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!

P.T., Cryptic Puzzles, and Small Spaces

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to finally get to play the now-infamous “P.T.” – short for “Playable Teaser” – in person, rather than watching a YouTube video. The “game” had always intrigued me, but after being removed from the Playstation Store, and since it only functions if it has actually been downloaded, I needed to meet someone who had exactly this. Now this has finally happened, I spent a long evening exploring this very strange, very distinctive, and really rather good little puzzle-environmental-horror experience (with the emphasis, in my mind, clearly on the first two elements over the third). In the hope I would one day get to play it, I had remained totally unspoiled, and I didn’t have the slightest idea what it was about, what the puzzles were, or anything that was happening; however, in this entry I will be spoiling what takes place, so if you want to hold out in the hope of finding somebody with a downloaded copy, I suggest skipping this post and returning next week.

If you’re happy with some spoilers, however, I wanted to share some reflections on two elements of P.T., and how well they intertwine – the puzzles, and the environment – to create a very unique and very compelling game that is well worth experiencing, and does some fascinating things with a remarkably limited set of tools. The horror elements, although present, were not really at the forefront of my mind as I played through P.T.; whilst I’m sure they dominate the experience for some, I was far more interested in getting to know this unique and intricately-constructed virtual space, figuring out what I was meant to do, and trying to uncover what the core gameplay loop actually consisted of. Doing so led to an experience somewhat akin to the kind of “detective work” mental gameplay I love in games like Dark Souls, and that I want to emulate in Ultima Ratio Regum, so I’m sure long-time readers will quickly see the main reason for my strong interest in the piece.

In P.T. the player finds themselves exploring the same corridor in the same house over and over. The corridor is, at first glance, extremely spartan. The first half of the corridor contains an alarm clock, several paintings (many quite blurred and unclear), a phone off the hook, a range of tablets and alcohol bottles, and various photos of those who (presumably) inhabit this house. After turning a ninety-degree corner in the corridor, one can potentially explore a bathroom off to the side (dark, filled with cockroaches, and later with other things too), look up to a balcony, or examine several other paintings, a radio, a potted plant, a couple of extra photos, and a further selection of legal-drug paraphernalia. At the end of this second branch of the L-shaped corridor (each branch is no more than ten metres long) there is a door; entering that door leads to a staircase with only half a dozen steps, which leads to another door; passing through that door puts the player right back at the start of the corridor they just traversed. The entirety of the game takes place in this L-shaped corridor, the bathroom, and the small “lobby and staircase” area between loops of the corridor. The player also starts in a dull grey room with tallies of days (or years?) etched on the walls, and normally returns to that room later in the game, but that room is difficult to access and plays only a small role in the overall experience. The corridor is the crux of the P.T. experience, and everything revolves around what the player can do in this corridor and its minor adjoining rooms.

Firstly, it is remarkable how repeating this same area makes the player, immediately, start examining the corridor in great detail. Although there are clearly games I have played for far longer than P.T., I can think of few virtual environments that I can remember as much as this short L-shaped corridor. Once it becomes clear you are just looping the same corridor, it is apparent one has to perform some interaction with something in the corridor, and so the player starts seeking such an interaction out. The longer you go without finding anything, the closer you find yourself examining everything, and the more puzzled – and at least for me, entertained and amused – you become. I loved the feeling of being completely baffled, as so few games actually give you that experience in the present era. It never felt hopeless or arbitrary, because it was quickly clear that the entire game mechanic was figuring out what to do, and figuring out the game thinks, and what you’re actually able to interact with. I think this highlighted a core difference between games which are ordinarily transparent and then unexpectedly throw you a cryptic mystery – sometimes, even knowing that the mystery is there can be difficult. In this case, that bemusement is present from the start, and the longer it takes you to figure out the first step, the clearer and clearer it becomes that a large part of the gameplay here is simply figuring out what you’re meant to do, and what constraints that activity is within.

