Dark Souls 3 (1/3): Narrative Ambition

Having just concluded my playthrough of the Ringed City DLC for Dark Souls 3, I have exhausted all the Miyazaki-directed Soulsborne content there has ever been – and, according to the reports coming out of From Software, all such content there will ever be. As I’m sure everyone who reads this blog knows, I am something of a fan of the Soulsborne series. Aside from the superb gameplay, the fascinatingly weird lore and stories being told, and the truly beautiful aesthetics across everything from environments and buildings to enemies and items, their commitment to intricate worldbuilding remains a major inspiration for me in the construction of URR’s world. They inform how I think about the effects I want the underlying PCG systems to have on the player, primarily through the creation of a world that shouldn’t feel too much like a video game world, but like a space where a tremendous amount of things are taking place, and have taken place, but might have happened off-screen, or might be happening now but in another part of the world, and so forth. In the process, this means ensuring such a high level of detail that one can interrogate the world however deeply one wants, and still find detail and the minutiae of culture and history to reward the player’s interest; as one would in the real world.

Therefore, for the next three weekends, as I continue slowly working on conversation variables for URR’s long-time-coming and (I hope!) long-awaited 0.8 release in the spare moments between finishing off my first book, I’d like to give some of my thoughts on Dark Souls 3, the many many things it does right (and the tiny number of things it does wrong). All these entries have been already written, and therefore – for the first time in some time! – I’ll be able to ensure a regular and consistent set of updates within a series, whilst I continue working on 0.8 in my spare time, and crunching on finishing my book in my “main” working time. In terms of DS3, I’m particularly interested in the kinds of stories it tells, the questions it answers from the original game, and the experimental bosses it trialled with both success and, sadly, failure. Naturally, spoilers abound – Soulsborne games are best played when one knows nothing about them, so if you intend to play DS3 and care about the worldbuilding, lore or story in any meaningful sense, then I would suggest turning away now, and coming back next time when another URRpdate should, hopefully, be ready for your perusal.

Otherwise, this week (spoilers abound), we begin with…

Narrative Ambition

The first thing that stuck out to me, and which I think is particularly worth talking about here, is the narrative ambition of Dark Souls 3. Now, Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls 1 and Bloodborne have not exactly told small, modest stories; they have always been concerned with the rise and fall of civilisations, the (generally unseen and obscure) factions, powers, creatures and gods who control those civilisations, and (as I hope to talk about in greater detail in some future writing) the cycles and historical contingencies/regularities within these worlds. However, Dark Souls 3 goes one step further. Although I recognise Dark Souls 2 was (nominally) set in the same world as Dark Souls 1, it barely feels like it; the only references back to DS1 come in transparent fan-service, rather than any meaningful or deep engagement with the world produced in the original game, which are now seeing thousands or tens of thousands of years in the future. Dark Souls 3, by contrast, takes on the immense narrative/thematic challenge of looking at a world a vast length of time in the future from when the player last saw it, and “playing out” the conflicts and questions we saw in the original game to their conclusions, and simultaneously telling both its own story, and telling a story deeply rooted in the original game.

Dark Souls 3 makes it clear one is living in the same world as the original game, but moved on thousands of years. One segment in the game in particular made this especially clear; climbing to the top of a great architectural conurbation, the player finds themselves approaching a rotating stone lift, of the sort that ferried players upward in Anor Londo, without doubt one of the most iconic and well-known parts of the original Dark Souls. Upon ascending that lift – and all the time wondering “hang on, is this…?” – the player is then greeted with the site of the cathedral from the original game, and the name Anor Londo appears on-screen. This site of so much of the drama and lore importance from the original game has survived the ages, but it has not survived unchanged; the inside of the cathedral is ruined and decrepit, broken down and rotting, and inhabited by worshippers of “the deep” and a grotesque spider-like creature of the Abyss.

This reflection on what the world of Dark Souls 1 might look like millennia later is continued, and in my view presented wonderfully, when one reaches the centre of the cathedral. In the original game, one fought Ornstein and Smough, committed defenders of the existing order of gods and the false illusion of light and safety holding sway over the city. Here, instead, we enter a room with ruined pillars, sludge running across the floor, and a boss – Aldrich, the Saint of the Deep – who has apparently consumed one of the old gods, Gwyndolin. In Dark Souls 1, we are given the option of killing Gwyndolin (if one finds out how to gain access to that boss fight, and then decides to actually initiate the boss fight) but Dark Souls 3 assumes we did not – but after we left him alone, another creature came along and actually consumed him, in the process leading to the downfall of the old gods more fully than anything the player achieved in the original game, and the corruption of Anor Londo into something very, very different. For me, this was one of the most compelling moment of the game – the idea of a character from the original game being killed off-screen reinforces the common feeling of Soulsborne games as being within a living, changing world, but the consumption of the character left a troubling and unpleasant feeling, and one which really highlighted how little power the original gods/royalty hold in the world, that new powers have arisen, and that the world will continue to spin on without them.

