Sunday, June 20, 2010

Two Agencies

So, my friend and I have been discussing Alpha Protocol, which is an unforgivably samey game with extraordinarily shitty moments, but that's not what I'm here to discuss. Instead, I'd like to talk about agency.

That friend, and many others, are willing to forgive the crap and give a positive review because the game features a fair amount of agency, most notably through dialog options. Of course, the game has a linear plot which doesn't change (and, frankly, is bad). But they still rave about the agency.

It was at this point that I realized our definitions of agency were very different.

Most of these people seem to mean "immersive agency", where the agency exists specifically to lure you into the game. We've called this "illusion of agency", but I think that term is misleading. It's real agency, it's just that the agency doesn't really affect the game much. This is easy to see in any game which gives you "choices". Most of these choices result in either a very short term major change, or a very small long-term change. For example, if you save the princess, the guards won't attack you in this level OR if you save the princess, she exists afterwards, you can talk to her, she'll give you a magic bean.

Immersive agency is apparently very effective on many players. I find it infuriating because there's always a "best path". Even if the writers go out of their way to make the choices "equal", as a particular person, I judge the different choices according to my preference, and usually there's a best choice and two incredibly dumb choices. For example, if you're allowed to date any of the three possible romantic characters in the game, one of them is obviously the one I like best, and offering the other two might as well not exist. For me.

Because of this, to me immersive agency always feels like random added-on failure conditions, rather than agency. Best case, it feels like a reason to replay the game, but even then, it still won't feel like agency to me, it'll feel like a slightly different linear plot.

My definition of agency involves affecting systems. We'll call it "systemic agency". Systemic agency is when your choice affects the long-term play of the game. For example, when you choose to attack or not attack Greece in Civ, and in turn both your future and Greece's are very different.

This is hard to script because of the very wide branches: choosing to kill or save Magus in Chronotrigger, for example, required a fair amount of programming. And still it only mattered a little. It's rare for plot-based games to have much systemic agency because plots aren't systems: the writer is the system, the plot is the product. In order to give the players access to that system, the writer has to imagine what the player might do ahead of time. This is why most games that offer you plot agency only offer you immersive agency: tiny details that make you feel immersed, but don't matter much and can be easily scripted.

I like systemic agency. I understand it's hard to put in plot-based games. But immersive agency always hits me the wrong way.

So when I play Alpha Protocol, I see a linear plot with a lot of arbitrary failure conditions where everyone else sees a detailed and interesting series of choices. What they see may rescue the game from the bargain bin of samey play and shitty bosses, but what I see does not.

Please, somebody, give me systemic agency in a plot!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Non-Generic Humans

I made this setting because I hate the "average humans" trope. I never used it for anything, though.

Most humans thought that, when we entered galactic civilization, we would be "average". Not average as in "an ordinary species", but average as in "without any significant strengths or flaws, as opposed to all those damn specialists".

Of course, that turned out not to be the case. In 2160, when humanity finally encountered galactic civilization, we quickly earned the name "the outraged".

Our well-connected population had a finely honed sense of outrage: when something bad happened, sparks of outrage would flare up, and humans would unite to deal with it. If more humans were required, the fire would spread. This sounds like a slow process, but it really isn't: humankind has plenty of experience with becoming outraged, and has perfected the practice.

The first demonstration of this to aliens was when it became clear that there were violently xenophobic human groups. Humans became outraged when these groups began to operate, smashing them down socially and, when necessary, physically. This outraged the sects that were distant cousins of the xenophobes, which acted against the smashers, and in turn that outraged a significant portion of the species, and in the end there was a short but very bitter little civil war. It started two weeks after meeting the aliens, and lasted four days.

As humans and aliens began altering their biologies to cohabitate, it was quickly discovered that human outrage was not always pointed inward. The humans were the first on the scene to help the J'nal rebuild after their home planet was hit by a meteor, and they were the first to send military ships to stop the Pogulpogul from terraforming a garden world to suit their own needs.

