Generate This!

What makes video games different from all the art that has come before it? Paintings make better visual art and books can tell a story very well. Theater can act the story out with breathtaking clarity. A live music performance can be better than even the best game soundtrack, and movies beautifully combine all of these elements into one package. So what do video games do differently? It's simple, games are interactive. Video games can tell a story, but they tell your story.

So why is it that the only art on the planet that can interact with you increasingly decides not to?

Now when I say "your" story, I don't mean the story of how an average guy or gal sits on their couch playing video games for several hours. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure it's a riveting tale and I can't wait to find out what happens after your spouse tells you to take out the garbage, but it's just not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about that little bundle of pixels on your screen that acts out your story. Frequently though, that story has very little to do with you. Instead, you get to sit back and watch while the developer's story unfolds.

Knights of the Old Republic is a perfect example. You can affect the story, but you're limited to two choices, light side or dark side. It's a binary choice, and a very confined one at that. Why can't I choose something with some more shades of gray? What if I don't want to be evil, or good? Then I guess I'm out of luck. Choosing between extremes is boring. I don't want games to just ask me to go "left" or "right", I want them to ask me "where you do want to go"?

Why can't we get that kind of experience with single player games? With most games, I'm still playing as a character in someone else's story. Why can't I make my own story? The main problem is that most games are designed around static content. An artist sits down and lays out the content for the game. That content, once it's burned to disc, rarely changes. The artists simply can't keep changing the world, it costs too much because each pixel is laid out by hand. And since everything is laid out statically by hand you can't play your story, you can only play their story.

Gaming, growing up in the shadow of Hollywood, has developed an inferiority complex when it comes to storytelling. People who don't play games try to understand games the way they understand movies, they try to find a plot. They ask questions like, "So tell me, what's this game about, anyway?" When the story is affected by the player, how can you answer that question? The spy doesn't slip the lipstick into his date's purse every time. Sometimes, he steals the purse. Occasionally, he kills everyone in a 30 block radius then jacks a Ferrari to drive it off a cliff.

Game developers though, have to answer that question day in and day out for the majority of their career. Not only do the publishers ask this question constantly, but the customers who buy the games ask too. And those are the people who write the developer's paychecks. So from a combination of market pressures and publisher prodding, games start getting stories just like movies. They start getting screenplays and cutscenes. In other words, they get very linear. All that leaves us with is a really poor imitation of movies, and books, and every other form of art that tries to tell us a story. And that's precisely my problem. Games are about my story!

In contrast, when I'm playing a multi player game, it's my story because my character is uniquely mine. I create how my character looks, I name my character, and I'm connected with several other people who have done the same. There is usually no character in a multi player game that is static. Every time I play, each character in the world is different, and what's more important is that every time I play I'm different too. All the characters are different and therefore the game world itself changes with each play. The game world reacts to me realistically because it's real people reacting to my decisions and with each reaction it's telling a story. A story that is uniquely about me. I can really call the story of my multi player game mine, it's written about my actions while I'm playing.

Anyone who has played Dwarf Fortress should now be nodding their head, maybe letting a heartfelt "Amen" out once in a while. Dwarf Fortress is a single player game in which the world is generated for each person uniquely, with it's own monsters, perils and history. Then, as the player progresses through the game, they write their own history using their Dwarves, which react to their actions in a rather sophisticated manner. Generated content allows Dwarf Fortress to not only present a unique world to every player, but it lets the game world react meaningfully to the player's actions. Dwarf Fortress is an example of a game that truly tells my story while I play.

The Hollywood mentality isn't present in Dwarf Fortress. In fact it's the exact opposite. The game is built around dynamic content. It's more of a simulation than a set of static objects to run through, more sandbox than roller coaster. More importantly, the game design isn't centered around a story written by someone trying to be a screenwriter. It's designed to let the player write their own history, not to force them down a path where they relive the game designer's history.

When a developer forces a game to tell their story, they're short-changing the art. It may be a popular game, but it's popular despite it's linearity, not because of it. Linear storylines take away everything that makes gaming unique. If you have artists lay out every pixel by hand, they might as well frame it and put it on a wall for all the good it does me. At that point, I'm just looking, I'm not playing.

For all my complaining, if you look about the most popular games in the last few years you'll see a fairly optimistic trend. Oblivion, World of Warcraft and even the ancient Grand Theft Auto III were all monstrous commercial successes. And the clear trend I see among all of them is that they let the player decide their own story. None of them had a long linear storyline with tons of cutscenes. They all had a fresh, vibrant world that was always changing, because you could jump right in and start changing it yourself. In the end, games like this are the reason I come back to gaming again and again. Not because of the graphics or the cutscenes, but because games are the only form of art that let me tell my story.

