Westworld and Immersive Games

HBO’s new Westworld series is absolutely essential viewing for anyone with an interest in games. It’s a great mystery, a great thriller, and great science-fiction, but it’s also fundamentally an exploration of games. On one level it is obviously an exploration of immersive or pervasive games – games that expand past traditional boundaries to engage with the “real world”, or physical spaces, or blur the line between the game and the non-game – but the series is also rife with observations about why people play games, the power of games to affect one’s “real” life, the blurring of the lines between games and life, the roles of secrets and knowledge and expectations in games (which is naturally very appropriate to my game design interests), and the how game worlds can be made more believable (or can fail to achieve that). In this post I’d like to look at some of these elements, and argue that Westworld offers a number of interesting reflections on the present and future state of games. Several other writers have already noted Westworld/video game similarities and argued that Westworld represents a bad video game, and I recognise I will inevitably retread a little bit of common ground here (this, of course, is what happens when I tend not to consume media until it has been out for some time). Nevertheless, five points stood out strongly to me that I felt were worth a (or another) look, and whereas other critics have tended to focus on the “game mechanics” of Westworld (and how lifeless its NPCs and narratives are), I’m more interested in ideas of play present in Westworld, and what it says about how and why we consume games. This entry will contain minimal plot spoilers (except the fifth point, but there are warnings in place in those paragraphs), but there will be a few mentions of particular scenes, and in some cases descriptions of the characters in those scenes, because they are particularly relevant to drawing out the most interesting points for discussion. I’ve made sure to give away the smallest possible amount of information, however, because – as with many shows of this ilk – spoilers are pretty destructive to the overall story.

Secrets and Knowledge

To begin with, there is some interesting discussion about secrets and knowledge in game worlds in Westworld that seems to have been largely overlooked. Several characters as the series goes on discuss the idea that there might be many “secrets” in the game world to be found, and that the surface game world is only for a lesser, or newer, players. One character is compelled to find something which he believes to be a deeper game hidden within the main game, that the main game is designed to hide; one might identify a similar concept in Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, where a game-wide mystery has been present for decades without anyone having ever solved the clues to identify it, and the puzzle itself has been designed with a particular set of values and concepts in mind. Another Westworld character hypothesises that when the game starts, they are placed in a relatively “safe” town in the middle of Westworld, but the further out from this core a player gets, the more exciting, and scary, and “dangerous”, the narratives become. In particular, they believe it is possible to take part in a civil-war-esque “hidden” narrative and to lead a military force, but they’ve never before been able to hit the right triggers to get themselves into that plot. A “better” player should therefore strike out from where they start and seek out these other stories and their secrets, whilst newer players remain in the centre.

I won’t spoil what relevance – if any – these conversations have and whether any/all of these “secrets” are actually out there, or whether it’s a big urban myth that nevertheless shapes the experiences of Westworld attendees, but the mere existence of such conversations is a smart little wink towards the early video game era of secrets and the passing-down of myths between players and competitors. Games like Fez have been famously designed with this concept in mind: the potential for rumours about game secrets to spread between players, and therefore the attendant possibility for fake stories. Anyone from a gaming generation that, I think, I was born at the end of, will recognise the ability for stories and secrets about games to spread between friends and cause people to seek out these obscure hidden meanings. In Westworld it is tremendously exciting to see this concept blown up to a large scale, where the secrets might be hidden anywhere across hundreds of square miles, dispersed cryptic clues, and questions about whether the secrets even exist in the first place. With a world so detailed and with such (broadly speaking) lifelike NPCs, and the impossibility of ever seeing anything more than a small percentage of what the park has to offer in a single visit, it’s not hard to imagine why these kinds of myths and rumours would spread. Westworld draws our attention back to a kind of gameplay and a kind of game-led social behaviour perhaps in decline as the internet immediately solves any and all game mysteries, by offering a world so complex and life-like that nobody can really know for sure that everything has been found.

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Acting, Theatre and Games

Secondly, there’s some interesting reflections on the relationships between theatre and games, and the excitement of dealing directly with actors in a kind of interactive drama. Illustrative of this is an absolutely fantastic moment where one of the guests is being shown around the outside of the park by a woman he clearly finds (or is meant to find?) sexually attractive; but he is unable to tell whether she is a host or a human. They briefly discuss the fact that he is unable to tell, during which she expresses her amusement at that fact, and the whole scene develops a wonderful frisson between the two. If she is a host, it’s amusing; but if she is a human, the game she plays with him becomes all the more exciting, and – given what the viewer has already learned about the ability to play out one’s desires within the park – erotic. It’s the same kind of game-like eroticism found in a masquerade, or in sexual roleplay: the excitement of the uncertainty of whether the person you’re pursuing is truly who they seem, or is who you think they are, or whether they are acting or behaving in a certain way just for you, and the excitement of you both implicitly/tacitly agreeing to “play the game” for as long as it lasts.

It’s the same kind of thrill (in a non-erotic context) that one gets from immersive performance when talking to actors who are directly talking to you, but holding character when doing so; you find yourself (or at least, I find myself) suddenly desperately eager to learn about who these people are in real life. When your only encounter with them might be during a performance, and you are unlikely to ever see them again, I find myself all the more interested in the lives of these people who have only ever interacted with you whilst portraying a character. Westworld plays on this well, especially as several plot points develop later in the series, and there are a number of contexts where you can tell the human players are uncertain how they “can” or “should” act when the “actors” (the androids) remain in character, but the guests know that the park is only a park. Several mention the truth to the androids, who can never quite work out what they mean by the “outside world” and so forth, and remain entirely in character. Although naturally the androids express bemusement because they are programmed to, the effect is the same as immersive theatre – an actor who remains in character no matter what, even with a guest or viewer trying to break them out of it. It’s a really interesting reflection on playing games with “real people” (or in Westworld, those who act as real people) and the kind of experience players have talking to someone who won’t break character no matter what actually happens, and I hope we see more of these ambiguities in the second season.

