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dhasenan

Writing for Emergent Gameplay

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I've always been fascinated and enthralled by the concept of emergent gameplay. It's a wonderful way to convince the player that they're doing something that matters--especially important because one of the motivations for playing games is to stroke your ego. (Really--who plays a humbling game? Well, me, when I play Thief, but....) However, it seems like it would be very difficult to write for a game featuring emergence. If it's available to a significant level, you're almost required to write several complete scripts. My current project involves a war in which the player can choose any of three factions (the smaller two being united) or run away to Canada (though this might get cut in the end); there's also a superplot that the player can optionally investigate. The problem is, a normal script would be about a hundred, maybe two hundred pages long, and this will have to be twice that, if I'm lucky. Are there shortcuts that I can use? I played Deus Ex: Invisible War and saw how poorly it handled emergent gameplay, forcing the most crucial decisions and ignoring some of the rest, even if they're allowed and acknowledged in speech. (Deus Ex 1 was better because it controlled the player emotionally--it forced the player to a decision by appealing to conscience, and also required it as a practical matter. It didn't allow as much freedom, though.) --I don't want to force players to go to every location I create, or anywhere near that. Nor do I want to force them to complete objectives to which they have a moral objection. (I plan on giving them a fair mixture of clearly necessary and good missions and missions that could be justified by what they accomplish, but are in themselves morally ambiguous or even reprehensible.) This desire of mine will almost certainly bloat the game perhaps further than it can bear. Is there any way to make the task more manageable, to pare it down to something that's reasonable, without sacrificing a significant amount of choice? Reusing dialogue and maps will work if done carefully (by reusing maps I mean keeping the architecture almost the same and modifying whatever I need to), but are there any other suggestions that you can offer? Thank you, dhasenan.

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Emergence is kind of what we're aiming for in the collaborative game design thread. Our approach doesn't really sound like it will work for you, but I'll describe it just in case.

First, we're not having missions/quests at all. We're aimng for a farly low average gameplay time: 40 hrs for the first play, less for subsequent plays. Instead we're building the game around a game+ feature and intending that players will play through the game anywhere from 2-10 times, making different gameplay choices each time, so that even if they only see 1/4 or 1/3 of the game's plot content on the first play the rest will not be wasted. We described a general plot arc for each gameplay, which will be supported by whichever plot branches the player chooses/earns, and we're working on making an overall plot emerge from the successive gameplays. So we have a fairly small setting to start with, and we will be reusing the setting almost completely, except for modular things like puzzles which can be substituted for new ones, and NPC dialogue will change to match the world's current state.

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Hm, yes. I suppose I was just being lazy. Hoping someone had discovered a way to simplify the process. No luck, apparently.

In that case, what do you think emergent gameplay is useful for?
- Replayability
The first time you play an emergent game, you only encounter a part of the plot. If you want to know what could have happened, you have to play again. And you can learn what could have happened--that's directly opposed to life, but many people wish it were a feature of real life.

- Realism
Aside from the replay feature, emergence is realistic. People don't have one set path before them at all times, and if you're a superhero / superagent, you expect to be able to do what you want to rather than taking orders from people all the time. Since this isn't implementable, game devs instead give players a choice of whose orders to obey. That works as well; by obeying someone, you gain their protection and support, which is often a wise decision. However, it would be nice if you could actually set your own objectives in a game.

- Immersion
Emergence gives the player decisions that matter. It's not a matter of killing zombies with a pistol vs killing zombies with a rifle. That can be fun; it's fun to many people, just not to me. But if your decisions affect the lives of others, whether they survive or not and whether they have freedom, that reaches inside your heart and twists everything around. Or at least, it does if you give the player several options, each with a significant element of doubt.

- Player ego
I want to know that I matter. In real life, I don't. That's the truth as I see it. But in an emergent game, I determine my fate, and oftentimes I determine the fates of others.

Suggestions welcome.

That's motivation for emergence; next, an analysis of the types of games most and least suited to emergence, for which your help would be greatly appreciated.

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Original post by dhasenan
However, it would be nice if you could actually set your own objectives in a game.


Not to nitpick, but you can set your own objectives for any game. Way back during the Atari days, I used to sit there playing Asteroids in a way the makers never intended. I named each of my 4 ships something different. Each ship had a different direction. I'd turn the ship in that direction and accelerate, shooting as fast as I could, and continue until it died. Usually I made up funny things for the ship pilots to say during this process.

