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Wavinator

Gameplay and emotional experience of entropy

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What's the point of playing if it all runs down in the end? Ever notice how much permanence plays a role in creating meaning and satisfaction in our game worlds? The great evil is defeated "for all time," the land/world/galaxy is saved, and the heroes live happily ever after (until the sequel, of course). Not only is this emotionally satisfying, it is a crucial closure to gameplay that cannot escalate and diversify infinitely. Yet if you compare this against history, nothing lasts forever. No battle, no endeavor, no sacrifice settles things once and for all. Save the land, and yet another evil king/general/demon/etc. rises. Knock out a murderous faction, and somewhere in the world another rises to take its place. In one quest/mission you may stop two warring tribes only to find their successors inevitably back at it again. So why did you even bother? After enough time, you'll become a jaded immortal, indifferent to the plight of the ephemerals because you've heard it all before. In the game I've been working on, entropy seems like a good way to create constant change. Empires, factions and characters may rise, but they all must inevitably fall. When, how and why is up to you and the game to decide. But while it seems like a good and natural way to create a constantly renewing game universe, I'm troubled by the emotional and gameplay impact it will ultimately have. So (naturally) I have a few questions for you guys: What would it mean to your experience if, despite your best efforts, everything you ever did was eventually undone? More specifically:
  • If NPCs all had limited lifespans, why would you ever bother saving or helping any one of them if they were inevitably destined to die? Would you somehow need some permanent reward for what is ultimately a futile effort?
  • If you could live so long that your reputation faded into history, would those deeds be to you meaningless?
  • If the game world constantly changed such that old haunts disappeared, streets rerouted themselves, names of places and organizations changed, etc. until what you once called familiar was now completely alien, would you yourself feel alienated (having not changed with it)?
  • If you could skip forward in time (such as by holing up in a bunker or using time dilation as "forward only time travel") why would you ever risk your neck trying to defeat the evil du jour if you knew it was destined to eventually crumble?
The ultimate question is "how do you maintain meaning for any action in a world that's constantly changing-- without introducing artificial, out of game constraints?"

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You've written a few questions along the theme of player attachment to the game world, but I think it will depend a lot on the presentation rather than the mechanics. It's the reason why I like playing goody-two-shoes hero type characters in games, even if that's not the best "power-max" way to play the game; they are expected to help everyone and anyone, because that's just their basic nature.

In your game, if the non-permanence of everything is central theme, then I'd entwine that into the backstory and the mythos of the game world. While it might make the game a bit bleak, you can include lots of elements based on this theme; maybe characters keep quoting philosophy or poetry based on the slow decay of civilization, or the erosion of everything that is known (you might be better than me at coming up with good metaphors here [smile]). You could even base the local religion on this theme.

Of course, you'd also need to include something to inspire the hero/player to actually make a difference, so you could put in some more philosophy to help counter that. I'd put in a few local legends about how it's not the destination that matters, but the journey. Or if you want to be really bleak, phrase it that although everything is ultimately doomed to decay, the purpose of life is to stave it off for as long as possible; to struggle against entropy.

This approach might end up giving the game a rather depressing theme, but it's somewhat similar to Fallout in that regard, and that is one of the best RPGs I've ever played.

However, I'd also be wary of just disregarding the simplistic nature of stories, because I feel very strongly that it's that way for a reason. "Story-world" logic differs from "real-world" logic, but it encodes something deeply engrained into our psychological make-up (possibly the way we think the world should work, rather than the way it does?). If you are going to disregard that, you'll have to make it clear to the player that the rules of the story have changed. Of course, if you do something similar to my suggestion above and soak the mythos with decay and entropy then I think they'll get the message [grin].

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I think keeping track of particular bloodlines could help give the player some focus in an otherwise every-changing world. Power, holdings and politics may change, but particular people may always have "the right stuff", even if its only a recessive gene in a nobodies genetic makeup and won't show until the next generation is born (maybe the next christ?). Even though a world might inevitably end, its generally how the people in it handle it and those that manage to survive. If the worlds going to ultimately implode than the player could try catoring to a particularly promising bloodline in the hopes that even though they can't stop the world from inevitablly being destroyed, he can at least make sure their bloodline survives until the next apocalypse.