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Maintaining the Illusion

Thirdly, Westworld does some interesting things when it comes to maintaining the illusion of a seamless game world. Naturally video games have become better and better at this in recent years, with characters who behave in often more believable ways, with more complex and more varied actions reducing the sense that you’re watching a predictable machine, just as graphics technology inches towards photo-realism and the creation of deeper stories and worldbuilding make game worlds seem ever more real and grounded (see my recent piece on Bloodborne). However, in Westworld, in a game where the possibility space is so vast and the NPCs have a range of potential actions and decisions immeasurably wider than any NPC in a current video game, Westworld’s designers have had to find ways to ensure that the illusion is maintained, but also that players can never find themselves in situations that a) cannot be escaped or b) will cause them genuine harm, whilst still c) ensuring thrill and excitement and d) the feeling of danger. This is never a focus of the series, but from a game design perspective, it’s quite interesting to look at what Westworld does in this area, and how they handle the balance between these three conflicting desires.

For example, there are a few moments where the guests, in the real world, would be in danger. In some instances this is just a case of shooting a gun: the hosts cannot actually harm the guests, and thus a guest with a loaded gun can potentially just wade into a crowd of enemies and gun them down, without worrying about consequences. To counter this, in some cases the hosts try to disarm the guests rather than shooting them back, which leads to some of the trickier situations – one which stands out involved a guest bound with rope, and apparently about to be branded with a red-hot brand, as a result of being seen as a traitor or deserter. However, at the final moment another host intervenes to save the guest, who was genuinely unable to save themselves, and in the resulting mayhem the guest then finally manages to struggle to a knife and free themselves. In another situation, one guest is about to hurt another guest with a knife, and at the final second a host lunges forward, exerts their full mechanical force on the arm of the first guest, and pulls the knife down into the nearby table where it can do no harm. The agency for escaping these impossible-to-escape moments comes from outside the players themselves, who (especially in the first case) are clearly meant to be feel genuine (“genuine”) helplessness for this portion of the game/narrative. Westworld (the park) has been apparently designed to ensure that seemingly risky or scary situations can be developed – and indeed many guests are clearly scared or worried when hosts do certain things – whilst making sure the guest can never find themselves in an impossible situation.

It’s a very interesting balance, and one that strikes me as having the potential for interesting situations in video games, because it plays with the idea of trust – “have the game designers planned this?”, and “was this intended?”. I can think of very few games that have generated this feeling in me, but the few times it has happened, and I’ve been genuinely unsure whether or not something is meant to happen and whether or not I’ve done something that might have just ruined my chances of success, it has always been a very compelling and very exciting moment – the ability of the game to genuinely surprise you. Naturally in a far-future world with intelligent androids this feeling would no doubt be slightly easier to generate than in present video games, but Westworld nevertheless highlights the importance of surprise and the unexpected to the game experience. It makes people question – even if only for a second – if this was meant to happen, if there’s a way out of this situation, and so forth. I’d love to see more games playing with these kinds of ideas; whilst alternate reality games have certainly used similar ideas, these still remain a niche genre at most, whilst mainstream games seek to never introduce this kind of reflective uncertainty.

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Games and the Outside World

Fourthly, Westworld examines the motivations that people have for playing games in the first place, and particularly coming to a violent place like Westworld when the real world (which we never see on screen) is apparently a place of plenty, and safety, and security. At one point a guest finds himself falling for one of the hosts (the android NPCs), and tries to get them out of the park. Exasperated by the guests talking about the outside world (the nature of which they do not understand), this host snaps in anger, saying: “You both keep assuming that I want out, whatever that is. If it’s such a wonderful place out there, why are you all clamouring to get in here?”. It’s a great question that several characters answer in various ways, describing that they were only able to “find themselves” in a world where there is the sense of genuine risk; they came there for the thrill, for the excitement, for the illusion of something “real”, and so forth. The idea of a very safe society resulting in the desire for risk is a theme that others have covered in science fiction in the past, perhaps most obviously in Iain M Bank’s Culture series, but Westworld also offers some reflections on these questions, where numerous characters discuss their outside lives and their motivations for coming to this park.

Equally, there’s some discussion of the similarity between the hosts (i.e. the NPCs) and the guests (i.e. the players). For example, one character states: “Humans fancy that there’s something special about the way we perceive the world, and yet we live in loops as tight and as closed as the hosts do, seldom questioning our choices, content, for the most part, to be told what to do next”. In some ways, this is perhaps both the most startling critique of the hosts – basically admitting that they are dull, uninteresting, and still deeply constrained no matter how much free will they seem to have – and of the guests, and implicitly, of the viewer watching this on television or their computers. It’s an impressive call for people to make more of their lives and do break out of their normal loops and do something “real” – the precise feeling people come to Westworld for – and yet they admit the park only offers the most simplistic narrative loops for the guests to engage with! In some ways it seems difficult to know what to make of this statement – or, rather, what the solution is. It’s a damning critique of games and their players, but one which does seem to have a solution, which is the fifth and final point I’d like to look at here…

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Games and the Weight of Decisions

Alongside these other four points, Westworld also offers interesting reflections on how the weight of decisions affects the experience of gameplay. However, before going into this in detail, I should give a warning: this final section, inevitably, has some major spoilers, and that’s unavoidable due to the topic. If you want to skip it, avoid this text and the accompanying picture, and head down to the next heading below, “The Westworld Game”, where you’ll find my concluding thoughts which will be back to the same level of spoiler-free-ness as the rest of this post. If not, however…