Before too long I discovered an incomplete picture, and that by zooming in on shreds of the painting distributed around the playing area, I could “collect” these shreds and fill the painting in. These were, to put it mildly, difficult to spot; and the more I found, and the more exhaustively I combed the corridor, the more puzzled I became about what nooks and crannies I might have missed. In hindsight, it strikes me as remarkable how much time I spent combing this corridor and how deeply I looked into every single portion of it; there were a few baffling moments when I was absolutely convinced I had checked everywhere, only to discover that I hadn’t. It is impressive how much puzzle they were able to cram into one corridor, even for something as “simple” as just finding pieces of a picture; it totally redefined how one normally looks at a level within a video game, causing me to spend an inordinate length of time checking out every possible angle and every possible part of the space, coming to discover much about the paintings, the precise colours of the alcohol bottles, the people shown on the photos, and much else that – even in a game like Dark Souls or Bloodborne, where so much is in the visual storytelling – one tends to overlook.

From my playthrough, at least, I felt the game – up to the final puzzle, which we’ll talk about in a minute – was well-paced. There was no point when I was stuck on a particular puzzle or a particular loop of the room for so long that I became exasperated, and whenever my mood began to even creep in that direction, I knew I just needed to shift my brain into a different gear and find something new. Sure enough, I would then find another piece, or discover a new trick, or a new way to trigger a different loop in the corridor when I next passed through the door. One of the picture pieces was, admittedly, hidden in a location that I would only have guessed eventually after a very long period, but with the real emphasis on eventually – knowing how Kojima thinks, and some of the tricks in some of his games, would have helped me out a lot there. (I have never played any Kojima games before). However, especially well-timed, I thought, was when the game shifted from presenting one corridor that loops each time you go through the door at the bottom, into a red-lit corridor that loops infinitely until a puzzle element is solved. It was just the right time to shake things up and startle the player out of what had become (until then) a fairly “regular” routine of solving one puzzle and then going through the door and trying to work out the next one. This puzzle also required quite a distinctive solution unlike most of the rest, and although I didn’t realise it until I’d solved it, clues about how to solve the infinite-red-loop sequence are everywhere… but you don’t necessarily realise it until you’ve already done it. Play it, and you’ll see what I mean.

After this sequence we returned to the standard corridor, but it was clear that one was approaching the end-game; a long time now passed without me making any progress, before it became apparent that I was at the final puzzle, and that this was a puzzle that had taken the internet as a whole a substantial length of time to establish the means for solving (although a few players had, I think by chance, solved it apparently within hours of release). This final puzzle… I have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, I have always loved the idea of puzzles that many people around the world have to get together to solve; I think it’s a tremendously compelling idea, one that a few other games have used to excellent purpose, and once which I plan to explore in the game I have planned after URR is complete in a few years. On the other hand, this puzzle was made far more challenging because of its implementation, rather than the deduction of puzzle itself. One needed to listen to audio cues, three of which cycled, and when each one played a particular action had to be taken. In principle, I think this could have worked extremely nicely; each of the sounds connected to an area of the game world, and which sound linked to which area made a certain degree of sense, once one had some idea of the game’s narrative. Equally, how many other puzzles can you think of that use sound? It would have continued the game’s sequence of making the player re-think everything they know, and could have worked extremely well.

However, all three of the sounds seem extremely similar to my ears – even once I had given up on the puzzle and gone to the internet for assistance, and I knew what to listen for, I still couldn’t distinguish between them! This was the one element of the game that I had to take issue with; making the sounds so closely related felt, to me, to serve only as an arbitrary addition of difficulty that doesn’t make solving the puzzle harder, but only affects how difficult it is to execute even when you know exactly what to do (or have an inkling about what to do). Knowing what the sounds were meant to represent, it made some sense where to go; but being unable to even hear what these were made this puzzle more infuriating. Equally, nothing triggered once one of the three elements was complete, leaving a player uncertain whether or not they were barking up the wrong tree. On the one hand, I recognise that giving the player some “acknowledgement trigger” might serve to make the puzzle vastly simpler and reduce the intended final challenge; on the other hand, having a whole sequence of events without any confirmation the player is on the right path reduces the chance that the puzzle will be solved through deliberate action, and raises the chance that a player will simply stumble upon the solution (which I think the first solvers did). It’s a difficult and interesting game design balance, and one that I think P.T. absolutely nailed, up until the final puzzle, when it perhaps drifted a little too much towards the likelihood of people solving it through chance, not deliberation. I do wonder, however, if this could have been resolved somehow whilst keeping the overall challenge of the final puzzle intact – and honestly, I’m not quite sure.

