Wednesday 29 June 2011

Interview: Zachtronics Industries on Dynamic Puzzle Solving & Trout

Zach Barth operates under the name Zachtronics Industries. He's responsible for the outstanding puzzle game with the so-so name, SpaceChem, which is probably the best puzzle game I have ever played. It's a molecular programming game whose solutions are dynamic, that never fails to respect your intelligence, and is impossibly challenging without ever turning you off. It tests logical problem solving in a far more immediate and mature fashion than my own attempt. On top of this he's infamous for developing Minecraft precursor, Infiniminer (which we're not going to talk about today because no doubt he's bored). Anyway, grab the demo and be in awe.

Hi Zach. I realised as I planned this interview that you're the first person I've talked to for Plot is Gameplay's Bitch who might not list 'writer' as their first job. On top of this, I can't claim puzzle games are regularly at the top of my play list. Why do you think SpaceChem has captured me - and other players - so thoroughly?

I think that the allure of SpaceChem for many players is the way that it approaches puzzle / problem solving. Instead of requiring you to reconstruct my contrived solution, every puzzle allows for a very large number of possible solutions, each acceptable but with different performance characteristics. This gives players a clear goal, but an unprecedented amount of room to be creative, innovative, and iterative in creating their solutions.

I usually found that I could come in above average in play cycles (time efficiency of the solution), but way over the top on symbols (the complexity of the solution). Maybe I'm trying to be too clever for my own good, or maybe I'm just not as smart as I think. I'm fascinated by the metrics you collect on players - any interesting insights? Are there traits certain types of players share?

One of my favourite experiments we’ve run is SpaceChem: An Average Solution, where we used some clever visual post processing to average out hundreds of solutions for the “research” puzzles in SpaceChem. It allows you to see how solutions for different kinds of levels (tutorials versus simple levels versus hard levels) converge and diverge based on the constraints of the puzzle, which I think is very neat.

With regard to how players respond to the graphs, I think that many take to them the same way that you do. The first time you beat a level you’re almost certainly not at the top, but the graphs invite you to find a dimension of optimization that interests you and improve it in that aspect. The fact that the dimensions are mutually exclusive helps to make players who choose to optimize feel awesome, as graphs are filled both with people who wanted to optimize that aspect and people who chose not to optimize that aspect to optimize another.

You've been working on this basic programming play through a series of games, but SpaceChem displayed an unprecedented level of polish in its visuals, soundtrack and narrative. Do you want to shout out to your contributors?

Without a doubt!

I had two programmers, Collin Arnold and Keith Holman, who handled a majority of the coding tasks and freed me up to focus on tasks related to design and production. The remaining tasks were outsourced to talented individuals: Ryan Sumo for the majority of the artwork, Ken Bowen for sound effects, Evan Le Ny for the soundtrack, and Hillary Field for the narrative. Without them, there would be no SpaceChem!

You've spoken previously about how the emergent nature of the solutions is a strong point of engagement, and I think that's what interests me here where point & clicks or LA Noire (for example) fail: in building a solution within the game logic, rather than just discovering the pre-authored one. Is that an approach you'd consider expanding to subjects other than molecules and engineering systems? Narrative linearity seems jarring by comparison.

Yes, definitely, although I think it’s far easier to apply the principle to games like SpaceChem that are highly mechanics-driven. If I had to explain why this was the case, I would guess that it’s because this kind of system fundamentally expects and requires the player to design something as a solution, which translates into a strong sense of agency, which in turn drives engagement. I’m not sure how it would work in an interactive story like LA Noire, but I certainly don’t think it’s the only route to take.

Finally, what's next for you? Can you spill any details that I can spin into a headline? "SpaceChem dev turns hand to Facebook trout farming sim" would be ideal.

I wish I could tell you something that exciting! We’re focused right now on the transition to being a full-time studio and wrapping up SpaceChem development. Trout farming does sound kind of interesting, though…

Thanks for your time.

