Friday, June 20, 2014

Play Echoes

I wrote this essay a while back. The basic idea is that you can save chunks of worldstate, then use those chunks flexibly in context-sensitive applications rather than having to use some kind of natural-language system or whatever.

Then I read this long essay by Ian Bogost about Darmok, the episode about those Star Trek aliens that talked only in references to old stories. He came up with the idea that they are actually talking about process - context-heavy processes stored as references to situations where such things played out before.

Then I read these tweets by Zach Gage, and things started to slowly congeal, like ideas sometimes do.

So, let's start at the end, then I'll describe why it is the way it is.

This is an open-world sci-fi RPG. You can make friends with any NPC, and they can join your team. But the universal translator is only capable of so much, and communication is difficult.

So you create and share memes.

You and Hjilsb are together, fighting against an onslaught of voracious, hopping fungi. Together you best the fungi.

In another game, Hjilsb might gain a "friendship point". Maybe she gains one here, too. But more importantly, in the quiet time later, Hjilsb is talking to others - or perhaps to you - and she does a flumpy hopping fungi impression, then goes "BLEAAAHHH" and fake-dies.

This is a nascent meme. It is a tiny piece of your relationship, your past. It is the part of that sequence of events that Hjilsb remembers most - her personality was most drawn to that particular thing. If she had a different personality, she might have re-enacted the back-to-the-wall gunfire moment, or the fungus dropping from the ceiling in their initial surprise attack, or the flat "whut?" look you gave each other when you first saw them, or the "click-click-" moment she ran out of ammo and you saved her.

These are not simply "oh, we had an event together" markers. They represent a specific start state, progression, and end state that struck that character as personally and emotionally important.

Hjilsb remembers the start state of a goofy enemy, the progression of shooting it full of lead, and the end state of it goofily dying. If she had a different personality, she might remember a different tiny portion of the fight. As the events of the fight stream by, the personality filters for whichever events seem most interesting, and forgets the rest.

At time goes on, that goofy little "bleah!" might fade from use, only a momentary idiosyncrasy. But it could easily become useful.

Yeah, useful.

You can't talk to Hjilsb very well, and she can't talk to you very well. The mocking "bleah!" can potentially stand in for any situation where Hjilsb wants to say "let's kill these idiots". If she remembered the "click-click-" out of ammo thing, she might use that whenever she wants to tell you she's totally screwed. The back-to-the-wall blammies could be used to say "we can do this if we do it together".

Because the personality algorithm chose these events to remember, the personality algorithm knows what sort of situations echo it: the ones that have the same algorithmic response, or are predicted to.

You can use the memes yourself. Once you see the silly "bleah!" you can use it as an emote yourself. Hjilsb knows what the emote means to her, so she assumes you are talking about the same situation. You can use this not simply to establish camaraderie, but to actively change her thinking about a situation. After all, it's hard to be scared when your boss is making fun of the enemy.

There's no reason the "bleah!" emote can't be used to other NPCs as well, although it may not translate well into all personalities.

There's no reason the emotes can't be used on other PCs. There's no reason the emotes can't be used in constructed challenges or quest lines to specifically tint content so an NPC will judge it in a given way.

What's more, there's no reason that the "bleah!" emote has to continue to represent stupid jumping fungus.

Every time a similar situation comes up, Hjilsb won't create a similar emote. She already has a response to dumb-looking creatures getting shot, she doesn't need a new one. She just adds it to the mix, with a sly sideways glance at you and a "BLEAH!"

A new starting state, a new progression, and a new end state added in. Not just hopping fungus, but also purple wombats and big-eared mouse-mecha.

Why keep track? Why does it matter?

Because each progression adds more vibrancy and variation to the meme. If you decide to use the "bleah!" meme when constructing a quest line for your friends, the quest will vary from instance to instance, each time choosing a different flavor out of the giant roster of "bleah!" instances. Not necessarily different monsters or guns or whatever, but a different exact progression, or exact numerical value.

And if "bleah!" happens on a mission that another player is experiencing, his NPCs will use the "bleah!" emote, and it will spread to his game. Creating a shared reality, without any shared content. And when he goes to the forum, or records a YouTube video, "bleah!" will be there, too.


Now, what am I talking about?

Well, for starters, I'm not actually recommending that game design. It's a bit clunky. I just wanted to be clear what we're talking about.

The kind of... meme-like thing we're talking about is not exactly a process, nor is it solely a stored context, nor is it simply a feeling, nor is it a combination of all three. It's a bit complex.

We do this all the time. In GTA, you and a friend might be playing together. You leap a car off a riverbank and onto a boat. Your friend says "whoa!" and decides to one-up you. Soon you're trying to jump cars onto the wings of flying planes.

This is what gives an experience life. Not just that something happened, not just what you felt during a given moment, but how you refined that feeling and experience and time passes. Long after you've stopped playing GTA, you'll probably remember those epic jumps fondly. It's the same with scripted events: you play FFVI, you probably have strong memories of the opera. But these memories are not simply your memories. They have been tinted and reinterpreted many times, and the opera in FFVI has come to have a shared meaning among those that have played the game.

This sort of thing is becoming more and more common as YouTube and Let's Players grow in popularity. I have revisited games I disliked because I saw someone enjoying them, and since I was now "in on it", I was able to enjoy them the same way.

I don't have a good name for these bundles of shared, refined experiences. Something like "experiential clusters" would probably be accurate, but it's not very catchy. How about "play echoes"?

For now, I'll call them "play echoes". These are events that catch your eye, you have an emotional response to them, and in some manner merge this with other people's similar responses to similar events.

These vary wildly. For example, the strained puns of Dark Souls etchings are a kind of play echo. So is the deep hatred for Road To Hell. In Dark Souls, the etchings are shared in the game, through the game engine itself. But in Road To Hell, the derision is shared via the internet, with videos and posts laughing together, sharing the same judgments.

Play echoes can easily make or break a game. Sharing your game world with others can add a lot of depth as it attunes you to details you wouldn't have noticed, or would have judged in a less interesting way. But sharing can also pollute the experience, screwing up the sense of place, the level of loneliness, and the fundamental skill progression (you learn too much).

So, I have a few questions:

1) Can you create a game where players can create and share play echoes in a way which maximizes "making" the game and minimizes "breaking" the game?

2) If so, can you create a game where the game understands the concept of play echoes?

3) If so, can you create a game where the players can script new content, quests, and so on out of play echoes rather than painstakingly scripting and balancing everything?

1 comment:

Ellipsis said...

I like everything in this post, but I'm going to have to let it stew a while before I have anything more interesting to contribute.