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Roleplaying Among Mechanical Constructs
by Victor Gont on 11/10/09 11:28:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutras community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Remember the early days of gaming when we were all watching small bright CRT screens on which pixilated 2d characters were saving the world from utter destruction? How the novelty and enjoyment of the experience was keeping players from sleeping, eating and other unimportant stuff?

Time has passed and game development has since then turned into a multi-billion dollars industry; it enjoys technologically advanced hardware and has gained a much deserved spotlight place in the entertainment sphere. But beside these perceived improvements, modern mainstream games share the core design and mechanics of their non graphic-accelerated ancestors.

Being an avid fan of single-player RPG games, I was recently trotting through Bioware’s land of Ferelden hoping to re-live the thrills and chills of its spiritual ancestor. Truth being said, the game did not fail to deliver on any of the high expectations it created, but I still somehow noticed that I was not much involved in the rich lore and grand setting of ‘realistic’ fantasy. I failed miserably when trying to play the character I had long before crafted.

At first I assumed it may have been the slightly generic storyline; the amalgam of some dramatic and some over the top comic relief moments; or the wild assortment of the NPC menagerie. Halfway through the game though, as a sense of déjà-vu settled in, I finally understood the real issue, one thing most present-day games share. An area that has been refined and polished but not improved since the days titans like‘Baldur’s Gate’ and ‘Planescape Torment’ were allowing us to wander wide-eyed through fantastic realms: interaction and dialogue with non-playable characters.

To better explain the reasoning of my rants, I will employ a few brilliant singleplayer games released recently. Dragon Age: Origins sees the player in the role of a Grey Warden custom avatar, tasked with battling the darkspawn. The focus of the game seems to be set on character development based on player decision and consequence rather than crude storytelling (although quite a few interesting twists occur throughout), so a lot of care has been put in creating memorable and believable actors.

At any given time a number of three persons can join the player’s party. Interaction with them is handled through a dialogue screen that presents different choices of lines or context sensitive actions such as persuade and intimidate. Conversations branch in different ways and the entire array of options can only be explored through playing the game multiple times.

The relation between the main character and these companions is managed through a slider bar that changes its position depending on the NPC’s disposition toward the player. Besides taking actions that the party member agrees with or choosing a course of action favorable to his alignment, gifts can also be given to increase their liking of the player’s avatar.

In last year’s Fallout 3, a game that set out to depict an atmospheric post-apocalyptic world and a well developed story (I include the memorable sidequests in this statement), characters were employed only as a secondary means for picturing life in a nuclear wasteland. Conversation choices were rather transparent, and the game’s karma system often influenced them. Given the modular aspect of the game, a quest and its dialogue options could be completely explored by simply reloading a savegame and picking other options.

The third example of handling interactions with game actors can be seen in PiranhaBytes’ recently released ‘Risen’. Progression through the storyline is accomplished by picking one of three class options that give access to different quests and locations while ultimately reaching a common ending.Seeing as the main attraction of this action-rpg was the character advancement and combat system, it seems fitting that conversations with NPCs are handled in a simple yet efficient manner.

The world is full of quest givers that can be effectively interacted with only when they are involved in said quests. In short, an inhabitant of Faranga only has a few lines of dialogue relevant to the player’s interests for a quest. No option beyond upfront refusal or acceptance of the task is available, and every other line is there to add information in case the player needs it.

These three games cover the entire range of what seems to be the standard in interaction with AI personas at this moment; tried and true methods that are easy enough to stage and accessible enough to tweak should the development process come to that. Upon breaking each of the mechanics of dialogue and interaction with the game’s characters, we come upon a few flawed building blocks that I will try to detail below:

- One-dimensional character: Perhaps the most immersion breaking element of most single player RPG’s is that the companions and enemies have, in the struggle to make them believable, well defined pseudo-personalities and are not ‘willing’ to bend and adapt, up to the point of seeming antisocial. The player must instead try and appease their rigid views and create his avatar around these indomitable moral behemoths. It is an underlying issue in all the examples mentioned above, with attempts to work around it through the use of a persuasion skill or the gift feature of Dragon Age.

- Foggy lines: To further aggravate the feel the player has about his relation withinhabitants of the virtual world, comes the fact that most dialogue options are unclear pointers to a pre-determined linear path. When the NPC has yet to reveal the entirety of his characteristics, what seems like a reasonable choice to the perception of an average human is met with disdain and revolt by his companion. In a real life social contact, both interlocutors would learn something about the other and move along. In the game however, either a reload occurs due to a flashy popup letting the player know he messed up his standing with his partner,or the player is forced to make peace with the situation and avoid further confrontation in the future.