You can check out all Zach's games at

Tuesday 21 June 2011

LA Noire: Worth Writing Home About?

This is the first Worth Writing Home About?. It's a review series focusing on innovation and subjectivity, and you can read more on the scoring here.

Granted, my crime scene investigation technique is somewhat esoteric. It's not like you see Jessica Fletcher doing a lap of the room before zigzagging back tot he door, all the while ignoring the witnesses while she frantically hammers X just in case that one innocuous looking book is in some way relevant to the case. (I kid, of course: books are never important in LA Noire. You know, apart from that one time). Anyway, it works for me.

It turns out LA Noire is not the game I was expecting it to be when I placed it No.1 in last year's Most Anticipated (really should get the new one of those sorted). In every respect it is far worse than I could have imagined - save for the important one.

My overwhelming impression of LA Noire is that a bunch of indies got to make their dream adventure game with a GTA budget, half of which they threw at facial animation, the rest of which they turned into a delicious though nutritionally bereft soufflé. Truth is, of course, that Team Bondai was founded by ex-The Getaway guy, Brendan McNamara, and that in all likelihood the adventure game trappings came some time after the 'GTA: 1940s' blueprint was in place. Thank god they did.

This game is amazingly shoddy
I'm shocked too. We've all heard that the shooting and driving are rubbish. It amazes me that studios still believe providing a successful open world means literally that: drawing a city and leaving the player to his devices. Truth is that GTA or Baldur's Gate succeed by populating their worlds with interesting, dynamic and believable elements. LA Noire joins the likes of Thief: Deadly Shadows in developing a large and expensive open world that merely functions as a pretty yet long-winded loading screen.

The rest of the problems include: tedious crime scene investigation that harks back to the pixel-hunting of early Point & Clicks, rough animation and general presentation, and the belief that the best way to reward players for 15 hours of painstaking interrogation and puzzle solving is with a sewer level and a flamethrower. Seriously. Of course, the fact that there are so many borderline-insulting, school-boy mistakes would perhaps be less apparent if not for the GTA comparisons, and the groundbreaking semi-success of the game's all-important interrogations.

Interrogations & MotionScan
MotionScan is incredible.

That deserved its own paragraph. It's rare technology in games excites me that much, but truly delivering expressive facial performances is something that stands to turn interactive story telling on its head.

By comparison to the tech, Team Bondi's interrogation gameplay around it seems - like the rest of the game - somewhat flawed; and that's difficult to say because LA Noire's interrogations have been some of the most engaging, thought-provoking and audience-pleasing moments I've had with games in some time. When it works - when you're not relying on evidence and when the character isn't entirely hamming it up - it works.

But then the still-learning-the-ropes design slips back in. Doubting someone is used for when you have no evidence but you think they're lying; but it's also used for when someone's telling the truth but not the whole truth. And it can't be used for when someone's lying and you've got evidence to prove it. But then using evidence at all is trial and error in the worst point & click tradition: logical combinations don't make sense, and the right answer is sometimes bizarre. The only difference between this and 20 years ago is that now we're punished for trying something that's wrong.

In an upcoming interview with SpaceChem's Zach Barth we discuss why his dynamic puzzle solving is so much more engaging than challenges with prescribed solutions. LA Noire exposes the problem no less.

The story doesn't help
The over-arching one, that is. So often in games I'm enjoying the setting and the character, happy inhabiting his life believably; and then someone asks me to go save the world and things spiral into the extraordinary, and therefore the plain familiar. LA Noire's strongest cases are early on, where you're dealing with beaten wives, framings and hit & runs, without any of the city-wide corruption plotting the team thought was necessary for it to be considered a 'story'. This emphasis actively damages the gameplay throughout in a bunch of ways. I don't think it spoils anything to say that it's made very clear early on that many of the people you're arresting have been framed by a bigger villain, and that your naming the perpetrator is meaningless. Towards the final quarter of the game this becomes a bigger issue when that interrogation mechanic - frankly the only system still holding its head above the water - is entirely thrown out in favour of shoot ups and more pixel-hunting.

