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Conversation in Games: Trigger, Branch, Repeat

Bento Smile's Air Pressure

Why is there so little variety in conversation systems in games?  Conversation is one of the most essential and frequent things humans do.  It is a common source of interest, drama, and comedy in both real life and fiction.  It reveals character, it advances plotlines, and it uncovers information.  It's hugely important to most stories about people.  Yet almost every videogame, regardless of genre, that employs playable conversation uses the same two basic mechanics for it.  Some use one or the other, some use a combination.  These two mechanics are:

Response Triggering.  The player employs some kind of trigger action towards another character.  The trigger could be an object, a topic selected from a list, or just the choice to talk to the character at all.  Each trigger leads to a specific canned response from the character.  Employing the same trigger multiple times will usually get the same response.  The order in which triggers are deployed is not significant.

Branching Paths.  This is a variation on basic response triggering in which each response opens up a new set of triggers.  This allows for conversations with a temporal progression and usually involves choices about the direction the dialogue takes.


Less Flicks More Bits

The indie developer Craig "Superbrothers" Adams recently published a manifesto called "Less Talk More Rock," based on a talk he gave at the Game Developer's Conference.  It is a good and glorious thing that we have finally reached the "artistic manifesto" phase in the development of the videogame medium; let us rejoice and hope for more to come.

Adams's piece starts with some very sensible-sounding advice on the game development process and then makes a more interesting turn into recommendations on game style.  The gist of the thing is that Adams feels that the native language of videogames is audiovisual; that excessive use of written or spoken text in games engages too much of the intellectual rather than the more holistic parts of the brain; and therefore that text in games disrupts the natural communication between designer and player. I think all of these points are highly debatable, but the one I want to push back against the most is the first one.


Darkfate (2009)

K√©vin Soulas's Darkfate is a quiet little exploration game.  You move your avatar, Chris Freeman, around a series of large atmospheric pixel environments, and at certain locations you trigger a bit of story text that is presented as notes in Freeman's journal.  Pretty standard stuff with some nice music and mood.  The help text, however, contains the following rather provocative artistic statement:
You can control the game character - Chris Freeman - using the directional keys.  To jump, you have the choice to use either the "up" key or the spacebar.  In game: press escape to go back to the menu.
No interaction is possible in Darkfate. [...]
Which does raise an interesting question: is exploration interaction?  Soulas seems to think not.*  If this is the case, then, what separates exploration from all the other things you can do with a game?

I suspect that what Soulas (or whoever wrote the help text) meant by this is that there is no way to take actions that affect the environment.  One way to separate exploration and interaction is by defining interaction only as that user input which changes something in the game world, while exploration is that user input which exposes more of a world while keeping it static.  So Freeman can move around his world, but he can't act on it.  This sounds at first like a pretty reasonable taxonomy.

Here's the thing that's weird about this as regards Darkfate, though: in this game, it is hardly a stretch to say that you do change the world by exploring it.  The plot of this game is basically that you are a scientist who created a time portal, and over the course of the game, you explore the same area over and over in different time periods.  This is all perfectly linear; you travel through the area until you get to the time portal, jump into it, and spring up in another part of the area in another time.

One way to look at this is that you are going to a new part of the world every time you jump to a different time period.  But looked at from another angle, you're moving around in a single world which you keep changing by jumping into the time portal.  This makes the difference between interaction and exploration a little fuzzier.

So what do we mean when we talk about interaction?  It is common to talk about games being more or less interactive, and the judge or compare them based on this.  But I'm not sure we've quite hammered down what we mean by "interactive" yet.  The Darkfate example, at least, suggests that how interactive a game is depends a great deal on how you define the game world, and that definition can be fluid.

* I should note that Darkfate is originally in French and the text was translated by someone other than Soulas.  However, in the original help text, the word used here is "interaction" as well, and I'm assuming for the sake of argument that there's not a huge difference between the French and English meanings of the term.


Daniel Benmergui and the Gulf of Execution

In the study of human-computer interaction, a user's uncertainty about how a system will respond to her actions is sometimes referred to as the "gulf of execution," in Donald Norman's phrase. In useful software, of course, a designer tries to narrow this knowledge gap as much as possible, and the same is true of many videogames. But Daniel Benmergui seems to be generally interested in aesthetically exploiting it. In the three short art games he released this year as a package, he widens the gulf of execution in subtly different ways, and with varying effects.

In Storyteller (2008), your manipulation of the characters in each the three segments of the story results in unexplained changes to the other segments. It's left to the player to infer the narrative rules at work, an inference which is forced by a player's natural inclination to understand the rules of the game she is playing. The proposed set of storytelling laws the player uncovers, it is implied, may be inferred from other fairy tales if the reader puts the effort into it. In this case, the distance between action and result is mainly used as a prompt to the player's imagination. This effect is not an unusual one in games; indeed, figuring out why doing this should have caused that makes for much of the enjoyment in god and tycoon games.