Westworld, as noted above, portrays a game/theme park where the possibility of any genuine harm to the guests has been completely eliminated. We see that guests can be hit and fought, or might be restrained or locked up for periods, and can even be put in situations that appear inescapable but always have some secret solution, but there is never any possibility for genuine harm to come to the players. However, for some players, this isn’t enough – the ability to “do anything” (kill, plunder, abuse, explore) is made less compelling when nothing comes with any substantial repercussions, and reduces the park from an immersive experience to a spectacle players just drift through. This is best illustrated in one episode when a complex scripted event (a bank heist) is playing out, and two guests just wander into it, and – impervious to the bullets of the hosts – just shoot everyone. The Westworld controllers overseeing the game are shown expressing clear annoyance that their story had been spoiled (both for themselves, and all the other guests?) by these two guests who had abused their god-mode invincibility to upset the game’s functioning. Although many come to Westworld to find meaning, therefore, many find no deeper meaning beyond amusement, entertainment and debauchery, allowing them to do things they cannot do in the world record, but not to do those things and have them truly matter.

However, at the end of the series, it appears that the limitations on the hosts have been lifted, and they are now able to cause genuine harm. One of the main characters of the series expressed throughout several episodes his resentment of the “surface game” – where nothing truly matters and nobody can be truly harmed – and is searching for something called “the maze”, which he believes is a deeper level of the game where people can, perhaps, be truly harmed, or partake in activities with real meaning. Upon finding that the maze is not what he thought, he is even more disillusioned with the game, and finds it even more irrelevant than ever. However, in the final scene of the series, he is shot in the arm by a host, and is genuinely shot – he loses blood, and staggers backwards, and then a smile spreads upon his face: the game has finally become real, and the game finally matters, and finally means something. Naturally games don’t have to come with the risk of physical harm to be truly meaningful, but Westworld does engage with questions around the greater meaning of games, and the importance of impact to one’s actions to the enjoyment of a game (whether within the game, as with games where one cannot reload, or outside of the game, as with wagering money on gameplay). I’ll be extremely interested to see how this plays out in the second season of the series, and whether they continue to consider the ways that games gain meaning and how experiences of play are changed by having something “at stake”. Can deeper meaning be found in play with something being at stake? Many professional gamblers would certainly tell you an emphatic “yes”, as would most professional gamers, or those who compete for high-scores as I do, or speedruns, or particularly elusive achievements. It remains to be seen, however, how the rest of Westworld guests will take to this transformed, and newly-meaningful, game…

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The Westworld Game

Westworld is not, first and foremost, an exploration of games. There are many other thematic elements that are undoubtedly foregrounded more in the series; inevitably, though, as a game designer/scholar, it’s hard for me not to focus on the game elements to the series. To date, many of the other critiques of Westworld from a video games perspective have tended to focus on whether it’s actually a particularly “good” game, primarily in terms of the lives and behaviours of its NPCs and how it engages (or fails to engage) the player with the narratives being offered. These are valuable critiques, but I think there’s a number of other points I’ve outlined in this entry which are perhaps more interesting engagements with Westworld’s depiction of games and play. Westworld plays on the interest of game players in tricks and secrets; the relationship between acting and play, especially in theatre and immersive games; how the relationship between agency, safety and excitement can be managed in a game space; the relationship between games and the outside world, and the motivations of players; and the “weight” of decisions in games and the importance of meaningful decisions, and meaningful consequences, in play that is deeper than a merely surface game. All of these highlight that a little bit of time spent unpicking some of the series’ secondary narrative threads yields some genuinely intriguing insights, and ones which show a series intellectual engagement with the nature, and value, of games and gameplay. I’ll certainly be watching the second season when it comes around, and I very much hope they continue to build on the game themes here when the writers come to decide on what comes next. In the mean time, for those of you who haven’t seen it, I would certainly recommend it: and do let me know in the comments below what you thought of the series and its game-like elements (with appropriate spoiler warnings if necessary).

NPC Personalities, Option Responses, Insults and Compliments

This last fortnight has been extremely productive for finishing off the development of URR 0.8. It has been really great to properly get back into the swing of things and see, and be able to play, major changes to the game at the end of each night. I’ve produced three substantially new things this week – the first initial steps towards NPC personalities, the set of answers to questions that have a range of distinct options rather than only one possible reply with words being switchable in and out, and lots of extra detail for insults and compliments. I’m also about half-way through the establishment of a comprehensive baseline for conversations, meaning that the player can now successfully have a Q&A-esque conversation with any NPC they encounter on any topic, which is the biggest and most important first stage towards the full conversation system that’s being developed here. That will be finished by next week, and will be focus of next week’s blog post! For now, however, read on…

(Warning: due to the nature of this update being entirely programming, the adding of new content, and developing elements that aren’t yet finished and ready to show off, I’m afraid there are no images. Hopefully some screenshots will be back next week!)

