I'm trying to trim this down to readability...
There are more and more games that try for an open world with some level of social play. Fable II, for example, lets you do any pose to anyone. But though the world has many NPCs in it, none of them feel like a character. They all feel like cardboard cut-outs.
There's something to be said for better play involving characters. In fact, I've said tons on the subject myself. So I'll skip that stuff.
I've come to believe that's only half the issue. I think the other half lies in how you interact with the character.
Most games of this sort give you generic interaction options that can be pointed at any character. For example, in Fable II you can "dance" at anyone, you can "yell" at anyone, etc. Other games featuring open-world (or character-gen) social systems use the same idea, although they often use a different set of generics. Even I have, in the past, done this for nearly all of my prototypes.
But I think that's the flaw. I think that's the big flaw.
The idea behind it is that the characters will react to your generic action in a specific way, showing off their personality. But that's a crippled framework because it depends on the generic message. It's a reply to a generic comment. It's like this: you want to get a feel for how interesting a photograph is. But you're only allowed to ask a few specific questions: how big is it? How red is it? Is there a person in it?
Even if the photo is very interesting, you'll be hard-pressed to tell because your questions are so shaky. And if you have enough generic, pre-defined questions to tell you, then you have thousands of generic questions, 99.9% of which are useless in any given situation.
Social gameplay is the same way. Even if the character is interesting, you won't see that in how they respond to your thumbs-up or your yell. You can't really get to know a character because your AVATAR can't get to know the character. Your avatar's behavior doesn't change to be more specific to the character.
What if it did?
Let's pretend that instead of generic responses like thumbs-up and laugh and so forth, we have four "social action slots". The slots are filled by the places where your character's personality, the other character's personality, and your relationship collide.
The idea is that there could be hundreds, thousands, even billions of potential interactions that could be loaded up. They could be built out of sub-interactions, for example, or even made with a numeric scale involved.
A simple example is a hug. If you can hug someone in a game, they use the same animation no matter who you're hugging. But you hug people very, very differently depending on your relationship, your current mood, etc. And they hug you back (or punch you in the nose) very, very differently. Not just big differences like bum-grabbing or carefully maintaining inches of air between you, but small differences like how long they hesitate before returning your hug, exactly where on your back their hands fall, etc.
Calling it a "hug" is a crime caused by the limitations of our language. There are a billion different kinds of hugs. Instead of trying to make a big list of them, it would be much better to create a hug generating system.
I should stress that this is not an always-on thing. You cannot simply walk up to anyone and hug them. You only get the option to when your avatar thinks a hug would be appropriate (or, well, whenever he wants to).
This is a breach of common game design philosophy. We've grown very used to the idea that the player should be permitted to do any legal action at any time. If you take away a player's ability to jump "because his character doesn't feel like it", the players will probably crucify you.
This is really no different, and I expect the players would be irritated that they can't simply choose to try to hug (or whatever) their favorite character whenever they like. However, if it's built fairly transparently, getting that option would be one of the fun gameplay challenges.
But, as with all this week, this relies heavily on the player's avatar having a personality.
What do you think?