I think the point here is that even if the game allows you to set your own goals, they ought to be goals that matter at least as much as the limited choices current games are capable of using. And somewhere there has to be a balance between freedom and confusion. If anything can happen, nothing that happens means anything.

(And yes, I DO like having choices in games. I'd like to see a RPG where everything you do changes the storyline, and there's no "best" ending, just "different" endings, based on what you've done. Maybe you save the princess, but the dragon kills your girlfriend. You just can't go *too* far with it, especially with modern technology.)

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Original post by onyxflame
(And yes, I DO like having choices in games. I'd like to see a RPG where everything you do changes the storyline, and there's no "best" ending, just "different" endings, based on what you've done. Maybe you save the princess, but the dragon kills your girlfriend. You just can't go *too* far with it, especially with modern technology.)


Do you know why you like having choices? Anything besides what I've already listed?

You had the example of Asteroids. Though you played it in the "wrong" way, you still had the same objective: to make your spaceships survive as long as possible. Or rather, your objective included your eventual failure....and was to make the intervening time as amusing as possible....

You're an RPGer, you say? That's the game type suited for emergence. The only one, really. Cross-genre games allow for side-scrolling platform RPGs, though, and FPS/RPGs, and TPS/RPGs....

In an emergent game, the player is demanding importance, or at least given it. It's an element of realism, which is more suited, I believe, to FPSs than TPSs. Also, when a player is separated from the world by having an omniscient perspective and an avatar with a limited subset of that perspective, the avatar becomes almost a tool in the hands of the player. It doesn't matter; it's just a sprite on the screen. When I see with the PC's eyes, I can pretend to be him more easily. What affects him affects me. It lends subjectivity to the perspective--reminding me of the thread about having a subjective representation of the world in question rather than an objective representation with a subjective perspective.

That subjectivity unites the player and the PC. The union makes the player care about the character as an extension of the self. How many times have you said "Aw, crap, my character died" in an FPS? How many times have you said instead "Aw, crap, I died"?

This level of caring extends beyond immediate survival when you give the player that option. It's past "What do I have to do?" and into the realm of "What should I do?" That's a deeper question, and a more valuable decision. In NOLF, I remember a pair of guards talking about how they played in an amateur band on the weekends. I pitied them and let them live. Why? Because the game allowed me to use stealth to get past them. Because I felt it would be wrong to kill them. On the other hand, I don't remember various finishing moves for Quake deathmatches. It was only a question of method.

Sorry about the tangent. Okay, so FPS RPGs are imminently suited to emergence, or vice versa. You can have emergence in any RPG, and putting it in a non-RPG, if it's to have any meaning, makes it an RPG.

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In an emergent game, the player is demanding importance, or at least given it. It's an element of realism, which is more suited, I believe, to FPSs than TPSs. Also, when a player is separated from the world by having an omniscient perspective and an avatar with a limited subset of that perspective, the avatar becomes almost a tool in the hands of the player. It doesn't matter; it's just a sprite on the screen. When I see with the PC's eyes, I can pretend to be him more easily. What affects him affects me.


Personally, I don't care about being important - at least not in this sense. What I want to see in an emergent game is that I have many choices, and that my choices have "real" consequences.

Example: the game's beginning goal is to have me kill the Uber Bad Guy and Save the World. I'm the Young Hero, on an Epic Quest to Avenge My Family/Village/Girlfriend/Dog. Typical RPG.

I encounter the various PCs along the way who will give me clues and directions, offer advice and assist me. Life is good.

But...what if I'm not such a nice person? What if I decide instead of talking to the cute girl who thanks me for saving her from the tyrant's soldiers, I slap her for her stupidity in being out alone? What if I think the Uber Bad Guy has a point, and instead of joining the rebellion I seek them out to kill them?

I'd like to see rebellion leaders come after me. To see the bad guy's troops first try to arrest me, then try to recruit me. I'd like to see my mission change from kill the tyrant to wipe out the rebellion.

But...then what if I, the player, have a revelation mid-way and decide to join the rebellion after the fact? I'd want to see options to talk to the people I capture, maybe have them in turn decide to use me to get to the bad guy. Perhaps I end up killing him after all, in the end.

I don't mind a story starting me at Point A, and ending with Point Z. I'd just like to choose the path that gets me there, in my own way. I hate being nudged from behind, forced to make choices that don't include ones I might WANT to make.

What I want is the illusion of control of the story. Sure, my choices are still limited to a set - but I want that set to be more diverse, reflecting different personalities.

