Tabletop Storygames: Microscope Union

I’ve written before about the storygame Microscope, in which players collaboratively generate the timeline for a fictional place or institution. Microscope Union is a spinoff of that, focusing on the development of a single family tree.

You start by naming a person who did something — it should probably be something extraordinary, but you can decide what extraordinary means to you — and some traits that allowed them to do this. Then you work backwards, filling in details about previous generations (back to the great-grandparents), and showing where those traits came from. Each phase of the game, you select one “union” to focus on. (You can also choose to have parents/grandparents not be biological parents per se, but be key influencers of the child’s life — we went this route a couple of times.)

The resulting play experience feels more coherent and directed than standard Microscope: because new people and events fit into a defined graph, it’s easier to remember who’s who, and easier to reason about causation. By the time we finished the game (two sessions of about 2-3 hours each), I felt like I had a pretty good idea of the driving forces in the final protagonist’s life.

I also liked that we wound up roleplaying the same characters in the context of their relationships with their parents, their spouses/romantic partners, and their children: this gave us a reason to explore some depths and idiosyncrasies that don’t always come out in RPGs.

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Interactive Narrative GDC Talks (Part 2)

As I noted here, there is a bunch of GDC content that might be of interest to interactive story folks. Last time I looked at talks that were really focused specifically on interactive fiction, especially work by inkle and by Choice of Games.

This time, two related subjects: social simulation and character modeling of various types, and complex morality. (And character with complex morality, as a bonus.)

Thinking About People: Designing Games for Social Simulation, Mitu Khandaker-Kokoris, The Tiniest Shark. (Recorded talk.) I’ve linked already to the Gamasutra presentation of Mitu’s slides, so you may have seen me mention this talk before. Gets into a number of types of games and also a series of criteria for thinking about social simulation games. Some of those criteria are pretty-much-always-desirable things such as “communicating to the player”; some describe a spectrum with many possible spots for productive work (“autonomous vs authored”).

Designing Morally Difficult Characters, Dan Nagler, Gigantic Mechanic. (Slideshow only.) This talk calls out the idea of giving characters complex, non-binary ideologies, and also shouts out to some of the very same tabletop storygames that I mentioned in my microtalk. If you follow the links, you’ll also find that this talk relates to a partially live action educational simulation that is sort of Senate LARP.

Beyond Binary Choices: How Players Engage With Morality, Amanda Lange. (Slideshow only.) This one gets at the issues with simplistic good and evil choices, offers some statistics about how people tend in practice to play simplistic-choice games, and then pulls out a couple of interesting exceptions to the general rules (like: Spec Ops: The Line manages to get a lot of players to do the pure-evil choice by laying enough emotional groundwork to make them feel their protagonist might be quite angry at that point).

Desire is Not A Dirty Word: Writing Healthy Fanservice for Games, Michelle Clough. (Slideshow only.) As with several of the other slideshows, there’s definitely some information being missed if you can’t see the full recorded talk, but there’s still enough here to give the gist: it’s about writing characters who are meant to be sexy and perhaps romantically active without falling into creepy objectification.

Measuring and Manipulating Player Trust, Chris Hazard, Hazardous Software. (Slideshow only.) This is the kind of talk I love to go to because it expands the boundaries of what I think I should bear in mind when working on a game. It’s an AI summit talk, it’s fairly math-heavy, and it’s about mathematical models for a) describing how likely NPCs are to make barters and do favors given various levels of trust in the player and b) conversely, assessing what the player feels about the risks and rewards in the game using similar trust modeling. It’s sufficiently abstract that I think one would have to put in a good amount of work to get from “these are some really interesting concepts” to “here is what gameplay based on this would feel like.” But I find this kind of thing fascinating.

And a bonus link not from GDC: this now-in-progress orc dating sim looks like it takes on a lot of the issues in Mitu’s and Michelle’s talks.

ICIDS: The future of interactive storytelling, plus some Versu thoughts

Hartmut Koenitz submitted a talk for ICIDS that was essentially a manifesto about what needs to happen next in interactive digital narrative, and accompanied this with a workshop on the future of interactive storytelling. The points of the manifesto are as follow:

  • We need a new theory of narrative for interactive digital narrative in order to get rid of accumulated preconceptions.
  • Interoperability is key: tools need to be developed in such a way that they can be hooked together and progress on one hand can be used by others.
  • Sustainability is essential. Lack of archiving has already destroyed a lot of valuable research work.
  • Interactive digital narrative needs to be author-focused. There is a challenge in training new authors in procedurality in order to get useful feedback from them.
  • User experience is crucial. We need to focus on how people actually experience and enjoy this work.

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Edge article on video game AI

This has been out in print form for a while, I believe, but the content is now available online: I was interviewed for an article on video game AI for Edge. The article draws extensively from the talk I did at the AI Summit at GDC 2012, with subsequent followup. I talk about social behavior AI and its potential in gaming, and there are also comments from Ben Sunshine-Hill (whose GDC talks always leave me in gobsmacked awe) and Mike Treanor (talking about Prom Week and Facade).

GDC 2012 Talk on Dynamic Dialogue

One of the more interesting GDC talks I saw was a Friday afternoon presentation by Elan Ruskin, talking about how dialogue snippets are matched to a continually changing world state in Left 4 Dead 2 and other Valve games.

It’s a neat rule-based system, designed to meet a couple of specific important requirements: easy for the writers to author a lot of content, responsive to a wide variety of different situations (what if we want a character to have a special quip if attacked while in the circus environment as opposed to elsewhere?), interruptible (characters should be able to exchange quips, but should sensibly break off if one of them comes under attack). Like Inform, it prioritizes rules and applies the most specific one it can find, using less-specific ones as fall-backs.

The resulting system is very well tuned to the specific case of having NPC dialogue that’s highly reactive. Characters aren’t planning or trying to achieve goals via dialogue, but they present a strong illusion of situational awareness, which is what those games require. (And there’s often a place for purely reactive NPC quips in IF, too.)

The talk also goes over a number of optimization strategies for speeding the lookup on these sorts of tasks, and argues for the importance of making tools that writers find comfortable to use. Solid stuff, both technically and in terms of project planning.

Elan has posted the slides and video here.

(Bonus: there’s a shout-out to Inform in the middle.)

Alexandra Leaving

There’s a review of Bronze on IFDB that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

After hearing so much about Bronze, I was expecting a very satisfying and pleasurable experience. This was not the case for me… I came away feeling like the entire experience was rather hollow and somewhat forced… Beauty and the Beast is a beautiful love story, but in this version of the tale, I felt that the protagonist’s relationship with the Beast lacked very much warmth or deep love.

This is a challenging review for me. Obviously, I’m sorry the reviewer didn’t have a good time. It’s possible that I could or should have done something to frame the presentation of the game to make clear that it was not going to be a traditional fairy tale happy-ending romance. (The closest thing to that I’ve ever written is Pytho’s Mask, which, not coincidentally, has some pretty shallow characters and a heavily gender-bound treatment of love; even so some subversive elements snuck in before the end.) Perhaps I seemed to offer something the game was never going to deliver — and, for what it’s worth, I do think that players have the right to want specific things from their games. Indeed, if the player doesn’t want something, she’s not likely to play for long.

However. The unromantic aspect of the game is not a mistake. On the contrary, it is the summation of the effort and thought that went into its creation.

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