It was assumed humans would join the galactic police and relief groups, but this didn't turn out to be the case. Our finely honed practice of outrage is more effective than any organization at directing our efforts, and the fetters of those organizations sat poorly on our shoulders. Naturally, "vigilante" and "human" became synonymous for some time after that, but as with all things, an equilibrium was eventually found.

As time passed and we integrated with the galactic civilization over a few centi-14C, their opinion of us became more nuanced. We're now making a name for ourselves as people try to learn our language, with its conditional meta-time dimensional probability conjugations of verbs.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


So, I bought a DS game called "Infinite Space". I bought it because it had spaceships in it. It's very hard to find non-shooter sci fi games these days, so I buy every one I see.

Playing Infinite Space, I was stunned: it's an extremely oldschool game that allows you to customize your ship and crew. I don't mean "equip cannon A instead of cannon B", like "customize" normally means today. I mean "play tetris with components to try to cram any of ten thousand highly varied things into any of a hundred different chassis". I don't mean "customize crew" as in "swap your three-person team out with any of two other options", I mean "assign any of the hundred people you can recruit into any of the hundred positions in your crew, including things like 'chef'".

I haven't seen a complex game in so long, it felt great!

Now, if pressed as to whether the game is any good, I would hesitate. The game is too oldschool in many respects: it is unforgiving, full of hidden gotchas, all but requires a walkthrough, and dying is a tremendous pain in the butt. However, it is also really one of the only complicated games on the market.

We've seen an excessive trend towards simplicity in games. Every game must be winnowed down so that it can be played by a drunk frat boy with only one hour to spare. Sometimes, this results in some amazingly interesting games - for example, Shadows of the Colossus was not a complicated game, but it was a very interesting one.

But there is something to be said for complexity. There is something to be said for letting a player have too many options, for making a game too dense to play drunk.

This kind of complexity is distinct from the complexity of, say, a Sim City game. In Sim City you are given a pretty flat environment you can fill with pieces. Sure, the terrain may limit you, but point A and point B are going to be pretty much the same if they have the same terrain.

On the other hand, the kind of structured complexity you find in complex games like Infinite Space is not flat. The details exist for a reason: it may seem pointless to have a "chef" position explicitly assignable, and it certainly doesn't add to the actual in-game situation much, but out of the fifty slots you can put people in, each is unique and has its own meaning. It's a contextual complexity, where every point in the "gameplay terrain" is explicitly defined to have some human meaning. Exploring this kind of complexity is inherently more engaging than exploring the same "size" "space" in a game with procedurally generated terrain or terrain that merely varies by statistics.

This holds true for every kind of play where "space" exists and can be interacted with. Traveling from location to location is only as interesting as the variation between those locations. So we can have ten million locations that vary only statistically, but it won't be nearly as interesting as a hundred locations that are each unique. Similarly, if we're designing the components of a ship, having the insides of the ship be unique and weird shapes to match the design ideals of the manufacturer is more interesting than having randomly varying shapes or simple shapes.

The problem with this approach is that it requires a fair amount of painstaking definitions and scripting. The amount of effort you put into making a hundred unique locations could probably make ten thousand statistically varying locations, instead. But they would feel very samey. The universe would have little texture.

So I wonder if there's a middle ground, where you can procedurally generate content that is really unique, that really has a flavor and stands out.

I think this requires three things:

The first is a giant stack of things to be unique with. This is a pretty typical approach: if every planet has two interesting details, you can just write up a thousand interesting details and pick randomly, maybe crossing them off the list when you use them.

However, that's not enough. You also need coherence. The uniqueness has to mean something. This might be able to be accomplished by having NPCs react to the uniqueness in vaguely intelligent ways, or having the complexity of the world (dungeon generation, culture, whatever is generated on the fly) react strongly to the uniquenesses that are here. It can probably also be accomplished by "smearing" uniquenesses: If this planet has an unusual quantity of gold, then the nearby colonies will be better off because of it, and the NPCs at those other colonies will talk about the gold.