There is a tremendous range of other examples I could draw on here to further this point, but I’d like to particularly focus on three. Firstly, in Dark Souls 3 we encounter a number of scholars who have been studying the ancient history of the world, and in doing so have come to influence some of those who might otherwise be expected to link the fire and preserve the existing world. Most wonderfully, one item description mentions that some actually doubt the linking of the fire ever happened. This is the act which maintained the ongoing age of fire for the first time, and required Gwyn to sacrifice himself in order to keep this age he created – and as we learned in the DLC, he created through even less pleasant means than we first thought. Indeed, this is the event we see in the introductory cutscene of the original game, and on which the entire series is based! But now, millennia in the future, we discover that some don’t believe this ever actually happened, and are basing religious beliefs on the back of this, as well as potentially influencing the shape and fate of the entire world. I loved this as yet another Soulsborne example of how history shifts over time, how accepted history is not necessarily a recording of the absolute truth, and that new ideological and intellectual currents can upset and shift what was previously taken for granted.

Secondly, I was struck by the continued, yet quite puzzling, presence of the Primordial Serpents. In Dark Souls 1, as I’m sure many of you remember, the player would ordinarily encounter a strange, giant, leathery creature known as Kingseeker Frampt – or at least, the upper part of Frampt’s unseen body. If one took a far harder and less-likely route through the game, the player would instead encounter Darkstalker Kaathe. It became apparent the two serpents opposed one another, with Frampt wishing to preserve the fire, and Kaathe wishing to usher in an age of dark. Their motivations were central to lore speculation in the original game, especially when considered in light of the other clues the game offered. For example, the game also featured a shield portraying two serpents joined together into one two-headed serpent (many thought this might imply they are two parts of the same creature, instead of two creatures of the same kind), a range of items whose descriptions shed a little bit of hints on the relationships between “serpents” and “dragons” and other creatures of a generally serpentine/draconic sort, and so forth. Nevertheless, in Dark Souls 3 the serpents are nowhere to be seen, but there is a ranged of fascinating clues about their continued presence. In Lothric Castle we find statues of one of the serpents transformed into an “angel”, complete with wings (but did they always have those wings unseen?); in the chapel where we fight Friede and Father Ariandel there is a fascinating mural showing black-robed individuals slaying two serpents; in the Ringed City we see other serpent statues, displaying a truly bizarre body more reminiscent of medieval bestiaries than anything else. The lore implications of these are beyond the scope of this piece (although some Googling will assist), but much like the above example, we seem to see the serpents still being important behind the scenes, the world changing and developing beyond what we saw in Dark Souls 1, and these are all sets of references that only make complete sense to those with a strong knowledge of the original game, and the ability to piece together the clues about what has happened in the intervening period.

Thirdly and lastly, those who delve especially deeply into lore have demonstrated that the “Way of White” – a holy, miracle-based religion and order of knights from Dark Souls 1 – appears to have metamorphosed into the religion of the “Deacons of the Deep” in Dark Souls 3, those who use abyssal or at least humanity-focused magic, worship Aldrich who devoured Gwyndolin, and are generally a very strange and far-from-holy selection of individuals. It appears that they became gradually corrupted by “the Deep” – whatever that actually is, which remains unclear and uncertain – and although they continued to use the miracles of the Way of White, they also became increasingly interested in the magic of the Deep; what we find in game is a strange melding of the two. Given what we know in the original game about the Way of White, and the implied length of time between the few games, this is a fascinating example – how many other games have done this? – of a religion shifting and changing over time, drifting away from its original principles, or adopting a new syncretic mix of its original tenets and new spiritual concepts. I recommend a Google if you’re interested as what I’ve written down here is only some of the explanation, but the way that story is told is, again, a deep engagement with the world of the original game, and a fascinating – and unsettling – exploration of how things have changed over the intervening millennia.

