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.


  1. It seems like this model would be more useful if it were turned around, forcing the player to do things that were unlike the ones he'd done earlier (and thus grow as a character).

  2. I agree this concept of play is silly, on multiple levels. However, I can imagine a tangential concept that might work: say it is our behavior toward ANOTHER that is monitored, and that determines what that other does at the end of the game. The obvious scenario here is one of child-rearing. Perhaps we play through various scenes of family life, in which we determine what sort of parent we will be in the eyes of the game through our specific choices in those vignettes. At the end of the game, the child faces some moment of crisis. His reaction to this -- to succeed or fail, and what methods he uses to do so -- will be determined by the way that we raised him.

    This is of course also a vastly simplistic reading of human development. (Can one rise above one's circumstances, or is one merely a product of one's environment? Personally, I believe the former, and thus would immediately have issues with my proposed game's rhetoric.) Still, it has more validity to it than suddenly removing the player's control of his avatar's actions at the end for... what, really?

    Black and White played in this space a bit, but I don't think I've ever seen IF go there.

  3. Very well argued, Victor. You made a believer of me.

    I usually envision the tracking of a player's traits being used to predict future actions, so a sophisticated plot manager could truly surprise, rather than being used to limit, by a parser that's already limited in understanding.

    But do the utility of traits still apply to NPCs? Traits seem to be popular in (commercial) static fiction.

    Fiction has terms for the roles characters play -- foil, antagonist, etc. -- and an NPC's traits are chosen to fit the role. But what then in the player-character's role? "To cause chaos and mischief"?

    -Ron Newcomb

  4. Jimmy hit the nail on his head. Where this is useful is not in restricting the player's behavior but in changing what the NPCs *expect* that behavior to be.

    If your knight character has been raping and pillaging his way to the princess in the tower, and then upon reaching her discovers the princess cringing and cowering back in terror-- or perhaps even throws herself out of the tower window rather than be claimed by you-- that suddenly makes your past decisions much more meaningful.

    Likewise a story about a great friendship would be enhanced if it was your *choice* to act in a friendly manner, knowing you could have taken other, perhaps easier paths.

  5. So, this thought is a bit ill-formed yet, but it seems to me your point about the possibility of growth misses the difficulty of growth. It's hard to break habits; hard to overcome weaknesses in one's character; and if the game doesn't quite rule out growth, it'd still be interesting for the game to underscore the difficulty. A game that told me, in effect, that I'd been so lazy recently I'd really need to do something to get motivated in order to X would match my experience.

    My life has been sheltered and bourgeois; you might say that the biggest consequences of my past actions have exactly been the patterns-of-actions they set me up for in the future.

  6. The difficulty of growth can be inherent in the gameplay. If you've been battling your way past the guards since the beginning, and then you find yourself facing a guard who's too powerful to defeat, it takes a leap to realize that you can talk your way past him instead -- and if you've been smooth-talking the guards all along, it takes a similar leap to realize that when you reach a guard who doesn't speak your language, you just have to fight him.


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