Comments

Excellent article, Pyro. The typical non-gamer rarely understands this on a deeper-than-superficial level. Your next job will be to invent a gun that shoots the content of your article directly into someone's brain.

PyromanFO wrote:
Anyone who has played Dwarf Fortress should now be nodding their head, maybe letting a heartfelt "Amen" out once in a while.

I can see that, now that you mention it. But actually, I was reading the article and thinking about Fallout (1 & 2) the whole time.

Crouton wrote:
Excellent article, Pyro. The typical non-gamer rarely understands this on a deeper-than-superficial level. Your next job will be to invent a gun that shoots the content of your article directly into someone's brain.
Thanks for the article love, but I really wanted to reply just to say I love your avatar. The world needs more muppets.

I can't QFT the whole article, or at least I'll choose not to out of respect for my fellow goodjers. A major reason why I won't be applying to write for you guys is because it seems that within a month of me starting one of my RP-related rants, someone has written a sort of targetted mini-manifesto covering that topic. You do all the writing for me!

What I might add is that sometimes the more linear structure seems like an excellent way to force the player to walk a mile in the moccasins of someone they don't generally agree with. I see a lot of potential down that road, even if it tends to play into Jack Thompson's hand.

I really need to try out Dwarf Fortress, though.

And here's to the dream of putting the RPG back in MMOs.

Totally agree about the single player RPGs, and it's probably why i've rarely felt invested into any of them. Oblivion is a shining light in the RPG wasteland.

But i'd put Elysium's article about WoW and the Sisyphean nature of the game as a counterpoint. What kind of a story are you telling in WoW, that isn't dictated by the powers that be? The world does change, but only in so far as the makers of the game dictate it to do so. Your character will evolve, stats and gearwise, but their effect on the world is essentially nil.

And i'm with you on the mind-blowing awesomeness of DF, but i wonder if that approach could really work in an MMO, without griefing causing the whole experience to implode.

But i'd put Elysium's article about WoW and the Sisyphean nature of the game as a counterpoint. What kind of a story are you telling in WoW, that isn't dictated by the powers that be? The world does change, but only in so far as the makers of the game dictate it to do so. Your character will evolve, stats and gearwise, but their effect on the world is essentially nil.
This is my point though. You're defining "the world" as "the world that Blizzard created by hand". That's not the entirety of the game world. Your friends, the griefers, the random guys you see in the street, they're part of the game world too. And you can affect every last one of those with your actions. If it was single player, all of them would say the same things over and over in the same order with only slight deviation, regardless of what you do.

jonnypolite wrote:
But i'd put Elysium's article about WoW and the Sisyphean nature of the game as a counterpoint. What kind of a story are you telling in WoW, that isn't dictated by the powers that be? The world does change, but only in so far as the makers of the game dictate it to do so. Your character will evolve, stats and gearwise, but their effect on the world is essentially nil.

Is there really much of a story at all in WoW? I mean, if I wanted to RP hopeless repetition, I could pretend to be myself while at work, or go home and find some oogaba on the net.

I see your point, the social parts of WoW are what keep me playing, that and the phat loot. And there's a ton of story in WoW, but i just keep clicking 'next', who has time to read all that stuff? I think somebody stole someone's amulet, or killed a dwarf or something.

I guess i just see the 'world' differently. The world in DF changes as you play, as a result of your actions. The story evolves because of you as well as the engine, that is an interactive space of play. The world of WoW is social, and gives you experiences with others that cannot be created in a single player mode, at least until AI develops to allow that. But since the world itself does not evolve, it ultimately just doesn't have the power or surprise that a game like DF can generate.

Good article, Pyro:)

When the story is affected by the player, how can you answer that question? The spy doesn't slip the lipstick into his date's purse every time. Sometimes, he steals the purse. Occasionally, he kills everyone in a 30 block radius then jacks a Ferrari to drive it off a cliff.

That's a fair point jonny, I see where you're coming from. I would like an MMO with a dynamically generated world too, while I'm complaining

PyromanFO wrote:
I love your avatar.

Gracias.

The world needs more muppets.

Agreed... I'm particularly fond of the more obscure ones like Lefty, Little Jerry and Fat Blue.

The world needs more muppets.

I name all my computers after muppets. My current gaming rig is CrazyHarry.

Aw dangit, I just hijacked the thread didn't I. Sorry.

Hey, nice article Pyro!

Just as a counterpoint to the idea posted by jonny, that the WoW experience can be fairly linear - even leaving out Pyro's assertion that the characters you interact with make up the "story" as well - at the lower levels there are so many different combinations of storylines to follow based on your race and class, not to mention what quests you choose to follow and the paths you can take within your class - it just seems to me that while the background for the story remains there, the story itself will change based on your decisions and actions. (PvE? PvP? RP? BGs?)

Now, all that goes out the window once you hit the higher levels, as I understand it, thus why many people get disillusioned with the game perhaps? (Not that high a level myself yet, so can't speak as to that...)