Ultimately, what appealed to me the most about P.T. was how much gameplay and how many puzzles were crammed into such a small space, and how the experience of repeating that space – with minor variations and new objectives each time – sent the problem-solving part of my mind down some (very interesting) wrong alleys, but also made the whole experience feel quite unlike the traditional computer game. It felt, if anything, more like playing an alternate reality game, or an online game like notpron; something where meaning might be located in the most banal of elements, most often overlooked, where the player’s observation and ability to stop changing things are tested, and where the ability to all but throw away what one had learned on the previous puzzles was required in order to figure out the next thing the game required. Equally, it also meant understanding that clues were actually everywhere in the game, but I didn’t necessarily understand that these were clues until afterwards; for some, though, I’m sure the experience was that these clues pushed them towards the correct solutions. P.T. showed how well interesting logic puzzles and understanding those puzzles can contribute to a long and fulfilling experience, even in a tiny space of actual gameplay; and how playing with and subverting the notion of the core gameplay loop can keep throw the player off their expected mental models of how a game should play out, and encourage you towards finding the kinds of solutions these puzzles actually call for. It’s a great text for people interested in games that reward exploration, discovery, and what one might define as – although cliched – “thinking outside the box” problem solving, and it has definitely given me some ideas for my own game design processes going forwards.

Basic Conversations, Relics, Traits, Laws, Next Six Months

Another big update this week! (Isn’t it great to see URR development actually moving fast? At least, I think it is). As mentioned last week, I prioritised getting the basic conversation system totally finished this week, which is to say the ability to ask any question to any NPC, and get a logical reply, or at least the outline of a logical reply with some variables (like “[nation]”) that need to be filled in later. We had a lot of progress, and almost, but not quite, got there. But don’t worry! Other essential stuff for this release has been done instead of focusing 100% on the basic conversation system; we have still moved much closer to release in the last seven days, albeit in a slightly unexpected direction, by adding a range of other world detail that NPCs will shortly need to draw on when they reply to the player. I can also now finally announce some pretty big and very exciting changes to my life coming in the next six months, some projects ending, some new projects on the new, and what this all means for URR in the next half-year. Read on!

Basic Conversations Almost Finished

Basic conversations have been developed further this week, with NPCs now responding correctly to almost 100% of the large number of “option” queries they can be asked – which is to say, questions that need to draw on some other information and are fundamentally different depending on the outcome of that information, rather than simply being sentences which say “My homeland is X”, in a context where all NPCs will always have the same basic answer to that question. Option queries need to draw on a range of traits in most cases (within the NPC) and a range of broader cultural and religious elements (outside the NPC), and most of this code needs to be hand-written for every possible question, making it a fairly substantial piece of work. From these screenshots you can see that some bits of wording still need tweaking, but I want to stress, these are totally random selections from the hundreds of possible questions; although they aren’t perfect, I’m still extremely pleased with how these look right now, how much variation there is, and the fact that only some fairly minimal tweaks remain to be done to some minor typos, plurals, that type of thing. (Both of these is me talking to the first character I find, hence why I’m clearly talking to people from the same civilisation as me for the sake of these tests):

Irrelevant Replies

This week I have also begun implementing “irrelevant” replies – meaning things like “I have no religion” as a response to “What is your religion?”, and so forth – which apply when an NPC is asked a question they have no valid answer to, or is entirely irrelevant. This means a massive range of potential answers, some of which are specific to the question – such as “I have no siblings” – whereas others are more puzzled. An NPC might be asked about a painting they couldn’t possibly know of, for instance, in which case they would say “I do not know of that painting”. There’s close to a hundred of these irrelevant replies, all of which (like everything else) need to vary between cultures and individuals. Some of these require quite complex sentences, although others are relatively simple, but this has definitely need a substantial task. I’ve now put about fifty percent of these in place, and NPCs do correctly use them, too! Of course, in some cases NPCs can’t yet give the correct responses – the coding for siblings isn’t in there yet, so everyone just says they have no siblings – but the code for generating a sentence once siblings are present is in place. Dealing with these kinds of familial relationships and the answers to some of the more complex questions will come partly before the release of 0.8, and partly in the speedy 0.9.

