May 03, 2006

West of House

by psu
You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here.

I am generally skeptical about the quality of narrative in video games. For the most part, the games we play don't provide a literary experience that is much above that of the simplest children's story. Hero wakes up. Hero kills a lot of shit. Hero saves the world.

For years, people have told me that Planescape:Torment was different. But until recently, I didn't have the chance to actually find out. I recently obtained a computer that can play the game, and in between my Oblivion sessions I've been poking around in The Hive.

I am not far enough into the game to have a full evaluation of the story, but while I was playing the game the other day, I did come to an interesting realization.

Recall that Planescape was released in late 1999 as part of a generation of classic PC Role Playing Games based on D&D rules. These games all used a similar isometric 2-d rendering system with hand-drawn backgrounds and sprite-based character models. By modern standards, this is not exactly what you would call a "highly immersive" rendering of the world.

Instead of walking around in a grand city like this:

you roam around in a fairly flat world like this:

On the face of it, it seems like Oblivion should completely crush the older game in terms of being able to create an actual sense of place, and atmosphere. And this is to some extent true. But, a funny thing happens when you actually talk to the people in this insanely detailed world. Here is what you get:

At that moment, as the NPC stares at you with those zombie eyes, and her stiff rubber lips start to move slightly out of sync with the dialog, the work that the hundreds of modellers must have done to painstakingly create every little detail in the huge world goes out of your mind, and all you can think is that you are talking to a robot.

The NPCs in Oblivion are horrible. The models are bad. The animation is bad. The dialog is bad. There are only five voice actors for the whole game. You only have to look at two Xbox games to convince yourself of how pathetic this game is. On the Xbox, Knights of the old Republic had repetitive models, but better lip sync and writing. Also on the Xbox, the face models and animations in Half-Life 2 completely destroy anything in the newer game, although the writing is nothing to get excited about.

In contrast, when you talk to a character in Planescape, you get a little text blurb:

The man before you looks to be middle of height and years. He is stout with a thick, bullish neck and his shoulders are hunched, as if a great weight was pressing upon them. He wears an impatient look as he stares at the black monolith in front of him.

Having digested the text, your mind's eye constructs a character that is decades beyond what the "next generation" will be able to bring us. The result is that it is much easier to let your disbelief suspend itself and stay immersed in the game world. In other words, the text does a better job of creating a world for your imagination than all the technology that Oblivion can bring to bear.

The written text in Planescape is the strongest part of the game. It consistently performs the miracle of making the game world seem real even in the face of relatively primitive graphics and sound design. Also, the deep conversation trees, something I always found pointless in other games, actually serve a purpose in this game. This makes me optimistic about the possibilities for future plot development.

Meanwhile, Oblivion is not really a game that concerns itself with compelling narrative. There are too many compromises made to enable the high level sandbox nature of the world. It just doesn't work to try and make an involving story if the main character in the tale can leave any time he wants. Instead of compelling you to go out and push the "main" plot forward, the game sits back and lets you find your own way. To its credit, the game is densely packed with things to do, but none of them really serve any narrative purpose. Instead, they are about accumulating power, status, or shiny objects. Any plot elements are an afterthought at best, so the result is that becoming the head of the Mage's guild and getting that +10 fire ball rocket launcher of death is all just more interesting than saving the world.

In this context, it's clear why the NPCs in Oblivion are so bad. They really have no purpose other than to push you forward through whatever quest you happen to have chosen at the time. Because of this, it's not really important for the characters to be at all memorable. Even the Emperor, voiced by Captain Picard himself, doesn't leave an impression much stronger than a wet kleenex stuck to your shoe.

The evolution of the RPG from games like Planescape to games like Oblivion (or World Of Warcraft for that matter) underscores larger trends in game requirements and design. The trend is toward more immersive presentation, but away from immersive narrative.