To conclude this first look at Dark Souls 3, I would argue that there is a fundamental difference here between the last two Souls games in how they referred back to the original Dark Souls 1. All the “references” to DS1 in DS2 felt, to my mind, like mere fan service. Many of them made little sense in their placement or location and had no particular lore consequence; they were shoe-horned into what was, effectively, an almost completely new world with only the loosest threads of the connection to the world that had come before. Dark Souls 1 was taken to be a source of elements without any deep connection; ideas, concepts, images and names severed from their actual original impact, meaning and position, and reproduced as a way to attempt to rekindle some of the excitement of the original game. I’m also not saying Dark Souls 3 is free of the illogical-fan-service trope – why is Andre back?! – but those examples are very few and far between, and beyond those all the engagements with Dark Souls 1 take place in a deep story sense, building on and developing that original world and referring back to it when appropriate, but referring back in order to build a new story which exists by itself, but reflects and iterates on its origins.

In a broader sense, I also think that telling one story over such a period inevitably upsets everything we think we know about the pacing and flow of narrative structure. By having two games so far apart, they were able to not just have the first story inform the second, and have the second shed new light on the first (which I’ll talk about more in the next entry), but to tell a truly epic story which would normally be confined to the backdrop of one game, but instead takes place in, and between, both of these games. It allowed them to tell stories and convey information to the player in a way that few other games can, and to really take the Soulsborne series’ use of environmental storytelling to, I think, a very new level, by relating to multiple games and multiple stories (the pre-DS1 story, the DS1 story, the between-DS1-and-DS3 story) at once. At its conclusion, I truly felt – this is the same world ten thousand, a hundred thousand years in the future. This is what the world might look like at that point; we know how this world functions, we know the “factions” and the “elements” (in the almost alchemical sense – light, dark, chaos, dragons…) in this world and we can see how they have changed and evolved over time… and we see that however mighty and powerful the powers of the original game are, all empires fall and change, but they don’t just disappear; later powers and empires come along, and build upon those, and change them. It’s an amazing trick they managed to pull off, and one which could have easily failed, but From Software managed to present it in such a way as to really convince the player about the time gap between the two games, and it’s overall a very impressive, and very compelling, narrative move.

Next Time

Next time I’d like to take a look at the other half of this storytelling in Dark Souls 3 – how it returns to some of the questions of the original game, answers some of them, and lets the player reflect back on and finally answer some mysteries posed half a decade ago. Although naturally never shifting from the standard obtuse, obscure storytelling the series is known for, the third and final Dark Souls sheds a tremendous amount of light on the original game world, doing so in such a way as to really show what kind of storytelling can happen when one plays the “long game” with game narratives, takes advantage of the time across releases, and lets developers build up the kind of questions and answers we rarely see in any form of media. See you then!

Gambling, Virtual Reality Arcades, Mechanical Games

For the last few weeks I’ve been travelling and crunching like mad on finishing my first academic book before the manuscript submission deadline. I’m still planning to get another URRpdate out in the near future, as I am finding small moments of time to code here and there, but it won’t be until after the book is submitted (May 30) that I’ll be able to take a month to really focus on URR, do all the coding I wish I could have done in the last few months, and get 0.8 actually released. I know, I know – it sucks, and I wish I was able to just not sleep and do URR coding in the hours I’m not book writing. But you guys have seen what’s coming in 0.8, and have seen how it’s going to play out, and your enthusiastic comments and support really mean a ton to me, and I’m really confident the release will be something special once it finally comes out. URR isn’t dead, it’ll speed up once the book is done, 0.8 will be out in the summer, and 0.9 will be released this calendar year; and the combination of job-moving and book-writing is one I hope to avoid ever again in the future. (Also, replies to all the amazing thoughts on the previous blog entry will appear soon!).

But enough of that depressing stuff. In this entry I’d like to throw out a bunch of thoughts from three things I’ve encountered in the last two weeks of travel (currently on a visiting fellowship position at the University of Alberta, up in Edmonton in Canada). Firstly, some thoughts on the discipline of “gambling studies”, the study of gambling as one’s object or one’s subject, and the value i think there is to bringing the study of gambling more fully into the study of games (video games and others). Secondly, I encountered for the first time the concept of the Virtual Reality Arcade, which I found curiously fascinating, and want to talk a little bit about. Thirdly, and lastly, I came across a range of mechanical games whilst here in Canada, and although I certainly won’t even think about doing this for years, I find myself now oddly fascinated by mechanical games, and almost inclined to make one myself. So if these sound like topics that would take your fancy, do please read on; otherwise, I’ll be back in a week or two with an URRpdate, or some thoughts on Dark Souls 3, depending on how my schedule plays out, and how quickly I get the book finished…