I do grok the line of thinking tho - how cool would it be to stage a raid into a main city and kill the faction leader, I mean actually off him, and then have the repercussions affect characters across the realm? Or to somehow affect via quests the standing of one faction (i.e. Forsaken) to the point that they leave the faction altogether?

The only problem is that such repercussions caused by your actions would affect other players characters in possibly adverse ways, thus diminishing their own experience. And that's the rub of a TRULY dynamically generated and changing world for an MMO.

IMHO, of course.

The presence of "art" in a game severely limits what can be portrayed in it and in what manner. That's why Dwarf Fortress can get away with so much variety - it is ASCII. The text-based MUDs of old could get away with even more variety, because they didn't even have to portray your surroundings in a meaningful fashion as much as "describe" them for you.

Behold, a wizard wearing a helmet with a mounted flashlight ! Behold, the cave he's standing in, collapses ! Farewell, my dear mage, we barely knew ye.

I also think the term "A.I." has been greatly misused in the past 15 years because now it mostly refers to efficient pathfinding and uh... fragging of people.

"A.I." could be used for so much more. Wouldn't it be nice to use today's processing power to generate characters, even in textmode, who appear to have a life of their own ? Which goes far deeper than Oblivion's laughable imitation, or Animal Crossing's "random blurb of the day" ?

Today we have plenty of system resources to create say, a text-based Sherlock Holmes game where the characters do things entirely on their own, partially depending on how you change the situation. Procedural generation of written dialogue from predefined templates is something that is pretty elementary and when done correctly it can create additional illusion of aliveness - yet no one is doing it.

More complex ways of parsing and dialogue generation are also possible - yes, it is a science, and yes, it will take system resources - good thing we only really need text, huh ?

Heck, this isn't even just about A.I. There doesn't HAVE to be a complex A.I. It is just one of the tools that the game creator _can_ use to do their magic. And this magic lies in creating an illusion of a seamless world. HOW it is done is irrelevant - as long as the illusion isn't easily broken.

Freelancer was one of the games which had initially a very strong illusion of a live world. A.I. had nothing to do with it. It was mostly the chatter dialogue between coming and going ships - that was a great touc. Unfortunately the illusion was easily broken when you realized that it wasn't connected to gameplay and ran into the invisible boundaries of what you can and can not do.

The game world should mesh and flow, parts of it should interact in meaningful, natural fashion with each other. When there's a lot of this happening, things will happen that the programmers did not expect.

When I was making my textmode game, we had water that "flowed", i.e. randomly swapped colors between cells, and also monsters that gushed textmode blood when shot. The blood landed on surroundings and covered them red.
As a result, when you killed some monsters near a river, the river would have this floating blood in it. Rivers of blood were an emergent effect, born out of free interaction of different elements of the world.

Ok, I can ramble on about stuff like this for hours...

Agreed... I'm particularly fond of the more obscure ones like Lefty, Little Jerry and Fat Blue.
Holy sh*t there is a Muppet Wiki? Holy sh*t. My mind is blown.

PyromanFO wrote:
Holy sh*t there is a Muppet Wiki?

Yeah, and it's frickin huge.

BTW, you just re-hijacked your own thread, Pyro. Nice.

When I was making my textmode game, we had water that "flowed", i.e. randomly swapped colors between cells, and also monsters that gushed textmode blood when shot. The blood landed on surroundings and covered them red.
As a result, when you killed some monsters near a river, the river would have this floating blood in it. Rivers of blood were an emergent effect, born out of free interaction of different elements of the world.
That's brilliant. And the best part is that it's actually easier to code it this way than the bullet-point driven "let's predict every little cool thing someone can do" way most game development is driven.

shihonage wrote:
and also monsters that gushed textmode blood when shot. The blood landed on surroundings and covered them red.
As a result, when you killed some monsters near a river, the river would have this floating blood in it. Rivers of blood were an emergent effect, born out of free interaction of different elements of the world.

Yeah, Dwarf Fortress does this. Ask anyone who's ever had frogmen pop up near their farm plots.

shihonage wrote:
Freelancer was one of the games which had initially a very strong illusion of a live world.

Out of my head! The power of Christ compels you!

I feel that ALL of pyro's example games are the same way. WoW, Oblivion, GTA, all have linear stories broken up into many small chunks that can be consumed in whatever order you want to. However, if you start a mission, the cutscene for that mission plays the same way, every time. At most WoW inserts your name into the text of the quest.

Dwarf Fortress sounds like it has broken some large barriers. By focusing on interactions the developers don't get bogged down in time-consuming graphics coding. Bravo. The Sims is perhaps the only true free-form story game. I'll never forget my first house, in which SimSouldaddy married and then enslaved 7 women to work and provide while SimSouldaddy lounged around all day bettering himself and romancing the lucky girl he decided to call in sick. The rest of the ladies lived downstairs dormitory style, working cleaning and cooking, while I created a huge 2nd story bungalow for SimSouldaddy to contemplate his navel and generally be an asshole.

