Friday, July 18, 2008

Violence in my Games

A moment of insight: I think one of my obsessions in game design is to de-familiarise violence.

Most computer games involve violence, but it's almost never presented as something problematic. You kill, because killing is what you do in a computer game. Who cares about all those bandits you slay in Baldur's Gate? If reasons for violence are given at all, they just serve to hide te problem of violence even further. You fight the NOD, because they are evil, and surely you must fight those who are evil. You fight the GDI because you are evil, and when you're evil, you fight. No problem. Even in a more sensitive game like The Witcher, most of the killing is not made into a moral problem: you're just killing monsters, right? ("Monster" now has the moral value that was erstwhile carried by the word "brute".)

So what I have been trying to do is to take violence, put it in my games, and yet make it a problem. Nothing is more standard in a roleplaying game than having to kill a wild wolf when you travel through the forest; but when you attack the wolf in The Baron, you must leave her child to die of hunger. (Well, there are some other options, none of them pretty.) In the game as a whole, violence reveals itself as self-destruction.

In Fate, violence is an answer; but it is not therefore morally justified, and much is made of this. Also--all the problems that exist are the result of either past violence or intended violence.

In my roleplaying game Vampires, violence is the only way to survive. What is more: the only way to survive is by doing violence against defenceless women that actually disturbs your audience--the best wat yo secure your continued survival is to make the other players think "I don't want to play this game any more!" when they hear you describe what you do. In Vampires violence is so ugly and unredeemed that the game probably cannot be played. (Except in the way I described in my spoilery essay on the game.)

In my (not ready to play) roleplaying game Stalin's Story, one of the players is given the authority to arbitrarily command the other players, and he is put into a situation where doing fictional violence is necessary. Here, violence is problematic because you do it against the other players and there is not even the semblance of a fair contest.

In my best roleplaying game, Shades, violence is less foregrounded; but it is always there in the background. This game is about reflecting on past violence, about coming to terms with it, resolving it It wouldn't be much of a simplification to say that all the rules have a single aim: to make the social situation of play as free from violence as possible, while making the player think about how violence could enter their lives and how they can overcome it. The Baron and Vampires are about kicking people in the groin while they are sleeping; Shades is about reconciling people with their awakened state.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Useful Psychology

Can something like character attributes or psychological states be useful in interactive fiction? Last time, I argued that a certain implementation of this will not be useful, namely, an implementation whereby after some time you are only allowed to take actions that are like the actions you took earlier, and thus forbidden to do actions that are unlike those actions. But keeping track of what a player has done, and basing the responses of the game on that, can also be implemented in ways that are at least prima facie more interesting.

Affect actions, not commands

We don't want situations like this:
> attack john
No, you are not violent enough.
where whether we are allowed to attack John or not depends on whether we have behaved violently earlier. Even if I'm not a violent person (by nature, by inclination, by habit) I can still decide to attack John, and this kind of response rings false. But we should not forget that the interactive fiction author has to interpret the commands given to the game, and that she can base this interpretation on the character traits of the protagonist, rather than basing the list of allowed commands on these traits. What I'm getting at is this. Suppose the protagonist has been behaving violently earlier in the game:
> attack John.
You smash his nose and send him sprawling on the floor. "If you ever touch my girlfriend again, I'm gonna kill you!", you scream.
Suppose, however, that the protagonist has not been behaving violently earlier in the game.
> attack John
"Seriously, John, I thought you were my friend. But now I see that you are nothing but another lying, hypocritical ass who takes advantage of his fellows as soon as he thinks that they're not looking. Have you no shame at all, kissing my girlfriend in my fucking house? I don't ever want to see your face again, John. Now beat it."
What happens here is that the very same command is interpreted in different ways--as a command to do physical violence in the first case, as a command to do verbal violence in the second.

The possible advantage of this is that it allows for dynamic characterisation. The protagonist really takes on the character traits that the player puts into him during the course of play. This might be cool. I'm not sure whether it will be, but it might be; I would like to see it tried.

Now one could say--rightly--that it should be possible for someone who hasn't done physical violence before to start doing physical violence now, and that a game like this would artificially bar him from doing so. True. But--this kind of limitation is inherent in all interactive fiction all the time. It is a feature of the medium. You can always only take those actions that have been provided for you, and this does not feel artificial, precisely because it is the essence of IF. (It is the same way, say, that it doesn't feel artificial that people in opera's sing all the time.)

One potential problem with this approach is that all happens behind the scenes. The player will not notice it on a first play-through, unless you find a way to draw her attention to it. So you'd better make sure that you're okay with that, and that you want your game only to reveal its possibilities on subsequent playthroughs. (Hidden cause-effect structures are always tricky in IF; they tend to go unnoticed and not affect the player at all.)