- Stimulus and response: Statistical markers that point a NPC’s reaction to a choice of the player have an inherent decisiveness about them that brings another game-breaking element to the table. It is perhaps the main item that can be used to mathematically display a natural social relation. It has its well defined place in simulators and god-games, but a role-player would much rather have a different method of finding his standing in relation with party members and creatures of his simulated world.

- Idle middleman: At certain points in a game various party members or NPCs standing around the action will have things to say. I failed to see this interesting feature used in a meaningful way, as most of the time they will provide a campy moment or forced puns about each-other. The few times I actually stumbled upon a remarkable scenery, a field of battle or passed through a difficult situation, the only remarks were monologues from a character that was supposed to be emotionally tied to it. No dialogue options and no further insight into the possible conversation followed.

- Verbal tics: A simple technique to infuse a virtual person with the semblance of true personality and strong character is to give it a few lines that it can use before going into battle or encountering an enemy. Ubiquitous by now, I still fail to see it used to its full potential. In most occasions a speech line or a loud onomatopoeia is thrown about so many times it almost becomes a trademarkof the character, and not in a good way (the exceptions are extremely few in numbers).

Disclosure: The above is by no means an expert insight into what makes or breaks a good dialogue or characterization systems for games. I just meant to vent some of the frustrations experienced after playing what should have been a new monument to the godliness of role-playing games but turned to just a pleasant experience.

I am convinced that there still are many beautiful stories to be told and I am just as sure the means of integrating lifelike beings into the narrative thread can be revised and improved someday (yes, I am thinking about Façade now).

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Bart Stewart
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Two other games come to mind -- both had minor but interesting tweaks to the standard dialog tree model.

One was Oblivion, with its NPC reaction minigame. In a way this was easier and "game-ier" than the conversation/gift-driven approach taken by Dragon Age: Origins, since in Oblivion you could just keep playing the minigame until you had maximized that NPC's regard for you. Still, shifting this into active gameplay makes it different from Dragon Age, so perhaps it's worth a mention.

The other game was Deus Ex. Part of the fun of Deus Ex (for some, anyway) was being able to have extended conversations with various NPCs on the nature and limits of liberty. Although some NPCs had mission- or plot-specific active dialog interactions available, most NPCs also had "background" comments they would make when you clicked on them. And in a few cases, these background comments were remarkably extensive, constituting a sort of extended soliloquy on liberty and the extent to which a person should be prepared to defend it.

With only one exception that I know of (in the seedy bar in Hong Kong), these conversations had zero effect on gameplay -- they were just there to support the atmosphere of the game. But they were so brilliantly written that they went a very long way toward bringing the gameworld to life... for those who care about that sort of thing.

Jonathon Walsh
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These really touch on a lot of issues I have with single player RPGS. I spent a long time avoiding any Single player RPGS because of the way dialog worked. Foggy lines was a major reason for my displeasure. I do think the dialogs have improved a lot since games like Morrowind and Icewind Dale but they still have a long way to go.

In addition to the points you make I have one major gripe about the dialog system seen in most RPGs...

Uneven 'rewards'. I don't necessarily mean the item you get, though that is one possibility, but the amount of content as a whole that you get. Often times you end up with two conflicting choices from an NPC: Either you stay true to how you feel like your character should act or you break that to experience more content. For example maybe you are playing a mercenary or assassin type. Not fully evil but willing to do things mostly for money. Then you happen upon some poor person in need who wants your help with no offer for reward. Either you can help them and experience some new content or you can refuse and are just left to go do something else. So either you break your character's personality or that's 10 minutes of less content that you get out of the game. The same can happen with items where the need or want of an item is pushed against the desire to play the character as you see them.

Christopher Enderle
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On one hand I agree that the artificial limits of most characters and dialog does have a negative affect on being able to really interact naturally with those characters, but on another hand I feel it allows the game to keep a foot firmly planted in the "just a game" aspect. You generally have predetermined respones to lines of dialog the player can strive for. The gameyness keeps things more familiar and comfortable for many people. A game like Facade can be a bit overwhelming/underwhelming to people who enjoy the confines and "game" more stricter dialog options/trees.

I wonder if most of the problems you list could be addressed with the current more traditional methods they stem from. Say, for foggy lines, your character had the ability (telepathy or precognition or something) to judge another characters reaction to what they would say, and so along with seeing the text the player would know how the character will respond. Then it just becomes a matter of balancing dialog so disagreeing with characters is just as worthwhile as agreeing with them.