I guess evolution in a sense could be considered the goal, the circumstances of the current ages destruction/conditions vrs the players choice of bloodline's. To lose the game would then be to have the human race become extinct (no more story), and that to succeed would be to continue on through to another Age. This could also make a goal be to see how far, or how many ages the player can bring his bloodline(s) before or if they become extinct (or perhalps evolve physically/spiritually beyond the players control).

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  • If NPCs all had limited lifespans, why would you ever bother saving or helping any one of them if they were inevitably destined to die? Would you somehow need some permanent reward for what is ultimately a futile effort?

Taking real-life as an example, everything has a limited lifespan, but people still do heroic things. They do them for many reasons, whether that be: rewards; gratitude - a feeling of praise; and fame - people enjoy being the centre of attention for doing something heroic. You also have a limited lifespan, so that also means that you won't have to face the same thing over and over again. Aslong as the rewards within the game counter-balance the problem you're faced with, an NPC with a limited lifespan wouldn't bother me.

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  • If you could live so long that your reputation faded into history, would those deeds be to you meaningless?

  • If I was still recognised for those deeds as a part of history, then no. If they became a myth, then yes, because people wouldn't recognise me for those heroic deeds anymore.

    Quote:
  • If the game world constantly changed such that old haunts disappeared, streets rerouted themselves, names of places and organizations changed, etc. until what you once called familiar was now completely alien, would you yourself feel alienated (having not changed with it)?

  • If the game doesn't immerse you enough so that you feel like a part of the changes then it's failing. Being part of the game world is what makes a good game.

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  • If you could skip forward in time (such as by holing up in a bunker or using time dilation as "forward only time travel") why would you ever risk your neck trying to defeat the evil du jour if you knew it was destined to eventually crumble?

  • I wouldn't. If he was going to die anyway, then what would be the point? As I mentioned earlier, the player should also have a limited lifespan if NPCs do.

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    Original post by Undeadlnsanity
    Quote:
  • If you could live so long that your reputation faded into history, would those deeds be to you meaningless?

  • If I was still recognised for those deeds as a part of history, then no. If they became a myth, then yes, because people wouldn't recognise me for those heroic deeds anymore.

    Does it matter? If I remember some of the deeds with a smile (because the gameplay was good), then they are still meaningful. However, I think the game should keep permanent track of all major events in a journal.

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  • If you could skip forward in time (such as by holing up in a bunker or using time dilation as "forward only time travel") why would you ever risk your neck trying to defeat the evil du jour if you knew it was destined to eventually crumble?

  • I wouldn't. If he was going to die anyway, then what would be the point? As I mentioned earlier, the player should also have a limited lifespan if NPCs do.

    Why would I not risk my neck? Isn't conflict what the game is about? Where's the fun in skipping challenges? Well, I suppose when evil supervillain #317 enters the scene I may just be fed up.

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    Original post by EasyRaider
    Quote:
    Original post by Undeadlnsanity
    Quote:
  • If you could live so long that your reputation faded into history, would those deeds be to you meaningless?

  • If I was still recognised for those deeds as a part of history, then no. If they became a myth, then yes, because people wouldn't recognise me for those heroic deeds anymore.

    Does it matter? If I remember some of the deeds with a smile (because the gameplay was good), then they are still meaningful. However, I think the game should keep permanent track of all major events in a journal.

    For me it does. I'd like others to recognise me for what I've achieved. Sure, having your own memories is better, but having others recognise you for something is like the icing on a cake.

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    Original post by EasyRaider
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  • If you could skip forward in time (such as by holing up in a bunker or using time dilation as "forward only time travel") why would you ever risk your neck trying to defeat the evil du jour if you knew it was destined to eventually crumble?

  • I wouldn't. If he was going to die anyway, then what would be the point? As I mentioned earlier, the player should also have a limited lifespan if NPCs do.

    Why would I not risk my neck? Isn't conflict what the game is about? Where's the fun in skipping challenges? Well, I suppose when evil supervillain #317 enters the scene I may just be fed up.

