Emergent Puzzle Solutions

A recent RAIF thread brought up the Magnetic Scrolls games, and the fact that they used a simulationist system that could produce puzzle solutions that the game authors hadn’t thought of:

“Talk of current IF development drifted on to whether it’s possible to create a game in which the player is not really constrained by the author’s intentions. Michael noted that Magnetic Scrolls games were kind of like this-for example, if an object had the “sharp shards” bit set, dropping or throwing the object would cause it to shatter into many sharp shards. In total, 128 bits were used to describe a more or less working universe that the player could interact with in ways that hadn’t been anticipated. As an example, Michael described an unintentional situation in which one could put a rat in some liquid nitrogen, snap off its tail and, for a few turns, use the tail to puncture feed sacks and obtain food.”

This raised a fair amount of interest (most of the “ZOMG that would be GREAT!!” kind). This yearning to do something the author didn’t think of is something I hear a fair amount of: Mark Bernstein has complained that, because IF games anticipate solutions, the IF player is always robbed of the pleasure of having invented a novel solution because he always knows the author was there first. Emergent-solution design might address that complaint. It might also address the frustration players often feel when a logical-seeming approach is either forbidden or not recognized by the game at all.

So I found myself thinking, again, about why more IF games don’t work this way.

It’s not that world model features like these are hard to code in modern IF languages. They were pretty doable in I6 and TADS 2, and are all the more doable now. From a coding perspective, it’s all about using attributes or classes to determine how objects interact, rather than making rules that apply only to specific items. Inform 7 and TADS 3 both, in different ways, support and even encourage this kind of code generalization.

It’s also not the case that no one has thought about or agitated for a game with emergent puzzle solutions. The idea has been floating around RAIF since at least 1999 — I’m sure there were renditions of it earlier, but I say 1999, because this was one of the topics that interested me enough to come out of lurker status, back in the day. I’d been working on a comprehensive simulation library, with modules for light levels, fire that burned and consumed, liquid that mixed and soaked and destroyed, breakable objects, cameras, smoke and gases, etc. My hope was to create a coded environment that felt deeper to the player than any other in IF to date, and that allowed for puzzle solutions that the author hadn’t thought up in advance. At one point I made up a small demo, which I posted, early in 2000; it mostly involved various ways of destroying things, by cutting, burning, or smashing to bits. I wrote then:

So with a complex, open-ended world model I envision the following IF-writing methodology:

1. Come up with the setting and the major plot junctures.
2. Figure out what the player has to do to get from one juncture to the next.
3. Fill the setting with props appropriate to the location/situation.
4. Consider: can the player use these props to solve any problems that stand between her and the next progress point? If not, figure out what’s needed and include it somewhere.

One could use this methodology now, of course, but the more complex the world-model, the more likely it will be that the game will produce its own fitting-but-unplanned solutions… my goal is to allow the player to do fairly ingenious things without breaking the feel and the flow of the story.

A few of these features made their way into my finished games — the liquid system became one of the major elements of Savoir-Faire, and I used some of the concepts in Metamorphoses. But I didn’t wind up designing those games in the way I imagined originally, and they also are not generally regarded as having achieved the emergent-solution goal, either. Nor have many other pieces of IF out there.

The Complexity Problem: what “counts” as an emergent solution. Both of those games do have emergent solutions in the sense that there are uses of objects possible that I wouldn’t have anticipated specifically. If I conceived of the puzzle solution as “use something hard to…” or “put something soft under…” or whatever, then it’s up to the player to supply an item that meets the criteria, without my having thought of all the particulars.

But that doesn’t have the degree of open-endedness that emergent-solution proponents tend to have in mind. They are, I think, looking for a multiple-step solution that relies on processes within the game, not just attributes of existing objects, even if those attributes are shared by a large number of in-game items and the author has no way to anticipate all the possibilities. What I mean by a process is some action or series of actions that changes game state. In the Magnetic Scrolls example above, the player notices two processes: dipping something in liquid nitrogen makes it fragile; breaking something produces sharp shards. Using those processes, he obtains the attributes needed to accomplish his goals.

What’s more, such processes need to apply to a large number of game items, not just one or two. In Savoir-Faire, we can apply color to a handful of objects, but for most of them this is impossible, so the color-application process does not contribute to an emergent-solution world model. Most puzzles in SF are about noticing attributes or applying at most a single action to change states.

Metamorphoses includes several in-game processes (resizing objects, breaking objects, changing the material substances of objects, piercing objects with a needle), and it’s possible to string these together — change an item to glass and then break it, say, or change an item to something that isn’t too hard, then pierce it, then resize it so that the hole is large, then change the item into a heavier substance… But I did anticipate most of these sequences, in part because there weren’t that many problems available to be solved. Emergent solutions tend to happen more often when there are a large number of puzzles, so that the world model developed to account for problem A can also be leveraged, unexpectedly, against problem B. So such games also probably need to be of a reasonable size.

So I hypothesize that a game allowing emergent solutions needs all of the following:

  • attributes common to most game objects that affect interaction
  • processes, effective on many game items, that allow the player to change attributes (or produce an item with new attributes out of an old item, as in the case of breaking the tail off the rat)
  • a selection of processes that can be used in combination (freeze rat then smash it); one way to think about this at the design phase might be to draw a chart of attributes and processes, showing which processes convert which attributes into which others; the more long chains are possible, the more complex the plans the player can execute
  • sufficient number of puzzles that the solution space becomes too large for the author to anticipate at the design phase

Once we have all those features, though, we run into some other serious design problems.

Maintaining solvability. Modern IF tends to avoid designs where the player can get stuck in an unwinnable game. The predominant design these days is a game which the player can either lose unambiguously (e.g., by dying) or continue to play in the expectation of making progress. Gone (mostly) are the games where you wander around in frustration for three hours before you realize that you did something seven hundred moves back that is now hindering any forward progress.

There are a few exceptions to this design rule, especially in games that are designed to be very short, so that replaying from the beginning is not too onerous a burden. But for the most part it’s settled in as an expectation of the community.

It’s hard to reconcile this rule with a sandboxed, emergent-solution game world, though. If the player is allowed to use (and especially to use up) objects in the game world, it’s harder to make sure that there are always enough supplies remaining to let him get through to the end. It would be possible to add a game-managing routine that introduced new items into the game world when old ones were destroyed — a sort of spawning process — but it seems as though this would get quite predictable and in some cases would be narratively hard to account for. (Accidentally smash the One Amulet of the Great God Mu? No problem, we can get another from eBay.)

There are other game genres that have fewer kinds of distinct objects, and more consistent world physics, in which emergent solutions are relatively common. But IF thrives on the unique and particular. This is partly to do with the requirements of narrative. We don’t tell stories about 84 cubical crates of first aid supplies and 92 barrels mysteriously packed with ammunition.

Maintaining narrative flow. Besides the design problem just mentioned, emergent puzzle solutions can raise problems with narrative flow. IF very often uses puzzles as a gating mechanism to control the player’s access to parts of the story. That works fine, as long as the author always knows for certain when the player is going to be empowered to pass a certain puzzle. The more susceptible the world is to unintended solutions and bypasses, the harder it is to exert narrative control. If, as I’ve argued before, the key to better interactive storytelling is to make the player’s actions more relevant to what is happening, it’s not clear that emergent-solution design helps with that.

To come at this argument from another angle: there are lots of games — everything from The Sims to Europa Universalis to Grand Theft Auto — which provide challenges with multiple and versatile solutions beyond what the game authors specifically envisioned. The gameplay of these is sometimes very good. What is not so clear to me is that this kind of design produces good narrative. Europa Universalis, at least, has a fair claim on being good interactive history, if that concept makes sense. But these are not stories.

I also think that this kind of sandbox play is really, really hard — nearly impossible — to render well in text, and that therefore IF is entirely the wrong medium for it. Whenever the underlying model is dominantly quantitative rather than qualitative, it’s easier to show in graphics than to describe in words.