I think the trouble began with voiceovers. I guess the argument for voiceovers is rooted in the overall goal of increased "realism." Games want to be more like movies, and deliver a presentation that tickles all five senses. All I know is the first time I tried to play KOTOR, I had to turn the voice off and just read the dialog, because the voiceover combined with the marginal lip sync was just too jarring. By the time I returned to the game a year later, I had conditioned myself to not mind voice in video games so much. I'd still rather read the game, but I appear to be in a small minority. People don't like to read games anymore. They want voice, full character models, interactive environments and huge sprawling worlds. More importantly, they want the content fed to them via the graphics card rather than constructed for them one word at a time.

Game designers strive to provide all of this, and we can see the general trend in RPGs from KOTOR to Jade Empire, and Morrowind to Oblivion. Jade Empire had a fairly weak story in comparison to KOTOR (which was no great literary tour de force), but it had a bitchin' real time combat system. Morrowind and Oblivion share an overall weakness in their narrative, but Oblivion makes up for it by packing the world with even more to do and more to collect. Collecting stuff turns out to be enough to keep people playing the game. Finally, the whole MMORPG phenomenon points out how much people crave the idea of an interactive virtual world full of "real" people.

This move away from strong narrative is probably inevitable, but it is a shame that the market can't find room for games with stronger narrative and less "shiny". We can all mourn the loss of the more literary game. Planescape is the first "modern" game I've played that evoked the feeling that I had the first time I walked around in the Colossal Cave or when I found myself standing next to that white house. It seems like modern games very rarely dazzle our imaginations as much as our inner technology geek. This is too bad, because it's the imagination that remembers the game. I can still see that house in Zork, and I haven't picked up the game in twenty five years. I doubt that any locale in Oblivion will stick with me that long.

Posted by psu at May 3, 2006 08:56 PM | Bookmark This

There's a series of fan patches to Planescape that apparently fix lots of bugs that remained unfixed in the original scenario files (though you may have already know that.)

I remember playing Vagrant Story on the PSX several years back, and being comletely surprised when all the dialog in the game was in speech bubbles instead of voice acting; not that there was much dialog.

Posted by Adam Vandenberg at May 3, 2006 11:23 PM

I think part of your problem here is the trend to move away from intellectual games towards visceral games - or, if you prefer, from narrative focus to experiential focus.

I could, with a quite modest investment, deliver you more games with the narrative focus of Planescape and its contemporaries (for there are other strongly narrative games from this era - i.e. the late 90's). But I would struggle to make a return on the investment.

Why should this be? Simply this. There is a significant proportion of the gaming audience unable to make allowances for production values. Which is to say, a game produced with strong narrative but weak production values might recieve some good reviews, but it will also be pilloried by some critics for being years behind the state of the art.

(Although Heretic Kingdoms: The Inquisition had many flaws, I felt it was harsh that so many critics could not accept that this game was a top down isometric game, considering it to look 'worse than Diablo' - a statement that certainly falls apart under scrutiny).

The games industry stumbles around blindly trying to follow the money. And the money has moved away from strong narrative focus. Can we get it back? Maybe. But probably not on the budgets of the upper games market.

Just rambling, as ever...

Posted by Chris at May 4, 2006 03:36 AM

Planescape: Torment remains on the top of my list of RPGs purely because of the storyline and the in-depth characterization of the NPCs. KOTOR came closest to the amount of interaction with NPC partymembers that Torment had, but still didn't quite reach it.

I love great graphics, but I wish that more attention would be paid to characterization and storyline as well.

Posted by Sandra at May 4, 2006 06:54 AM

What a great post. That contrast came up in my Oblivion play, between the exact same games.

Any chance we could get a comment train rolling about what other games people feel are in the upper echelon of narrative storytelling?

Posted by arlovegas at May 4, 2006 11:02 AM

Ah, I see the backlash is beginning right on schedule now that the dust has settled.

I agree with your assessments, though unfortunately I think the battle is all but lost. You can see it in the way people clamored over themselves to express how beautiful Oblivion looked, without even having played it. Oblivion would be the best game ever, they said. And a single player RPG on top of that!

Its been out for over a month and the 90%+ reviews have stopped, so now what? We can start examining the game for what it really is.

