Jul 18

Irreversible Events

When I'm playing an RPG, there are several things I'm constantly watching for.

One of these things is irreversible events: occurrences that block off alternative actions I might have taken or prevent access to alternative content I might have enjoyed.

I don't like them. Mostly.

Imagine a single path between two areas. The path leads to a collapsed ledge. You jump down, then find that the path above is too far up to reach again.

Another example: imagine crossing a bridge over a wide chasm. Every place you've visited so far can be reached again if you stop, turn around, and go back. Instead, you cross the bridge, but as you reach the far side, the bridge behind you crumbles and falls away. You're now stuck on this side; there is no mechanical means in the game by which you can return to the previous side. None of those areas can be reached now.

Yet another example: you're creeping through the dark when you hear a chitinous rustling somewhere ahead of you. You don't want to make a light, but you have only one potion of Night Vision remaining that you wanted to save for later. You decide it's more important to stay hidden, so you quaff the last Night Vision potion and carefully evade the nest of spiders now visible. Later, you can hear multiple skeletons clattering in the dark ahead. To avoid running into them, you must make a light. The skeletons see you and attack, forcing you to enter combat instead of enjoying being sneaky.

One more example: your character is having a conversation with another character. You're playing your character as cool and smart, trying to keep future dialog options open with this other character. But in clicking on a speech option, your finger slips and you choose an aggressively physical response option. The character you were talking to gets angry at you, walks away, and will no longer talk to you for the rest of the game. Because the developer provides no way to reload from a recent save, you're faced with the choice of either losing hours of play or missing out on what might be a fun interaction with an interesting character. (In a visual novel you might just replay the whole game to see the "missed" content, but let's say here that this interaction was just one small but interesting part of a much larger RPG.)

What irreversible events such as these have in common is that they foreclose options. Where prior to an irreversible event there might have been 100 different things you could choose to do, after such an event there might be only 50, or 3, or just one. The opportunity space for fun has been shrunk.

Certainly not everyone will find this objectionable. I do, because an important source of fun for me in a game is having enough space for cleverness. I'm having the most fun when a game enables and encourages surprising-but-effective choices or creative combinations. When instead a game is designed such that there's only one (obvious) solution to each problem, or in which a mere handful of worthwhile mechanics exist that can't be combined, there's little opportunity for cleverness. You're mostly just being marched through the developer's predetermined story.

That, to me, is not a mentally interesting game. It may be an exciting experience; it may be a moving experience; it may be a low-stress way to pass some time. But it's not the most appealing kind of fun for me, and, I think, not very appealing to gamers like me who prefer interactive entertainment that exercises our brains as well as our hands and our hearts. Irreversible events decrease choice. And for some gamers, less choice is less fun.

I think there are exceptions to this. As noted above, not every game has to emphasize thoughtful fun. It's fine that there are games offering other kinds of fun. It also might be possible to offer too much undifferentiated choice, such as from a combinatorial system that lets players bang together hundreds of inputs to yield millions of possible outputs (although here I would argue the true design flaw is the "undifferentiated" aspect). And of course I'm not actually all that grumpy about consumables such as food or potions. Consumption as a one-way process does foreclose options, but as an economic phenomenon -- a value choice -- this is often a pretty useful way of increasing the consequentiality of player choice, which is itself a worthwhile design goal.

Foreclosing on personal interaction options with characters is trickier, but I can appreciate the argument that "this is how conversations with people actually work." I'm not sure this is a strong argument for an RPG, though -- at least, not until better AI allows NPCs to respond plausibly to surprising inputs from the player, rather than just following pre-written branching logic no matter how narratively bizarre and mechanically undesirable those character reactions may seem from a player's perspective.

More importantly, story beats in general will usually need to be one-way. It would be extremely interesting to find a game that's designed -- not just by implementing save/reload, but through a first-class gameplay mechanic -- to allow the player to backtrack to any previous story events to explore different alternatives! Short of this, it's pretty reasonable that once the player has triggered a plot point, then short of reloading a savegame there's no going back from that story event or its directly related consequences in the game world.

(This points out an interesting difference in the kinds of irreversible events: events in time, and events in space. Irreversible events that lock off currently existing physical or systemic spaces are IMO a Bad Thing for exploratory fun; irreversible events that occur sequentially in time are, in virtually every case, necessarily OK as one-way processes because that's usually how story works. There's probably a better way to express this idea; I hope at least the basic thought is understandable.)