Gambling and Video Games

The main reason I came up to Canada – to the rather beautiful town of Banff, basically in a pine forest on the side of a mountain – was after an invitation to speak at the annual conference of the Alberta Gambling Research Institute, and subsequently a meeting of the International Think Tank on Gambling Research, Policy and Practice. In both cases I was speaking about fantasy sports betting, and gambling in esports (two domains I’m planning to shift my research into increasingly in the coming year or two). The thing that interests me about fantasy sports platforms is the extent that they very clearly, and very deliberately (I think), mirror the aesthetics, themes and gameplay mechanics from sports management video games. Some of the user interfaces between the two are surprisingly difficult to distinguish if one didn’t know beforehand which was which, and I think this represents something very new. We’ve all seen video game versions of existing gambling forms – video game poker, slots, blah blah – but a new form of gambling disguised and presented as a video game is quite new. In terms of esports gambling, meanwhile, the black market of skin betting and so forth fascinates me, and is something definitely worth looking at further. I’m very pleased with how the talks both went, and I think I made some great new connections, heard some other interesting talks, had a close encounter with some bull elk (you are meant to stay 30m away – I did not know this at the time) and wrote a lot of my book. I also learned a lot about a divide in the field from studying gambling as one’s subject, with the disciplinary expectations which go with it (a focus on problem gambling, responsible gambling, quantitative research) and studying gambling as one’s object, which is to say looking at what gamblers actually do, the ideological superstructures gambling takes place within, and so forth. Here’s a post-conference pic:

These were all fantastic people in the field I hadn’t met before, with great ideas for what studying gambling and moving beyond an emphasis on industry-funded psychological studies into problem/responsible gambling might look like. In front of me and holding the blue coat is Rebecca Cassidy, Professor and Head of Department of Anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London (where I’ll be starting as a postdoc in just a couple of weeks). For those interested, she has published a range of truly fascinating ethnographic work on gambling communities which I recommend in the strongest possible terms; she’s definitely one of the leaders in what we might call “critical gambling studies”. The intersection between gambling and games is now increasingly interesting me, and I’ll certainly be starting to work in this kind of area in the coming year or two. With that done, I travelled up to Edmonton to start a short visiting fellowship at the University of Alberta, which brings me to the next two interesting things in games I’d like to talk a bit about.

Virtual Reality Arcades

A few days into my period in Edmonton, myself and some colleagues did a little impromptu tour around the gaming venues in Edmonton. We found traditional arcade machines primarily in one venue I’ll talk a little more about below, and they had a tremendous range of games, some of which – to my profound amusement – captured full-motion videos of actors looking terrified, aiming guns whilst dressed in general army gear, etc. There were also several escape rooms in Edmonton, which varied from one which seemed to be a more bottom-up, less-professional outfit offering four different rooms in the brightly-coloured basement of another building whose purpose I couldn’t quite identify, to one which seemed to be a very slick and professional outfit, offering a medieval escape room, one with a military/espionage theme, one with a Saw-esque theme where one would begin the game shackled to the walls (ha!), and several others. I’ve never been to an escape room, but I increasingly think I should probably start going to these at some point in the future. Any of you visited escape rooms?

However, most intriguing to me was the presence of a Virtual Reality Arcade. Now, it’s possible that I’m a little behind the times here, and everyone reading this already knew that these things existed. However, if you didn’t, this was basically a warehouse which had been filled with a bunch of black-painted drywall. In each “quadrant” there was a VR headset hooked up to a computer with a wide selection of VR games; in one quadrant there was also a device (I didn’t catch the name) which you basically strap yourself into the middle of, and then gain the ability to actually walk and move around the game space. I confess, from looking at the device in question I’m not entirely sure how that would work – one had to wear a special pair of shoes, apparently – but I was fascinated by this entirely new kind of arcade which has just appeared. When did this last happen? Has there ever been a kind of arcade for an entirely new kind of game/gameplay since the earliest days of the arcade? Equally, alongside the economic/demographic repercussions of a new form of arcade emerging (apparently this is not the only one), I was also struck by the architectural aesthetics/semiotics of the space. More than anything else, it evoked the kind of virtual-reality parlours of cyberpunk novels, films, and games; buildings with a multitude of small spaces, each of which allows one person to hook into a personalised computer simulation and escape the real world for a period of time. With its segmented areas of play, and its focus on virtual reality gaming rather than the more traditional gaming of the more traditional arcade, it very strongly evoked these kinds of ideas in my mind. It’ll be interesting to see how this grows (or not) over time – and as I was just asked on Twitter, do they spray VR headsets like one sprays shoes in bowling alleys?? – and how, if it does really take off, the economic need for space in these areas might lead to a compressing of the space available to each player. A fascinating trend, nevertheless – have any of you encountered these?