NPC Personalities

Firstly this week, in the process of filling out the “options” responses (see below), I needed to actually come in and add some of the personality modifiers for NPCs. In some cases these apply to all NPCs irrespective of whether they are important or not, and in some cases they apply only to the important NPCs that game tracks independently as the player moves around the world, and then in other cases they are relevant only to important NPCs of particular classes (for example, only a gladiator needs to have a fully-formed opinion about the crowds who watch gladiatorial combat). There is now a pretty large set of personality traits that NPCs possess, which affect their actions and their responses – and as with everything, should give the player hints about their origins, backgrounds, allegiances, and so forth. There are definitely too many to look at them all in depth here, but there’s a few particularly interesting ones which I’ll recount here. These include:

like_of_other_countries: This personality trait, somewhat obviously, determines what individuals think about other countries beyond their own. As with many of the traits here, this trait is modified by a range of factors. These include the NPC class and background of the individual person, and the wider ideologies of their nation, and their religion, alongside a small random component throw in to ensure that two NPCs with the same demographics will not always match up exactly, but will still generally be within a logical variation on either side of a set of beliefs. For example, an “explorer” from an “internationalist” nation is likely to think very positively about the rest of the world; a “jailer” or “officer” from an “imperialist” nation is likely to think very negatively about the rest of the world; and so on across all the NPC classes, and potential modifiers for national and religious preferences. Taken on a broad scale, you’ll be able to identify commonalities and overall feelings in a culture, but individuals will still vary significantly according to their individual life experiences.

like_of_art: This trait determines what kind of interest the person has in artistic outputs (paintings, sculpture, etc – there is an equivalent for “literature”, which will cover books, poetry, etc). This is affected once more by the kind of NPC you’re talking to, and to the ideologies of the nation in question. For example, a nation with a strong cultural interest in aesthetics will naturally produce those who like art a lot more; whereas a nation with a strong intellectual interest in mathematics or mechanical engineering will likely be less interested in works of art. This will affect how much people are willing to tell you about the artwork of their homeland, how much they know about it, and give you some hints about the place of artwork in that culture and therefore where (and what) artwork you might be able to find, which might yield clues in your central quest.

religious_zeal: This is a trait affecting quite a range of responses. This will affect how NPCs respond to you if it becomes apparent that you belong to a different religion, what NPCs think about heresy, how friendly and well-disposed they are towards inquisitions and other religious rules and strictures, how they act towards priests, what kinds of money or resources they give to their church, and so forth. Although most obviously living in a theocracy will boost the average religious zeal, this still varies a lot between individuals, in large part from their status in society, their contact with other nations and religions, and their personal history and relationship with the religion in question. There’s a wide set of speech replies that draw on this particular trait, and I’m very happy with how these have all turned out.

policy_acceptance and X_preference: There is a set of nine related traits: the first is policy_acceptance, and the others are X_preference, where X is foreign, military, leadership, and so forth, for each policy grouping in each culture/nation. The first of these refers to the overall contentment of the individual with the general policies of their homeland. Leaders and regents will, naturally, be extremely positive about the policies that they themselves have implemented and oversee; nobles and lords will generally be very positive, but may express small amounts of concern about particular elements of policy; and so on and so forth across the full set of NPC classes, with some classes having much higher chances to have serious issues with the policies, and some classes having particular issues with particular policies – a jailer will almost always think building prisons is a great idea, a prisoner will almost always disagree, and so forth. The second of these, the set of eight preferences, refers to what policy the NPC would like to see implemented instead of the current policy in each of the eight areas. The number of “other policies” an NPC likes is dependent on their overall policy acceptance, and then what alternatives they like vary according to their NPC class and a range of other elements. For now these just lead to a wide range of interesting conversation replies, but in the future I’m hoping to do much more with these personality traits and individual/personal preferences.

leadership_like: This trait refers to how much the NPC likes the leadership of their nation. This is not to say the leadership policy of their nation, as above – theocracy, monarchy, etc – but the individual personality/personalities of the person/people at the top. There are a lot of elements which go into this particular decision for each NPC, and as with the above set, I’m hoping to later tie this into the potential for social movements, conspiracies, and the like…

fellow_soldier_opinion: For those who are within the military, this determines what they think of their fellow soldiers. This varies by rank, by leadership, and by the individual histories of particular soldiers. I’m not quite sure what else this variable will affect yet – beyond a couple of possible conversation replies – but I think it could be a nice way to build up a sense of how different military forces function in the URR world.

There are many others beyond these, but these should give a good idea of the kinds of personality traits that URR NPCs have. As with much of the game, these numbers will not be explicitly visible to the player, but rather should become apparent by the behaviour of the NPC, which – hopefully – should be rich and detailed enough that one can actually draw these kinds of conclusions, and then use this kind of information to make informed strategic decisions about your relationship to that NPC. In turn, all the sentences that NPCs can say which draw upon these elements have been finished, and offer a massive variety of comments and observations that NPCs can make through drawing on their perspectives, understandings, and past experiences.

Insults and Compliments Revisited

Secondly this past fortnight, I took the feedback from several people on-board about the insults and compliments, and decided to revisit these. Although the greetings and farewells vary substantially in length and detail – and, of course, one will never see lots of these in quick succession as we do in these blog posts – the same wasn’t quite true for insults and compliments, so I’ve adjusted these. There are now a range of shorter and snappier insults and compliments, and these have been added appropriately to the game’s databases of possible statements.

I also this week took all the farewells, greetings, thanks, insults, compliments, and threats out of the demonstration file and implemented them into the main game. This took a while because these sentences are generated in a unique way to give a particularly high amount of variation compared to other sentences (because they are so common) and they need to vary both overall between cultures/religions, and in individual moments of speech, so that two people from the exact same background will themselves offer different farewells at different times. This seems to be all in place now, however, and NPCs can now give these statements at appropriate times!

Option Responses

The third major body of work completed this week was what I’ve taken to calling “option responses”. Some questions are easy to answer, since the answer will always take the same form with a word or two exchanged – these are “basic responses”. Other questions are harder to answer, which split into “option responses” (where responses are very different depending on the nature of the answer) and “list responses” (where a response will always take the form of a list). This week I’ve been working on the option responses. Some of the questions that have these kinds of responses include:

  • What do you think of the leadership?
  • What do you believe your foreign policy should be?
  • What do you think of your culture’s art?
  • What are the religious policies of your nation?
  • How widely spread is your religion?
  • What is your job?
  • What is the history of this monastery?