A more idiosyncratic use of the gulf of execution technique is at play in I Wish I Were the Moon (2008). Unlike in Storyteller, the interaction method in this game is itself highly indirect. The "movable snapshots" metaphor introduces another level of uncertainty to the relationship between action and results, since it is not only unclear what your actions will do, but also which of your movements may be considered actions. Some objects can be moved with the camera, some can't: you can move stars and people, but not boats or moons. A single object, the shooting star, can actually be multiplied with the camera. What can be done is unpredictable, as well as what will result from what you do, and whether anything will result at all. The gulf of execution is vast in this small game, giving the player a direct experience of the distance and frustration felt by the characters.

Today I Die (2009) partially adopts the direct manipulation of objects present in Storyteller, but adds a different kind of indirectness by introducing text as a special kind of game object. Essentially, the text allows the player to manipulate the game's environment as well as its objects. The gulf here is not as wide as in I Wish I Were the Moon, since the interaction is more immediately responsive, but in a sense it is broader; your actions continue to be leaps in the dark, but now they can affect the entire environment. This gives Today I Die an unusual sense of instability.  

The real elegance of the game comes from the alternation of global and local actions: you manipulate objects to get a new word, using the new word gives you new objects to manipulate, and so on. The rhythm of great and small leaps that results lends the game a sense of nervous exuberance. I suspect that this control of rhythm - not an easy thing to achieve in games - has much to do with the frequent description of Benmergui's games, Today I Die especially, as "poetic."


Triptych (2009)

In Stephen Lavelle's brief but dense Triptych, a decontextualized internal monologue similar to those he used in Mirror Stage (review) is broken to pieces by two intrusive elements.  First, there is a quasi-adventure game-style series of actions the player can take to explore a room.  The feedback for these actions is interleaved with the sentences of the monologue.  The actions you can take are inconsequential, and you soon run out of options.  There is also a set of related, emotionally loaded words that gradually replace more and more of the words in both the monologue and the room exploration, so that by the end of the game (which is no longer than a minute or so) you only see these words repeated in random order.

There are six different monologues, two different rooms to find yourself in, and at least nine sets of emotional words.  (The word sets are difficult to count reliably since there seems to be some overlap among them.)  The combination of these three elements - monologue, room, and word set - is chosen at random at the start of each playthrough, a combination which may be the triptych referred to in the title.

There is no obvious underlying theme to the pieces of content being thus combined.  The monologues share themes of weather, loss, external pressures, and memory, but in a variety of different contexts.  The two rooms are spare and uninteresting.  The word sets, which range from pleasant (honey, sunlit, gleam) to trivial (teamwork, strategy, management, cooperation) to alarming (rape, body, other, dirty), seem like they might correspond to some taxonomy of emotional states, but are otherwise unrelated to each other.

Like Lavelle's other work, Triptych is strongly reminiscent of a psychological experiment.  Are you meant to read the framing monologue and your interactions with the room differently if the word set is happy, frightening, uncomfortably sexual, etc.?  Or are they merely meant to startle and distract you from the narrative aspects of the game? 

While the word set has a clearly obtrusive effect, it took me many playthroughs before the separation of the monologue and the room interaction was obvious.  Up to that point I tried to read them as continuous, with the monologue representing my character's thoughts as she did things in the room.  The resulting stories made no sense, even before being overtaken by PHALLIC PHALLIC LABIAL and so forth, but my brain made the best of what it was given.  

The game encourages this kind of over-interpretation by including numerous points of connection between details in the monologues and available actions.  One room has a window, and several monologues describe the weather outside, which either leads you to open the window or explains what you see if you already opened it.  A monologue about lost keys mentions a bedroom table, which is visible in one of the rooms.  One concerned with errands that need to be done may prompt you to choose a "leave" command which doesn't actually work.

Having a narrative and a space of player action that are functionally indifferent to each other, but not obviously so, creates its own kind of friction, and could make for an interesting game on its own.  But of course, the intrusion of the emotional words eventually obliterates this friction.  The two streams of text lose what distinction they have as they move closer to gibberish.  This could evoke the dominance of emotion over rational thought and decision-making, or perhaps a violent disinterest in the relationship between game and narrative.  Whatever you take away from this movement from subtle cognitive dissonance to unbridled nonsense, Triptych is at least remarkably efficient in making you feel strange.

A familiar debate about empathy in videogames

Peter Suderman, a film and culture writer I quite like, had a short post yesterday at The American Scene of the familiar "videogames can't really evoke emotion" type.  I doubt I can contribute much to this old argument, except to say that it seems dreadfully premature to be making pronouncements on the capabilities of the medium when it's barely out of diapers.  I think that it's dangerously easy to look at a new medium and see only the points where it differs from an older medium to which you are more attached, and to try and build a case about what the new medium can and can't do based on that catalogue of differences.  But that's a style of analysis that too easily misses the forest for the trees.

EDIT: Oops!  I accidentally linked the wrong article above.  Sorry, here's the Suderman piece.

EDIT: Woah, where's my head at today?!  The real piece is here.