Nov 30, 2012

Preview - The Samaritan Paradox

Colourful and yet sombre, the graphics provide a beautiful backdrop for the story.

Petter Ljungqvist has been a fairly prominent figure in the AGS community for some time, and I've been waiting for quite some time to see what he will make next. Judging by what I've played and seen of The Samaritan Paradox, his recently announced project, it looks to be something quite special indeed.

The project sports a graphic style that somehow manages to be serious, moody and atmospheric - whilst still being evocative and otherworldly. My admiration for the visuals are in no way without bias - Ljungqvist has provided drawing advice to me in my early days as a game designer, and I have admired his work for many years - but this world is quite easily the most expressive I've seen him draw yet, a remarkable feat.

With a plot that promises to tread the line between a detective mystery and a fantasy adventure, The Samaritan Paradox is one adventure to keep an eye on. It's still available for pre-order for a short time, and the game is slated for a 2013 release, and I am very interested to see how this project turns out.

Nov 29, 2012

>fall in love with Annah

Imagine that. Imagine being able to input anything you wished into a game, and have it provide a meaningful response.

Is there any reason we can't do this?

I remember debating the point some time ago with a fellow design enthusiast. They argued that mouse based interaction allowed a designer just as much freedom as a text parser, and this was my counter argument. The text parser, theoretically, allows us to append all the usual additional flourishes that make our languages work. Can mouse based input effectively allow us to ">pretend to be interested in what Adam is saying". Can it allow us to ">fall asleep", to ">remember my mother" or to ">pretend to cry"?

More to the point, can any method of interaction allow this?

Sure, we could build a parser that accomodates all these and more. It'd require an extraordinarily large library, but it'd be possible. That's hardly the point, however.

What I want to know, is can we do so in a way where it's truly effective as a method through which we allow players to propel themselves through our narratives?

Freelancer allows you to travel freely between missions, and talk to a huge range of characters, but the interactions quickly become bland and similar.

Providing the player to do any of these things is simple enough in terms of design philosophy - all we need to do is to construct a database that supports all of this input. Building a reactive, dynamic world to make these valuable interactions, however, is a completely different thing.

I don't think it's merely a matter of building an artificial intelligence or forgetting about the idea completely. Realistically, it's possible to build a world that not only accepts the inputs, but also reacts to it.

I suppose, then, that the real question is: "Is this worthwhile?"

There are two types of content for games - created content, and generated content. Dynamically generated content is an amazing idea - the possibility for replaying a game in which the dungeons are totally different each time you play it seems fantastic. But if you're killing the same enemies for the same reasons in a place that's laid out slightly differently to last time, is that really a unique experience? Personally, I much prefer content that was created by a human being and provides me with a dynamic experience that varies based on my input, not a random level generating algorithm. Give me one piece of meaningful feedback, and it will compel me to become invested in the game. A dungeon that changes each time I play it requires no real investment at all.

Which brings us back to the "Is this worthwhile?" question. Let's envision a game that allowed a near infinite parser library. Let's say we could get our character to ">feel guilt for stealing socks" or ">hope that I get to see my mother before she dies" or ">fall in love with Annah". There's no doubt that this provides an electric, reactive, dynamic world for us to participate in - an exciting playground in which every possible action is rich with potential consequence, without the burden of not being able to start over with a fresh reputation and health that often dictates much of our conservatism in real life.

But is that what we want from our games? I'm not so sure. To me, there seems the slightest chance that perhaps we like being led through games. Perhaps we don't really want the ultimate in escapism, but to partake in a story with the added ability to influence some of the outcome.

After all, what would Beyond Good and Evil be like if Michel Ancel hadn't led us through the story in the way he did? What would Baldur's Gate have been like if we'd never been compelled to do what Gorion wished of us and were left to do our own thing? Sure, games like The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion and Fallout: New Vegas can be far more rewarding when we're left to our own devices and don't follow the central plot, but I don't think that's what I want from all of my games. Sometimes, I want to be told a story, and as much as I want to take part and be given difficult choices with interesting consequences, I also want to be carried along a narrative path.

Aquanox is far more linear - restricting your activities between missions to a small area, but as a result the characters are more unique and the world feels far richer despite being much smaller and more restricted.

Is there any reason we can't ">fall in love with Annah"? No, not really. But will it add to games as narrative devices? I'm not so sure. If I want a dynamic, reactive and free form environment, I'll turn off my computer and go outside. I don't think I need all that freedom to enjoy a game. Games as a narrative vehicle can be absolutely compelling, and while I think consequence adds a lot to a game, I also think there's a point at which it stops a game from being a medium through which we can deliver a story and turns it into a sandbox type situation.

Narrative in games is beautiful. I don't think we've really seen it hit its true potential, and until it does, I'm quite happy to be a little limited with my input, provided I'm given a good story in return.

Of course, if someone does build a game with all that freedom, let me know about that. I'd play the heck out of any game that lets me ">make bus driver feel guilty about staring at me".