Affect NPCs, not PCs

An interesting suggestion made by Jimmy Maher is to take the approach criticised and then apply it to NPCs. So basically, the NPCs would keep doing what you had learned them to do earlier. Jimmy suggests a child-rearing scenario, but there are other possible applications: training your combat team before you take them into the Afghanistan mountains, for instance.

There certainly is artistic potential here. What about this: there is an NPC around who looks up to you and has a tendency to copy your behaviour. This would make you a role model, and that lends an entire new dimension of morality to your actions. (You are the cynical policeman who has neither family nor friends, doesn't care about his own survival, and likes to take on the gangsters in a very dangerous shoot-first-ask-questions-later mode. Now you've got this young recruit in tow, who has a two-year old child and her whole life before her. Are you even willing to show her the effectiveness of "your" way when you know it might lead her to do the same thing and get killed?)

Things would get even more interesting if the NPCs can, at a certain point, decide to rebel against what you have taught them--now there is a game I want to see made.

Tracking how the protagonist is perceived

Another good idea, due to Aaron A. Reed, is to use character traits not to limit the behaviour of your character, but to track how the world views him. So if you have been raping and pillaging your way through the land, people will run away from you as soon as they see you and bar their doors. If you have been kind to people, others will confide in you.

This is, of course, simply one way of confronting you with the effects of your actions. As such, the author of a piece will have to make a careful assessment: is it better to implement an abstract system of character traits, or is it better to track the outcomes of specific events? Do you want people to fear you because you ahve taken violent actions, or because you have slain Ralph the Merry in a bar fight? I take it that the former option becomes more useful as the game becomes larger and more episodic, while the latter is more useful for games that are shorter and more coherent.

The difficulty of growth

Tom Hudson remarks that changing is difficult; there really is such a thing as an ingrained habit--and an author might want to reflect this. True--but how is this best done? I am not convinced that the original proposal (making certain actions unavailable) is the way to go. Emily Short has a system in Metamorphoses, if I read it right, whereby some actions become more difficult if you have shied away from that kind of solution earlier; she does this by having the game suggest that you might not want to do that, but allow you to do it anyway if you try again. If it were well-clued that you can do it if you really want (which is not always the case in Metamorphoses), this might work. It highlight for a moment the fact that it's an action you hesitate to perform.

However, Emily does point out that people just don't notice that which actions they are allowed to perform depends on what they've done before. I suspect that you need to ensure that player understand this; for why else are you implementing it? This might be done in a thematic way: for instance, if the protagonist has access to a performance-enhancing but very addictive drug, it makes perfect sense that there is a lot of hesitation when you try to do it for the first time, and no hesitation at all when you it for the tenth time.

Taradino C. suggests, and I like this suggestion, that the difficulty of growth can be shown without modelling it. How? Because when the protagonist falls into a habit, so does the player. That's a really interesting thought. If you fought your way past the first five guards, you'll probably attack the sixth one as well, without thinking about it. Games might be based around this concept.

(Indeed, these kinds of patterns of behaviour even persist beyond the games where they are learned. Here is a fragment of an actual review of The Baron:
[...] I didn’t know how else to approach the problems that came in front of me. For example, with the wolf, I just figured I had to kill it. Yet, the detail of everything was grueling and frightful. I did not enjoy it. I wish for the game just to have said, wolf killed, and to be able to move on with the story. The gargoyle was not so much trouble, however, I did not listen to his story, and as I sit here now I wonder if I would have heard some solution to speaking and negotiating with the Baron in order to get my daughter back. Yet, I thought I need to press on and keep going. Then, I met the baron and I thought it was my duty to kill him. [...]
A game where the player has to break out of her habits--now that's an interesting design aim.)

I am sure there are more possibilities, so let's discuss.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A Comment on Psychology

Several times recently, I saw discussions of a certain way in which dynamic characterisation of IF protagonists can take place. The idea is this: the game keeps track of several variables that describe the psychology of the protagonist. Actions early in the game have an effect on those variables, such that, say, stealing a purse will decrease your trustworthiness but increase your ruthlessness, while solving a puzzle through violence will increase your "violent" variable. Then, later in the game, certain actions will be made available or unavailable to you based on the value of these variables. If you have been very violent throughout the game, then you are allowed to be (or are required to be) violent at the end. Thus, a personality is established and reinforced through play, which would purportedly bring us to new heights of characterisation.

I very much doubt that it would.

Let me quickly note the explanatory barrenness of the psychology that is presented here to us. Could there be a more unconvincing explanation of somebody's acting violent than the statement that he has often acted violent before? (Compare: "This stone falls because all previous stones have fallen as well." Explanation and prediction have been confused.) And the explanation hardly becomes better when we introduce the notion of a "character trait" called "violent" and say "This person is violent, and that is why he has acted violently in the past and will act violently now."

But worse, for its use in interactive fiction, than the explanatory barrenness of this psychology is its existential and therefore artistic barrenness.