Physics engines like Havoc simulate a certain amount of rules that have almost endless possibilities (like domino lines in Oblivion). In the same way, we need personality simulators. Random reactions you see from GTA pedestrians, i.e. general approximations of personality, are just as good if not better than life-like AI. We need a smart developer to boil dramatic structure down to its bare essentials, much in the same way Valve narrowed facial emotions down to a few singular types. In this way and ONLY this way can we set up a world like Pyro describes, where the plot doesn't collapse because you just can't stand the heroine and decide to blow her up.

EDIT: This piece is probably my favorite of your work, Pyroman. You obviously feel strongly about this, and it made for a focused, entertaining read.

dongyrn wrote:

The only problem is that such repercussions caused by your actions would affect other players characters in possibly adverse ways, thus diminishing their own experience. And that's the rub of a TRULY dynamically generated and changing world for an MMO.

I disagree. I don't know where the idea that bad things shouldn't happen to your character came from, but it's wrong. Bad things happen to people you care about. That's real, and that's a large part of what makes stories compelling.

I again call for MMO perma-death.

I again call for MMO perma-death.

You've just described a game that no one would play. Games as art are great, but it can and never should trump fun.

Perma-death might work if all of these are true:

* The game has no monthly fee.
* There's no possibility of Internet lag AT ALL. 0% chance of lag at all times.
* There's no possibility of the local system slowdown or task switch or crash caused by any circumstances (including a bug in the game client), that causes the death.
* The player can replay (watch) the circumstances of their death in the game engine in order to understand exactly how it happened.

IMO, it's a lot more reasonable to introduce heavier penalties for dying, but then again, for instance, WoW uses TCP/IP without buffer flushing (I hypothesize the latter) which causes lag no matter how low you think your ping is. It is a far cry from UDP-based technology used in Quake or Unreal Tournament. It is possible to die in WoW when you don't see it coming even under most "ideal" of circumstances.

The response to player's actions is not immediate, it is delayed (and uses prediction on client side)- we're just so used to it by now that we ignore it. How many times you've sprung up a shield only to see your character go through the animation and then become a dead lump on the floor because it was killed BEFORE you did it ? Split-second timing, that can create difference between life and death, games like WoW have not.

Elysium wrote:
You've just described a game that wordsmythewould play.

But then I'm kind of a masochist.

shihonage wrote:
IMO, it's a lot more reasonable to introduce heavier penalties for dying

I might be convinced to compromise on this, but I think that even servers with RP have bad RP because the players all subconsciously realize they're effectively immortal. Thus every PC quickly develops into some sort of lesser -- and far more obnoxious -- god.

But again, I'm on the fringe. I think that RP makes things fun. For example, that when the crazy LARPers started talking about character flaws, I thought it was one of the best RP inventions since Gygax got bored with historicity.

I understand where you're coming from Wordsmythe - but as Elysium infers, people for the most part play such immersive games to have fun. If I pay my $50+ for a game, then $15/month, and enter into a realm which has already been changed drastically by other players to the point where it is no longer the same game as advertised, I'm not going to be a happy camper. My thoughts would definitely not go along the path of "ah, how realistic, the uber gamers already hosed the world before I could enjoy it"...

Now, I'll admit that I agree (reservedly) with you about RP making things fun. But RP for RPs sake alone does not make fun. I believe any person clings to the hope that they might have a chance of winning or prevailing or at least bettering their situation, and that is what makes it enjoyable. Well, ok maybe not for some of the Battlegrounds in WoW, but I digress...

I dunno, I just feel that the whole point of an MMO is the permanence of your character - perma-death only works in single-player mode. Otherwise what's the point?

I guess it could boil down to what kind of DM you would be in a good old-fashioned pen-and-paper RPG. Would you threten the players lives, make it risky yet give them an out to make the game enjoyable? Or would you wield the heavy sword of fatality and slay the characters without remorse, when they've spent so many hours working on them, filling out their histories and backgrounds, levelling them up and such... I've played with a killer-DM type. Once only, because that's all it took to suck the fun out of a night of gaming.

When I DM I try to make the characters more realistic. That means a few things, but importantly, I make them struggle with real human(oid) problems, such as fear and loss.

I also despise powergamers. I'll fight fire with fire, or, if need be, DM magic. If they're going to have unbelievable characters, then I'm going to have unbelievable exploding cows falling on them.

I actually eventually started warning players with lines such as, "You hear a dangerous mooing sound in the distance, and it seems to be moving closer."

And if that doesn't work, a good punch to the kidney or back of the head tends to get my point across.