There's also the open homage to traditional film noire and - more explicitly - LA Confidential. Playing in B&W is a (sensibly) rare experience that works well here should you choose to turn it on, and it's certainly this that adds more atmosphere than the blank-faced world and the almost-blank-slate-if-he-wasn't-such-a-twat central character, Phelps.

Making the case
So this has been a largely negative write up for a game that's engaged me more than most. I find it bizarre and almost satisfying that - while by no means bad - such an overall average game, with so little of the familiar AAA bombast, can sell so well. I'm happy it has, because it's not so much this game that excites me as it is the DLC and the sequel.

The current iteration of the series does nothing more than steal focus from the real dramatic centre piece: the individual tales of love, adultery and jealousy that have been sourced from genuine period records; the ways in which you can interact with and manipulate these stories and characters; and the thrill of being a 1940s detective whose last resort is his sidearm. That this element holds so much promise is why it's so hard to stomach the mistakes that hold it back.

The production values, the uncomfortable interrogation logic, the narrative balance - these are things that will be fixed in time.

La Noire is a bizarrely pedestrian experience, but its radical facial animation technology and interrogation gameplay make it an essential and engaging interactive drama whose ripples we'll be seeing for some time.

Polish: 1 out of 2
Tilt: 2 out of 2

Monday 20 June 2011

New Review Format: Worth Writing Home About?

Worth Writing Home About? is a new type of content for this blog: it's a review. But not just any review - it's one that focuses on innovation, and on interactive drama. Things have improved a lot over the last ten years - we have more voices than ever highlighting the new, the avant guarde and the ambitious in games; but there are still few mainstream outlets that would dare give a fun, polished game 50% because it doesn't do anything interesting. Too often games are treated as if they contain objective quantities of fun.

Worth Writing Home About? is supposed to recognise that taste is subjective, that entertainment isn't our only demand, and that in order for us to continue making better games we need to respect the ones that take the risks.

The Polish score is equivalent to most scores: how fun, how pretty, how successful is the game?
The Tilt score expresses how much a game changes the rules and progresses our medium.

Polish scoring goes like this:
0/2 -  Rough as balls. You'd be hard pressed to enjoy this, though it's conceivable.
     eg Boiling Point, ET: The Extraterrestrial
1/2 - Conceivably holds entertainment value for many. This is 90% of cases.
     eg Half-Life 2: Ep 2, Duke Nukem Forever, The Ship
2/2 - You'd struggle not to have fun with this, it's a real masterwork.
     eg Portal, Mario Galaxy, Okami

Tilt scoring goes like this:
0/2 - Does nothing we've never seen before
     eg GTA IV: Episodes From Liberty City, Mafia 2
1/2 - Innovates in at least one interesting or successful way, but nothing groundbreaking. This is 90% of cases.
     eg Duke Nukem Forever, Portal 2
2/2 - Does something that future games will (or should) learn from
     eg Portal, Darwinia, The Ship

I know I'm not the first person to shout, "AAA isn't innovative!". I know I don't have the resources to be reviewing everything out there. But I do hope that when a game is interesting enough for me to have stuff to say, this will prove a useful format to encourage/discourage your interest in it. Naturally there's going to be a bit of scoring skew - I'm unlikely to be playing many 0/2 on the Tilt scale.

Finally, these won't be narrative themed reviews in particular, but do expect a natural bias.

Keep your eyes here for the LA Noire review coming shortly (yet still way out of date).

Tuesday 14 June 2011

Designing a Dialogue System From Scratch Part 3: The System

This is the final part of a discussion that began here. Next up we're considering how to model self-control & personal expression during dialogue.

