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The Era Of Behaving Playfully
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The Era Of Behaving Playfully

January 19, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

Feel This All Together

Just because a game focuses on behavior and emotional play doesn't mean it must always be open-ended and AI-centric. Jeroen Stout's Dinner Date is a directed experience about the myriad anxieties a man can go through waiting for a date to arrive. The game is in first person and players are told they control the main character's subconscious at the outset.

As players sit in the cramped apartment kitchen while dinner grows cold they can trigger scripted interactions with different objects at the table and around the kitchen. Underscoring every action is the self-effacing monologue of the nervous man tottering on the edge of being stood up.

"The game started as a project I did at the University of Portsmouth," Stout told me. "It was a little bit of a rebellious joke at first -- thinking about a game with just one man sitting at a table because it was very much subversion of the abnormal power you have in most games.

"The idea became that by doing his actions you would focus on his story a lot more. So I started writing from that perspective -- Julian has multiple layers, from his immediate problem of being stood up to bigger problems that he should actually focus on. As a player, hearing his thoughts, you get an insight in him which he himself lacks."

Where other behavior games use variations on indirect control and planning there is purposelessness in Dinner Party's available actions. The hopeful object of the game is to have the date finally arrive, but there is nothing the player can do to affect this outcome. In turn, each available interaction is an echo of the futility of the situation, having one's hopes hanging in the gap between romantic possibility and rejection.

"I think the original concept right from the start did not include any narrative significance in the actions," Stout said. "It was predominantly 'what actions are there for a person sitting down at his table' and a thought that came from acting -- that by playing out these actions you get closer to the person."

Even with direct control Stout had to choose how interactive to make each action. Would each sip of wine be a gestural movement with the mouse? Would the smearing of a spread on the bread be a series of swipes?

"I realized I could not translate mouse actions to Julian's actions; Julian has a certain way of moving," Stout said. "Leaving the player free to control the hands would also introduce the 'crate problem', where a player, seeing something he can meddle with, cannot stop himself from picking up, say, a crate and throwing it around. If the player could swipe everything off the table the game could not function and placing arbitrary restrictions on free movement sounded like a big maze of invisible walls.

"So I settled on doing binary actions, which would be interesting enough to be chosen, but also make the interface a little bit organic by making the bubbles float a little and almost fight for attention."

The resulting interface has the mouse controlling Julian's view while icons hover above objects in the kitchen. These actions play out as discrete scripted moments whose order is chosen by players.

"I did create a basic set of actions that seemed plausible to me; looking at the clock and tapping the table," Stout continued. "I selected them by being as natural as possible, but also to change his posture; tapping the table, looking at the clock, hopefully to increase a sense of embodiment.

"In some way it was strangely easy - once I realized I could make a person tap a table I could make him look at a candle. Before I started I would not have considered those actions, but forcing the actions to remain things you subconsciously do in a way increased what I could do."

Strike a Poser

Chris Hecker's SpyParty is an amalgam of expressive and competitive play. Instead of just trying to create more realistic AI, Hecker's game asks players to adapt their behavior to what the AI is doing or else risk failure. The game is designed for two players, a spy at a cocktail party with a specific objective (e.g. plant a bug on an ambassador) and a sniper observing the party and trying to pick out the real human player from the other AI ones. It's a kind of reverse-Turing test.

SpyParty grew out of the Indie Game Jam -- supported by a loan of assets from The Sims, coincidentally -- a game creation event focused on a particular challenge each year, like making a game with 100,000 characters in it. This started a line of thought in Hecker that would eventually become SpyParty, though he insists there wasn't a simple and linear path from original idea to working prototype.

"If you're trying to do something interesting, new, novel, innovative and unique you don't start with ideas," Hecker told me. "I mean obviously you start with an idea, but you don't have an 'idea' phase and then a 'typing the code' phase.

"The missions in SpyParty are basically spy and mystery film tropes. One of them was clearly going to have to be poisoning somebody's drink. That's an interesting social dynamic: a person drops dead in the middle of a party, people rush over to help them, they carry the body out, there are drinks in the world, you offer a drink to somebody.

"So I was trying to get a first version of this mission done for PAX, which was in September. It was pretty clear I wouldn't be able to get the mission done for PAX so I just decided to try and get drinks in the world and then write the mission later."

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