Testability and Special-case Responsiveness. Any time you want to allow actions the author hasn’t anticipated, that necessarily means that the author also hasn’t tested them explicitly. Which means that it’s hard to eradicate weird edge-case behavior. Suppose I freeze the rat, break its tail off, warm the tail up again, mince it, cook it in the microwave, and try to eat it. What happens then? Suppose the minced tail has inherited the MADE-OF-MEAT attribute from the rat it once belonged to, which makes it edible when cooked. Does the game respond with, “Mmm, delicious!” or the like? What if the author has coded a sarcastic retort for trying to eat the rat directly, but does permit you to eat derivative rat portions?

At some point these results will stop looking like awesomely flexible applications of gameworld physics and start instead to look like bugs. What’s more, the proportion of customized response in the game goes down as more and more of the game’s text is produced in reaction to standardized actions. The results feel less literary and more game-y.

Focus on the Physical… Emergent-solutions systems as suggested by IF players almost always involve a detailed physical world model in which legs can be broken from chairs and used to bludgeon prison guards; lenses can set fires; sewer ducts can be crawled through; anything made of wood can be sawn in half… All this is fine, but it’s by no means a suitable kind of interaction for all stories. If the player character is supposed to be a clever, mechanically-inclined sort who solves everything by cobbling together a gadget, fine. But for much IF, this is not going to be a kind of interaction that advances the story-telling purposes of the work; and, if anything, the presence of this intricately made but intensely substance-oriented view of the world will be a distraction. Can we imagine a version of Common Ground in which it’s possible to spend real attention on the details of repairing the toaster?

…or the Psychologically Simplistic… We can, of course, imagine emergent-solution puzzles that aren’t so object-obsessed. Arguably, that’s part of what Chris Crawford is doing: making algorithmically-behaved characters whom the player can manipulate in an assortment of ways. It’s conceivable to have a detailed system that’s about people rather than a detailed system about things. But the problem there is two-fold: the improbability of producing a good story, and the difficulty of describing it. As a solution, Crawford has all his characters talk in a simplified NPC language, stripped of all the color and nuance that lends interest to real characters.

…or Knowledge-based… My game Mystery House Possessed tried a different approach to emergent solutions: there is a randomly generated murder and series of events following the murder; each murder leaves a variety of clues behind, and the player can use any of these to narrow down who the culprit is. As the author, I have no way of knowing exactly how the player will come to a solution. Because the player is mostly finding out things, rather than changing them, there isn’t as much opportunity for the emergent-solution approach to derail the game.

On the other hand, such a large proportion of the game depends on random factors that it’s impossible to write a walkthrough, and much of the time the player doesn’t so much get a chance to execute a strategy as to happen to stumble across new information. It’s possible over time to get better at the game and solve it faster each time, but there aren’t that many opportunities for the player to spontaneously manipulate the game for his own advantage and in a way unanticipated by me.

Though the approaches to detection are less varied (and less haphazard), An Act of Murder works in similar ways: because the game parameters are always reshuffled at the start of play, the solution to the game can best be expressed in terms of a strategy — what do we ask, of whom? What should we look for? — rather than a series of actions.

…or Randomized. Similarly, the When in Rome episodes deal with partly randomized, goal-seeking NPCs who can be defeated through various approaches; again, it’s impossible to write a walkthrough for these, since the nature of the creature being fought varies from game to game, and in any given playthrough the game-state is likely to develop in its own direction. But again, while I might not be able to predict what happens in any given game, the range of options available to the player always corresponds to certain general strategies which I was aware of at the design stage; so I think this cannot be called a genuinely emergent-solution kind of work. (In beta-testing of WiR 2, I found that it was often an emergent-failure work — in a few cases a clever and malicious NPC executed its goal-seeking behavior in a way that left the player without any way to win after a certain number of moves. But this is an example of how such systems make it harder, not easier, to design a game that’s consistently fair to the player.)

Approaching Emergent Solutions in IF

We could embrace emergent-solution design as a primary goal and just accept that this may not be a direction that leads to good interactive narrative or to designs that always remain winnable. Design, instead, on the expectation that the player will need to replay; that playing a game will be more about learning successful general strategies over many play-throughs than about working out the solution to puzzles once; that in fact we’re moving away from the territory of “puzzle” entirely and towards something that might be better called a “challenge”. Replay value goes up; literary value goes down. I think that’s a completely viable choice. There will be people in the IF community who don’t like the results, but that’s their problem; I think the smart thing to do is simply to be quite clear at the outset what kind of game you’re peddling, and let people opt to play it or not, according to their preferences. Probably as many people will be attracted as are repelled.

The much harder trick is to find a way to incorporate emergent-solution design into our collection of tools for interactive story-telling: to let the player use an extensively modeled system to explore the important issues of the story/game and as a mechanism to make choices that matter.

For that, I think we’re going to need to expand our thinking about what to model beyond the realm of fragile items vs. hard items vs. flammable items, and also beyond character conversation (which I continue to think can’t usefully be abstracted in this way lest it lose all personality).

I don’t know where that leaves us.

Yet, anyway.

41 thoughts on “Emergent Puzzle Solutions

  1. This sounds like the convergence of IF with Roguelikes. See many of them for a moderately complex physical model that allows for unexpected (and occasionally emergent) gameplay, with lots of learning strategies through repeated failure; more recent ones for attempts at having room descriptions, cohesion and sensibility in random dungeon layout, and narrative (Incursion, Crawl, Unangband, TOME).

    It’d be nice to be able to go in that direction without becoming as combat-centered as most Roguelikes are. What about the Harvest Moon games? Could we come up with an interesting narrative based around a farm (or other workplace) with a rich enough model of the job?

  2. I also think that this kind of sandbox play is really, really hard — nearly impossible — to render well in text, and that therefore IF is entirely the wrong medium for it. Whenever the underlying model is dominantly quantitative rather than qualitative, it’s easier to show in graphics than to describe in words.

    I see this as the fundamental problem of emergence in IF. All the other problems you describe here are issues for emergent gameplay in any game, but at least a graphical game has the advantage of being able to easily depict dynamics of the emergent system in a way that is easily interpreted.

    Emergence is about levels of abstraction. You have a system that operates at a fine level of detail, but which has meaning at a higher level. So, for instance, there is no rocket-jumping built into Quake, it is just a high-level meaning of a bunch of low-level interactions. The game itself has no internal representation of this action, it is just in the mind of the player. The important thing is that the simulation can depict the low-level interactions is such a way that the high-level meaning is apparent.

    The problem with IF is that both the input and the output are naturally at the high level. This means that the game needs an internal representation of the high level meanings in order to (a) understand the player and (b) describe the effects of actions. Doing this well is very difficult (and the subject of much AI research) and has the risk that once you start building the symbols into the language, it once again becomes scripted and not emergent.

    Consider: How would you rocket jump in IF Quake?

  3. I should mention the recent game The Snowman, which *attempts* emergence but fails (more due to coding ability than concept). The only objective really is to escape from The Snowman, which can move around randomly and be distracted while it’s attacking other NPCs and so forth.

    There’s also my pet emergence example which achieves the threshold by having independent active NPCs (animals in this case) that can cause unexpected effects and allow alternate puzzle solutions.

    Tom, you might want to check out the “Bleach of Etiquette” section of When Help Collides although the menu-based aspect of that part makes it more like one of those text strategy games of the early 80s than IF. The question is, would building more of a world model into the choices make it more fun, or would seem like just busywork as you walk through five rooms to get the next item on the calendar?

  4. The mention of Roguelikes is interesting, because the attitude taken by Nethack fans is, if anything, the opposite of emergent solutions.

    It’s not “Wow, this is awesome that you can outsmart the designers!”

    The attitude — indeed, for Nethack, the catchphrase — is “The DevTeam Thinks Of Everything.” A sufficiently simulationist IF work may end up in the same situation if it lets the player concoct their own methods for overcoming the challenges.

    I’m also reminded of Inform School, whose final sequence involves manipulating the world with Inform code to produce a desired end-state, thus giving you the traditional *** You have won ***. If you managed to win without that desired end-state, you instead got *** You have cheated brilliantly ***. It was “anticipated” in the sense that it won me the game, but the author was clearly not testing out every way I could have done it.