Self-control: This is the tricky one. As long as we allow the player to consider his approach and choose his tone he's arguably too far removed from the scenario to truly struggle with self-control as we do in real life. To be truly successful, I think a dialogue system has to encourage the player to make decisions that he knows are to his detriment, simply because of who he is. Time limits tackle this to some degree - simply don't allow the player time to think so he reacts more instinctively. Strong characterisation of NPCs is also crucial: if we aren't invested in who we're talking to it's very easy to choose the 'correct' path.  However, if we present the 'correct' path (ie the one with the greatest rewards and fastest / funnest route to completion) as opposed to the one which provides us revenge on someone we hate then we're forced to balance one against the other.

     - Two types of conversation: This is harking back to that original line in the sand between dramatic, goal-oriented conversation and more social, everyday dialogue, as well as KOTOR II's [Lie] mechanic. If we're struggling to simultaneously reward the player for achieving goals through performance and expressing his personality, why not signpost them as two different systems? The game tells the player when he's talking to someone who's not going to be their friend and is there to be manipulated, and when he's talking to someone who's not worth putting an act on for. This way the serious do gooder can preach to his allies and attract those of a similar disposition, while the cocky comedian can drop that personality to get things done without fear the game will assume he's turned into a pansy.

     - Personality tracking: I think I read somewhere that Alpha Protocol does this. Instead of saying 'this sort of personality won't work with this character' and therefore forcing players out of their role play in order to achieve objectives, we allow for all personalities to work equally. We pre-program a set of personalities (base it on Briggs Myers, or some basic classes like 'joker', 'do gooder', 'professional' etc), detect which options the player tends to pick, and then present more options in those areas. It rewards consistent players, and means that if the joker tries to pull off sincere he'll have a tougher time of it (fewer options in that category or harder mini-games) than the guy who talks that way all the time. It needs very careful handling - the joker shouldn't be unable to express anger with a character he hates just because the game thinks he doesn't get angry often.

     - Emotion input: By this system, we allow the player all the usual luxuries of dialogue trees: carefully considering his approach and manipulating characters without care for his own personality or emotion. However, we also ask him to honestly input his emotion. Is he angry, scared, confused? We then use that information in inventive ways. Sometimes (based on pre-authoring, a mini-game or skill check) it has absolutely no effect. Sometimes it will result in an aside to an ally. Sometimes it'll result in the character failing to conceal the emotion and having it affect the dialogue in surprising ways. We encourage the player not to consider this a failure; not to game the system by always selecting 'calm and collected'; but to take it as a valuable and meaningful element of the experience. More so games are sold not on competing for high scores, not ont getting to the end, but on how you get to the end. This approach gives players a new way in which to take that conceit and run with it.

So, have we actually concluded anything?
If there's one thing games have always struggled with, it's how to handle failure; yet it's failure that's the core element currently missing from most interactive dialogue systems. We can't allow the player to put himself in an unwinnable position, and we're not bold enough to say to him "This character doesn't like you for no better reason than you're you." We always want to give him his power fantasies.

To my mind there are two key directions that come out of all this. One is the dynamic, image-based system which really needs a whole essay of its own, and is as much an AI and psychological concern as it is a narrative one.

The other is, I must concede, still a dialogue tree of sorts; but it's a dialogue tree built from the ground up with the intention of modelling realistic dialogue traits with the same depth of simulation that we apply to the end of a gun. It looks something like this:

- Strong characterisation and the threat of punishing / unsatisfying gameplay may be used to encourage and represent self-control or lack thereof. Does the player feel strongly enough in a given scenario to sacrifice reward in favour of personal gratification? Investment is encouraged by not rendering every route as equal in reward, and not using scenarios that affect the character but not the player. A quick example: the guard tells us we can't enter the city. For the character this might be really annoying; for the player it makes no difference because he knows that if he needs to enter the city the game will allow him to do so somehow. This is absolutely crucial - there must be no logical gap between the character's emotion and the player's. There should be no game objectives or mechanics that aren't legitimate elements of real conversation (for example we're encouraged to help people in RPGs because we're rewarded with experience; as a result we don't fully express ourselves).
- Input is in the form of keywords and emotions: The player can't tell what's important by looking at a list of sentences; he must use his intuition and perception to identify key topics and approaches. Where appropriate he's encouraged to express his personality.
- Mini-games provide active challenge and allow for unexpected successes or failures
- It's linear in overarching topic: a game which places conversation as its central mechanic doesn't need dead ends and cul-de-sacs any more than Call of Duty needs the option to get back on the chopper, go home and become a gardener.
- It uses a time limit to maintain natural flow and encourage more instinctive reactions & mistakes
- It doesn't use stats: your success is based on your own ability, apart from in areas where stats make sense such as group formation and prior knowledge
- Branching is used for key decisions and to discover new information without altering the fundamental direction or flow of conversation. It is triggered by some or all of:
     - Conscious, signposted decision points
     - The use of predefined pieces of prior knowledge
     - Mini-game success
     - Perception of keywords during dialogue
     - Personality detection (ie how often the player adopts certain tones and personality traits)
- Conversations may be signposted as goal or social focused so the player is free to manipulate and express his personality in equal measure.

I don't know if this is quite the revolutionary new approach we might have liked to come up with. It's possibly more theoretical pipe dream than practical mechanic. I do hope, at the very least, that the discussion has presented or refined specific mechanics and their potential uses. As ever games are a process of evolution, not revolution, and it's games like LA Noire, KOTOR II and Heavy Rain that continue to make small but meaningful advances in how we interact with dialogue then the holy grail will continue to edge just that little bit closer.

Wednesday 8 June 2011

Designing a Dialogue System From Scratch Part 2: Structure

'Part 1: What is Dialogue' is available here.

Now we're ready to consider how to model conversation on a structural level.

The first question is what underpins the fundamental structure of our proposed dialogue system in terms of progress, input and output. In each case I'll present the usual approach and at least one more left field angle.

     - Branching: This is the approach adopted by most interactive systems. They allow for backtracking of differing degrees (Fahrenheit moves inexorably forward, most RPGs work from a central hub with certain paths that can't be rolled back on, while adventure games are usually very forgiving - you can't go wrong. It seems logical not to allow too much backtracking, to reflect the natural flow of conversation.

     - Linear: It might seem strange to propose a linear system as an interactive dialogue. Providing the player no control over the topic or direction of conversation isn't necessarily realistic, but it does grant us some unique freedoms: the conversation remains flowing, and it allows us to focus the player's attention on how he's conversing, rather than what he's conversing about. Usually in games we already force certain topics and goals - you may be free to ask about different things in different orders, but if you're talking a key NPC you're going to get to the game-crucial topic sooner or later; everything else is simply context. Fahrenheit or Alpha Protocol do provide decision points attached to story branches, but for the most part there's only really one direction to go in. Instead of providing a bad illusion of freedom, they force the topic of conversation and encourage the player to focus on the degree of success he has within that topic.

     - Words / speech Obviously we usually present dialogue in this fashion. It provides complexity and realism. These are good things.

     - Pictorial / other: However, there's another way to do things. We're already familiar with dialogue being presented without any actual words: think The Sims' Simlish, or emoticons. We can represent topics, emotions and decisions entirely visually. Naturally this limits the complexity and depth of what we're doing, but it also provides us a degree of emergent potential that simply cannot be achieved with words. Computers aren't smart enough to construct sentences on the fly, written dialogue will always require a human author, and therefore a prescribed route and set of options. In The Sims, it's possible to interact on more fundamental levels that nonetheless we all understand: humour, romance, physical expressions. Our basic inputs are interpreted by the AI Sims, compared to their personality statistics, and appropriate responses output  in the same syntax. It's a system whose complexity could be scaled to a far greater degree, and could allow for far truer narrative freedom.