Traits

Added some new traits this week, with a focus on four elements that will influence substantially what NPCs know (and what NPCs can tell the player) about the world around them. These are all affected by the individual classes of NPC – generally speaking someone who is likely to be wealthier and better-educated is likely to know more, but there is also significant variation written into the system, and the knowledge of individual NPCs (regardless of their NPC class) is then varied further by ideological preferences of their homeland. For instance, people from an internationalist nation will tend to know more about foreign matters; people from a nation with a system of vassalage will know more about their own nation than average; those from a bartering nation will know less about history, as few records are kept; those from a free trade nation will know more geography, as they travel to trade; and so forth.

geography_knowledge

How much the NPC knows about the surrounding area. This doesn’t mean the nations and peoples and so forth, but rather purely a question of physical geography – nearby mountains, nearby roads, coastlines, deserts, animals, plants, and the like. Affected

history_knowledge

How much the NPC knows about the history of the world (inevitably heavily, but not exclusively, focused on their own nation). This means their ability to talk to the player about the historical events they are familiar with, how many events they are familiar with, and also knowledge about historical artworks, people, places, and so forth.

national_knowledge

How much the NPC knows about their own nation – where things are, who lives there, where towns and monasteries and mines and so forth are and what’s within them, information about important people, etc.

foreign_knowledge

How much the NPC knows about other nations; their locations, capitals, ideologies, religious beliefs, leaders, famous people, practices, etc. As with all the above, this varies across NPC classes, and is then modified by ideological beliefs of the nations in question.

Relics

I’ve implemented the first part of the generation system for religious relics, which needed to go in now so that NPCs could actually talk about them. Naturally the image generation for these will take place at a later date, but for the time being the game can generate the names of religious relics, a little bit of information about them, and who they were originally owned by. Each religion will only ever create two kinds of relics, depending on their beliefs, and these fall into a randomly-chosen “major” and “minor” category. For instance, a religion might primarily produce “Crown” relics, but sometimes have a small number of “Bone” relics; or a religion might focus on “Book” relics with a small number of “Weapon” relics; and so on and so forth. Each has a unique generation system for selecting its name, and we can now end up with relic names like the following:

Twisting Key of Monn’morra
Slender Ring of Saint Ynnop
Wooden Garland of Grey Fox Running the Sacred
Orangejaw Moonblizzard’s Holy Engraved Locket
Fi-Un-Gat’s Pitted Skull
Consecrated Pointed Sceptre of Ibimmom, Sly Rose

The game also now keeps track of how many relics need to spawn in each church (which varies across different kinds of religious building) and ensures that an appropriate number will always appear. Generating the images for these is going to be a lot of fun, but isn’t going to come until 0.10 or somewhere beyond. Anyway, these are now in place, so NPCs will shortly be able to talk intelligently about relics, and specific relics will now be tied to specific reliquaries in specific churches and cathedrals!

Laws and Punishments

Three of the “list” questions (questions where the answer is often of the kind “A, B, C and D are examples of the X”) relate to the particular laws of a particular nation regarding various topics – currently “violence”, “trade”, and “religion” are the three listed in there. This means that nations now generate laws in each of these categories, and a set of punishments, and then assigns punishments to each broken law depending on the severity of the crime (as the nation sees it). Laws and punishments on trade are determined almost entirely by trade policy, but a nation’s perspective on smuggling is also affected by a range of other ideologies; “violence” laws are determined by a wide range of ideologies from across the eight main categories; “religion” laws are naturally primarily determined by the religious policy of the nation, with a few inputs from a couple of other policies.