  5. 1. We already have a kind of emergence in IF, though its not emergent puzzle solutions. I think this emergence is best demonstrated by Galatea and The Baron. We, the authors, know everything that can happen in those games. But we don’t know every sequence of possibilities (Galatea) or every combination of possibilities (The Baron). This sequence or combination is aesthetically crucial; and hence, we have an emergent meaning.

    2. In order to make emergent puzzles, the first thing you need to do is restate the form of puzzles. We are used to state puzzles like this “You won’t be able to enter the throne room until you give the guard the bottle of extra strong vodka.” In order to have emergent solutions, we should state puzzles like this: “You won’t be able to enter the throne room as long as there is an alert guard in the entrance hall.” This opens the possibility of multiple solutions.

    3. Next step: we need to give everybody in the game the alertness property, AND we need to embed this property in a set of processes that can take away or restore alertness. “Hitting someone with something hard”, “giving someone thirsty something alcoholic”, “making someone cry”.

    4. Parallel step: another solution to the puzzle would be getting the guard away from where he is now. Let’s implement that as well, by making a general system of curiosity. If something loud or flashy happens in an adjacent location, NPCs will go to that location to investigate. Implement loudness and flashiness.

    5. Weave crosses: everything you have implemented (the alertness system, the curiosity system, the alcoholic property, and so forth) should be used many times and in different circumstances. There is a puzzle where you could shout in order to attract help. Alcoholic things clean wounds and burn. There are other things which can be set on fire with alcohol. Some of these things explode after a few turns. Explosions are loud and flashy. Thus, alcohol feeds into the alertness system, but also into the curiosity system–which is great. If possible, all systems should be connected.

    6. This is the kind of complexity you need to make emergent solutions possible. You can now implement an object (the bottle of vodka) with the idea that you can use it to make the guard drunk; and the player can use it to blow something up in the next room, luring the guard away.

    7. Is this a lot of work? Yes. But, on the other hand, probably not more work (and in a large game maybe even less) than constructing loads of individual puzzles with multiple solutions.

    8. The hard question: how can you keep the player from getting stuck? I have to admit that the only elegant solution I see here is to make the puzzles non-mandatory. This is possible if the reward for solving a puzzle is a strategic advantage instead of the opening up of a new possibility–which is exactly the design strategy of my WIP. In my WIP, the guard puzzles would be embedded in the following context: if you solve the puzzle, that is great, because you do not need to fight the guard; if you do not solve the puzzle, you’ll have to fight the guard and who knows what else. You could win that fight, but of course its easier if you don’t have to. (And if you prefer hard fights to puzzles, you can just decide not to bother with the puzzles.)

    9. Linking this discussion up with my WIP has given me the conviction that I should try to build emergent puzzles into my WIP. This is going to be a lot of work. My WIP already was far too much work. Damn.

  6. When I think about this sort of area, the main thing I want is to cover all the main ways a problem could be solved, rather than to deliberately make unexpected solutions work; that’s just a useful side effect. Because of the prose generation problem and the possibility of short circuiting the plot (or making the game unsolvable), and as part of the testing strategy for the game, I would like to know what all of the possibilities are so that I can confirm them. Another reason is because there would probably be plenty of actions which it would be good for the game to comment on with non-generic prose, and there might be some that I want to explicitly disallow (which requires a suitable rationalisation to be given to the player). I guess you could try and do this by hand, but it would be cool to be able to automate the search for all possible solutions to the puzzles.

    Ages ago I posted something about the idea of an auto Beta tester … I don’t necessarily agree with everything I thought back then, but I still like the basic idea of something that takes your source code as input and spits out all of the possible puzzle solutions. This is in the area of data flow analysis, which can be very hard/impossible in some contexts (eg. the halting problem), but I think would be possible for the limited domain of IF (which doesn’t generally use floating point numbers, complex loops, etc.)

  7. This is the kind of complexity you need to make emergent solutions possible. You can now implement an object (the bottle of vodka) with the idea that you can use it to make the guard drunk; and the player can use it to blow something up in the next room, luring the guard away.

    Well — not to be disagreeable, but I don’t think so. This level of complexity provides solid and flexible multiple solutions to puzzles. I think it’s a good design strategy in general; Metamorphoses works this way, and so does Savoir-Faire. Puzzle solutions are tested in terms of the final game state rather than how the player got there, and the simulation model allows for a lot of different possible processes.

    My point in this post is partly that, while I once thought this kind of thing counted as providing emergent solutions, in practice players do not perceive it that way: shallow emergence of the form “you can use any kind of alcohol to make the guard drunk” or “you can break this door down with any heavy object” still makes it obvious that the author has thought of at least the general form of all the puzzle solutions. While this is fun, I don’t think players perceive it as true emergence.

    It starts to feel more like there are emergent solutions when the player can formulate many multi-stage plans that have the desired effect — and also form multi-stage plans that do things *other* than solve puzzles.

    There’s yet another problem here that I forgot to mention in my original post. In a game world where many many significant options are possible, it can get very difficult to give the player any guidance. I don’t mean that IF has to lead the player by the nose, of course; only that it needs to communicate what interesting things can be done.

    I think your “all puzzles are optional” approach might actually aggravate that problem. If the player can do lots of different interactions that produce non-default feedback and it’s not even clear which problems have to be solved, I worry that the player will spend a lot of time wandering around trying to come up with stuff to do — or trying to decide what is important to do.

    Roguelikes, being less narrative, don’t have this problem so much, because the player knows going in that the basic range of goals is to kill monsters, explore, amass loot, etc. (At least, that was true when I last played roguelikes much, which is to say about fifteen years ago. If they’ve flourished into a more literary art form in the meantime, I missed it.)

  8. Well — not to be disagreeable, but I don’t think so.

    Neither of us thinks that to disagree is to be disagreeable, do we? :)

    I suppose that by simply thinking out loud, I did not put the right emphases in my post. What makes my alcohol example different from the examples you give in your reply is the number of systems that play subsequent roles; or, in other words, the number of stages of the solution.

    If the possible solutions are just in terms of “you can use any object with property A to achieve desired effect B”, it is not really interesting.

    More complex but only slightly better is having multiple systems which feed into each other in a linear ordering: the alcohol property FEEDS INTO the fire system FEEDS INTO the explosion system FEEDS INTO the loud and flashy system FEEDS INTO the curiosity system FEEDS INTO the location of actors, which is relevant for certain puzzles. This is only slightly better in terms of emergence because the author can still easily keep track of all the ways to make an actor move away from its location.

    If you want to have emergence, combinatorial explosion is your friend. What we want is multiple systems feeding into each other in a non-linear, non-treelike and preferably circular network. Suppose that actors can ring an alarm bell when something they see is on fire. Then the fire systems feeds into the loud and flasy system, and the locations of the actors feed into the loud and flashy system as well. The loud and flashy system, in turn, feeds into the curiosity system, which feeds into the locations. This is our first circle.

    Now it has become possible for the player to set something on fire in room 2, then make something explode in room 1, such that the guard in room 3 starts walking to room 1, sees the fire in room 2, rings the fire alarm, and people from everywhere start coming to room 2 to help douse the fire. Could you have foreseen this? Perhaps–but as the number of circles and crosses increases, the network of possible courses of events becomes bigger and bigger.

    Now it seems to me rather essential that you very carefully select the systems you wish to implement. The examples I gave might be good for a Thief style game, where you are sneaking around, trying to avoid people, making distractions so they get out of your way, and so forth. Which systems are implemented should become clear to the player relatively quickly, and since they will be the meat of gameplay, they should be tailored to the game you wish to make.

    (I believe that general “simulationist” libraries are not a brilliant idea.)

    The other matter, of optional puzzles–I don’t know if I understand your point. Maybe I’m using the word “puzzle” in a slightly unorthodox matter. I am more interested in creating the kind of situation where the environment and the background knowledge about the available systems gives the player a brilliant idea, and this idea then actually works and give the player a tactical advantage; and less interested in the kind of puzzle where you have to think of something bizarre to do with a couple of strange items.