     - List of options: The usual dialogue tree approach, but it's worth noting this is also how we'd select our emoticons and topics if using that sort of representation. Obviously using a predefined list limits massively the possible approaches we can provide, but by using elements less specific than whole sentences (ie images or keywords) we can provide greater flexibility.

     - Mini-game: Any mini-game (eg Theme Park's negotiation game detailed previously) is necessarily going to be quite an abstraction to the degree that I'd not recommend it be the central input mechanic. As demonstrated in Theme Park, though, mini-games can make for useful tools in representing more specific elements of conversation.

     - Keywords: This really interests me. What if we allowed the player to type a word to reflect an emotion, or topic, or observation? Obviously interactive fiction has been doing this for years, and it would still require a predefined dictionary set. At the very least, though, it provides a greater sense of freedom, and can handle far more options than a traditional dialogue tree. It also allows us to hide from the player the options available to him, requiring a greater depth of consideration than simply browsing a list.

Now let's consider how to fit and test the conversational traits we've identified in the structures available. 

     - Simplified implementation: The LA Noire system. Assume animation and voice performance is sufficiently detailed for the player to employ his ability of perception entirely naturally. Requires our input method to allow him to leverage that perception appropriately. This works fine in LA Noire where what is perceived is as simple as telling the truth or lying, and the input method follows the same options, but does it scale to more complex observations? Without providing a large set of red herrings it seems like it would struggle in any context where what the player was perceiving was more specific than truth/lie, because if we give him the option to, say, accuse the merchant of having ulterior motives, he's learnt that it's important from us rather than his own observation of the underlying meaning of the dialogue.

     - Keyword implementation: Pre-define certain words in the dialogue and allow the player to either click on them or type them in, which will then lead the conversation in that direction. This wouldn't be used for selecting a topic of conversation necessarily; more so it would allow the player to identify and leverage subtext. Stupid example: "My wife has gone missing, she was wearing her best jewellery, please find her." Player inputs "jewellery motive" and opens up a quest branch where we come to understand the speaker is more concerned about the gold wedding ring than the wife. If this was a trad dialogue tree it'd be an obvious dialogue option; using keywords it becomes a question of the player's insight. Effectively you're asking the player to demonstrate his understanding of ther subtext - what is this person really talking about?

Knowledge:  In trad dialogue trees this is usually represented by a variable: if the player pursued dialogue option X previously then provide new dialogue option Y. Perhaps the more challenging approach is to provide the player a bank of collected information: facts or topics he's discovered previously which must be selected specifically at key points. It's still pre-authored, and will be indescribably annoying when ti doesn't work (yes you, LA Noire) but again it does put more emphasis on the player's knowledge, rather than his character's.

Eloquence / Timing: It's hard to allow the player the express eloquence - the natural skills we employ every day (to varying degrees of success) are too complex and numerous to really model (though one could argue the sum of a successful dialogue system would itself be representative of eloquence). At any rate, we certainly don't want to model it as a statistic (+5 charisma) because that's unnatural and unsatisfying. This seems, to me, like a great place to use a mini-game. We allow the player to select his topic or tone, but we apply a modifier based on a mini-game, which will affect the tone, relationship or information presented in the response. What this catches, for me, is that basic buzz of successfully pulling off the perfect one liner; or, more interestingly, knowing exactly what you need to say and entirely failing to communicate it.

Group Formation: This is the only trait which makes sense to model as a straight set of statistics. Social standing is something that's affected by conversations and actions previously undertaken, and which can only be affected by the same in the future. It's commonly modelled very simplistically in RPGs - eg if character X likes you more than 50% then dialogue option Y appears. It could, naturally, be extended. If you're using threats, is the character aware of previous instances where you've backed down? If you're trying to lead a conversation, are there enough people in the group who already respect you as a leader?

In 'Part 3: The System' we'll complete our overview of the traits by looking at self-control vs personal expression, and finally tie everything together into something vaguely resembling a coherent system. Maybe. Eyes on the prize this time next week.