Most - if not all - RPGs hand you the hero's personality on a silver platter. You can choose to be polite, valiant or rude - but you'll still do what you're told like a good little soldier. I want the option to choose a different path, to go against the flow - even if the various branches and tributaries have been pre-determined, just kept hidden from me.

Again, it's the illusion that I'm actually guiding the story that interests me. It would make me feel as if, for once, I'm LEADING the story instead of being tugged along on a leash.

Now, how to go about that without writing several hundred pages of script...that's an entirely different story :)

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Original post by EricTrickster
Personally, I don't care about being important - at least not in this sense. What I want to see in an emergent game is that I have many choices, and that my choices have "real" consequences.
[...]
I'd like to see rebellion leaders come after me. To see the bad guy's troops first try to arrest me, then try to recruit me. I'd like to see my mission change from kill the tyrant to wipe out the rebellion.

But...then what if I, the player, have a revelation mid-way and decide to join the rebellion after the fact? I'd want to see options to talk to the people I capture, maybe have them in turn decide to use me to get to the bad guy. Perhaps I end up killing him after all, in the end.
[...]
What I want is the illusion of control of the story. Sure, my choices are still limited to a set - but I want that set to be more diverse, reflecting different personalities.


That's what I meant by importance. And you seem to grasp the necessity of a preset direction or purpose. Without that, you get a MMORPG, or maybe Tetris--something where the goal is getting a higher number rather than accomplishing anything.

You want the illusion of control...how is that different from real control? Is it a matter of emotional control versus physical control? You convince someone that a certain path is right, and then they walk it, in their own way if you let them. But then there's the problem of a player who's not totally convinced.

Leave it for the modders and the expansion packs :)

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Original post by EricTrickster
Now, how to go about that without writing several hundred pages of script...that's an entirely different story :)


Once I finish this script, edit it, scrap it, write the next (unrelated) one, edit it, scrap it, and then write and edit something halfway decent, I'll let you know if there's a better way ;)

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You want the illusion of control...how is that different from real control?


Real control is the MMO approach - go where you will, do what you want, what you do today is entirely up to you. Unfortunately they have no real dynamic story, so what you do also affects very little in terms of the world storyline. Which, I suppose, goes back to wanting to feel relevant.

In a scripted story, the game player automatically gives up control. Go here, speak to NPC, fight monster as directed. Move on to next objective. Your path is predictable, you goal as a player is to complete the game - to advance to the next step. There are no "real" choices presented; your choices are "go through door 1" or "go through door 2".

On the other hand, if the same choices were presented in a less obvious way you then give the player an illusion that makes them feel as if they made the decision on their own to go through either door. The old text-based games, i.e. Zork, had the right idea. You spoke to the people you met, you used sentence syntax to "look" at an item, to "speak" to npcs, to "ask NPC about the king" and the AI of the software looked at key words to form an answer. You could "ask old man if he is feeling well", you could "ask old man for a drink". You could even, in a fit of frustration, "kick the old man" (and laugh at the response you received!)

I'd like to see that freedom in a graphical RPG. Maybe part of the problem is that everything is click-move-kill-move; options are presented to you in choices as A, B or C. You're not communicating, you're not "speaking" to the npc - you're choosing an option. It's very robotic. There are times I've felt frustrated and wanted to beat up an NPC, to send them packing, to tell them to shut up and stop following me!

Maybe I don't want to fight the boss in the circus tent. Maybe I'd rather pay someone to steal the item I need from him. Maybe I'd rather pay an assassin to waste him on my behalf. If there are NPCs around the town who, with a little diligence on my behalf, will provide me with these services then suddenly i feel as if I found another way to achieve the goal you, as the designer, wanted me to do - but in my own unique way.

And for doing so, perhaps my faction standing with various parties changes. Maybe I'm no longer known as a merc for hire, but now as a merchant who is looking to rise in power - and pays well for fellow aspirants.

Illusion, because you still get me to achieve a goal. Personal choice, because it's done in a less-obvious way such that I feel as if I made the decision to do it, without you ever needing to push me from behind.

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Hmm. Why do I like choices? Probably mainly because of the replayability & realism options you mentioned. I want the game to mean something to me, not just something I piddle with for an hour or 2 and then go watch TV and forget about it. If the game is as simple and predictable as, for instance, Asteroids...well, if I don't have choices, I'll make up my own. I LOVE randomness. This is why almost everything I've programmed so far is a random sentence generator of some type, heh. (How do you combine randomness and goal-oriented play? The only thing I can think of is have random goals that still somehow fit together into a story (how do you DO that???), or complex relationship meters on NPC's that determine what kind of interaction you'll most likely have with them.)