    Example. The player knows that guards respond to what happens in neighbouring locations. The player sees the large Fire Alarm Bell in the top of the church, The player thinks “Aha!”–and enter my previous example. It works, she gets a tactical advantage, everybody is happy. If she doesn’t think “Aha!” nothing is lost, and she can still finish the game; it’s just a little bit harder.

    So she never needs to search for puzzles or something to do, but if she likes searching for puzzles more than going on with the game, she is free to do so.

    I have to admit that all of this is pure theory. I haven’t even started to implement this in practice, so maybe it doesn’t work at all.

  9. If you want to have emergence, combinatorial explosion is your friend. What we want is multiple systems feeding into each other in a non-linear, non-treelike and preferably circular network. Suppose that actors can ring an alarm bell when something they see is on fire. Then the fire systems feeds into the loud and flasy system, and the locations of the actors feed into the loud and flashy system as well. The loud and flashy system, in turn, feeds into the curiosity system, which feeds into the locations. This is our first circle.

    Yeah. I agree that’s where real emergent solutions would come from. It is also a cthulhoid abyss out of which come testing nightmares the like of which the world has never seen, especially if you have independent characters that can move around and do somewhat unpredictable things in response to the player’s behavior. This gets back to my point about “emergent failure”: it’s really easy to design a system that will sometimes put itself into an unsolvable position, by moving around items that the player is supposed to have available, or blocking map progress in some way, etc.

    (I believe that general “simulationist” libraries are not a brilliant idea.)

    (Agreed.)

  10. With regards to dealing with emergence breaking simulationist puzzles, I think it might be fruitful to include non-obvious ways to short-circuit such puzzles. For example, “A New Life” contains a darkness puzzle where the PC becomes unwilling to walk around in the dark after tripping and falling, making areas beyond the dark room inaccessible. The puzzle has several possible solutions, none of which is particularly simulationist in any deep way, but each of which can be made unavailable depending on the player’s actions. But there is an additional solution which is always available, but which no player can be expected to think of, despite it being perfectly sensible: >CRAWL [direction]. Of course, for this sort of thing to work, the hint system would have to figure out that the more interesting solutions had all been broken, and update the hints accordingly. (Which I never got around to doing right in ANL. Sigh.) This way, finding a *real* solution to a puzzle still feels like the best thing to do, but breaking the real solutions doesn’t break the game.

  11. Unsolvability

    Yeah, there is a cthulhoid abyss here. :) But there are ways of closing it off. First, you could define a state of equilibrium which the game reverts to if the player stops doing stuff. (All the guards go back to their original positions, and so forth.) To have the desired effect, this equilibrium should be a solvable state.

    Second, you could take any of a number of strategies that ensure that no state is really unsolvable. Alexandre describes one of them: make sure there is always a solution available which is independent of the game state. An alternative is what I said about my WIP. Yet another alternative is what David Whyld did in The Warlord, The Princess & The Bulldog: you don’t have to solve all the puzzles, but you must solve at least some of them. (In his game, whenever you fail to solve a puzzle, you take damage. You start with enough health to fail a number of puzzles, but not with enough health to fail all of them.)

    Third, you could use a weak source of randomisation (that is, something that keeps changing the state of the game, but slowly compared to the changes that the player can make) to ensure that the game will never stay in an unsolvable state for long. Of course, this only works if the unsolvable states form small and scattered regions in state space.

    Fourth, you could make sure that all moves in the game are strictly reversible. This might only work for some fictional situations.

    Emergence

    By sheer coincidence, I heard a talk yesterday by Prof. Paul Cilliers of the University of Stellenbosch. He talked about complex systems, which explicitly defined as systems with emergent properties. He gave a list of properties of a system that make it complex–as I understood him, none of these properties is necessary, but if a couple of them are present, there’s a good chance of your system being complex.

    I think it is interesting to list these properties and see how they might figure in interactive fiction.

    1. Large number of components. I suppose this is obvious. In IF terms, I would like to stress that these components need not be objects–they could also be properties and global variables.

    2. Components interact dynamically. IF is always dynamic. I do think that emergence is much easier if not all the interactions are the direct results of player input. If the components interact with each other even if the player is not “holding” both of them and putting them through some kind of interaction (“hit painting with pudding”), there will be more causal chains and more possibilities of these actually forming a highly complex causal net.

    3. Interaction is usually quite rich. This was glossed as the idea that many components interact with many other components at the same time. See my previous point.

    4. Interaction is non-linear. I see how this is important in systems that are described by equations, but I’m not sure what to make of it outside of that context. Anyway, if your IF is governed by equations, think about introducing some non-linearity. (I suppose this situation is very rare.)

    5. No direct link necessary. The idea was that complexity can be generated even when components only interact locally, that is, with their neighbours.

    6. Abundance of (non-linear) feedback routes. This is what I was trying to say in my previous post, when I was talking about circular networks of systems.

    7. Open systems. This means that there is outside influence. IF is always open: the player is an outside influence. On top of that, there may be a randomiser. I don’t see much other use for openness, though.

    8. Far from equilibrium. In IF, emergent solutions become more probable if the player can kick the game state far away from its original equilibrium (if there is an original equilibrium).

    9. History if vitally important. I suppose this means that the system does not have the Markov property, that is, it does have a memory. For IF, I would translate this as: making some aspects of the game sesitively dependent on what went before increases the number of possible states, and thus the probability of emergence.

    10. Subcomponents do not have access to all information. A guard doesn’t know where all the other guards are, but only where his neighbours are–that kind of thing. This ensures that there is no all-seeing AI directing the course of the system; though I’m not sure I understand why this is a feature of complex systems.

    For IF, I think take-home lesson is this. You need to build general patterns of interaction between the objects in your game, which feed into each other through an abundance of feedback routes. Make sure that are many interactions between objects. Make sure that either the system is not in equilibrium, or that the player can easily kick it away from equilibrium–that is, things start happening whether the player is still doing anything or not.

    Conclusion

    The more I think about this, the more I come to the conclusion that this whole emergence things is (a) very interesting, (b) only appropriate for games that are specifically designed around it. You really need to start thinking of your game as a system moving through state space rather than as a branching structure of possible plot lines, if you wish to pull this off. But it could be really cool! You could really have a living world; and I’m not using that word in an entirely metaphorical way.

    • Interaction is non-linear.

      This generalises to “there is negative feedback”. Starting a fire might lead to fire being extinguished. Dropping more leaves on the sward may lead to ALL leaves being swept (non-linearity in the number of leaves present). This is critical, to avoid the system tending to an extreme state – with negative feedback one gets vibration, and with enough complexity one gets strange attractors.

  12. (I’m sorry, I must have forgotten a part of my html-code when creating the Wikipedia link. Emily, if you can edit my post, please feel free to fix it.)

  13. Fourth, you could make sure that all moves in the game are strictly reversible. This might only work for some fictional situations.

    >GLUE TAIL BACK ON RAT. MICROWAVE RAT.

    This ensures that there is no all-seeing AI directing the course of the system; though I’m not sure I understand why this is a feature of complex systems.

    I think I understand why that might be: if the play of the game is entirely determined by one unified AI, it seems more likely that the results will be predictable.

    I do think that emergence is much easier if not all the interactions are the direct results of player input.

    Yes, I think that’s right. At least, it’s easier to get into complicated states if there are also NPCs wandering around changing the world model.

    I find all this interesting, but at the same time I’m still not completely sold that

    a) we can do this well in text, given the special constraints of representing events in textual forms; and

    b) doing so will improve the other aspects of interactive storytelling that I’m (we’re?) interested in.

  14. I’m not too worried about a), although you’d have to think really carefully about the kind of game you could make. But I agree with you about b). After thinking it over a bit, I strongly suspect that the kind of game that has emergent solutions is also the kind of game that does not have interesting interactive narrative.

    But we can always hope that somebody proves us wrong.