Overall, then, with the exception of story beats it seems to me that a pattern of implementing or allowing irreversible events -- consequences that reduce opportunities for player choice -- is a big red flag for exploration-oriented gamers. It's a warning that the developer is not actually committed to supporting player freedom and creativity in overcoming challenges and exploring the game world's content, but instead wants to tightly control the player experience.

Conversely, it is a thrill to discover a game that visibly minimizes irreversible events, that I can see has taken pains to ensure that I can almost always backtrack to any location or non-story state. When I play a game that's careful not to foreclose my options, I know it's made by a developer who is confident in the high-level flow of the game, who is genuinely delighted when I discover a new (preferably non-game-breaking!) way to interact with the game world, and who respects my fun-finding autonomy.

Sep 15

Environmental Storytelling

Weapon at the ready, you slowly open the door.

No movement ahead. No sounds behind you. You relax slightly and enter the room.

Along a far wall, beneath pale strips of peeling wallpaper, is a bed: a sagging mattress atop broken boards, covered with the decayed brown remnants of a bedspread.

On the bed is a small skeleton. One of its arms reaches toward the room's lone window, and one short leg rests inside a moldy leather brace.

The window is boarded up, but a pale golden light sneaks through the gaps in the planks. On the floor below the window lie a baseball glove and a weathered wooden bat. On the rotted windowsill, glowing in the sunset, sits a baseball bearing the faded signature of someone named "Dizzy Dean."

Around the window are drawn simple images: stick figures playing with a ball on a sunny day; a house with something warm being taken from the oven; a brilliant flash of light; multiple angry stick figures wrestling with two horizontal stick figures drawn with their eyes closed.

You step back and close the door, leaving the room as you found it.

As you read this description of something that might happen in a game, did you create in your mind a story to explain these observations? Do you also do this when actually playing a game?

If so, you've been enjoying "environmental storytelling." It's one of the great pleasures of exploring game worlds.

Environmental storytelling is the art of arranging a careful selection of the objects available in a game world so that they suggest a story to the player who sees them. (I'm using "story" in a fairly loose sense here, so let's not get hung up on what is or isn't a story -- I just mean a sequence of events that has emotional meaning.)

Many games featuring characters in an imagined world tell their stories overtly. Developers may animate a non-player character who talks to your character; they may dramatize events using cutscenes; they may place notebooks or audio logs; they may simply display text as exposition. In all these cases, a story is imparted directly to you, the player, with little or no interpretation necessary.

Environmental storytelling is less direct. Instead of explicitly describing events, environmental storytelling shows the final outcome of a sequence of events, then it invites players to make up their own stories about what happened to cause that outcome. This mode of telling stories is more collaborative than performative: a game's content developer will select objects for a location, arrange those objects in some way that feels meaningful, and then leave the final interpretation of that tableau to the player.

In combination with more direct storytelling, this is a wonderful way to deepen the player's immersion in a virtual world. Players can be told directly what happened and why, and then developers can give that dry information more emotional punch by creating vignettes that allow players, through their characters, to perceive the consequences of the events described elsewhere. As players invent stories to explain these vignettes, they become more immersed in the world of the game. Do it often enough, and well enough, and many players will even begin to discover meaning in things that the developer never thought of.

A game whose developers have taken the time and care to arrange its objects in ways that living people might have done is a game that is a joy to explore, even if the story that some environment tells is not a happy one. Each new scene helps to give the game world more meaning, and makes it a place to which one wants to return, because who knows how many such scenes remain to be found, or were missed the first time through?

It should be said that environmental storytelling probably has the most value in game worlds that, for whatever reason, don't contain many non-hostile NPCs. Beyond just being an additional way to communicate the nature of the game world, the nature of environmental storytelling -- arranging objects to show the outcome of a sequence of events -- is a particularly valuable content delivery tool for game worlds that are post-apocalyptic or rest on the bones of long-lost cultures. Games about things ending benefit from showing stories about the endings of individual people.

It's probably not a coincidence that the two major franchises of Bethesda Softworks -- The Elder Scrolls and Fallout -- are both deeply wrapped around what could be called "the melancholy of lost civilizations." There aren't many people around (to deliver story) because they're mostly dead. So the stories to be told, by those whose lives ended long ago, are rendered through the local environments in which they lived and died.

A skeleton reclining in a bathtub filled with empty gin bottles.

A decayed cake, in the center of a circle of toys, with a party hat placed on a single chair.

A dessicated corpse with one arm draped over a trapped chest.

A skeleton outside the entrance to a bunker, slumped over a chair next to a pistol with one round missing.

A tattered clipbook containing faded pictures of two girls laughing.

A room filled with plungers attached to every conceivable flat surface.