Mechanical Games

Lastly, and quite unexpectedly, I’ve found myself acquiring quite an interest in mechanical games in the last week. This was triggered by briefly passing through an art exhibition in one of the rooms in the University of Alberta’s campus (in the Faculty of Arts building, I think?). There was a bunch of interesting stuff there, but the one that really caught my attention was the structure I’ve uploaded a picture of below. The basic idea – sadly the first handle was broken – was transporting a ball up to the top, and then adjusting various levers, dials and switches and sliders to make the ball descend down a range of different paths, some of which, from what I could see, would probably require the player to think quite a few moves ahead. Firstly, I thought the structure of the object itself was very aesthetically pleasing, although I’ve always liked intricate wooden toys, but I thought the general idea was very charming. It’s almost like a combination of wooden puzzle boxes and something like pinball or pachinko, and I haven’t really seen anything like this in the past; it’s fully deterministic, but the level of complexity would, I suspect, make it feel like some of the decisions were quite unpredictable, at least when one was first trying this. For me this piece was the real stand-out highlight of this little exhibition.

As such, I must be honest: I find myself oddly compelled to make something of this sort. Don’t worry – I certainly wouldn’t consider doing so for many years! – but I’ve always found the aesthetics of physical puzzles to be extremely appealing, and building something like this (probably in wood?) suddenly seems remarkably compelling to me. I’ll come back to this in a few years once URR is completely finished! But not quite yet, I don’t think… but perhaps a limited edition set of wooden puzzles which somehow relate to a future video game I make? That’s an interesting idea, I think…

Other Thoughts

That’s it for this week: I just wanted to share these three reflections and experiences and put some of my thoughts about them down on paper. I’ve also decided that even if I don’t have an URRpdate to put out, starting this week, I’m going to get back to uploading a weekly update on something. I’ve actually been avoiding doing that because I know most people – myself included! – want URRpdates, but I think it’s better to have regular blog updates on any topic, rather than no blog updates until there’s something new to show on URR. As such, I actually have a series of three entries written in a little mini-series, and unless something new comes up between now and next week which means I want to post about something else, I’ll start those series of entries then, and try to get us back to the weekly schedule, even if the URR element of that schedule might be less than I would like for the next little while. Either way: thanks for reading, I’d love to hear any thoughts you might have, and I’ll see you all next week!

Where are you from?

This fortnight I’ve been working on getting the entire basic underpinnings of the conversation system finished; I’ve made a lot of progress, not quite enough to show off all the screenshots I’d like, so like last time, I’d rather wait until I can do a nice screenshot-heavy update, which will be next time (whenever that is!).

Instead, I’m going to talk a bit about the second thing I’ve been working on. I’ve now started developing the system by which NPCs will make judgements about you, the player, and where you come from. There are five elements to this: your clothing, your jewellery (meaning what rings and necklaces you are wearing, if any), your skin tone, your facial appearance (scarification, tattoos, headscarves, turbans, that sort of thing), and how you talk. The last one of these I’ve talked the most about in the past, but in this entry I’m going to do a little bit of an overview of how I see all of these functioning, and what it’ll do for the game. Equally, however, I now find myself faced with a big problem: what if all five elements of a player’s appearance suggest different origins or statuses? How should the NPC respond? I have a few notions, but I’m very open to suggestions.

Anyway, without further ado:

Clothing/Armour/Weapons

Other NPCs will make a range of judgements about the player based on the clothing they wear (and, later, the armour they wear, and weapon they wield). I think this will have three elements: what nation they seem to be from, their potential wealth, and whether their clothing denotes any kind of special affiliation, such as a religious order or military organisation. Most NPCs will likely treat you with more deference the more impressive the clothing you wear, but of course wearing the clothing style of a hated nation is likely to have the opposite effect no matter the wealth you’re showing off. For religious clothes, I’d like to have NPCs assume you’re a priest or a monk if you’re wearing obviously religious garb, although such garb will obviously have significant negative effects in certain areas of the game world; at the same time, though, it might encourage a particularly zealous shopkeeper to give you a discount, for instance. However, if people ask for religious advice and your character doesn’t know anything about the religion they are masquerading a priest of… that might be a little suspicious. Once armour is in the game that will also affect people and how they respond to you, probably with a little fear, a little deference, but again depending on the specific situation. Wearing unknown clothes should also elicit some kind of response depending on the nation/people; friendly and inquisitive if a very open and cosmopolitan nation, scared if isolationist, etc…