Thomas Whitfield
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Yeah, I also have a problem with bending characters to experience content. Once there was a time where I would skip quests that were "out of character" and write then down, so I could come back later with another different character. I've done this on and off recently in FO3 and the Mass Effect "NPC Choice" event (mostly because I'm an XBL Achievement whore).

Modern games seem to balance out loss of content well enough these days.

There is enough XP to Max level your character in FO3 without doing everything (not even counting expansion packs... though maybe Broken Steel for level cap rais.. still enough stuff either way.)

The low cap on characters in the party is working well in Dragon Age for me. Playing KOTR and KOTR2 I somehow felt a need to stand around in the ship every so often and chat up the NPCs to advance lal the storylines, even the ones I never used in the party... (Blaster users were very underpowered later in the game, but HK especially made me come back again and again in both games, even though he never really left the ship unless he was mandatory for a mission).

DA makes me pretty attached to my small party, and I actually begrudge having to swap one out for a mandatory mission NPC companion. With such a small party (any your character representing a class) I loathe messing up my party structure (though with only 3 main classes, this is not as bad as D&D games where there are more classes than party spots).

I probably hate it less than people wandering out of the party with all my hard earned loot, though I have never bothered to load an old save and sell everything before they go in any game.


In the end I think a lot of our disappointments with Single player RPGs comes from the fact that they are single player, rather than multiplayer... we want those NPCs to be other people.

Maybe some day that potion vendor will be a kid from Cleveland selling potions instead of burgers (Welcome to Ye Olde Potion shop, you want a Pepsi?). I've already gotten the party members sorted out by playing MMOs...

...Then again they can be one-dimensional, uncompromising, demanding, and make me quest in Lower Guk for a week before they will help me out... so I'm not sure if single player RPGs are so far off after all.

Jonathon Walsh
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Playing more DA part of the problem also feels almost like a problem with a player's preconceptions of the game, take my experience in DA for example. Before I brought the game I read up a bit on the basics. I knew elves were 2nd class citizens, the different classes and abilities, and that was about it. I didn't even know about the Darkspawn until I installed the game. Yet before knowing anything about the story's plot other than a loose background I decided who I was going to be. I thought to myself, "I want to play a City Elf and I want him to lash out against his oppressors". In my mind I built up the whole concept of my character hating the humans for what they've done and fully expecting every human to likewise put down my elf.

Now that's partially the situation I've been able to play out. There's been a lot of great elf and human dialog and plenty of NPCs that are skeptical of me. However, the human/elf relations seem less strained than I believed they would be (so far). I'm well past the origin and prologue and I've still only told off a few scant humans. Most NPCs so far treat me indifferently and my only dialogue options don't allow me to put them down. So my perception of what I wanted is not entirely how the game sees it. The game still is presenting a very strong and consistent world its just that I crafted a character that doesn't quite fit in it.

But is that really the fault of the game itself or an issue of me as a player coming up with a character then trying to fit it into the world rather than the other way around. I feel like other players must do the same, they decide their character and then get into the world. The game worlds support a bunch of different character types but if you've already created one before even entering it then how can you tell it'll fit? Is there something a game can do to help or is it just the way it is?

Christopher Wragg
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To be honest my biggest problem is not the semi static way many characters are dealt with, people often *do* have very rigid moral view while some are more flexible on the matter. *mini spoiler?* In dragon age for instance Zevran cares not what you do, but Leliana will have some sort of moral reaction to ANYTHING you do. *end spoil* My biggest problem is not seeing members of your party interact with each other well, after all a lot of these moral paragons have very differing opinions to one another. For instance, rather than having a single *I Like the player* bar, each character could have one representing their like for each other character. In this way relationships could shift quite dramatically, if one person ends up hating another, they may come to the player "the leader" to resolve the issue. In combat dialogue could represent this, and the player might have to balance a finer line of, do I choose a group of people I really get along with, or do I try to please everyone. Hell even combat preferences could be affected, like a healer will heal a romance target over someone who's not etc etc.

I feel this is the reasons so many characters seem one dimensional. Because the only dimension you really get to see is the characters interacting with you. For instance wouldn't it be cool that if you romance Morrigan, yet you travel about with both Alistair and Leliana in the party a lot, so their relationship develops and next thing you get a scene of Leliana walking into Alistairs tent. Just look to your own friends to see what I mean, how much of their character is simply your interaction with them, and how much is watching them interact with each other, or how they gang up on an outsider, on how when there's a division in your group, who takes who's side etc. Dragon age would be just that much cooler if when travelling with Dog and Sten all of a sudden the two are next to each other in camp, while the people left behind begin to improve (or not) with each other.