To take trade as the example, there are now five possible laws that a nation can enact:

District Entry: how much money (if any) it costs to enter a district in the capital.
City Entry: how much money (if any) it costs to enter the capital city.
Foreign Goods: how much extra taxation is put on foreign goods (light, middling, heavy).
Black Markets: whether black markets are tacitly accepted or not, and if not, the punishment for using one.
Smuggling: the level of punishment for those caught smuggling/with smuggled goods.

Each of these then, if appropriate for the ideologies of that nation, has a value assigned to it. When punishments come into play, punishments now vary according to the five possible justice ideologies. I’m not quite clear on how the “Ordeal” justice policy is going to work out, so I haven’t really developed that element yet, but the other four now work nicely. The Frontier policy imposes fines on those caught breaking the law; the Vigilantism policy will see those breaking the law hunted by the general public, who for lesser crimes will demand items in recompense, or injury, or will hunt to the death in the case of severe crimes, the Penitentiary policy imposes a range of prison sentences, and the Gladiatorial policy involves battles to first blood for lesser crimes, and fatal battles for greater crimes. There is also something of the god system from DCSS here; I wanted to develop these in such a way that they would seriously affect the player’s actions in the future, and which nations they choose to take actions in, when they keep in mind what the potential ramifications are. Justice policies should now have a substantial effect on player decisions once implemented –  and, of course, NPCs can now talk about them, listing all the policies that are worth talking about in the area in question.

Next Six Months

In other news, some big changes are happening, which are going to lead to some very exciting things. Firstly, I’m leaving my position as a postdoc at the Digital Creativity Labs at the University of York – although keeping my current secondment as a Researcher in Residence at the UK Digital Catapult – and taking up a new six-month postdoctoral position at Goldsmiths, University of London, to study paper puzzles (crosswords, Sudoku, etc), and those who play them, design them, implement them, with a view to developing a new set of paper puzzles that might one day be able to challenge Sudoku in national and international print newspapers. Such an outcome is obviously an immensely ambitious goal, but that’s one of the many things that attracts me so much to this project; the potential to make such a big impact into the game-playing lives of so many people is incredibly exciting. I’ll keep you all updated on this goes as time goes by; this might lead into further research in this area, though I also have a range of other irons in the fire for the longer-term future.

Secondly, during this summer, I’ll be taking up a range of visiting fellowship positions at numerous institutions around the world. Firstly, the University of Alberta in Edmonton, where I’ll be giving talks and running and contributing to seminars on professional gaming and the intersections between video games and gambling practices; secondly, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where my focus will be very much the same; and then the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, where I’ll be researching the histories of professional gamblers, specifically with a focus on how professional gamblers are represented and talked about in news media, films, literature, and so forth. Somewhere in the middle there I’ll also be giving a few talks at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore on my research, and potentially travelling to two other countries I’ve never visited before as well to offer guest lectures and further develop my Esports and live-streaming research, although those are still in discussion with the relevant parties. If you live in any of those areas, let me know – maybe we can meet up! The few times I’ve met fans in person has always been awesome, and I’d certainly be keen to do so again.

What does all this mean in practical terms? Well, firstly, my brain is going to be a lot clearer to focus on URR 0.8 and finishing my first book in the next four months. Travel has always been something that galvanises and focuses me tremendously well, and these, combined with a new position more closely aligned to my research interests, will do a lot for me. People who read this blog regularly will know the last few months have been tough for a range of reasons, and these new positions are going to be a big help with some of those issues. Onwards, to bigger and better things!