Tuesday 7 June 2011

Project Announcement: Adidas miCoach

So I did a bit of writing as part of a Sidelines team for this upcoming THQ sports training thingamy. It was basically another barks script - turning out versions of a core script, tailored to specific characters. In this case, the game has a bunch of high profile athletes and sports personalities to guide the player through the exercises, and I was writing for a rather cool but as yet unannounced female British athlete.

And that's about all there is to say about that!

If lifting weights in front of your PS3, or jogging while someone yells in your ear is your sort of bag you can read more about the announcement at

Friday 3 June 2011

Designing a Dialogue System From Scratch Part 1: What is Dialogue?

I did a couple of sessions at this year's GameCamp: a discussion on designing dialogue systems and a debate on the morality of wargames. For those that aren't in the know, GameCamp is an unconference - anybody that turns up can ad lib a session, with anywhere from 3 to 30 people rocking up to take part in each. 

The morals thing was a bit slapdash - I realised two things very quickly. 1) It's not really a discussion about games so much as it is about individual people's moral codes and 2) most people aren't kitted out to have an argument about moral theory, and those that are sit at the back looking grumpy.

The dialogue session, though, was much more favourably received, albeit with the caveat I should have employed my usual presumptuousness and run it over two blocks so we could get a bit more stuck in. Here's what we were mumbling about, tarted up rather a lot with my own thinking post-event.

My pitch was that dialogue trees are one of the oldest mechanics in games and that they do a terrible job of actually emulating real conversation and the skill, personality and emotion that goes into it. Instead of thinking inside the box, what happens if we analyse what makes up a real conversation and then develop a system that models these features? Can we abstract and interact with dialogue in the same way we do gunfights or murder investigations?

So what was our dialogue system hoping to achieve? The whole point of thinking about a new way in which to interact with dialogue is to find a system that:

- Is sufficiently realistic: It doesn't need to be simulation (obviously that's impossible for the foreseeable), but it does need to be a plausible abstraction. An in-game firefight doesn't require physical fitness, combat training or the know-how to strip a Beretta; but it does test reflexes and knowledge of basic tactics like cover and flanking. If conversation in the real world were as simple as choosing an emotional response from a list and asking every question you can think of we'd all be expert manipulators.

- Is interesting & dramatic: Obviously.

- Is goal oriented & skill-based: Gameplay assumes a goal. It may not always be an explicitly stated one (discover the location of the secret lair), it might be a player assigned one (learn about a character's past or teasing someone he doesn't like).

- Allows the player to express his personality: This is the tricky one - how do we balance personal expression versus goal achievement / manipulation? In Mass Effect 2 both friendly and aggressive paths usually achieve the same goal, which removes the skill; but requiring a certain approach in order to achieve a goal sidelines personal expression.

We started off by looking at what was already out there.

Traditional Dialogue Trees (almost every RPG / point & click ever): They don't flow naturally, they provide options the player might not have considered, and don't provide options that he has. Little skill involved.

Free text input / keywords (Facade, Starship Titanic): Hard to program believably, can't represent complexity as easily as dialogue trees, but do give a greater sense of freedom and hide the inner workings more effectively.

Mini games (Theme park's trade union negotiation, Republic): Provide a more skill based interaction, but are overly abstracted

LA Noire's doubt/lie system:  Completely removes active roleplay and conversation topic control to  focus soley on testing perception and contextual knowledge. Big on player skill, low on player ownership.

Interesting tweaks on dialogue trees:

     - Mass Effect's dialogue ball: Overly simplifies options to good, neutral, bad and more information. Morality system contradicts the player's and encourages them to 'game' the system, ie non-roleplay. But it does provide a cinematic flow.

     - KOTOR II's [Lie] option: Allows the player to express his personality without reducing his ability to manipulate characters (ie the game knows the difference between a player who says nice things because he's nice and a player who says nice things because he wants something).

