Sunday, January 15, 2006

Plot Algorithms Revisited!

One of my abiding interests over the past years of my life has been in developing some kind of automatic plot generation algorithm. Something where you start up the game and it grinds a bit, then comes up with a new, interesting episode of a continuing game.

I've had some very minor successes on this front in the past. However, now I'm going to approach it from a new angle: perspective shifts!

As I stated at the end of this post, a story is all about a shifting perspective. Think about it. Think about your favorite stories. Their whole purpose is to shift your perspective, usually by shifting the perspective of the characters within the story.

Even the mostly-empty episodes of soap operas and children's shows base each episode around one or two perspective shifts. You get to see a new situation, a new character, a new reaction. Just pulling stuff at random off my local media:

Young Einstein: A distorted view over the world of science - the trials and tribulations of scientific thinkers, seen through funhouse mirrors. The perspective shifts from the highs to the lows with a manic intensity.

Hikaru no Go #2: The bizarre perspective of "what happens when a 1000-year-old ghost is forced to both attend grade school and meddle in the world of modern go?". Watch as his perspective slowly shifts to account for the modern world... and watch as your perspective shifts as you see it.

Teen Titans, "Employee of the Month": A highlight on Beast Boy which reveals his character in new depth and detail, giving him the opportunity to face his fears. Also very funny.

Paranioa Agent #10: Offers a unique (if somewhat confusing and highly unconventional) insight into death even before the final reveal.

You can go on pretty much forever, but I would hate to bore you too badly. If you can come up with an example which doesn't contain what the audience considers to be a shifting point of view, I'd be surprised. Some that don't appear to are actually contrasting their current POV with POVs from earlier episodes, so if taken as a whole, they are shifting.

Remember: it's just as often that the audience's perspective is the one that is shifted. New information that the characters never uncover can lead us to think wholly differently about a situation. Heck, just one origami unicorn can totally change our perspective on an entire movie, let alone a few tears in rain.

It's probably possible to encode this, don't you think? Some kind of meta-language to define what kinds of things people can see, and the directions they can see it from?

I'm thinking about a "spotlight". A spotlight shines a particular color of light through a particular chunk of fog to highlight a specific piece of reality with its warped, warbly light.

The light would be a source. A coloration. A filter. For example, "zombies", or "old money" or "getting married". It would determine what the gross shape of the plot would be.

The fog would be the view travelled through. The set of values used to warp the light. For example, "family duty", "cowardice", "war", and other such humanizing values. It would determine, largely, what the activities in the plot arc would be.

The land would, of course, be the thing highlighted through all this. Like "the insignificance of mankind" or "everything is funny if done wrong". This would determine what activities are taken out of the set of activities the fog allows for.

As you can see, just combining the example makes for some strange stories. How about cowardly zombies showing you that everything is funny if done wrong? It's a very different story from cowardly zombies showing you the insignificance of mankind. It's also very different from wealthy nobility caught in a war highlighting their insignificance.

The difficulties would be in getting the computer to translate the components into a coherent whole. What would it present to you if it was going to be a story about cowardly zombies? What would the progression be?

Anyhow, I'm just rambling. If I get any further on the idea, I'm sure I'll write it up here.

Actually, I want to use something similar for Her Majesty's Hackers. I want to use painfully cliched soap opera plots, and then totally wreck them with social ineptness and rampaging mutants.

"Can't you see what I'm trying to say, John?"

"Give me a hint. Is it about the Xerxes project?"

"No! It's about you and me!"

"Oh, so you finally noticed!"

"Noticed what?"

"That I'm actually your clone, of course. Isn't it obvious?"

"But I'm a clone of the director!"

"There's only one question left: is it unscientific to love yourself, my beautiful twin?"

"It will require some testing, I think."

"My lab or yours?"


Patrick Dugan said...

Her Majesty's Hackers? Is this a new PAC game idea you've got on the shelf?

Your spotlight analogy reminds me of a grammatical view of game design, in this case the light is the adjective, the fog is the verb-set (which can vary by context) and the subject is the noun. Chris Bateman has a post of this nature, I believe, and something similar is the basis of the Storytron engine.

Though counter-intuitive, fog is a pretty good metaphore for a verb-set in the context of player vision. Any verb-set is going to construct a phase space of different executions, and that phase space is always going to be constricted by the player's available information. Sometimes, particularily in physics based games, this is taken literally (the fog of war, ect.), in an interactive storyworld the fog has to do with available information on other characters and the unfolding cuasality of the plot. In Storytron this would translate directly to gossip and indirectly towards hidden solutions revealed only through disseminating said gossip and other relevant cues.

Facade does a fairly good job of shifting the spotlight and the fog from Beat to Beat, even if the Actors stay the same. By fog changing I mean new information is revealed, such as possible affiars, hidden desires and such, and new discourse acts become apparent to the player, which can prod the two Actors closer to their awareness threshold nessecary to get the best ending.

Craig Perko said...

That sounds pretty much like what I'm talking about, yeah.

And, of course, I go into great detail about HMH on my other blog,