Next Week

Having really pushed on URR this past week, I need to focus on my academic work this coming week, so next week will be a games criticism entry; then by the week after I’ll be aiming to actually finish off the Basic Conversation system by fully implementing the answers to list questions, and making sure that the range of “irrelevant replies” are all implemented and functioning correctly. See you in a week! When we will be talking the notorious “P.T.”, or “Playable Teaser”, and its clever implementation of environmental puzzles…

More Lexicon Variation, Conversation Development, New Variables

Lots of major developments (and some minor ones) in URR this fortnight! Firstly, all the content I added last week meant that a whole new set of words and phrases had to be added to the lexicon; the best part of a thousand in total, if I’m counting correctly. I’ve now implemented all of these, and the game can correctly vary the words from all these new sentences by drawing on these new additions to the central lexicon. Secondly, I’ve now almost finished what I’m calling the “standard” or “basic” conversation system, which is ensuring NPCs can reply to every question they are asked; this should be done by this time next week. Thirdly, a wide range of further variables for individuals and the cultures they hail from have been implemented, and are now having an effect on what kinds of things NPCs will say. Another very, very text-heavy post this week – although next week’s will contain a lot of screenshots, this week continues to be lots of under-the-hood programming and content addition that cannot, yet, be reflected in screenshots, but is getting pretty damned close. Read on!

More Variations for New Words

Firstly, as above, there was a huge set of new words and phrases that needed to be varied for each culture, as with all the others. These entered the game because I was writing the new “option” answers (see last week’s entry), and needed to be written up. This was one of those tasks that isn’t especially intellectually challenging or needs a lot of programming experience, but mostly just involves adding a massive chunk of “content” which the game will then deploy in the appropriate situations. With this finished, I’m very happy with those look, and the sentences read really well and really nicely. Here’s a screenshot from the new set – I’m sure you can see how/where a lot of these fit in…

I also went through the existing words, and decided to statistically bias some of them back towards slightly shorter variations, and therefor slightly shorter sentences, as a response to the feedback I regularly get about some of the sentences being too wordy. You’ll see the same in the earlier example, where we have some sets using the same short word twice to boost the chance of that word being selected (this is of course not an especially elegant way to do it, but let’s be honest: my programming is not known for its elegance). This should ensure that sentences will tend to be just a little shorter and a little less wordy, and I’m going to continue this trend of chopping out irrelevant words whilst maintaining sentence variety – though this is a tricky balance to strike.

Nearing Completion on Standard Conversations

The development of the game towards what I’ve been calling the ability to have a “basic conversation” – i.e. the traditional question-and-answer session that one gets in most games, where the player asks something, the NPC responds, and this pattern continues until all conversation options have been exhausted – is now extremely close. NPCs respond correctly for all the “basic” questions (about 1/2 of all questions), and for the “options” questions (about 1/4 of questions), and are in the process of being programmed to respond appropriately to the “list” questions (also about 1/4 of all questions). This is the final step to them being able to ask any NPC any question, and get a response. For now these responses are all truthful, and they always answer, but this will still be a huge milestone once finished. As such, by this time next week, I’ll be able to show off the basic conversation system working universally, for all possible inputs and outputs, even if a few placeholders like “[holybook]” will still be in place, rather than the appropriate text itself. From my current trials with it, it looks amazing, and the experience of being able to select any question from this gigantic list and get an appropriate and sensible response is really something. It has been a long time coming, but I’m very confident that 0.8 will be worth the wait.

New Individual and National Variables

This week I also found myself needing to implement a large number of additional variables for both individuals, and in some cases for nations and religions and cultures, which NPCs would need to draw upon when they give their responses to particular questions and sets of questions.

Mercenaries

A range of new variables were implemented this week for mercenaries, along with quite a complex formula to decide on how much mercenaries cost to hire. There are four elements here – how much training a mercenary has had (counted in years, generally as a soldier, or in an arena, or they simply became a mercenary immediately and learned on the go), how much experience they’d had (how many years they’ve served as a mercenary, and also some specific stories/information about what they’ve done during their tenure), and then a list of benefits and conditions each mercenary brings. For each mercenary, the game develops a possible list of each according to their  background. For instance, a particularly zealous mercenary might refuse to fight their own religion (a condition) but be especially keen to fight other religions (benefit). This system is naturally comparable to a lot of modern roguelike games where you have PCG characters with selections of “traits” (or an equivalent term) that mix positives and negatives, and task the player with interesting strategic decisions. The game then figures out how much “true money” a mercenary costs to hire (a secret number converted into in-game currencies whenever it’ll appear on screen), which goes by a formula I’ve developed. Broadly speaking, better-trained and more-experienced mercenaries will naturally cost more, and the more benefits they bring the more they cost, but the more conditions they bring, the less they cost. There’s a bit more to it than that, but some initial testing has shown that this attends some very satisfying results.

