the time comes.

It is bad design to put puzzles and situations into a game that require a player to die in order to learn what not to do next time. This is not to say that all death situations should be designed out. Danger is inherent in drama, but danger should be survivable if the player is clever.



This is another one of the main complaints about Vespers -- death is a part of the game, and I'm not sure how clever you need to be to avoid it completely. I do agree that death or danger should be allowable, as long as it can be avoided through careful thought and consideration. We'll see how it goes over in the 3D game.

One of the most important keys to drama is timing. Anyone who has designed a story game knows that the player rarely does anything at the right time or in the right order...Give the player some slack when doing time-based puzzles.



Couple of interesting points here. First, he's right about drama and timing -- that's got to be one of the most difficult things to try and incorporate into a story game. It probably relates back to his point about players tending to do things other than what the designer intended, and that we just need to figure out how to deal with storytelling in this kind of interactive medium. But second, it's also interesting to consider the point about time-based puzzles, particularly since the IF version of Vespers is inherently turn-based, while the 3D game is more real-time (although actually it's more of a hybrid). Vespers does include what would be considered time-based puzzles, but that has been one of the challenges when adapting the game to 3D: how to deal with time-based puzzles that were originally turn-based, but are now essentially real-time. I still don't know how well those puzzles will be implemented and received.

The object of these games is to have fun. Figure out what the player is trying to do. If it is what the game wants, then help the player along and let it happen. The most common place this fails is in playing a meta-game called “second guess the parser.” If there is an object on the screen that looks like a box, but the parser is waiting for it to be called a mailbox, the player is going to spend a lot of time trying to get the game to do a task that should be transparent...On one occasion, I don’t know how much time I spent trying to tie a string on the end of a stick. I finally gave up, not knowing if I was wording the sentence wrong or if it was not part of the design. As it turned out, I was wording it wrong.



I point this out only because I think this is one area where IF has really advanced. I think most authors -- at least who have done more than just dabbled in IF -- have taken this gripe to heart and in my experience it's more of the exception rather than the rule to come upon a "guess the verb" or "guess the noun" problem. I think this is something that has kept a certain number of people away from IF for a long time, but I think those people would be pleasantly surprised at how infrequent this issue has become.

If I could have my way, I’d design games that were meant to be played in four to five hours. The games would be of the same scope that I currently design, I’d just remove the silly time-wasting puzzles and take the player for an intense ride. The experience they would leave with would be much more entertaining and a lot less frustrating. The games would still be challenging, but not at the expense of the players patience.



I find it interesting that he brought this up almost twenty years ago, but the shorter-style game really wasn't given much consideration (at least in the mainstream) until more recently -- Penny Arcade's new episodic game being one example, and the casual game market being another. That said, the IF Comp has existed for many years now, and those games are intended to be completed in two hours or less (Vespers being one of them) and I think players have come to really appreciate that. I think Vespers game play is probably more like 3-4 hours, but what Gilbert describes is exactly what I am aiming for with this game: a short but intense ride that avoids a lot of the typical trudge work in games.

If any type of game is going to bridge the gap between games and storytelling, it is most likely going to be adventure games. They will become less puzzle solving and more story telling, it is the blueprint the future will be made from. The thing we cannot forget is that we are here to entertain, and for most people, entertainment does not consist of nights and weekends filled with frustration.



Well, he's certainly right about all of that. I'm just wondering when that beautiful future will finally arrive!

May 20, 2008

First Fresco Finished

One of the things that I thought Jason did really well when he created Vespers was the creation of a very vivid image of the monastery church, an image which rots and decays over the course of the game as the abbot and monastery descend into darkness. One of the real challenges for us as we adapt the game to a 3D environment is the visual representation of this decay.

Perhaps the biggest challenge in this regard is one of the game's best depictions of this fall from grace: the frescoes on the ceiling of the church. The frescoes are extremely difficult for a number of reasons --

- the frescoes are on the ceiling of the church, which is supposed to be high above the player. And as the church is modeled now, the ceiling really is pretty high up -- high enough that the player would have a lot of trouble seeing the frescoes all the way up there.

- Jason did a remarkable job describing them simply and plainly, which was quite effective in the game, but it didn't provide us with a gret deal of guidance.

- frescoes of that age have a distinct appearance which is complex and difficult to replicate, which requires an artist with a great deal of talent.

After some consideration, we decided to put the frescoes on the walls in the front foyer of the church, rather than on the ceiling. The foyer also contains the font, another object in the game that rots as the narrative progresses, so it fits right in. And the nice thing about the foyer is that it provides a nice frame for highlighting the frescoes, to help make sure the player notices and explores them.

The frescoes in the game start out with the following rather succint description:

"Frescoes depict the fall of Satan, with angels singing as they cut down the wicked."



That's about it. Fortunately, I think we found the right artist for the job. After placing an ad online and reviewing the work of those who responded, I decided to go with Régis Moulun, an artist from France with an impressive body of work. So far, I'm really happy with how he's approached the work. We decided to go with more of a Renaissance style to the fresco, based loosely on the works of Signorelli and Giotto, even though an earlier style might have been more appropriate.