    I was speaking in terms as if the game was real-life. I wouldn't risk myself if he was going to die anyway. There's no fun in it, but you know what these hardcore gamer types are like. Personally I see no fun in grinding.

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    Original post by Wavinator
  • If you could skip forward in time (such as by holing up in a bunker or using time dilation as "forward only time travel") why would you ever risk your neck trying to defeat the evil du jour if you knew it was destined to eventually crumble?

  • Why would you include such a feature anyway?

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    Interesting points, Wavinator. I've been mulling over some of these same questions, now that I've implemented a plot generator in my own game engine. It's an online multi-player, but in my answers below, I tried to focus on points that are significant to single-player as well.

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    If NPCs all had limited lifespans, why would you ever bother saving or helping any one of them if they were inevitably destined to die? Would you somehow need some permanent reward for what is ultimately a futile effort?


    First you need to consider the NPC's relationship to the player. If the NPC can be easily replaced, like the henchmen in Diablo, there's not much of a problem. If it's a unique NPC with a major purpose -- e.g., a wizard who is the player's primary source of magic training -- its death is going to hurt. If you're going to make the latter type of NPC disposable, at the very least you'll have to give the player some new options.

    The player's interaction with the NPC during its lifespan should be rewarding enough to make the interaction worthwhile. It's okay if the NPC dies, even if it's a bit of a disappointment to the player, as long as the player doesn't feel the time has been wasted, and especially as long as its death doesn't feel like the end of the game.

    Another thing to consider is making the NPC's death an element of new plotlines. Say a player has a quest with two goals. The primary goal is to steal an artifact from an evil wizard and deliver it to a good wizard. The secondary goal is to kill the evil wizard. The player succeeds in stealing the artifact, but fails to kill the evil wizard. Due to the failure, the evil wizard sends an assassin to kill the player's mentor. (This could happen off-screen, and the player wouldn't know about it until he returned to the mentor's school.) Another NPC, say the mentor's brother, might be willing to take the player as a student if the player finds and kills the assassin. Thus, the mentor's death is not only the end of one plot, but the beginning of a new one.

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    If you could live so long that your reputation faded into history, would those deeds be to you meaningless?


    Depends on how long it takes the reputation to fade, and how much fun it was to earn it. If I went through a boring grind to get a statue of myself erected in a park, and the statue was replaced with someone else's in a day... yeah, I'd be annoyed. If the quest was entertaining, a gold ring I could stick in my inventory might be reward enough.

    Keep in mind that every quest doesn't need to affect the entire world. If the player cares enough about one NPC to get involved in a quest for it -- for example, the mentor in my previous example -- then it's a worthwhile quest. If the player feels involved enough in the world, even a failure can keep him playing. A success can reward him and generate new quests. A failure can penalize him and generate different quests. The end of a plotline does not need to be the end of the game.

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    If the game world constantly changed such that old haunts disappeared, streets rerouted themselves, names of places and organizations changed, etc. until what you once called familiar was now completely alien, would you yourself feel alienated (having not changed with it)?


    That's a more difficult question. Again, it depends on the time involved. There should probably be major aspects of the world that are more static; for example, maybe New Orc City is always there, but the shop where I bought my sword has moved, or someone else owns it. That wouldn't bother me. If entire cities got razed once an hour, it would probably grow tiresome.

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    If you could skip forward in time (such as by holing up in a bunker or using time dilation as "forward only time travel") why would you ever risk your neck trying to defeat the evil du jour if you knew it was destined to eventually crumble?


    I can't imagine wanting a feature like that in a game. I'd be loathe to use it, yet its presence would make me wonder why I bother doing everything "the hard way." Knowing that there's a simple escape to any problem would also diminish the reward of tackling it. Maybe... just maybe... if there were limited opportunities to skip forward, or if it incurred some sort of penalty; for example, a chance of jumping into a future that is much, much worse.

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    Original post by Trapper Zoid
    In your game, if the non-permanence of everything is central theme, then I'd entwine that into the backstory and the mythos of the game world. While it might make the game a bit bleak, you can include lots of elements based on this theme; maybe characters keep quoting philosophy or poetry based on the slow decay of civilization, or the erosion of everything that is known (you might be better than me at coming up with good metaphors here [smile]). You could even base the local religion on this theme.