National Voting Rights

Here’s an interesting one – the question of national voting rights. At the moment when each nation generates, a die is rolled to decide whether women, men, or both are allowed to hold the throne (or whatever the equivalent of the “throne” is). It then considers who is allowed to join the military – if only one sex is allowed to hold the throne, then that sex will always be able to serve in the military, and sometimes the other one will be too; if either is allowed to hold the throne, then both will be allowed to serve (generally). I’ve now extended this to voting right; if either can hold the throne, then both can vote, but if only one can hold the throne, then normally only that sex is allowed to vote, but sometimes the other sex is allowed to vote at a “reduced vote”, e.g. one quarter of the other. There is no real-world bias here so it’s totally randomised between F/M/either, and all variants are equally likely, although certain ideologies make “Only one not the other” decisions more likely than others (Imperialist nations are more likely to restrict, democratic nations are less likely to restrict, and so forth, although this is not absolute or guaranteed).

Nomadic and Tribal Relations

There are now variables to determine how much particular NPCs like tribal and nomadic nations. This draws upon the general feelings of individuals about other nations, which in turn of course draws on a range of ideological and historical factors, but also then modulates this further according to particular ideologies (if these are a close match with lots of tribal/nomadic states), and the individual classes of the NPCs. These will therefore be generally close to a more general feeling about foreign lands, but also quite different in particular contexts, and will affect what NPCs say about their nations, what they’re willing to tell you, what they themselves have “bothered” to find out (if they care), and so forth.

Delegates and Parties

This week I also implemented the first half of the system that will determine what kinds of political parties exist in democratic nations, which parties hold power, and how these parties will have shifted over time. To assess the political leanings of each nation, the game first goes through all of their ideological preferences and develops a set of overall political leanings for the nation, going by some axes that the majority of real-world political parties go by: are they primarily globalist or nationalist, are they liberal or conservative, are they religious or atheistic, are they collectivist or individualist, and so on and so forth. For instance, the “Isolationist” ideology will naturally add a lot to nationalist, and some to conservative, and a little bit to conservative; the “Aesthetics” ideology will promote individualism, but also nationalism, but also a little bit of globalism, and might also support religious iconography… and so on and so forth. Then, if there is a strong specific religious belief in that nation, it checks what political leanings that religion has (is it very peaceful towards others? Does it enjoy holy wars? Etc) and adds that into the mix where appropriate. The game then ranks these overall national political leanings, and then selects a number of parties, before going through each party and having the central tenet of that party be one of the leanings, starting with the biggest leaning and working down. So a nation that is first and foremost “liberal” will have its biggest party adopt a broadly liberal position, with smatterings of other political tendencies lower down the list for that nation. Once that is done, the game then looks at whereabouts delegates come from in that nation – do they come from districts of the capital, from towns, from monasteries, from farms – and distributes delegates appropriately to each party, depending on its political leanings (and generates a procedural name for the party, although this isn’t finished yet, but I’ll show some off soon). This party affiliation will allow delegates to comment on the current political situation according to their own allegiance – which was the only reason I implemented all of this now! But it’s nice to have it in place, and it makes the democratic nations just a little more fleshed-out, even if it’ll be the small 0.9 release where we really see this more visibly.

There are also about another thirty new variables added in this week alongside the ones listed here, but I decided to mention these four as they struck me as being some of the more intriguing examples from the selection. As noted last week, these variables are entirely hidden (or rather, the numbers in each variable are hidden) and are always going to be represented instead by who people are, how they act, how they dress, what they say, where you find them, who they worship, who they serve, and so on and so forth…

Next Week

The completion of the standard conversation system, all questions/answers for all possible questions, and a lot of screenshots to show it off! It has been a while since we’ve had any proper in-game screenshots, so it’s definitely time to actually give you all a look at how (incredibly neat) everything is looking now. See you then!

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).