Recently, Régis finished his work on the opening fresco, and he's done a great job of it. I thought it would be nice to post a shot of it, as well as a screenshot of it in game. Click the images for a larger view. Enjoy...


May 15, 2008

Wii Virgin No More

Okay, yeah, this blog is primarily about adventure games, interactive fiction, and indie game development, almost exclusively from a Mac/PC desktop perspective. I've never been a console gamer myself, unless you go back to my Atari 2600 days. I already spend too much time in front of my computer, and I've always felt that if I bought a console then either (a) I would spend even more time not doing important things, or (b) it would just end up collecting dust in the TV cabinet.

I don't even know very many people who have consoles (or most haven't told me). I've yet to even see an Xbox or Playstation 2/3 in person. And the only time I've ever seen a Wii was at an indie games conference last October, when there was a brief Wii Tennis tournament projected on a screen. All I remember thinking was that it looked really well done.

Now, I am here to report, that I am a Wii virgin no more.

We had our weekly softball game last night, and as usual one of the team members had people over after the game for fun and libations. Usually I pass, but the stage had been set for a night of Guitar Hero III (at least I think it was III, I can't be sure since I've never really paid attention to the brand), so I felt this was at last my opportunity to see what all of the fuss was about.

I can't remember having that much fun in quite a while.

I'm sure a lot has been written on Guitar Hero and other similar games, so I won't go into it much. But from a game designer's standpoint I was just struck at how brilliant the game is. Such a simple concept, but you have to admire their ability to create a game that ties together so many good things: people, games, and rock. Throw in some adult beverages (or not) and you have yourself a pretty wild time.

In a way, it almost kind of reminds me of the movie Top Gun. Pure cheese, of course, but it was a clever combination of ingredients that would attract all different kinds of people, since it had a little something for just about everybody -- Tom Cruise, Kelly McGillis, other assorted beautiful people, and plenty of motorcycles, bare-chested beach volleyball, fighter jets, explosions, sex, "romance", and melodrama. It's the kind of movie that manages to appeal to a broad range of men and women, and there's this inescapable attraction to it, no matter how bad you tell yourself it really is. Regardless of the quality, the filmmakers picked the right set of ingredients and hooked the public.

So too with Guitar Hero, it seems. The right set of ingredients to get people playing video games with fake musical instruments and fun tunes. I'm already looking foward to next week's game. I hear there's also a softball game around that time, too.

May 8, 2008

Totally Unbelievable Characters

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:


Jimmy Maher:
"People love stories, and many will get excited by the idea of getting plunked down into the middle of a good one."

Jeff Nyman:
"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.'"

Blank:
"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."

Jim Aikin:
"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."

Jeff Nyman:
"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?

May 5, 2008

Stan the Absentminded Kleptomaniac Journalist

It was a quiet Saturday evening, and since you had no plans, you decided to spend it with a good book on the sofa and a little classical music on the radio. You had just settled in when you heard a knock on the front door. It was your friend Stan. You hadn't seen him in a while, so it was nice to have him drop by without notice. You invited him in, and he obliged.

Oddly, Stan started scanning the foyer, taking it all in like he had never seen it before. He seemed to take particular notice of all the things there -- the ficus tree, the impressionist painting on the wall, the coat closet. That seemed a little strange to you, but the feeling soon passed. You invited him into the kitchen for something to drink.

When you reached the kitchen, you noticed Stan had not followed. You looked back and saw him still in the foyer. He took a moment to view the nice painting, and then, quite unexpectedly, he lifted the painting to look at the blank wall underneath. After replacing it, he then went to the closet and opened the door, scanning the coats and shoes you kept there. He spent a moment rummaging inside, and then quietly closed the door. Then, oddly, he began poking at the soil and dead leaves at the base of the ficus tree, almost expecting to find something there. When he finished, he took a minute to check all of his pockets, but all he seemed to have were his keys. Finally, he scanned the room once more, almost as if he temporarily forgot where he was. He spotted you waiting in the kitchen, so he apologized and joined you there.

Once in the kitchen, he did that odd scanning thing again, looking all around at everything. It was like he had never been in any kitchen before, much less yours. You went to the refrigerator to get him a glass of iced tea, and as you started pouring it, you noticed Stan out of the corner of your eye fingering the can opener you had left on the counter top. He quietly slipped it into his pocket.

"Did you need a can opener, Stan?" you delicately asked, quite certain you had never borrowed one from him at some point in the past.

"Yes, thanks, I hope that's okay," he said. As you reached to hand him his glass, you noticed he had already started opening some of the cabinets and drawers, leaving each one open as he went to the next.

"Is there something you're looking for?" you asked, now a bit concerned at his actions.

"Nothing specific," he said. "Don't mind me."

He opened the drawer by the kitchen phone and found the set of keys you keep there that unlock the door to the garage. Again, he quietly slipped them into his pocket, even as you watched him do it.

"Stan, those are my keys."

"Oh, don't worry, I'll return them," he responded. "What do they unlock, by the way?"

