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).