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Also, when a player is separated from the world by having an omniscient perspective and an avatar with a limited subset of that perspective, the avatar becomes almost a tool in the hands of the player. It doesn't matter; it's just a sprite on the screen. When I see with the PC's eyes, I can pretend to be him more easily. What affects him affects me.


I hate 1st person view games because it's harder to tell where you are in relation to things you need to jump on and such. The only way you can tell how far you can go before falling off a platform is by trying it a few times...and falling. However, I have to admit that Metroid Prime is a prime example (no pun intended) of getting more involved in it due to 1st person view. You're not just watching a dude fall into lava, you're falling into lava yourself...with the appropriate "oh crap" reflex. I cringe even just watching my mom play it. I find myself physically dodging as if the bullets and stuff were aimed at me. It creeps me out to the point I can't even make myself want to play the game, heh.

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On the other hand, if the same choices were presented in a less obvious way you then give the player an illusion that makes them feel as if they made the decision on their own to go through either door. The old text-based games, i.e. Zork, had the right idea. You spoke to the people you met, you used sentence syntax to "look" at an item, to "speak" to npcs, to "ask NPC about the king" and the AI of the software looked at key words to form an answer. You could "ask old man if he is feeling well", you could "ask old man for a drink". You could even, in a fit of frustration, "kick the old man" (and laugh at the response you received!)


Remember Maniac Mansion for NES? You constructed sentences to tell your dude what to do at any given point. Shadowgate & Deja Vu were also this way, to a certain extent. Problem with these games was, you had to do everything exactly right to progress, and thus a lot of the game involved trying different combos and failing miserably. The games were set up so that the first playthrough, you took ages and ages to figure out the one right way to proceed, getting frustrated and wanting to throw something at the TV in the process. And then if you managed to finish the game, you could replay the whole thing in an hour just by doing everything right the first time. That might've been fun when we didn't know anything else to compare it to, but it's hardly good game design now.

Something like this could easily be used in a modern RPG, though. Have icons for verbs (look, use, kick, ask, insult, whatever) that could be applied to any object. Also have icons representing subjects you learn about during the game, which could theoretically include monster names and kingdoms and such, and use these while talking to an NPC. HOWEVER, there wouldn't be just one way to solve any given problem.

Say some guards are guarding a gate leading into your typical walled castle. You want to get in. So, you could fight them. You could click icons meaning "USE BAKKA LEAVES ON GUARDS" (bakka leaves being some kind of sleeping drug). If sneaking was available, you might be able to do that providing it was night and/or you'd obscured their vision another way. You could attempt to tie them up without killing them. Or, move over a little ways and "USE GRAPPLING HOOK ON WALL" :)

Now, a word about talking to NPC's. It drives me nuts when you run into one who knows nothing. Ok, maybe what they know isn't applicable to your quest, but should they all be like the townsfolk in Link for NES who just say "I know nothing" all the time? Yuck. So...say you find a farmer named Fred. You talk to him and do icons for "ASK FRED ABOUT KING". Fred says "Ehh, he's a decent enough fellow, I guess. He always buys my pumpkins for Ghost Day." Now, this could either be just random useless info, or maybe you decide "Ok, I'm gonna hide in the cart carrying the pumpkins to the castle and get in THAT way!"

Now I wonder...is a game like this actually doable? :)

/edit: I also hate looking at something and seeing "That isn't important." If it's not important enough to at least get minimal info about, why is it there? I loved in FF2 (US) how even the books had names, heh. Say I'm looking at a simple vase of flowers. I want to either be able to take a flower and give it to some chick, or at least see "A vase full of daffodils." Who knows, maybe daffodils turn out to be important later on.

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Original post by onyxflame
Now, a word about talking to NPC's. It drives me nuts when you run into one who knows nothing. Ok, maybe what they know isn't applicable to your quest, but should they all be like the townsfolk in Link for NES who just say "I know nothing" all the time? Yuck. So...say you find a farmer named Fred. You talk to him and do icons for "ASK FRED ABOUT KING". Fred says "Ehh, he's a decent enough fellow, I guess. He always buys my pumpkins for Ghost Day." Now, this could either be just random useless info, or maybe you decide "Ok, I'm gonna hide in the cart carrying the pumpkins to the castle and get in THAT way!"