We must deal with the consequences of our past actions, and therein lie possibilities for profound existential tragedy. ("Because I have been violent in the past, this girl has no father anymore. How do I cope with that?") We must even deal with the consequences of things we have not done but have been subjected to, and therein lie even more possibilities for profound existential tragedy. ("Because I was an orphan in the slums of Mexico City, I had to rely on violence to survive. Things got out of hand, and now I am on death row. How can the world cope with that, and how can I?") But there just are no moments in our lives where we must face the fact that we cannot take a certain action because we have created in ourselves the wrong character traits. "If only I had been more courageous earlier on in my life, I now would have the courage to join the Resistance--but alas!" That is not a possible fact that we have to face; that is simply bad faith (and I totally mean this in the Sartrean sense).

Quite in general, our possible actions are not constrained by our "character traits"; that would be to make ourselves into things rather than persons. An interactive fiction that constrains my possible actions by only allowing me to do things which are like the things I did earlier cannot but reinforce the myth that we are determined beings, and that we therefore do not have to try to change. Can we seriously believe that good characterisations in interactive fiction will be achieved by denying one of the most fundamental facts of what it means to be a person? I do not think so.

Let me end by saying that anything that can be used to reinforce a myth can also--by subtle reversals--be used to cast doubt on it. So there might be some subversive uses of the technique described here, and they might be worth experimenting with. But as for the general usefulness of character traits--I doubt whether anything good will come from it.

Monday, July 14, 2008

City of Secrets - Hints

PLEASE NOTE that this post is about Emily Short's 2003 interactive fiction game City of Secrets, NOT about Aidem Media's recent graphical adventure with the same title. I cannot help you with the latter. (But if you're stuck in that game and want to check out some interactive fiction instead, why not try the also animal-starring and family-friendly Lost Pig? Once the application loads, type 'help' and read "How to play Interactive Fiction". It's a lot of fun.)

I just finished Emily Short's City of Secrets, which is an impressive work. In fact, I am tempted to call it her best yet.

Strangely enough, nobody has made a walkthrough for the game, even though there are a couple of points where you can get stuck.There are some hints on various places on the web (newsgroup postings, fora), but there's no central resource. So as a help to future players, I've decided to write down some solutions to potential problems here. If you get stuck in some other place, feel free to leave a comment, and maybe I can help you out.

In order to avoid spoilers, I'll encrypt all solutions with ROT-13. To decrypt, just paste the text into a ROT-13 decrypter like this one. (Or do it by hand: it's just a 13 place rotation in the alphabet.)

I've explored the city, but I can't get through the walls of force that block my way to the west.

Lbh'yy arrq n fcrpvny cnff, juvpu lbh pna trg sebz gur zna va gur ubgry. Whfg tb gurer naq gnyx gb uvz.

I need to get past a gate, but I don't have the password.

Lbh pna svaq gur cnffjbeq va gur onpxebbz bs bar bs gur gurngref (whfg svqqyr nebhaq jvgu gur fghss lbh svaq gurer). Lbh pna bayl trg va gurer jvgu na vaivgngvba--gel ybbxvat sbe fghss va gur cnex.

I want to go past the gate, but I still have a bug in my wrist. How do I remove it?

Lbh xabj ubj ybat V gevrq gb trg gur fvyire xavirf sebz gur nagvdhr fryyre? Jung lbh ernyyl arrq vf gur enmbe sebz gur ubgry onguebbz, naq n cynpr jurer gurer'f ab pnzren--gur pnfgyr gbvyrg.

Okay, I've found the gnostic temple, but I can't figure out what to do there.

Svefg bs nyy, lbh'yy arrq gur frecrag evat. Lbh fubhyq unir unq n ivfvba nobhg gung, naq vs fb, tb qvt sbe vg va gur cynpr jurer lbh fnj vg ohevrq. (Vg'f orlbaq gur cnex.) Gura gbhpu gur balk juvyr lbh ner jrnevat gur evat.

Nygreangviryl, V guvax lbh pna whfg zbir fbzr fghss va gur xvgpura naq gnxr na nygreangr ebhgr.

I need to get arrested, but how do I do that?

Qvqa'g trg fghpx gurer zlfrys, ohg fnj fbzrbar nfxvat nobhg vg ba gur arg. Whfg tb onpx gb gur cbyvpr fgngvba naq xabpx ba gur qbbe.

How do I get the winning ending?

V fnj fbzrbar nfx guvf nf jryy. Onfrq ba jung V'ir frra, V guvax lbh trg gur orfg rqavat ol: phefvat gur Pelfgny orsber Fvzba vf qrnq; urnyvat Rinvar jura gung vf fhttrfgrq ol gur perngher; gura fgbccvat jura lbh srry vg'f abg tbvat gb jbex.