Two skeletons on a bed, their hands touching.

A secret room whose shelves are filled with cheeses of every description.

You get the idea. Behind the door to any room in the game world might lie the last moments, frozen in time, of someone who once lived in that world, and whose ending (as revealed by the last objects that mattered to them) tells you a little something more about that world.

I can't think of many game worlds that wouldn't benefit from some thoughtful environmental storytelling.

Apr 15

Dynamic Ecology: Local and Global

I commented recently on the announcement by OtherSide Entertainment that their in-development Computer Role-Playing Game (CRPG), Underworld Ascendant, would include some form of "dynamic ecology" simulation.

Naturally I did have some questions about that. 🙂

Here's something else Underworld Ascendant (UA) Senior Producer Chris Siegel said about the dynamic ecology idea (from UA's Kickstarter Update #39):

Whether the player [alters the ecology] intentionally or by accident, he will be able to see the effect of his actions in his environment almost immediately.

What I'm curious about at the moment is the "almost immediately" part of that comment.

That will probably make sense in a lot of cases. Players will often have a short-term goal in mind, and (as with the rest of the Innovation Engine) they'll expect to be able to perform some action and then watch as it immediately helps them achieve that goal.

What about longer-term goals? In Chris's example, damming a stream caused the downstream herbivores to move away, frustrating the local predators... but is it plausible that this would happen immediately, right before the player's eyes?

Would it be OK if there are some (not all, just some) goals that can't be attained instantly through any player action, but that instead require time -- and maybe some repeated "encouragement" -- to achieve? Would it be OK if manipulating the local ecology was one of those kinds of effects?

For example, this is basically what agriculture is -- a longish-term consequence of a specific intentional alteration of the local ecology. Domestication of animals is an even longer-term example. I'm not saying these should be part of Underworld Ascendant, just that there can be gameplay value in having effects of changes to an ecology that take time to manifest.

Even better from a game design perspective: in addition to somewhat predictable short-term and long-term effects of fiddling with a local ecology, what about unanticipated effects?

Whether deliberate (by the player or an NPC), accidental, or as the result of some natural physical process, it feels reasonable to me that alterations to an ecology would also have long-term effects that are harder to predict and control. The removal of minerals from soil, for example, is a side-effect of agriculture. The long-term unintentional ecological effect of nitrogen extraction is to cause a place to become unfarmable -- or even a "dust bowl" -- without adopting additional practices such as fertilization and crop rotation.

Again, I'm not suggesting that the nitrogen cycle needs to be part of the dynamic ecology of an exploratory/simulationist game like Underworld Ascendant. There's already a Farming Simulator 2015. 😉 The point I'm making here is that in addition to desired long-term changes due to deliberate modifications of a local ecology, it's more interesting if there may also be side effects that accumulate over time, causing new kinds of gameplay challenges to emerge. That's a much more active world.

Suppose an NPC accidentally drops a naturally-powered magical light source. It rolls down a ravine, bounces off a ledge, floats down a subterranean stream, and finally comes to rest on the sandy shore of a formerly pitch-black grotto. A place that had been dark for years, eons, is now brightly lit. As days pass, weeks, months, is it possible that plants and animals might begin to adapt to the availability of light in that location? I don't mean "blind fish suddenly sprout eyes" (although maybe magic could speed up evolution). I mean different plants might grow; new herbivores could migrate to the grotto to feed on the new plants; new predators might arrive to take advantage of the sudden abundance of prey... and all because of a completely accidental interaction between an ecological input (a light source) and the systemic behaviors designed into the ecology engine. Of course it would be nice to integrate this sort of thing into active gameplay in some way, but for the moment I'm more interested in whether it could happen at all.

Finally, what about non-local ecological changes over the long term? To continue the series of agricultural examples, in the 1600s the practice of fencing animals out of crop areas was replaced with fencing-in. This was a much more efficient practice for maintaining a healthy balance between nitrogen usage and fixing by combining crop and livestock farming. As this process became adopted widely, it ushered in an agricultural revolution that fed many more humans. What had been a local ecological modification spread to change all of Western civilization and beyond.

And to stress this once more, I'm not suggesting that a simulationist action-adventure CRPG needs to care about whether NPC livestock are fenced in or not! This is just another simple example showing how some kinds of local changes to an ecology might spread. Over time -- maybe during the course of a game -- local changes might become non-local changes, altering the very appearance and function of the game world. These changes might be positive, such as growing more food... but they might also be extremely negative, such as spreading a diseased plant throughout the gameworld or eventually attracting the attention of a terrible apex predator.