"I don't think--"

"That's okay, I'll figure it out later." He turned back to the phone, and saw your address book sitting next to it. He started flipping through the pages, curiously interested at the names and numbers inside. Maybe he thought you weren't looking his way, but again you watched as he slipped the address book into his coat pocket.

"Stan, what gives?" you asked. "I need that book."

"I told you, don't worry. You'll get it back eventually. Good tea, by the way."

He sat down at the kitchen table, so you warily followed and sat on the opposite side. Then, unexpectedly, Stan proceeded to grill you with a long series of questions about a wide variety of topics, one after the other. It was almost as if he was checking off a list as he went. The strangest part about it was that most of the questions were about things you thought he already should have known. It was like he was interviewing you for something, like a journalist might. When he finished you realized that you never had the chance to ask him anything yourself.

After the last question, Stan quickly stood up, thanked you for the drink, and walked back to the front door. After one last scan of the foyer and another check of his pockets, he walked out. Just like that, he left, with you still sitting at the kitchen table. And strangely (or perhaps not anymore, at least), he never bothered to close the door behind him.

-----

I suspect that, to a certain degree, this is what life might be like if you were an NPC in an interactive fiction game, and your friend was the player character. We as players exhibit some odd behavior in games. We're absentminded kleptomaniac journalists. I imagine our reaction in real life to a typical player character like this would be something like the astonishment portrayed above, and yet in most games the NPCs rarely respond in an appropriate way to our actions or behaviors, and just sit there blindly accepting it all.

As the Writers Cabal Blog has asked, what kind of NPCs do we want? How about NPCs that realize what we've done? NPCs who have moods and motivations that can shift based on how we interact with them, and as a result have a significant impact on our subsequent approach? NPCs that don't just act like errand dispensers or information booths?

It takes a lot of work and skill to create characters with personality, depth, and motivations of their own. Maybe not even a lot of work and skill, but an incredible amount of work and skill. But isn't that true for everything worthwhile?

May 4, 2008

Diamonds in The Rough

Diamonds in the Rough: This month’s Blogs of the Round Table invites you to discuss character flaws, or the lack thereof, in video game characters.

I particularly like this month's round table discussion, as some of my recent blogs have been about how games really need to start focusing more on characters and character interactions. In order for that approach to be successful, the characters in games need to have some depth to them, and flaws are an excellent way of adding depth and humanity to characters. My initial reaction to the round table topic is that I can't think of many games off the top of my head that include characters with notable flaws that are somehow significant to the narrative, but I'm guessing that's for two reasons: first, I really haven't played that many games, so perhaps I've just missed them, and second (and more likely), it's a reflection of how little emphasis has been placed on characters (and characterization) as a central developmental focus of most games.

I would also say that part of the issue with characterization and the use of character flaws in games is that, in my highly unscientific and poorly backed opinion, I would guess that the majority of this technique has been used with the player character specifically, moreso than the other characters in the game. After all, there aren't very many games (aside perhaps from CRPGs) where NPCs stick around for most or all of the game. In most cases, NPCs represent only brief or superficial encounters, and there isn't much opportunity to really develop NPCs with any depth. But as far as the player character is concerned, that is probably a different story -- but in those cases, you're now dealing with that nebulous barrier between the player and the character the player is playing, which can be a tricky thing. As a result, it's difficult to convincingly introduce a true character flaw to the player character in such a way that the player is encouraged to play along with it. After all, how many people want to take actions or make decisions in a game based on a defined flaw in their character, which could result in a less-than-ideal outcome? Particularly when the emphasis in so many games is on "winning".

I will say, however, that of all the different game types, interactive fiction probably has done the best job of characterization and the use of character flaws thus far. Well-known IF gems such as The Baron, Galatea, even Varicella and Rameses (and quite assuredly many more) all manage to incorporate and deal with major and minor character flaws in both NPCs and player characters to some degree, some more successfully than others. Perhaps it is the nature of the medium, perhaps it is a consequence of these games being created largely by writers rather than teams of programmers, designers, and artists. I'm not sure, but I know I have yet to play a graphical game that deals with the nuance of character the same way that some IF games have so far been able to.

Of course, that naturally leads me to think more about Vespers. The game received a lot of recognition for the NPCs, including the "Best NPCs" award at the XYZZYs that year, and I think Jason did a great job fleshing them out -- including the player character. But even so, it's tough to identify any true character flaws that come into serious play. Constantin's short temper, Drogo's insanity -- these really come across as features more than pure flaws, and for those of you who are familiar with the game, most of the outcomes during the game are dictated not necessarily by character flaws but more from certain external forces. This also would hold true for the player character, the Abbot, although it could be argued that the setting for the beginning of the game -- the Abbot choosing to close off the monastery to the villagers -- is one of the main precipitants for the events that follow, and may be due to a flaw in the Abbot's decision-making capacity. But even then, it comes across as more of a bad choice made in desperation, not necessarily the result of a particular flaw.

This post is a response to the May ‘08 topic from Blogs of the Round Table. You can see other entries on this subject in the drop down box below, which will update automatically with each new post.