  15. This is the juiciest discussion on the internet this week. :)

    >>Maintaing solvability<>Focusing on the physical [..] is not going to be a kind of interaction that advances the story-telling purposes of the work; and, if anything, the presence of this intricately made but intensely substance-oriented view of the world will be a distraction.<>Maintaining Narrative Flow<>The gameplay of these [sandbox games] is sometimes very good. What is not so clear to me is that this kind of design produces good narrative. Europa Universalis, at least, has a fair claim on being good interactive history, if that concept makes sense. But these are not stories.<>I also think that this kind of sandbox play is nearly impossible to render well in text [...] Whenever the underlying model is dominantly quantitative rather than qualitative, it’s easier to show in graphics than to describe in words.<>If I conceived of the puzzle solution as “use something hard to…” or “put something soft under…” or whatever, then it’s up to the player to supply an item that meets the criteria, without my having thought of all the particulars. But that doesn’t have the degree of open-endedness that emergent-solution proponents tend to have in mind.<>emergent puzzle solutions can raise problems with narrative flow. IF very often uses puzzles as a gating mechanism to control the player’s access to parts of the story.<<

    We can unhook the story from solving problems and spatial exploration. We can tie it to time: we can drop a story tidbit after a flatly-stated duration of time wherein no new exposition has been printed to the screen. We can tie it to the PC’s third plausible attempt at something, as in finding objects in _Anchorhead_. (The last is in the same vein as a DM fudging die rolls in a tabletop RPG — a narrative rule overrides a statistical rule or still-unknown fact.)

    If we use emergent puzzles and emergent solutions, we -have- to unhook the story from it: emergence blurs the line of what is and is not a puzzle.

  16. This is the juiciest discussion on the internet this week. :)

    Maintaing solvability

    Maintaining solvability is a solved problem in computer science. Prolog, the declarative programming ur-language, has as a main feature the ability to search such a combinatorial problem space for solutions. Inform 7 is partially declarative. Nate Cull’s Reactive Agent Planner extension is complex because it must add what’s missing, but those sorts of things really should be built into the compiler. Else it’s a mess, as Nate’s extension shows.

    Giving the player guidance when they’re stuck is a simple task of running the Prologish output through a pretty-printer. “Hey, most of these paths to the end-goal start with action X, and two start with action Y, so we’ll suggest X or Y to the player.” That sort of thing.

    Focusing on the physical [..] is not going to be a kind of interaction that advances the story-telling purposes of the work; and, if anything, the presence of this intricately made but intensely substance-oriented view of the world will be a distraction.

    This depends on the manipulable “objects”. The flow of economics, the laws of society, the tenets and taboos of religion, all can have dramatic effects upon people when changed by a PC. Toasters, not so much.

    Maintaining Narrative Flow: The gameplay of these [sandbox games] is sometimes very good. What is not so clear to me is that this kind of design produces good narrative. Europa Universalis, at least, has a fair claim on being good interactive history, if that concept makes sense. But these are not stories.

    Mmm… Sandbox games don’t insist the player Do X; rather, they allow them to Be An X. They’re less dependent upon one particular challenge being overcome, one particular puzzle solved. They’re almost sight-seeing games where you can do some things, but it isn’t Failure or Game Over or Try Again if you don’t do it well enough. But they’re not sight-seeing games cause there are -some- world effects of the doing. This seems like it would be more conducive to the I-F format rather than less.

    They’re essentially puzzleless, unless you really go looking for a puzzle.

    I read somewhere recently that video games constantly test the player’s right to be the protagonist. Sandbox games, rather than doubting and testing whether the PC is the heroic firefighter, allow him to be a rather ineffectual firefighter. Surely there are stories where the protagonist doesn’t win at the big climax — don’t the more literary novels eschew the standard happy ending formulas in lieu of exploring or illuminating something?

    I also think that this kind of sandbox play is nearly impossible to render well in text [...] Whenever the underlying model is dominantly quantitative rather than qualitative, it’s easier to show in graphics than to describe in words.

    I disagree: I don’t find webs of causation (the heart of emergence and much of sandbox play) to be very quantitative. Given a city’s economy: knowing what commodities flow into and out of our competitor Grey Incorporated allows one to divert or destroy the primary source of its revenue without knowing how many barrels passed through in June; merely describing which commodity is Grey’s main one is enough. It’s the causal connections that are important in emergence and open-ended sandbox play, not the exact amount of data flowing through them.

    If I conceived of the puzzle solution as “use something hard to…” or “put something soft under…” or whatever, then it’s up to the player to supply an item that meets the criteria, without my having thought of all the particulars. But that doesn’t have the degree of open-endedness that emergent-solution proponents tend to have in mind.

    That’s because your puzzle solution is generalized, not emergent. When you say “I conceive of the puzzle solution as..” or “one of this game’s puzzles will be..” then you aren’t using emergence at all; you’re hard-coding something specific.

    Extending the above example, the need to deal with that particular corporation, and the reason the player chose that method of dealing, were not decided by the author either. The need arose because of the side effects of others tinkering with the flows or connections of the web (say, Grey suddenly became a major contender in your own industry). The player then made a choice based on what he knew of how the world worked (his knowledge of the causation web) and his own sense of aesthetic justice (causing a PR disaster by baiting Grey’s CEO with a prostitute would’ve worked just as well, but he doesn’t want to get personal).

    This gives the player solutions that emerged from that web, but also, the very puzzle to be solved emerged from it as well. I think this is more organic and less contrived than “Story, story, STOP: puzzle. Story, story, STOP: puzzle.” …even when many of those sentences are advancing in parallel, as in _Bronze_.

    I see emergence providing the stage that the narrative works on top of. While the fortunes and strategies of Grey Inc and PC LLC and the other six corporations shift around, the story deals with the mounting stress of CEOs, the increasingly personal attacks between them, the media making a show of it, and the city about to go the way of Detroit — the story deals with the reactions of the NPCs to the gyrations of gameplay.

    There is also the issue of truly dramatic events that change that causation web in a big enough way that everyone feels it. For example, the creation of the Internet drops the cost of reproduction and distribution of music to zero, and the music industry companies that made their money by those formerly laborious activities react.

    emergent puzzle solutions can raise problems with narrative flow. IF very often uses puzzles as a gating mechanism to control the player’s access to parts of the story.

    We can unhook the story from solving problems and spatial exploration. We can tie it to time: we can drop a story tidbit after a flatly-stated duration of time wherein no new exposition has been printed to the screen. We can tie it to the PC’s third plausible attempt at something, as in finding objects in _Anchorhead_. (The last is in the same vein as a DM fudging die rolls in a tabletop RPG — a narrative rule overrides a statistical rule or still-unknown fact.)

    If we use emergent puzzles and emergent solutions, we -have- to unhook the story from it: emergence blurs the line of what is and is not a puzzle.

  17. Ron, you really ought to try Amnesia sometime.

    My concern is with interface: what about text would make a simulationist narrative worthwhile? The inherent advantage of text (literary quality) is reduced by generation. In the case of Amnesia, while every intersection of Manhattan is modelled and there’s a theoretically interesting “survival game”, in practice it’s a textual mess and the only reason to solder through the simulation is to get to the (much more interesting) regular narrative.

  18. Maintaining solvability is a solved problem in computer science.

    I don’t get this. It seems to me you are claiming that the halting problem has been solved. This is impossible.

    Inform 7 is Turing complete (neglecting the size restrictions of the Glulx VM), so there is no algorithm that can check whether any Inform 7 game is finishable.

  19. Ron, the closest thing I can think of to what you describe is Textfire Golf, in which the player’s interaction with the golf simulation determines the reactions of the NPCs and has social ramifications as well.

    The thing about that — and about what I think you’re describing in general — is that it seems to decouple the gameplay from the narrative even more than most puzzle-heavy games already do. If you have emergent puzzles — that is, things the player himself sets for himself as goals — then can those puzzles meaningfully be part of a story?

