The Versu Galatea

galatea_quarter_reversed_sad

In addition to Blood & Laurels, in the late days of Versu we built — and came very close to releasing — a Versu remake of Galatea. The idea was that it was a piece that some people were familiar with, but which could be more accessible in this form; and releasing it this way would tell an interesting story.

Doing the conversion was a strange project. For one thing, I myself have a kind of weird love-hate relationship with Galatea at this point — a lot of people love the piece, but it’s pretty much the first thing I wrote that ever got any widespread scrutiny. I would write it differently now, in many ways and for many reasons. Parts of it strike me as flippant, parts clueless, parts overblown. I’ve gotten some great fan mail, art, and even music about that game, and also more creepy and bizarre email than about anything else I’ve written. And I’m also grateful, as that single piece is probably responsible for my career, a lot of my friendships, even my marriage. I remember it fondly but I almost never replay these days. So revisiting it long enough to reimplement all the text in a new context was strange. I disciplined myself not to change too much of the original dialogue, even when it wasn’t what I would now write.

From an implementation perspective, it wasn’t difficult to move the text of the original game into a Versu format. Versu’s conversation implementation is strictly more powerful than the one in Galatea while at the same time being much easier to author; often all I had to do was strip the strings out of the original code and do some minor formatting in order to feed the results into Prompter, Versu’s dialogue-authoring tool.

g_endings_5There were a lot of other considerations, though. This wasn’t, it couldn’t be, the kind of port that preserves the gameplay experience of the original. The original is a parser-based game with a lot of noun-hunting, and people get stuck on it sometimes, not sure what to do next or how to drive things forward. Versu is designed to surface those affordances, not to hide them; to produce forward movement, not a halting sense of difficult discovery. Versu characters talk, a lot, even if the player doesn’t say much.

There were some tweaks I made in order to emulate a little of the original Galatea’s reticence, to provide some pauses. But this Galatea was forthcoming in a way that felt very different. In the early prototyping, Richard Evans remarked that the game felt somewhat less magical because of its increased fluidity, and I did know what he meant.

galatea_profile_reversed_neutralAt the same time — this Galatea felt more active than the old one ever did. And there was also the point-of-view shift. The way Versu works, a protagonist and all the NPCs have to be instantiated as characters in more or less the same way. There was therefore a parity in Versu between the player and Galatea that never existed in the original code base. The original code models topics and things to say about topics; the character Galatea’s emotions and reactions are hung off of those, triggered by the player’s questions and gestures, and only ever very rarely by additional daemons that add one- or two-turn-later follow-ups. In Versu, Galatea and the protagonist were both modeled as agents with a range of social possibilities open to them, and it was a matter of run-time choice which of those agents were driven by the player. What that meant (among other things) was that I could make Galatea a playable character and go through the same scenes and the same dialogue as her, for the first time.

It was an astonishing experience, playing as Galatea. The protagonist came off as this tone-deaf jerk, since so much of his dialogue consisted of endless nosy personal questions.

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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.)