In all of these cases the game can’t just take a default sentence and then vary it, but it has to instead select a sentence from a wide set depending on the data available, and then create that sentence anew each time. There are substantially more possible “base” responses for option questions than there are for all the basic sentences combined, which gives some idea of the kind of variation that some of these need to have. With this fortnight finished, I’ve now finished these off, and I’m very happy with the kinds of sentences they create – they’re varied, detailed, and will take far longer than the basic sentences before the player will ever come around to seeing the “same” sentences again.

Conclusion

This fortnight has seen some major progress in sentence generation and the conversation system, and we’re almost at the point where the player should be able to have a full – if thus far a little basic – conversation with every NPC you encounter. Stay tuned!

New Magazine Piece

Last but not least, myself and my colleague Jamie Woodcock have just had a piece published in Discover Society magazine with some initial thoughts on the sociological and cultural interest of Twitch chat (for those who don’t know, this is the instant messaging window that accompanies streams on Twitch). As we note there, it is certainly difficult to explore all the interesting elements of this phenomenon in a short opinion piece of this sort, but we tried to unpick what we find to be some of the most intriguing dimensions of it, and raise some interesting questions which we’ll hopefully be studying in more depth in the coming months and years. If Twitch is your thing, then do give it a look:

Understanding Twitch Chat: New Forms of Digital Community and Play

2016 in Review

Last year’s 2015 in review helped me to put a lot of my thoughts in order about where URR and other work was, and where it is going, so I thought I would do the same this year. Here’s a little summary of everything done in 2016 – Ultima Ratio Regum development, my scholarly work, competitive gaming, and game writing. Read on!

URR Development

This year I aimed to get 0.8 out; sadly, this was unsuccessful. Part of this was my fault for overestimating what I could do in a certain period of time; and part of it was due to a very unexpected glut of academic work in the September/October/November period. It’ll become clear what exactly this was when we get hopefully not too far into the next calendar year, but this was just completely unavoidable and extinguished my spare time down to an absolute zero.

However, despite that, huge progress has been made, and 0.8 is now about 90-95% finished, and in December I finally got back to working on it (and I’ve made substantial progress over the winter holiday period). Firstly, I finished generating all the clothing styles for URR 0.8 – gloves and headgear and things like that are yet to be finished, but everyone you encounter in the game world from any kind of culture, or religion, is now guaranteed to wear an appropriate set of garments, which vary according to feudal nations, nomadic nations, tribal nations, and religious hierarchies. Secondly, I finished all the AI and pathfinding and scheduling required for 0.8. This was a huge task in terms of time and effort, and without doubt the most programming-complex task I’ve done yet for URR, given how many different scales the game has to track things on and so forth, but as far as I can tell – in part thanks to my excellent playtesting team – this all seems to work fine. Thirdly, I developed name generation which varies massively from nation to nation, ensuring the people of every culture have their own distinctive practices for naming which are intricately tied to their geography, their history, and so forth. Fourthly, I developed 80%+ of the speech generation system for URR, and fifthly, and related to the fourth point, I developed 80%+ of the conversation system, both in a technical sense and in the sense of sketching out the future elements I want to add to it, and figuring out how the overall flow of the conversations are going to work. Although 0.8 wasn’t released, and I missed out on three months of development time, this has still been a hugely productive year for URR, and has got us to within the smallest distance from 0.8’s release and with it the first major body of actual gameplay in URR!

Academic Work

This year I’ve continued my first postdoctoral position at the University of York, focusing primarily on the study of Esports, streaming, competitive gaming more broadly, and so forth. I’ve written a number of papers which are currently soon to be published, primarily on Esports – I’ll be linking to them here once they actually go live. I also have some chapters coming out in Tanya Short’s and Tarn Adam’s upcoming book on PCG (my chapters are on “Worlds”, “AI”, and “Meaning”), and several other book chapters appearing in other edited collections soon. Right at the end of last year I signed the contract on my first academic book, which has a hefty roguelike and PCG component, and is due to be completed in the coming months. It’s currently well over half-way finished thanks to work done on it in 2016, and I’m very excited about how it’s coming together. I also secured a substantial amount of funding for a secondment to the UK’s Digital Catapult, to start on January 2nd, where I’ll be studying content creation in Esports and streaming, and in roguelikes, to understand the attitudes and perspectives of content creators vis-a-vis the use, reuse, and sale of user-created game content. This position will last six months until the end of June, and I’m extremely eager to see what will come of this post. I also secured a few other awards I’ll be talking more about in the very near future once I have schedule and travel requirements and arrangements sorted out, but there’s a lot of incredibly cool stuff coming up for 2017 I can’t wait to share with you all, a ton of new publications, and also (see below) some more book projects in the works…

Competitive Gaming

This year I scooped up two more world record high scores in bullet hell games, bringing my total to four (assuming nobody has trumped any of them since I wrote this blog post!). The first of these was in the summer, and was on Blue Wish Resurrection, an excellent and well-known shmup with a pretty active high-score chart and quite a bit of attention on YouTube. You can find the video and analysis of the record here. Since getting this record I then wound up performing it in front of well over a hundred people at various events – I presented myself playing it whilst a colleague presented a paper about danmaku games at the Canadian Game Studies Association conference, at DiGRA/FDG in Dundee, and I’m also going to be presenting it at the University of South Wales in January (again with someone giving the “talk” half of the presentation). I’ve really enjoyed doing these, and numerous people have told me and my co-presenters (Alexandra Orlando and Michael Cook) that these were the best presentations they’ve seen to date at academic conferences! The second of these in particular was especially good, as we got somewhere between fifty and a hundred attendees, and the Q&A session afterwards lasted well over an hour, with questions ranging from gaming practice to danmaku history, soundtracks to danmaku culture, visual strain and reflex speed, and much more. I’m looking into doing something similar in the coming year, but since I won’t be able to attend this year’s DiGRA due to other commitments (more on this another time) and this year’s CGSA is probably out of my reach for similar reasons, it might be 2018 until I do any more live high-level danmaku play for a crowd.