  20. Victor: I’m just telling you what Prolog can do, and that I-F authoring tools could emulate the same feature to answer the Maintain Solvability question. How it relates to the halting problem I don’t recall. FWIW, pathfinding is a very similar messy problem with no perfect solution, but the pathfinding built-in to Inform 7 is good enough. So in that sense, these are solved problems.

    Jason: I’ve noticed a tendency that when an author creates a simulation of something in a game he’ll tell the player all about it, much like the writer who, having thoroughly researched something for a novel, then tries to pack all of it into the novel. (Example: the Battle for Wilcot Keep describes every single archer’s action.) Summary is almost as important as culling it altogether here.

    Just because the computer calculates the efficiency of your Cyprus copper mine, enumerates all the barrel contents in Portsmouth warehouse #3, and watches the loss rate due to scurvy pirates, doesn’t mean a single iota of that ever appears in the gameplay’s prose. It doesn’t, shouldn’t. Even when Grey sets a warehouse on fire, or Blue Corp subsidizes pirates against the player, he only reads that his second best export took a heavy hit. “Why? How?” (Small emergent mystery for the player there. Start talking to NPCs.) Other corp-vs-corp espionage also occurs too, but isn’t narrated either. (Player can EXAMINE NEWSPAPER three days later, though. Or, that’s a much juicier mystery to suss out if the media never does.) Afterward, he has similar options for striking back — fires, pirates, whores, and striking at the sources of revenue — using the same exact system.

    If you have emergent puzzles — that is, things the player himself sets for himself as goals — then can those puzzles meaningfully be part of a story?

    Emily: It improves the story in an oblique way: the artificiality of puzzles and puzzle solutions disappear. The player wouldn’t feel the “STOP: puzzle” so keenly. Excising artificiality improves immersion, which improves the story by way of improving the work as a whole. (It becomes a part of the story via rendering transparent that highly visible barrier between story and game.)

    (Victor: I like your extended example with the alert guard in the entrance hall, but I bribed the guard to ally with me, if not the watchdog. :))

    It is true all the different ways and orders those CEOs could fall apart is a lot of writing, and even parameterized cutscenes only go so far before the writing quality suffers. But this means I-F that properly merges narrative with crossword is currently more work than we’d like it to be, not that the whole emergence thing should be sidelined as a mere genre of I-F.

    I apologize for being a bit verbose lately.

  21. Emily: It improves the story in an oblique way: the artificiality of puzzles and puzzle solutions disappear. The player wouldn’t feel the “STOP: puzzle” so keenly. Excising artificiality improves immersion, which improves the story by way of improving the work as a whole. (It becomes a part of the story via rendering transparent that highly visible barrier between story and game.)

    Hm.

    What you’re describing to me, though, sounds like a situation in which the narrative elements are a separate layer from the main interactive portion of the game: the player runs around making decisions about whores and pirates (or whatever), which have slow and quantitative ramifications, and then every once in a while something happens at the narrative level, either because the player has triggered a cutscene by attaining certain threshold conditions, or because the time-marches-on features of the game require it. What that means is that the player is never allowed to influence what happens in a very direct way, only through low-level manipulations. (For that matter, this description reminds me a good bit of games like Europa Universalis, in which all sorts of interesting events can trigger if the player hits the right requirement conditions; but because of the lack of structure, thematic direction, and explicit choice about these events, I don’t think it is reasonable to call the results interactive narrative as such.)

    If the blockade quality of puzzles seems artificial, I think a much easier way around that is not to put in blocking puzzles. Pace the narrative through conversation or exploration, instead. (Floatpoint has very few bits that could reasonably be called puzzles, for instance. This annoyed a few players, who felt that the results were therefore not challenging enough and didn’t reward intellectual effort sufficiently; but on the whole I think it got rid of a sort of mechanical feel and allowed me to foreground the aspects of the work I was actually interested in. This is still problematic because people also didn’t feel they had enough time to explore the world — so longer play might have been better — but that doesn’t mean the longer play should have involved more explicit gating puzzles.)

  22. What you’re describing to me, though, sounds like a situation in which the narrative elements are a separate layer from the main interactive portion of the game,

    (Most existing I-F is like that anyway — the story is about love or romance or betrayal but the gameplay is about pushing boxes or searching a house for a key or finding a light source or some such.)

    Your first post wondered why I-F doesn’t use more emergence, and finally listed a whole bunch of headaches it can create for the author. I’ve been building reasons to overcome those barriers. -This- question is saying I haven’t married the narrative to the crossword. Well, yeah; that’s a bigger issue that applies to all I-F. It’s certainly possible that emergence could help a bit with the marriage: it removes the deus ex machina “hand of author” that hovers behind every interesting problem that confounds the player — even optional interesting problems as in Floatpoint. But only, at most, helps. More magic pixie dust is needed to finish the courtship.

    which have slow and quantitative ramifications [occasionally bubbling up to] the narrative level

    Regarding slow, I think it an interesting observation that, AFAIK, SimCity-like games don’t allow you to jump forward in time to the next interesting event. They allow you to speed up time, but you can’t, say, choose to jump forward when X happens, let alone the game doing a fade-out and auto-jumping to when Interesting happens. By contrast, novels skip forward constantly. I-F should use this idea. GO TO navigation is a start, because by ignoring the detailed How of travel, it’s also ignoring the time required to travel. Few I-F verbs are temporally elastic like that.

    I wonder if, when you speak of threshold conditions, if you’re envisioning much gentler, gradual changes that I am. I’m envisioning something more like the command SEND PIRATES followed by a jump-cut to a newspaper headline days later. (Unless something else interesting happened in the meantime, in which case we’d jump to that instead. Perhaps even collate the two events to reduce the number of jumps.)

    Anyway, regarding quantitative and occasionally, Victor’s example of emergence is an immediate, hands-on and completely non-quantitative one. The issues you just raised belong to this corporate game, not to the pattern of emergence itself.

  23. My concern is with interface: what about text would make a simulationist narrative worthwhile? The inherent advantage of text (literary quality) is reduced by generation.

    However the immersive quality of a game is enhanced (usually) by dynamic text. And it is far cheaper (in effort) to dynamically alter text than it is to produce new art assets, putting the former within the grasp of the solo author.

    Obviously I’m distinguishing here between generated text and dynamically altered text, but either one can be used in simulationist or emergent-based IF.

  24. I’ve noticed a tendency that when an author creates a simulation of something in a game he’ll tell the player all about it, much like the writer who, having thoroughly researched something for a novel, then tries to pack all of it into the novel. (Example: the Battle for Wilcot Keep describes every single archer’s action.) Summary is almost as important as culling it altogether here.

    Ok, this goes back to the Geisha section of Where Help Collides, which ditches the world simulation for the “interesting stuff”. The problem is you now have a simulation game, which is fine as far as they go and has been a genre for many years, but it isn’t achieving anything new as IF.

    Amnesia could indeed skip modelling the world, but skipping the spacial aspect won’t remove the fact that the resource-management part is dull and causes the story to skid to a halt.

    Both still suffer the issue which I consider primary: what can a textual interface do for us? If we dump all world modelling and focus on simulation choices, why are we bothered with the IF parser genre when things would be easier just with a menu?

    Mind you, I wouldn’t stop someone from writing a game with this in mind, but conscious effort needs to be put out to make sure the game isn’t “a simulation with a clunky interface” rather than some new form of IF.

    What you’re describing to me, though, sounds like a situation in which the narrative elements are a separate layer from the main interactive portion of the game,

    (Most existing I-F is like that anyway — the story is about love or romance or betrayal but the gameplay is about pushing boxes or searching a house for a key or finding a light source or some such.)

    A Mind Forever Voyaging, Deadline, City of Secrets, Photopia, Slouching Towards Bedlam, …?

    Additionally, there are plenty of cases where puzzle — even if seeming like a puzzle — does equate with story. Suveh Nux is entirely composed of “pure” puzzles, but those puzzles do form a narrative.

    There’s a large difference between “story triggers based on factors outside of your control” and “story is slightly contrived because there’s more focus than one would expect on finding the front door key”.