Jewellery

Jewellery will appear at some point in the near-ish future, and will consist of rings and necklaces. These will be similar to clothing: there will be cheap, middling, and pricy rings and necklaces available for each nation, and special/unique rings and necklaces for religions, religious orders, various other factors, various ranks in various organisations, and these sorts of things. Right now, I think special jewellery will be available for religions, houses/noble families, monarchs/rulers, but that’ll probably be it (and then more generally, as above, across cultures). I therefore see these as having a very similar set of relationships as clothing, but also denoting several things (such as family affiliation) which clothing does not; although most will be standard jewellery items for the culture in question.

Skin Tone

Skin tone varies very widely in URR, and is inevitably a central method by which peope might make judgements about the origin of the player character. This has only one element, which is to say a geographical assumption: NPCs will consider your skin tone, estimate how close/far from the equator you originate, and then look at their knowledge of nations and take a guess at which one you might be from. As such, there will also be some way to temporarily alter and mask your actual skin tone and make it lighter or darker as part of trying to blend in in other societies; and, of course, with some skin tones you’ll be able to “pass” for a citizen of many countries, most likely, whereas a clothing style would only allow you to pass for one. Hopefully the intersection of these (and the other elements below) will allow for some interesting combinations and strategic decisions.

Facial Appearance

Facial appearance, meanwhile, is a binary element: it denotes the overall culture someone comes from, and that’s it, although in a small number of cases it might also denote rank, slavery, and so forth. Again, if people recognise the markings they will suspect you are from the appropriate culture; if they don’t recognise the markings, the same range of responses mentioned earlier might play out. Again, I’ll be introducing ways to fake some markings (though probably not others?) as a means of further disguising yourself.

How you Talk

We’ve discussed this several times before on this blog, so I’ll keep it brief here, but the way in which you speak is going to be crucial. NPCs will make judgements about your origin based on what you say and how you say it, whilst you’ll be able to fake speaking in other dialects to a greater or lesser extent based on your knowledge of that dialect at the point you’re having the conversation. This will often be a make-or-break point for any player/player character attempting to “fake” their way into/through a particular culture or particular social situation, and is one of the aspects that’ll appear in 0.8 – NPCs won’t respond to it yet, but you will be able to change dialects, and see the results.

Summary

These are the five major elements I see as contributing to how other NPCs see the player – the first four being literally how they see the player, and the last one of course only coming into the equation if you start talking to the NPC (or the NPC starts talking to you, which is a feature that definitely needs to be implemented in the near future). I think these will give the player ample methods for crafting an image useful to them at that moment,

But what happens if 50% of your elements suggest you are person A of rank B from culture C and religion D, but the other half of your clothing suggests you are person W of rank X from culture Y and religion Z, which is the absolute opposite? Should they take an educated guess? Should they comment on how you are dressed, and that you are dressed strangely? What if they have particularly strong feelings towards/against A/B/C/D/W/X/Y/Z? Or what if 90% of your visible elements suggest X, but then you have a single element suggesting Y? Should the NPCs focus entirely on Y? Should they assume you are X and just treat Y as a strange element? Does that depend on the nature of X and Y and the context in which you are meeting another NPC? My point from all of these questions is that it’s proving very difficult and complex to decide, in essence and in one sentence, how NPCs should add up the elements of “you” they are presented with and how they should subsequently come to a judgement. This is what I’d love any and all of your thoughts on below; this system isn’t going to be implemented in 0.8, because I’m really trying to get only the core essentials of the conversation system done before release, but it’ll be a crucial element of the fast and much shorter 0.9 which will be finishing off the conversation system straight after. What do you think?

Updates

As I’ve said before, I’m crunching on finishing my first book, and about to travel for six weeks through various visiting fellowships; I am hard at work coding, but right now I’m finding fewer blog updates is really helping me with game developments, so we’ll be sticking to uncertain update schedules until my book is finished and submitted (May 31). I know this is rubbish, folks, and I wish I had some more time, and I hate how long URR 0.8 is dragging on for, but I’m doing the absolute best possible in the present situation. Next update: asap!