Smearing is actually related to the third aspect, which is that the player has to be drawn into the unique situations. For example, in Spore, every planet can have some seriously unique life forms. However, because there's nothing interesting to do with them that depends on their uniquenesses, they blend together into a shapeless blah. So the content has to draw the player in, require that the player take an hour or so to look around and really delve into the uniquenesses. This requires a depth of content (probably created by the previous paragraph's ideas). But it also requires gateways into that content, interesting plots or details that draw the player in.

It may also be possible to use unique player-generated content, like Spore does, but you have to algorithmically generate the "smearing" and "gateways" so that the player gets drawn in. That would be an interesting thing to design.

Hm. What do you think?

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

An Apple an Hour

A word of warning, I'm not a fan of Apple. If you are, this is probably going to sound pretty bitter, and you'll probably have the overwhelming urge to try and defend them. I'd prefer it if you just don't bother reading this particular essay, since you certainly aren't going to convince me.

On the other hand, this is not about why Apple sucks. This is, instead, about tweeting.

One of the things I've noticed since the iPad came out is that I've had to drop some people from my Twitter "follow" list, and are considering dropping more. Also, I've had to stop reading Penny Arcade news and a few other things I normally read. Because the only thing they talk about is the iPad.

I was really flummoxed by this. The iPad really isn't that much better than a tablet computer in my opinion - an evolutionary step, not a revolutionary one. But these people are... well, the only euphemisms that come to mind are unnecessarily graphic. They're really, really, really hot for the iPad.

Well, maybe they think it's just that good?

No, not really. These same people don't tweet so consistently about things they undeniably worship, or use every day with great ease and functionality. Similarly, the tweeters I follow who constantly post about shoes and cars don't have anything to say about the iPad, even if they have one.

These are people who never post on the same subject more than twice a week, suddenly they have a post a day - frequently six or seven - specifically about their iPad. I don't think this is because it's merely awesome, since they didn't have that frequency of posts about Obama's election, which they were generally pretty opinionated about.

More than that, the iPhone was a hell of a lot more innovative by any standard. And there seemed to be a lot less personal tweeting about it and a lot more articles, blog posts, etc.

After thinking a bit, I realized why I'm seeing so many frothing tweets: the iPad is built for tweeting.

The iPhone can tweet, sure. But it's a goal-driven machine. You want to make a call, or play a game, or find directions, or post naked pictures of yourself to the internet. If you didn't have something to do, the phone stays in your pocket.

The iPad is more like a regular computer in that many of its uses don't have a strong goal orientation. But, even more than other tablet PCs, the iPad is easy to pull out at any vaguely bored moment and fuss with, encouraging its use. And, of course, you'll use it for the things you would use a laptop for, which is occasionally goal oriented but usually more open-ended. IE, "let's surf the internet a bit", or "I wonder what's happening on Slashdot", or "let's get some writing done."

Like any other tablet PC without a keyboard, the iPad really isn't very good for writers, and it's not very good for work like art or programming, either. But a lot of the tweets are "I enjoy working on my iPad!" and "I'm using my iPad RIGHT NOW!" and "I'm tweeting this with my dick, because I'm just that good with it!"

The answer, to me, is that the iPad is actually pretty crap for WORKING on. Even if your work task is just answering emails, it's still easier to use a keyboard and mouse. But the barrier to entry is very low. So John Writer pulls out his iPad to do a little writing, he does a little writing, but he drifts off into not-writing land. The actual work is a little more troublesome to do than it normally is, so he finds himself unconsciously stopping more often than he normally would. And what does he do during those breaks?

He tweets.

He tweets about how awesome his iPad is.

Even if he doesn't think of himself as a fanboy, he's got to do something with his not-writing time, and the easiest thing to tweet about... is the device he's tweeting with.

With that explained, I feel a little better about the unending waves of chatter about the iPad. I still wish they'd stop the internet equivalent of creepily dry-humping it, but now that I've come up with a plausible cause, I can try to focus on their other posts. When they have some.