    It’s certainly possible to find IF with undigsted puzzles, but they’re just considered bad writing these days.

    They allow you to speed up time, but you can’t, say, choose to jump forward when X happens, let alone the game doing a fade-out and auto-jumping to when Interesting happens.

    My own Persistence of Memory changes the WAIT commands so time skips ahead to the next event.

  25. Pingback: Two more cases of emergent gameplay in IF « Renga in Blue

  26. the resource-management part is dull and causes the story to skid to a halt.

    Perhaps if Amnesia’s resource-management gameplay exhibited emergence it wouldn’t have been dull, and the immersion of the story wouldn’t have then been broken. Emergence allows creative thinking to come into play, and that creativity can be extended into the story.

    I’m not sure of the relationship between emergence and simulation, if any. The oriental board game Go simulates nothing, but has great emergence. Cellular automata are all about emergence, but calling it The Game Of Life seems more of a metaphorical conceit than recognizing it as a simulation. True, video games seem to require some sort of critical mass of complexity for emergence, but I’m not convinced it’s absolutely necessary. (Maybe it just seems that way because a video game would take 10,000 lines of code just to describe Go’s checkerboard?) And complexity isn’t synonymous with simulation: simulating a light switch isn’t complex; Galatea is a complex NPC but is not a simulation of the human mind.

    It’s certainly possible to find IF with [undisguised] puzzles, but they’re just considered bad writing these days.

    I agree, but I dislike using good writing as the silver bullet for every problem in I-F. True, writers are artists, and artists can make art out of pure junk. But if emergence could be a real solution for removing contrivances, let’s look into it. Then the artists can spend their good writing karma on the main portions of the game where it belongs, instead of on hiding the seams between story and game.

    And as Emily has implied, some people like puzzles, some like puzzle-less works, but there might be a third category, “challenges”, that aren’t either one. If so, I think that third category might be important for NPC creation. NPCs aren’t puzzles, but they’re not pushovers either. And how does an author create realistic NPCs using a computer’s deterministic rules? Well, I think emergence might help with that.

  27. Perhaps if Amnesia’s resource-management gameplay exhibited emergence it wouldn’t have been dull, and the immersion of the story wouldn’t have then been broken. Emergence allows creative thinking to come into play, and that creativity can be extended into the story.

    It could definitely be improved if the money-making ability was at the level of, say, The Sims — where you could pick from a multitude of professions or just a life of crime.

    Oddly, the life of crime seems to have the most emergence potential.

    And as Emily has implied, some people like puzzles, some like puzzle-less works, but there might be a third category, “challenges”, that aren’t either one. If so, I think that third category might be important for NPC creation. NPCs aren’t puzzles, but they’re not pushovers either. And how does an author create realistic NPCs using a computer’s deterministic rules? Well, I think emergence might help with that.

    That’s somewhat what the author of The Snowman was attempting — have a horror villian attack with no set script and the ability to go anywhere, and the only objective is to escape by any means possible.

    If you really want to go about trying to code one of these things, I’d recommend the horror villian plot as a simplest test case.

  28. I was thinking using emergence in persuasion attempts, either PC to NPC or vice-versa. Simple do-X-for-me-then-I’ll-do-Y-for-you just makes the NPC seem like a locked door. Emergence presents a false layer of rules — the emergent rules — so it’s possible to read the person wrong until you really get to know them. Then persuasion becomes more a challenge of really, truly understanding the NPC than simply bringing them the right MacGuffin.

    But that’s requiring some work in modeling a mind there. (Perhaps I need to re-read Minsky’s Society of Mind for inspiration of what all those simple interacting pieces are that the higher-order rules will emerge from.)

    The intelligent antagonist rationally deducing what steps he needs to take to chase, escape, or counteract the PC I don’t see as related directly to emergence: when you play your brother in tic-tac-toe, you have an intelligent adversary, but no emergence. The complexity of the playing field seems to be important. (Magnetic Scrolls had a standard complexified playing field.) Adversaries chasing agendas can be a part of the emergence, but don’t comprise it alone.

  29. The intelligent antagonist rationally deducing what steps he needs to take to chase, escape, or counteract the PC I don’t see as related directly to emergence: when you play your brother in tic-tac-toe, you have an intelligent adversary, but no emergence.

    Perhaps I wasn’t entirely clear earlier:

    Emergent IF is *not* theoretical. It actually exists. It was accomplished via the use of intelligent NPC agents.

    I simply bring forward a test case as a really straightforward way to duplicate this effect.

    But since you’re interested in conversation, try

    Shadows on the Mirror
    Astronomy Without a Telescope
    Galatea
    Urban Conflict
    Best of Three
    Snowblind Aces

    None of these are emergent, though. Since every conversational topic is pre-written it puts a damper on the possibilities. Urban Conflict probably comes the closest but that’s due to the nebulousness of the system — the other character may turn from nice to violent in a few turns for inscrutable reasons. (Also, from what I gather, Urban Conflict uses a “virtual NPC agent” system, so it involves people walking around like my first example, just symbolic people in a place not part of the regular game-universe that represents states of mind.)

    You can always try making the conversation generative, but so far that’s turned out badly. Getting good generative text in IF is still theoretical.

  30. Ah, your example of Melbourne House’s The Hobbit is the closest example of emergence I’ve seen yet. (I’d have to have more details on the game than that developer interview to say for sure if there’s emergence there.) I don’t trust the simple “the author didn’t think of that” because that’s not what emergence is. (It’s a possible effect of emergence, but is not a cause.)

    I am personally interested in conversation, but I haven’t spoken much about it — or auto-generation of prose in general — in this thread since AFAIK it has nothing to do with emergence. My above NPC example spoke to behaviour, not speech. And it was using emergence inside the NPC, not using the NPC as a component in the emergence found in the game as a whole.

    I’d like to throw another thought out: regarding that separation of narrative and gameplay that Emily mentions I may be making wider, I consider the world-sim (either of physical phenomena like Magnetic Scrolls, or of economic phenomena as in my tired running example) to be more a part of the story’s milieu than the story itself. Tolkien’s LotR was a milieu story that introduced us to elves and hobbits and such. Weis & Hickman’s Dragonlance Chronicles is a character story than uses the milieu, but wastes little time on describing it. I see the Magnetic Scrolls canon much like that: the first game or two introduced the “standard world”; later ones merely used it and wasted little ink on how it worked. This allowed the authors of later Magnetic Scrolls games to concentrate more on story. But without sacrificing any of the complexity that had so far been built up and allowed players to use some creative muscle if they wished. (Is that milieu comparison an old idea?)

    Emily, Victor: you both mention you don’t think general simulationist libraries are a good idea. Why is that? (Or perhaps, what do you mean?)

    Anyway, I noticed The Hobbit, in addition to generalized puzzle solutions, also tied character behavior to rules-that-vary, rather than hard-coding reactions like “Instead of grabbing the rabbit: try the rabbit thrashing.” or some such. The developer interview also mentions each animal’s personality was a list of actions it could perform. After reading Rust Hill’s “Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular”, I conceived of the exact same idea. (I think The Hobbit was smart in using animals as a way to sidestep the dialogue-generation issue.)

    The dev interview is here, since Regna’s link is broken:

    http://www.avventuretestuali.com/interviste/megler-eng/

  31. Emily, Victor: you both mention you don’t think general simulationist libraries are a good idea. Why is that? (Or perhaps, what do you mean?)

    What I mean is: I don’t think that we will arrive at interesting applications of simulation in gameplay by (a) first writing a library that is simulationist in some standardized way and then (b) using that library to write lots of games. The reason is that in my experience simulationist libraries are most interesting in games that make extensive and deliberate use of them, teach the player how to understand the world, and in some way tie the gameplay aspect together with the narrative aspect, so that what the player is doing is important to, and congruent with, the goals of the story.

    The one-size-fits-all library approach makes it easier for authors to include intricately-modeled worlds in their games — but are they the *right* intricately modeled worlds? Are they modeling the correct things to make the interaction most interesting in this particular game, for this particular story? Not necessarily.