Questions, International Relations, Geography, PCG Alcohol, Relics

A big update this week, summarising everything from the last three weeks of coding work. Succinctly, the game now has NPCs who can reply to even more “list questions” than they were previously able to, adds in what I am calling “meanderings” into speech from time to time in order to make everything feel and read more realistically, boasts a rather more developed international relations system which NPCs can draw on when making comments to the player, and procedurally generated alcohol is now present in the game. This last one is, obviously, the most crucial of the bunch. Oh, yes, and I’ve also expanded and finished the system for generating the names of relics, although their procedurally-generated images are of course not yet present. So without further ado, read on:

More List Questions

I have now finished off almost all the “list questions” – which is to say, questions where the answer often takes the form of a list, such as “What towns are nearby?”, or “What animals are sacred to your people?”, and so forth. Here are some examples of the recent additions:

Animals and Plants

You can now ask people about the animals and plants that are local to their homeland, and whether any animals or plants are considered especially important in that homeland, as part of your conversation. They’ll now give you a list of the local flora or fauna as appropriate, which is always grammatically correct, and also lists these things in a fairly logical order. The number is never too high, either, so you never find yourself reading through a gigantic list of things. Although not currently implemented, in the very near future these animals and plants will be spawning, and should be found referenced throughout a culture, and are designed to be another clue the player can potentially use to find out about the world.

International Relations and Geography

The game can now generate appropriate and logical sets of relationships between nations, based on their ideologies, religions, proximity, and so forth. You can now ask people about their relationships with other nations, what they think about other cultures in general, what kinds of cultures are nearby, what tribes and nomads can be found nearby, and so on. The same system is then used for overall geography, so you can now ask a range of questions about things that are near to where the player and an NPC are having their conversation. For example, you can ask whether there are mountains (or mountain passes) in the proximity, and so forth. These questions then redirect to a function which chooses an appropriate area for the NPC to have knowledge of (more educated NPCs will have a wider area, and NPCs more well-disposed towards you will think about giving you a longer response). This system needs expanding to all kinds of conversations, which I will talk about more in the future, but for the time being, people can tell you quite a bit about the surrounding areas:

Laws

Also, here are the law responses from last time:

You’ll notice the first of those is rather long. This is an example with a nation with a lot of laws on violence, and talking to someone who is well-disposed to you, and is therefore willing to actually talk to you. I think I need to find some way to chop this down; for such a long potential answer, maybe even people who like you the most will tell you the top laws or bottom laws, or maybe they’ll say “Do you want to know punishments for the worst crimes or the most common crimes?”, or… something. I’m not quite sure yet. Either way, it’s pretty clear that a reply this long isn’t really workable, and is very hard to read, and will probably lose the reader’s interest part-way through.

Meanderings

Secondly, I added in a set of what I’ve now taken to calling “meanderings”. As part of making conversations as realistic as possible, I felt it was important to add in code for people thinking for a moment before they reply, or being semi-reluctant to quickly reply, and just generally having the umms, ahhs, and oks, that characteristic real speech. At the same time, of course, having too much of this would quickly get annoying. To balance this out, there are two elements. Firstly, people will only start to use these phrases if they begin to get annoyed about the conversation, and they’re starting to lose interest in you. When their full interest is on you they won’t falter in the conversation, but this might change as time goes by. Secondly, they will not use it too often; an NPC that has just used one will definitely not use it on the next sentence, and beyond that, it is randomised, but becomes more and more likely the less and less interested in the conversation the NPC becomes. If you look at the conversations above, you’ll see a few of those present here and there.

International Relations

As noted above, the game now generates appropriate relationships between each nation in the game, whether feudal, tribal, or nomadic. In essence, the game looks over the ideologies of each nation, and looks at where they match, and where they clash. In some cases a pair of ideologies could be seen as a match or a clash; for instance, two monarchies might get on well because they have the same system of leadership, maybe the families are related, and so forth; or they might hate each other and have a rivalry between their ruling families. In these cases the game chooses at random whether these are “good” commonalities or “rivalry” commonalities. Equally, some shared ideologies will always cause conflict – two theocracies or two especially religiously zealous nations which do not share religions are never going to get on, and likewise two imperialist nations – whilst others will always generate friendship, such as a shared commitment to religious tolerance, or a shared appreciation of gladiatorial combat. Then, in turn, various religious beliefs, geographical distributions, and so forth, further affect matters. These are then categorised into nations that are close allies, friendly, neutral, disliked, or firm enemies; these five categorisations then affect speech, whilst the more specific like/dislike values will play into other elements later on. This is basically akin to the kinds of systems one sees in the recent Civilization games, but somewhat more complex and with many more factors at play determining what cultures think of one another.