After that, I then got the world record for Cho Ren Sha 68k on hard mode, quite an old and well-respected shmup that also has a pretty active high score chart. The analysis and video can be found here. This one was quite unexpected and the early sections of the playthrough are very shaky, but it then picks up and ends with only a single death in the entire playthrough (a little over half way through, I think); that, combined with some less-than-optimal scoring, means that I could definitely try to improve it by maybe as much as another million if someone else takes the record back. After the USW danmaku playthrough/talk above, I think I’ll probably play CRS68K live for any future danmaku presentations, since it’s quite a bit more “live” in my mind than BWR is at the moment, and it certainly makes for as striking a spectacle as BWR. I’m hugely proud of this world record, and in some ways I think this might be my strongest danmaku achievement, if only because of the incredible speed at which CRS plays compared to many other shmups, even if the actual volume of bullets on screen at once tends to be smaller.

Games Writing / Dissemination

This was a good year for freelance writing in various outlets, where I published the following pieces in the following places:

“High-Stakes Gamblers, Game Design […]” (First Person Scholar)
“Procedural Generation’s Future” (Rock Paper Shotgun)
“How to Create Cultures” (Rock Paper Shotgun)
“The Sociology of Streaming” (Sociological Imagination)
“How Games Can Benefit From Procedurally Generated Lore” (Rock Paper Shotgun)
“How To Generate A Religion” (Rock Paper Shotgun)
“You Can Spin Your Own Sci-Fi Tale in ‘RimWorld’” (Vice Gaming)
“Researching the Growth of eSports in the UK” (eSports News)

I was also interviewed by the Heidelberg Journal of Religions and the Internet about URR, interviewed for BBC News on Esports, and by the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on poker and poker-playing AIs. This has been a great year for public work and I’m really happy with what I’ve got out there, and some of the attention my work has got on the back of it, and this is what I’m aiming to beat once 2017 comes around.

2017 Plans

Development:

Firstly, and most obviously, finally finish 0.8 and get it released. This is the absolute priority, and one of my main overall life priorities in January and February of 2017. The massive glut of academic work has subsided, I’m in a far better place in many ways than I was in the Sep-Oct-Nov area of 2016, and in these last two weeks of 2016 I’ve already made substantial progress towards getting 0.8 out. My intention is to have speech finished in January, and then return in February to smooth everything out, fix bugs, and get it released in early March. After that, 0.9 will be a very small release that will only – truly, truly only – add some more NPCs and some more conversation options and systems, and nothing else, and then release. I’m never again going to do a release even a fraction as large as this one, and feel free to hold me to that, internet friends.

Academic:

First priority is finishing off my first book; this is almost done, and it should be released either in late 2017, or more likely, very early 2018. After that, there’s a whole bunch of papers in the works on Esports, Twitch and streaming, and several other topics, with which I’m hoping to continue to make in-roads into this fascinating area of study. Finally, in terms of books, I have two other exciting things currently being planned out which, hopefully, I’ll be able to announce at some point in the early parts of 2017! One of these in particular will, I think, be of a lot of interest to my roguelike readers…

Gaming:

My first priority is identifying what record I want to try to get next: I think at the moment there’s a high chance that this will be the newly-released Blue Revolver on Steam, which is an excellent “classic” shmup with a very well-designed scoring system and a lot of very challenging and very exciting patterns and levels. Another option would be Danmaku Unlimited 3, when it is released, or perhaps having another look at Warning Forever, a perennial favourite of mine which, sadly, suffers from some serious ambiguity with regard to what the world record high score actually is. Another option is the very exciting Devil Daggers, which looks like a game I would enjoy a lot and has a WR score I’m confident I could seriously compete with, but would need me to get used to using a keyboard and mouse again after years of controller usage. Alternatively, if course, it is possible that I won’t pursue many, or even any, further records. If 2017 works out how I want it to, it’s going to be incredibly exciting in both URR and academic terms, and I don’t know how much spare time I’ll have. I’ll keep you all updated, but my retirement from danmaku games might, just, be sooner than expected.

Writing:

In one line, my goal this year is to write for a range of bigger and more visible outlets – places like Giant Bomb, the Verge, Polygon, and so forth. I have a set of pieces already lined up to pitch when the New Year comes, so hopefully you’ll see some of those come to fruition.

Final Thoughts

Well… I’m happy with how my academic, game-play and game writing lives have proceeded, and although URR has seen a lot of really exciting progress, I am inevitably also disappointed that 0.8 isn’t out. Overall, though, I feel I’ve laid some fantastic groundwork in the ways outlined above (and some I can’t yet announce in public) for 2017, and you should see 0.8’s release in this March, all being well. Thanks again for keeping up with URR’s development and helping me keep things ticking over in 2016 – I can’t wait to release in 2017 and get feedback from everyone who reads this blog about what you think words (and doesn’t work) about the new release, and the central conversation system and AI/scheduling elements. Here’s to a very productive 2017, and I’ll see you all next week for another programming update!