    Nice. The player is one of several immortals, so this would fit in. Maybe a "battle for the player's soul" would fit? You could have a faction of immortals whose philosophy is to let humans (ephemerals) live their life unmolested, another that looks down on them as no more than chess pieces, and another that is trying to uplift humans (maybe this last could be two factions? Guide us into immortality, or thrust us into it whether we want to or not?)

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    Of course, you'd also need to include something to inspire the hero/player to actually make a difference, so you could put in some more philosophy to help counter that. I'd put in a few local legends about how it's not the destination that matters, but the journey. Or if you want to be really bleak, phrase it that although everything is ultimately doomed to decay, the purpose of life is to stave it off for as long as possible; to struggle against entropy.


    I like both of these. The latter is very Lord of the Rings as I understand it. (A biographer for Tolkein was saying that that was his stance against evil, that it had to be struggled against whether you won or lost).

    What do you think about the idea of two secret human factions who know that immortals are walking the earth, one which has the "journey" philosophy, the other the "struggle against decay" philosophy.

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    This approach might end up giving the game a rather depressing theme, but it's somewhat similar to Fallout in that regard, and that is one of the best RPGs I've ever played.


    Heh, agreed. I grew up on post-apocalyptic fiction, so I'm a sucker for any game that lets me "struggle against the fall."

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    If you are going to disregard that, you'll have to make it clear to the player that the rules of the story have changed. Of course, if you do something similar to my suggestion above and soak the mythos with decay and entropy then I think they'll get the message [grin].


    I think I understand, but just to be sure: Are you saying be careful of noir? I'm no fan of noir at all, so if so, no worries there. I want you to get the impression that "it all works out in the end" from the quests and backstory, but the universe belies that fact by design (because things decay).

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    Original post by Gyrthok
    I think keeping track of particular bloodlines could help give the player some focus in an otherwise every-changing world. Power, holdings and politics may change, but particular people may always have "the right stuff", even if its only a recessive gene in a nobodies genetic makeup and won't show until the next generation is born (maybe the next christ?).


    Hmmm... I'm starting to wonder if bloodlines shouldn't be critical, rather than (as I was thinking) an optional way that you advancing and holding onto accomplishments in the game. This idea of the "right stuff," maybe expressed as some sort of quasi-scientific/quasi-mystical potential, might mean that you start caring about large aggregates (as human communities) as well as specific characters (maybe). It's weird, but you could get into some kind of concept of "chosen people" who are "imbued" or "tainted" with certain traits, such as great empathy or the capacity for horrendous violence.

    (uh, oh, I feel another post coming on...[rolleyes])


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    Even though a world might inevitably end, its generally how the people in it handle it and those that manage to survive. If the worlds going to ultimately implode than the player could try catoring to a particularly promising bloodline in the hopes that even though they can't stop the world from inevitablly being destroyed, he can at least make sure their bloodline survives until the next apocalypse.


    I want there to be varying tech levels with the possibility of everything collapsing down to a Fallout level. So this would have to be more than just science. Do you think the ability to retain and persuasively spread philosophy / religion, generation after generation, might work?

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    To lose the game would then be to have the human race become extinct (no more story), and that to succeed would be to continue on through to another Age.


    YES! I've been trying to figure out how to get the player into this kind of goal for awhile. It really perfectly blends the aspects of an empire game (lose your last base, lose the game) with an RPG feel. [cool]

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    This could also make a goal be to see how far, or how many ages the player can bring his bloodline(s) before or if they become extinct (or perhalps evolve physically/spiritually beyond the players control).


    I haven't touched on this much, but do you think there is room for evolution of the human race as gameplay here? Is that too far out?

    What if, for instance, through the spread of your chosen people (as a faction) you evolved humanity into lotus eaters, or cold, calculating flesh and blood machines? I can't imagine how in the heck to balance that sort of thing, but it could be an "omega point" end of game goal, like in many strategy games. (I remember in Alpha Centauri you could end the game as the sole power, or as a unified leader, or as transcended superbeings.[smile])

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