Along the civ.relations dictionary, there is also a civ.trade_relations dictionary. This is similar, obviously, but actually somewhat distinct. Whereas relations simply tells you what one nation thinks of the other, in the case of trade_relations, we’re talking specifically about how much trade passes between two nations. Of course, trade is not going to be passing between nations that loathe each other, but two nations that share a massive border and are somewhat friendly are likely to trade more than two nations that are the best of friends, but half the world apart (bearing in mind, of course, that we are talking about the renaissance rather than the modern day here). Trade_relations therefore tells you the volume of trade going on between each nation and each other nation, and in some stores the player will therefore be able to sometimes find the items of other nations for sale. The reverse will actually happen in black markets – if X and Y hate each other, the goods of X might secretly appear in the black markets of Y, and vice versa. In this way I’m aiming to make the potentially someone “abstract” idea of international and trade relations much more concrete; it shapes who appears in each nation, what items appear where and under what conditions, and will also – of course – affect where the player can safely go.

Alcohol

For a fun little diversion for an hour this week, I also implemented the system for procedural alcohol – I’m sure we’ll all agree, a truly vital component of any procedural world. Each nation now selects an archetype of drinks that they tend to enjoy drinking, which can be beer, spirits, or wine; these are designed so that a full world will not have a completely equal distribution, but some generations should have a high volume of beer, spirits, or wine drinkers; much as in the real world, we don’t see these equally distributed. It then generates an appropriate set of alcoholic drinks for each nation, with words drawing on the terrain and climate types enjoyed by that nation, a wide set of default words for each alcohol type, and names – a class of alcohol might be named after the particular monastery where it is brewed, a particular town where it is particularly favoured, and so forth.

The player can also now ask innkeeps about the kind of alcohol they sell, and they’ll give you an appropriate list! Taverns stock a high percentage of all the alcohols drunk by one nation, but will never stock the full collection; equally, I’ll shortly implement a system so that taverns particularly near the border with another country will (assuming that is a nation with a particular set of alcohols, so not a tribal nation) sometimes carry one of the alcohols from “across the border”. Later on I will also add actual “breweries” in the locations where the various alcohols in a nation are brewed; these will have minimal gameplay value, so I certainly won’t spend more than a few hours on that, but for the sake of completeness I think they need to go in to make the world look just that little bit more complete, more varied, and so forth.

Relics

In the last fortnight I also finished the generation system for relics, and here are some example debug logs, where “RT” means “Relic Type”. Some of these do have rather lengthy names, because the names of the people associated with the relic can be quite long. It’s a little unwieldy, but honestly, I think it’s fine. I’m extremely happy with how these work and how these look, and I don’t think I’ll make any more changes here before the 0.8 release, beyond making sure everyone in the game can speak about relics of their religion correctly.

Blog Update Speed

So, once again, this has been a fortnightly update. As such, I’m just going to stop commenting on this for now or trying to predict when the next update will be, and I’ll just say to everyone: I’ll update as soon, and as rapidly, as I can. I am developing URR actively again, as you can see from the above, but I am also changing jobs, taking up two visiting positions in two other continents, and finishing my first academic monograph… so we’ll see how it goes. See you all next wee-… er… next time!

Prologue to a Full Update

This week I’m doing something slightly unusual. A huge amount of coding has been done this week, but I’m not yet able to produce screenshots from this progress; some of it is slightly buggy, and I need to test a few new generation systems to ensure that the NPCs I want to talk to, in order to take the screenshots, correctly have the information I actually want them to have. Succinctly, though, we now have a huge set of new list questions generating, various elements such as punctuation and slight meandering to make conversations seem more human, political parties even more fully implemented, a geographical search system put in place, greetings vary massively based on the relationship between you and the NPC, and even a procedural alcohol-name generation system so that innkeepers have something to talk about, and the beginnings of systems for modifying what people will say to you based on their mood (personal), the “local” mood (what people in that area think of you), and their knowledge of the particular matter (geographical, historical, etc).

All of these are finished, on the cusp of completion, or well into development; but because I’ve just been coding like mad, I haven’t really stopped to polish everything and get things to a position where I can take screenshots. As such, I’ve decided just to put this up this week, to signify: lots of coding is happening, and there will be lots to show off soon, but I’d rather show it all off once I can implement screenshots. I know some of the recent updates have been screenshot-lite, so I really want to have a solid volume of screenshots in place once I can show things off.

As such: hopefully, we’ll have a nice set of screenshots next week!