     - Fahrenheit's system: The timelimit encourages instinctual responses and keeps dialogue flowing naturally; chosing a thematic word instead of an entire sentence provides greater sense of player ownership; impossible to explore every thread or 'game' the system.

     - Alpha Protocol's system: Focuses on character roleplay and character manipulation. Player has a goal which can be achieved by understanding the NPC's personality and manipulating it with appropriate tonal choices; but equally may choose to piss off characters he doesn't like. 

Next we considered what makes up real dialogue. We decided there are two types of conversations we're familiar with, though naturally they are often combined.

Dramatic: Goal oriented. At least one person is seeking either information or support through persuasion, at the expense of varying degrees of personal expression (ie how manipulative is that person, and how much can they control their natural personality?) For instance, I'm going for a job interview; my goal is to persuade the interviewer that I'm a good candidate; in order to do so I may have to conceal or exaggerate certain facts, as well as adopt a more formal voice and refrain from telling knob gags.

Social: No goal beyond entertainment / expression of care. Often unfocused. I'm allowed to tell knob gags as an expression of my personality and as a kind lure or scarecrow for people who I'm likely to get on with or dislike respectively.

Traditionally the traits that define the calibre of a conversationalist are either represented in games by stats (intelligence, charisma etc), or not at all (dialogue trees where NPC reactions are pre-programmed). But what are these traits in detail?

Perception: Picking up on underlying meaning and emotion through tone, body language and word choice.
Knowledge: Useful information on the topic in hand or the other person that can be leveraged.
Eloquence / Timing: Understanding the other person isn't enough to achieve a goal; the speaker also has to have the charisma to successfully deliver a line that leverages that understanding appropriately.
Self-control: How much is a person willing / able to adapt their personality in order to achieve their goals?
Group Formation: What is the person's social standing with the other speaker/s?

In 'Part 2: Structure' we'll consider the fundamentals of how we might present, progress and input dialogue, and begin thinking about how to model and test the traits we've just identified.

Thursday 2 June 2011

Workshop: Interactive Narrative for Screenwriters @ Birkbeck College

This Saturday I've been asked to hold a day's workshop for screenwriting students on writing for games. It's being held at Birkbeck College, London, from 10am - 4pm, tickets open to the public, and the official blurb goes something like this:
"In this one-day workshop, you will evaluate existing games from a scriptwriting point of view and learn how new games are developed. You will also gain insight into the games industry and the potential for freelance or retained work within it. You will do practical scriptwriting exercises both individually and in groups, and will receive tutor feedback on these."
Strangely the one thing it doesn't mention is who's running it which (regardless of whether you think I'm an experienced narrative designer, or a small chap with a big mouth) seems like the single most important detail. Anyway, it's not super cheap at £70 (£40 concessions), but apparently not as expensive as they come at Birkbeck either. Assuming the university doesn't change its tune on profit sharing it's probably the first and last year I'll be running it (UK universities are run like businesses, but still cling to the guidelines when it comes to actually paying people), but that's not to say if it's a success I might not take the format elsewhere.

That format's as follows:

10am – Kick off
10:20am – How are games different?
10:50am – Write something: be innovative
11:15am – Game script examples
11:35am – Break
11:45am – Approaches to story
12:15pm – Lunch
1pm – Write something: HTML dialogue trees
1:45pm – Learning from indie games
2.15pm – Write something: more HTML dialogue trees
2:30pm – Break
2:40pm - How to get a job
3pm - Show off something: HTML dialogue trees
3:40pm – Questions
4pm – Pub

I feel a touch uncomfortable encouraging people to take up these things, just like I sometimes feel uncomfortable teaching at Southbank. The hard truth is that for 80% of takers the most valuable thing to do would probably be to tell them to give up now rather than sowing false hope, and for the other 20% there's a long uphill struggle that I can only nudge them towards. The flip side of the coin is that anyone should have the right to pay for anything, including education, and who am I to decide who can't?

So. There's your disclaimer, and here's your ticket link. Hooray!