Now I wonder...is a game like this actually doable? :)

/edit: I also hate looking at something and seeing "That isn't important." If it's not important enough to at least get minimal info about, why is it there? I loved in FF2 (US) how even the books had names, heh. Say I'm looking at a simple vase of flowers. I want to either be able to take a flower and give it to some chick, or at least see "A vase full of daffodils." Who knows, maybe daffodils turn out to be important later on.


First off, yes, it's doable :) I'm a linguist, and I have a few ideas that I'll eventually get around to implementing that deal with parsing arbitrary strings. The key to parsing isn't the syntax (the sentence structure) or the morphology (the word structure) or even the semantics (meaning), really. It's logic, and it's character knowledge. The linguistic aspect can be done, and it isn't that hard. Character knowledge is the same: tedious, but doable. The real kicker is naturalistic logic.

The thing is, it might take up so many system resources that the only interface you could afford is 7-bit ASCII. I don't know for certain; I don't know if there exists a parser as comprehensive as the one I envision.

But if I can manage to create something like that, and it actually runs efficiently, then all I have to do is slap a text-to-speech system with a number of voices on top and slather that on top of a conversation decisionmaker system. I have one partially thought out, at present, named Alexis; I haven't started coding it yet. No time. Once I do, I'll probably release the bulk of it under an open source license, so you'll be able to use it. In about ten years.

An RPG like the one you describe, though...it would be massive, even with a simple interface. And how would the player distinguish between an individual NPC's quest and his own? That's his choice, I suppose. Can you code every little sidequest into the game? Again, the only practical method is to use a text interface. There's not much of a paying market for those, and a project of this magnitude would be costly.

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That's why I think most of my ultimate dream games are too far in the future to worry about. We simply don't have the technology to be able to do them yet. Maybe when true conversation-capable AI exists...but who knows how long that could take?

For an example of something similar to what I think you're talking about, you might check out www.personalityforge.com (I can't get links to work properly for some reason). It's not true AI, but it can come up with a large variety of responses based on keywords it recognizes, and can incorporate a large degree of randomness (I *feeling verb* you, for instance). It even has a basic form of emotional responses, or used to. (I haven't visited the site for a long time, it might not even still exist.) The guy who runs the site has a rather high-end setup, although I imagine a lot of that is because there's hundreds of bots there. So I don't know how feasable doing something like that in a game would be.

At any rate, I'm sure a more simplified version of the ideal would be workable somehow. You don't need to make the thing know what every word in the language means.

Update of previous post: I've found a 3rd person view game that has almost as high an "oh crap" factor as Metroid Prime. There's a part in Tak 2 where you control a catapult, and have to go through a nightmare world which includes tentacles that shoot at you, and platforms you have to jump across (some of them moving) while accelerating the proper amount and hoping you don't slide right off of the tilty ones. Let's just say you get to hear a LOT of death screams. :P

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I checked it out. Some of the bots are more equal than others. But if they're going by keyword searches, there's a ton of room for improvement. Syntax can alter meaning significantly, the simplest way being what's called bracketing errors:
I [saw [a man] in the subway]. = I saw a man. This action took place in the subway.
I saw [a man in the subway]. = I saw a man who was in the subway. I might have been watching via closed circuit television from halfway around the world.
[I saw [a man] in the subway]. = I saw a man. I was in the subway when I did so.

The ambiguity there isn't significant; there's no terrible difference between the three. However, replace the same sentence with one in a similar form:
"I saw the Amulet of Yendor in the witch's hut."

In a closed world, one that's rather carefully controlled, that's not a problem. If you have an open world, that's potentially important, especially if the NPC you're speaking to is seeking the Amulet of Yendor.

You might have the computer look through the possible interpretations and see which is true. On the other hand, you might be lying. Perhaps you saw it in Corneria, sitting in a lofty tower. Which interpretation should a character choose? Which would a human choose?

And if you're to move from speech to knowledge to corresponding action, you really, REALLY need actual parsing. Keywords can do a lot, but they can't do everything. Alexis should be able to handle things of this nature, and may be easily adapted to the decisionmaking process in a closed system.

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Well, if you use icons for words/concepts, maybe the problem wouldn't exist. For instance, say Joe asks you where this amulet is. You could say something like "TELL JOE WHERE AMULET IS", or "LIE TO JOE ABOUT WHERE AMULET IS" or something of that nature. Possibly even have it set up so the computer detects bad order of words and prompts you to change it? I dunno.

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