These particular examples from agriculture are for the most part pretty mundane, so they're not well-suited to an exciting game. But I think they suggest some possibilities for ways in which a dynamic ecological simulation could generate new kinds of challenges -- both immediate/local and long-term/global -- for NPCs to face and for the player to enjoy exploring.

Apr 15

Worldiness and Underworld Ascendant

One of the games currently in development that I'm following from the perspective of an Explorer gamer is Underworld Ascendant. It's being built by OtherSide Entertainment, the reconstitution of the much-missed Looking Glass Studios.

I'm particularly interested in this game, and in this developer, because it -- and they -- are all about designing games so that challenges can be solved in multiple ways. Not only does that mean "exploration" becomes a deliberately-supported way to play a game, I think this player-centric design style is itself a rather Explorer-like mindset.

I'll have more to say about Underworld Ascendant as its development contines. And I will definitely have more to say about Looking Glass Studios and its games, given their centrality to Explorer-oriented gaming! (Although this recent story from Polygon on the demise of Looking Glass and its rebirth as OtherSide is worth reading in the meantime.)

But for now, I'd like to start by talking about the recently-announced "dynamic ecology" feature for Underworld Ascendant ("UA" for short).

The latest update (#39) by Senior Producer Chris Siegel on the UA Kickstarter page describes how the OtherSide development team is thinking of how to include a form of ecological simulation as part of the game world.

The Underworld will have a working ecology. ... Part of the idea here is this just goes on without the player interference. There is a matrix of eat or be eaten that has been going on in the Underworld for, well, forever. And, without any outside interference it could go on indefinitely.

But, enter the player. Talk about a monkey wrench! Players will be able to affect, change and mold the ecology in ways not seen before in games.

This makes me happy. 🙂

For a lot of people, when you say "game" to them, their first thought is of mechanics: the stuff you (through your character) actively, directly do in the world of the game. And that's fine. Mechanics matter.

But I've always been fascinated with the world itself as it's implemented in a game. Doing things is fun... but doing things to what, or with what? "Game" to me means not just what I do, but the feedback loop of the world reacting to what I've done and creating more options to explore.

Part of that comes from the look of a game, and from its characters and stories. For me, though, it's always been mostly about the dynamics -- the active and reactive behaviors of the game itself.

What are the underlying dynamic systems of the world of a game? How do they respond to the player's inputs? How do they interact with each other to generate emergent effects, some (but not necessarily all) of which may be situations with which critters and NPCs and the player can interact, which in turn kick off more consequences leading to still more situations?

A game that only responds in a few carefully-constrained and predictable ways to player input can be fun. But a game that carefully uses simulationist principles to enable the emergence of a living, breathing, dynamic world... that is a special kind of game. Not only is it a unique species of exploratory fun, it is important for game design (and, I think, for the whole game industry) because it is a kind of fun that only computers can offer. Computer gaming needs simulated worlds.

All of which is a long intro to: yay for dynamic ecology. 😀

A (relatively) simple but functional dynamic ecology is a valuable component for building a gameworld that feels like a plausible secondary reality. Simulating the "circle of life" to some level that's appropriate for a game -- meaning it's complex enough to be interesting but simple enough to generate known gameplay utility -- immediately kicks up the worldiness of Underworld Ascendant several notches.

That's not just cool for the sake of being cool. A system like this one, with visible and interactive emergent effects, isn't merely about having another back-of-the-box bullet point ("dynamic ecology!"); it will actually produce additional content for every player to enjoy. Reactive systems are not a waste of time; done well, they are content-generation features that can pay for themselves. In fact, I'm assuming UA's ecology simulation will be integrated with the Innovation Engine so that in addition to being the source of content to be consumed, its systemic behavior means it can be treated as a tool with which to provide useful inputs back into the game.

In Kickstarter Update #39 for UA, Chris Siegel continued his comments on dynamic ecology by suggesting some knock-on effects of tinkering with the local ecology: damming a stream drives off downstream herbivores, causing the local predators to begin raiding a nearby elf village. In the example, that seems like a Bad Thing... but what if you don't like the elves? What if driving them away leaves their village open for occupation by your friends, the dwarves? A dynamic, manipulatable ecology becomes another way to innovate solutions to gameplay challenges and opportunities.

Being able to explore the reactive behaviors of the local ecology, to perceive its patterns, and to manipulate its second-order effects to one's advantage gives players more ways to solve problems beyond "hit it with a stick." I consider that a great example of The Looking Glass Way of Design.

A dynamic ecology means a better world, and a better world means a better game. I am extremely eager to see that world in action.