  32. So what’s the difference between the standard Infocom-like parser and the standard worldsim? That parser doesn’t seem to bother many people by including a lot of verbs that many games do not use; what’s wrong with a worldsim that has some unused code? The detailed worldsim has already thrilled both players and at least one developer of The Hobbit; a raif poster(?) mentioned a thrill at using a smashed-pot shard to cut a rope, dropping an ogre down a hole, as a non-standard solution. If a standard complex worldsim makes possible author-unforeseen solutions, then it answers your original question of how to satisfy Mark Bernstein and the ZOMG players, with a lot less author work than emergence.

    I can see the downside in accidentally allowing the player to circumvent important stuff in a game here or there, but even so, a good standard still seems a better solution overall than coding everything from scratch, especially if we want more professional writers in I-F making interesting games (as opposed to CYOAs or highly linear Photopias).

    (Considering the I7 extensions simulating a part of the world, it wouldn’t surprise me if we’re all sliding that way anyway.)

  33. My problem with an extensive unused world simulation library is that it encourages the crossword/narrative problem instead of helping to solve it. It makes it more likely that more games will have interaction that is based around something (smashing pots, cutting ropes with shards) totally unrelated to the real plot and meaning of the game (taking revenge on one’s enemies, perhaps, or seducing the boss’ daughter, or whatever). While I am in favor of having more writers in IF making interesting games, I don’t think that can be achieved by discouraging them from designing the interaction as well as the text.

    I also think that what might emerge from this is a situation where the interaction in most IF games is drearily similar: no matter the writing, if all there ever is to do is cut, break, burn, eat, etc., based on a standard set of world features, I as a player am likely to master that system quickly, and find that future games contain no more challenge for me.

    In one of my original posts about this back in 2000 or so, I imagined a situation where the author doesn’t so much design puzzles as put a bunch of plausible objects into a room and then check to see whether there is at least one simulation-supported way to solve each puzzle using those things. This does avoid the problem of out-of-place objects in the game world breaking the immersion of the player, but honestly, that is not itself by any means a difficult design problem. The harder and more interesting design problem is making a game in which the player has significant agency, and in which the player is gradually taught both what matters in the game (in terms of story) and how to exercise his power over it (in terms of interaction).

    This isn’t an argument that a complex simulation is never appropriate: Savoir-Faire has one, and needs one, because the piece is chiefly about using objects to influence one another, and this percolates up even to the level of plot (though it is mostly a game of puzzles). But it needs a hand-rolled simulation to do this; a pre-fab one wouldn’t have worked.

    Optional extensions are, in my view, a good solution to this problem: they allow authors to make use of pre-existing simulation solutions without making those solutions the default. So if I decide that I really want a lot of ropes in my game, or a pre-fab system of weather descriptions, or whatever, I can use the examples and extensions that exist, but I first have to have decided that that’s what I want to do. Conversely, if I don’t want any significant physical simulation, but do want to have the player spend most of his time talking to characters and affecting their moods and attitudes, etc., I can instead plug in one of the several conversation extensions.

    (Come to that, I do think the parser should also adapt more to the kind of game in question; this is the reason I encouraged Graham to remove several rarely-used verbs from the Inform 7 library; it’s also why I sometimes remove actions from my games when they’re not likely to be significant, even if they don’t “break” anything — just to direct the player towards actions that are significant, and prevent wasted time and attention.)

  34. I also think that what might emerge from this is a situation where the interaction in most IF games is drearily similar. [..] I as a player am likely to master that system quickly, and find that future games contain no more challenge for me.

    That is a very good point. Even emergent puzzles would have that sameness problem. Well, if you like puzzles for the sake of puzzles, a hand-rolled worldsim is the way to go. I’ll agree with you there.

    Mind, I think the protagonist’s problems in a lot of commercial fiction are similarly similar: transportation issues, lacking a tool, etc. Simulating this dreary sameness would be mimetic.

    My problem with an extensive unused world simulation library is that it encourages the crossword/narrative problem instead of helping to solve it. [It results in games encouraging object-obsessed player behavior.]

    True — the player can take a break from the narrative to play with stuff, introducing a pacing problem at least. But your “sameness” argument undercuts that — if the player already knows what the world can and can’t do, then he won’t test for novelty there.

    (This was why the designers of Ico chose not to grant any new abilities or inventory items to the player throughout the entire game: they said such new things sent the player back into experimentation mode, and that undermined immersion, and mimesis: new abilities in real life are usually gained gradually.)

    The harder and more interesting design problem is making a game in which the player has significant agency and in which the player is gradually taught both what matters in the game (in terms of story) and how to exercise his power over it (in terms of interaction).

    I’ll agree with harder. :) Um, if the boundaries of what’s interesting in the work don’t coincide with the boundaries of what’s possible, and the writing guides the player from the barren possiblities to relevant ones, it would help hide the game’s “invisible wall” where all implementation stops.

    My final argument, when I ask former programmers why they no longer do it professionally, it’s frequently the same answers: they don’t like what extensive computer programming does to the mind; too much “funnel thinking” is bad for you; it’s not fun anymore. I can’t imagine a great deal of writers or others in the *humanities* taking a strong-enough like to this very math-like thing to do it at all, much less to make a solid, coherent worldsim for the Great American I-F, or sometimes even to glue together a few non-trivial extensions. They would prefer a programmer do that part for them so they can just write story-stuff, and I don’t blame them.

    Maybe you’ll disagree because you jumped that hurdle, so other writers should too, gosh darn it. But I’m having trouble jumping the same hurdle, albeit in the other direction, and I arguably have the easier path: it’s not like the computer rejects my bad writing.

    Well anyway, I’m interested in your reply as always, but I think I’ve about talked myself out. Readers further interested in Emergence should probably check out Wikipedia’s entry on it. The section “Emergent properties and processes” is one of the more readable sections. (No, I did not write it.)

  35. I’m just about talked out on this myself, really, but on a couple of points:

    Mind, I think the protagonist’s problems in a lot of commercial fiction are similarly similar: transportation issues, lacking a tool, etc. Simulating this dreary sameness would be mimetic.

    But, good lord, we don’t spend ten pages reading about how the heroine waits for the bus unless something interesting happens here. Conventional fiction may acknowledge the existence of the boring parts of daily life, but it doesn’t focus the reader on them primarily, unless it wants to make some additional comment about the way the boring and banal in life affects the character’s spirits (or whatever). In any case conventional fiction isn’t usually just an endless mechanical description of getting on subways and chopping carrots, laundering clothes and watching Leno.

    My final argument, when I ask former programmers why they no longer do it professionally, it’s frequently the same answers: they don’t like what extensive computer programming does to the mind; too much “funnel thinking” is bad for you; it’s not fun anymore. I can’t imagine a great deal of writers or others in the *humanities* taking a strong-enough like to this very math-like thing to do it at all, much less to make a solid, coherent worldsim for the Great American I-F, or sometimes even to glue together a few non-trivial extensions. They would prefer a programmer do that part for them so they can just write story-stuff, and I don’t blame them.

    Maybe you’ll disagree because you jumped that hurdle, so other writers should too, gosh darn it.

    I have very occasional spasms of the “I walked five miles uphill through the snow to school, and therefore SO SHOULD YOU” syndrome; but no, it is not, in general, my attitude that people should have to do painful things for the sake of it, or to prove their devotion to their art, or what have you.

    What I do think is that good IF design requires the ability to think in terms of algorithms, even if not in computer language terms: that is, you have to be able to describe, somehow, the dynamics of how the game is to respond to the player. It also requires some interest in the interaction aspect of the fiction and how that interaction is going to help with the story-telling. Otherwise, why are you here? Go write a book instead.

    This may seem to fly in the face of the wisdom that we need to get more writers into IF. I agree with that, but with a caveat: it would be nice to have more people with a background in story-telling skills, as long as they are also genuinely interested in exploring how the interaction aspect changes and enhances their story-telling process.

    If they need to collaborate with a programmer to implement all that, fine. But thinking about the world model — from which interaction arises — is not an optional part of IF design.

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