Nov 28, 2012

A System of Interaction

I've been thinking about game design, lately. This is nothing unusual for me; usually at some point during my day, every day, I will think about game design in some way. Lately I've been thinking about systems, and how they affect the way we play and design games.

To me, a system is the rules and structure of the universe that the game takes place in. It is the interface, the objects that we can interact with and the things that prevent our progress. In Tetris, the system allows us to move blocks, rotate blocks, recognizes when we've created a complete line, continues to spawn blocks and ends the game if the blocks reach the top of the screen. A game's system can be simple or complex - from the basic interaction of judging jumps in Canabalt to managing dozens of different factors in Jagged Alliance 2.

Being fond of both creating and playing point and click adventures, I've been looking and thinking about the systems they use quite a bit lately. Adventure games are often quite similar in terms of what systems they throw at us. We're used to picking up items and having them in our inventory, we're used to selecting a choice from a list of dialogue options, and most of us are used to having a range of verbs to use on the game's world. This system has been around for as long as I can remember - I grew up in the post-parser era of adventure game design, and I cut my adventuring teeth on this style of gameplay.

Instant gameplay - just adverbs!

That's getting a little bland, however.

There are games that push the system further. Disworld Noir (and the Blackwell games) give you a notebook with clues you can combine. You could fight your way past obstacles as Indiana Jones (and had to in Gemini Rue). Full Throttle is regularly criticized for its motorcycle riding and demolition derby puzzles, and Resonance is regularly praised for its use of memories as items (this was also done in long lost AGS adventure Diamonds in the Rough). Day of the Tentacle, Beneath a Steel Sky and others give you multiple characters you can control to figure solutions out. But I feel the potential exists to do so much more.

As a designer, I am absolutely guilty of creating game ideas based around the interfaces I've become comfortable with playing and creating with. It annoys me that I don't push myself to design more interesting interfaces. I've built a few prototypes around new ways of interacting with a world, but these rarely amount to anything more than an interesting gimmick. There must be a secret I am missing, somewhere.

I will always remember the very first time I played the genre-spanning behemoth that is Deus Ex. I was a fan of first person shooters but generally preferred other genres because I found the systems were often quite bland - rewarding reflexes rather than logic. Playing Deus Ex caught me off guard - suddenly I could do more with a barrel than just shoot it and watch it explode. I could pick it up and move it somewhere else, and use it as a platform to jump onto a roof with. I could stack barrels. I could carefully watch a robot's patrol route, pick a barrel up and move it into that patrol route, retreat and shoot it as the robot went past, exploding and disabling it. I could throw the barrel off to one side, distracting a guard and letting me sneak past him. Or sneak up on him.

Planescape: Torment - the only game that gives a guy who looks like a dead man the ability to dress up as a guy who looks like even more of a dead man.

The act of adding something so simple to a game's system as being able to pick up items and move them around added so much to the game itself. Locked doors could be bypassed if you were willing to carry an explosive crate all the way across the level. Building rooftops became instantly accessible. You could move a crate into a part of the map missing a decent hiding spot and hide behind it - or hide the body of a downed enemy behind/beneath crates and boxes so that nobody would see them laying there and become alerted. Suddenly, the things that previously existed to give a bit of visual flavour and variety to a level became a toolbox with which the player could make his way through the levels. Actual gameplay was born from this simple addition to the system.

That's beautiful. I believe it's called 'Emergent gameplay' (I've since learned that this term applies to gameplay that takes place outside the rules of the game, and that this is actually referred to as 'Systematic gameplay'), where gameplay can emerge as a result of the player's interaction in the world. It was an absolute revelation for me when I played the game for the very first time.

I haven't found my revelation in adventure games, yet. I thought I had found it when I first played Resonance, and realized that I could talk to anybody about anything by simply dragging the idea of the object in question to them and my character would ask about it. But the limits of the system quickly became clear - trying to write a unique response for every object in this way is no different than coming up with a different response for trying every single inventory item on a character. It's a lovely addition to the genre, but it doesn't change the way I think about adventure games. It does, however, remind me how much potential there is for experimentation in the genre (and with a track record including games like What Linus Bruckman Sees When His Eyes Are Closed, I look forward to seeing what new ideas Vince Twelve comes up with next).

Being able to instantly drag a subject from the world to the person you want to discuss it with is infinitely more intuitive than choosing the topic from a dialogue tree.

Don't get me wrong - I love adventure games. But I feel the system has under-used potential. Planescape: Torment proved that the expected formula of a game can be turned onto its head and still provide an absolutely compelling experience. I love it when I play games like Gorogoa or Frantic Franko that catch me off guard. New ideas are exciting, and get me absolutely enthused about a game.

I want to rethink the way I play games and the way I design them. Our players are amazing, creative people. They're ready for something fresh.

Let's see if we can find out what it might be.

Oh, and welcome to Fiction in the Machine. We hope you enjoy your time here.