Greetings, Farewells, Compliments, Insults, Threats, Thanks

This week I’ve finished off the generator for greetings, farewells, compliments, insults, threats, and giving thanks; each of these can produce easily over tens of thousands of variations, and then when you factor in elements outside the sentence generator itself – the name of a god, the title of a ruler, and so forth – we readily push well up into the millions. In this entry I’ll talk a little about how these generate, give some examples, and look at the kinds of roles I want these elements to play within the conversation system.

In working on the speech generation, it quickly became clear that having a set of phrases distinctive to each nation will be an easy and quick way to potentially identify the national origin of a character you’re talking to (and an easy way to fake your own, if you know all the common phrases…) and so I’ve tried to break these down into appropriate groupings. In the end I decided that there were six major categories I could vary from culture to culture: greetings, farewells, insults, compliments, threats, and thanks. Each of these will be generated for each culture, and will also vary each individual time anyone says one, so one person from Culture X might say “So long for the time being, and may our great military leadership lead us ever forwards”, whilst another from the same culture might say “Goodbye for now, and let us hope our grand military leaders lead us forever onwards” – and so forth. This has required another large table of syllables, of course, but since these are very regular and common sayings I thought it was extremely important to make sure these varied even within cultures and between individuals, rather than (as with most phrases) having them vary only, or primarily, between cultures and religions and backgrounds, and so forth.

Greetings

For greetings I wanted to make sure that these would be sentences that wouldn’t be too lengthy and therefore potentially annoying to see repeatedly, but should also contain at least a little bit of detail in them (this applies to most conversation elements, but I think greetings are particularly relevant in this regard). I went through several iterations of how these might be generated until I was able to settle on one that hit these two requirements (brevity and detail) reasonably well. At this point, therefore, greetings tend to be of the structure “[Greetings] [from] [X]”. The first element will vary between cultures and between individuals, such as “Greetings”, “Good [time of day]”, “I greet you”, “My greetings”, and so forth. These can sometimes be pushed to the back, so you might get “From X, Greetings” or “Greetings from X” – some variations are grammatically correct in both variations, whilst some are only correct in one variation, and this is all coded in. The second element will vary in the same kind of way – “from”, “on behalf of”, etc – and so will the third, which is inevitably the most varied element. This third element will look at who the individual is and the kinds of beliefs they have, and then generate or select an appropriate greeting as a result. In most cases they will explicitly mention their nation of origin (e.g. “Greetings from the brave soldiers of [nation]”), though in some rare case they will mention their religious belief in their greeting instead of a national or cultural origin (“My greetings on behalf of the zealous defenders of [god]”). As you can see from those two examples, in the first case it seems reasonable to assume the speaker is proud of their army – perhaps a standing army, or perhaps an imperialist nation? – whilst the latter is clearly strongly religious, so perhaps they come from a theocratic or religious zealous nation? Here are a bunch of examples – see you can take some guesses about the political / religious / cultural / geographical / etc backgrounds of the speakers…

greeting1

Farewells

So, farewells once more needed to be something that could vary sufficiently much and sufficiently often for them to not get boring when somebody might be talking to the player multiple times, or the player might be talking to numerous people in the same civilization or who worship the same religion. This varies by being broken down into polite, neutral, and sharp farewells. A polite farewell would be of the form “[1]” + “[2]” + “[3]” + “fond_farewell” + “specific_farewell” + “!”. So, this might be something like “I’m afraid I” + “have to” + “take my leave.” + ” Now I bid you goodbye, and” + “may you find enlightenment in study” (for a monastic nation). Or, alternatively, “Alas, I” + “must” + “depart.” + “I say farewell, and” + “may all of your hunts bring trophies and glory” (for a venatic nation). A neutral farewell does not contain the first section, and does not contain the “Now I bid you goodbye”, so whereas a polite farewell might be “I’m afraid I have to take my leave. Now I bid you goodbye, and may you find enlightenment in study!”, a neutral farewell would be “I have to take my leave. May you find enlightenment in study.”, whilst a sharp farewell uses the same earlier components and a different end component – rather than a culture or religion-specific end point, you would get something like “I have to take my leave. May all be well” – a generic, general departure which is sharp and not especially friendly. Again, here are some examples, which should give you clues about the speakers…

greeting2

Compliments

Next up, a pair of related elements – compliments and insults. Each of these will come up less often, but I still naturally wanted these to be very distinctive for each nation, and each example will be worded differently on each generation. “I wager you are as wise and far-sighted as a hawk”, or “I believe you are as clever and sage as the hawk”, or “I know you to be as smart and far-seeing as a great hawk”, and so on and so forth; it’s clearly the same greeting, but each person says it in a different way and will say it in a different way each time, too, to ensure that kind of variety is maintained. These again generate according to ideologies and religions and so forth, and I think they yield a very pleasing level of variation. Examples:

greeting5

Insults

Insults were slightly tougher. Whereas compliments can work quite well if saying pleasant generic things, insults have to be relevant to a range of reasons why they might be insulting the player – refusing a trade, stealing from them, challenging them in combat, being a worshipper of a forbidden religion, or whatever. You wouldn’t want a character to kill somebody in an arena, and then someone from a pacifist nation praises them for their pacifistic tendencies. I’ve mixed things up to therefore create broader, and more sweeping sentences that should be applicable to a range of possible situations, whilst still allowing the character to say a logical compliment. Originally my plan was to make insults and threats fairly interchangeable, but just alter the first few words. So an insult would start “May you”, or “You should be”, “You ought to be”, or whatever, whereas a threat would be “I will see you”, “You will be”, “I will have you”, and the like. In the end I decided not to go with this model and to introduce variation between the two and thereby more overall variety into the conversation system (the kind of decision I’ve usually made!) and I split these into two. It was much easier to build appropriate threat generation than insult generation, actually, but the insults have come out really nicely and have a rather unusual sense to them; they’re quite distinctive, and run through quite a range of different ideas and concepts. Examples once more:

greeting3

Threats

Threats, then, are similar to insults, and the variation is best illustrated simply by showing some examples:

greeting6

Thanks

Last, but not least: we have “thanks”. These start with words like “As”, “Being”, “Speaking as”, and so forth, and then something to do with their background, and then a form of thanks. For instance, someone from a conscript nation might say “Being a conscript proud to serve [herhis] [homeland], [thanks]”, or someone from a zealotry background might say “Being as one with the great light of [god], [thanks]”, and so forth. These are shorter and snappier than some of the other generated sentences in this set of six, but they work very well, and again get the point across snappily and effectively, whilst being relevant in a lot of situations. Whereas insults and threats were tricky because they were dependent on what the player had done to merit the insult/threat, thanks are dependent on the speaker who is relating what particular traits or characteristics they find especially valuable. Examples:

greeting4

Next Week

By next week I should have these actually implemented into the game, rather than Python’s output log, and these will come up during conversations. I’m still deciding how exactly things will work with regard to when you say greetings – perhaps they will be automatic, or perhaps they will come up as a default option, or something like that – because I want these to be present to make conversations appropriate and smooth and realistic, but also not add unnecessary work greeting every time. Right now I think the best solution is for the game to automatically give you the greeting options when you open a conversation, rather than having you enter the greeting options manually, but I’ll try a few options and decide on which runs the best. Aside from that, I’ll be continuing work onto speech generation, and slowly moving towards the conversation system – the former is easier to get back into, so I’ve been working there so far, but I’ll now be slowly transitioning into handling the conversation system elements. See you all next week!

First Steps – Conversation Content

As you may have seen last week, the development on 0.8 is finally ramping back up again. It has been a long road here, and a far longer one than I would have liked, but I now finally find myself with enough time on my hands to actually re-open that famously lengthy Python file and finish off this gigantic release. Last week I put out something of an overview of where the game stands at the moment, and what needs to be done: which is to say, basically, finishing off the content for speech generation, finishing off the most basic version of the conversation system I would actually feel comfortable releasing, and then dealing with whatever bugs and minor issues remain that cannot wait unil 0.9 (which is to say, crash bugs, or other kinds of serious errors).

The easiest thing to resume work on is the content of conversations. All the data structures and whatnot are present for me to put this stuff in; I just have to actually write it. That’s what I’ve been tasking myself with this week, and I realised that this wasn’t really finished, and that there were quite a few new kinds of variation I could add – with only the tiniest alterations to code – that would bring a lot of extra variety to the whole thing. Therefore, for the last few days in my spare time I’ve resumed fleshing out, and adding more detail to, the conversation system. This basically means ensuring that for all the possible political ideologies, and the various religious orientations that might come up, and so forth, people will have something appropriate and reasonable to say which will (in some cases) hint back towards their backgrounds and beliefs. The central part of this was filling out all the possible “expansions” – where an NPC can say a little something extra about a particular topic, as informed by their background. I thought I had done so previously, but I now recognise this wasn’t the case and there was a lot of valuable (and easy to add) extra content I could include. These are now all complete!

fairma

I also went to the list of alternatives for certain words in sentences – where one is selected at random for each word for each civilization – and finished this list off as well. As with the above, there was definitely more to be added here, and doing something relatively coding-simple, but content-heavy, has also helped with getting me back into the swing of things.

suchtext

Lastly, I also finished off another segment of the game’s conversation system, which is ensuring that multiple phrases with the same meaning, but slightly different contexts or grammatical structures, are consistent. Which is to say, if is a civilization might use the phrase “put to death” in place of “executed”, then “execution” should also be “putting to death” – see what I mean? In this case the game randomly selects the way of expressing the “base phrase”, in this case “executed”, and then cycles through all the possible derivatives of that phrase and ensures that they are all combined with the original base phrase, such as “executed”, “executing”, and so forth. In some cases this is trivial, and in some cases more complex. For example, the word “produce” might be rendered for different civilizations as “produce”, “create”, “cultivate”; to render them in the past tense, it simply needs to add a “d” onto the end. However, if the words were also “make”, “yield”, and so forth, these have different rules to be transformed into “made” and “yielded”; I’ve therefore implemented a set of fairly simple but quite comprehensive grammatical rules to ensure that different tenses and uses can be handled, and that the game will also use the right one for a particular civilization when it has someone from that culture say a particular word.

So, that’s now all there is to say this week. However, I’ve had several comments that have stressed the importance of keeping updates rolling now that development has resumed, even if things start out slow and quite minimal. As such, I would expect some of these updates to be quite brief (like this one), but I think it’s better for me to put out short updates than to save them for longer updates and do other pieces in the interim: it’s important to me that it’s clear to everyone that development is moving again, and to gradually regain the momentum I had until around last September or so. In the coming seven days I’ll be looking at the set of conversation variables that have to take account of potentially-changing external factors, and be generated in particular sentences, which are currently as follows…

brack

These need to be always able to draw on the relevant bit of information being mentioned, and to “output” with an appropriate grammatical structure. So, for instance, [god] is the name and title of one’s deity or set of deities; [greatestbattle] is the name of the most important battle of that nation; and so on and so forth. This is probably the next big task in speech generation, I think, after which the conversation mechanics will be returned to. This week I’m hoping to implement a basic framework for these elements, and start to get characters drawing upon their backgrounds and life information to fill them out correctly.

See you next week!