While I havent played enough of Oblivion to pass full judgment, its pretty much on par with my experiences in Morrowind. Its a game that isnt really meant to have a story to hold your hand the design is intentionally left open. Its hard to fault the game for having a very erratic "story". You cant have it both ways, because as you said, if the main character can do whatever they want, theres no way to control the pacing of the action and story.

What I find disturbing is the lack of repercussions in both games. Yes, someone will yell for a guard if you try and steal from them or guards will attack you if you try to take one of them on. But if you leave and come backthey dont remember anything. The game has no memory, and is purely reactive in the way that it deals with you the character. Thats where Oblivion could have truly been great. You dont have to have an epic, far-reaching story, but you should at least have the mechanics in place to deal with everything that you do and write the story as you go.

Even adventure games have fallen victim to the instant gratification of "awesome graphics". I heard Tim Schaefer say once that graphics ruined games. We have the technology, so the culture demands it. Its an uphill battle, Im afraid.

Posted by gatmog at May 5, 2006 12:57 PM

I think I should make it clear that I still find Oblivion to be immensely enjoyable. I've played it a lot, and written about it too much as a result.

Games don't need narrative to be good. I just happened to find the contrast between the old game and the new game interesting.

Posted by psu at May 5, 2006 02:45 PM

You should consider the possibility that narrative is simply obsolete. If it is, it won't matter how much money you can raise to build a narrative-based game.

Modern games such as the Elder Scrolls series are expected to be complete virtual worlds as opposed to mediatized experiences. They're supposed to be open-ended instead of having a linear plot like a movie.

The reason why is because people vastly prefer having their own experiences over being fed the regurgitated experiences of others. Movies only prospered so long as they were able to provide second hand experiences that movie watchers couldn't get first hand. Think of kings, generals, time travel and being on the Titanic.

Consider also that it doesn't matter if a game has a story because people are able to make their own stories for themselves. Narratization is one of the 6 essential components of consciousness. If we assume that game players are conscious, then they can make their own stories.

Consider also that everything else you're complaining about is a technological problem pure and simple. That is, our technology hasn't caught up to the expectations of game players.

Case 1: lip-syncing could easily be done if you compiled a database of pronounciation from dictionaries and created a mouth movement model based on that pronounciation. You could even do accents this way so long as you specify a model of the accent and let the generator do its work. This is just speech synthesis and you know it's going to get better.

Case 1b: if you managed to build a model for intonations and speech patterns, you could generate unique speech patterns for all the characters, cheap.

Case 2: millions of models can be put in a game if they're *generated*. All you need is a model of physionomy. Somewhat like what Elder Scrolls does for characters but vastly more sophisticated.

Case 3: stories can be generated automatically in cooperation with the player by using a story telling engine like the Erasmatron. The computer game industry hasn't caught on yet but it will eventually. The Erasmatron is to novels what Morrowind is to Diablo. Using the Erasmatron would have avoided the "lack of consequence" that's so disturbing.

Case 4: landscape and cities can be generated automatically. Again, all you need is a model of landscape (easy) and cities (doable). If Spore can provide a model for biological life then surely the same can be done for the much more regular cities. And no, Simcity doesn't qualify; real medieval cities aren't square everywhere.

Posted by Richard at May 8, 2006 02:11 PM

Richard should consider that if it is up to gamers to create the narrative, then the narrative, for the most part, will be *boring*. And what fun would that be in a *game*.

Remind me to get off the whole industry when games are just simulations of an actual reality. Good games, like good narratives, are abbreviated simulations of reality with the boring parts taken out. That's why, ultimately, I think the idea of the completely open sandbox is not fun.

Elder Scrolls manages to make it fun by having each piece of the sandbox be its own self contained linear trip. If they hadn't done that, there would, seriously, be no reason at all to play the game.

Posted by psu at May 8, 2006 03:32 PM

Your point that narrative is obsolete can indeed be said to furious green ideas sleep colourlessly. But I think it's crucial to penguin Windows XP when chamois cloths inkwellishly dwell within the halls of the spirit. Torn now is Beak, but nothing exists. For it is the sky. For it is a stick.

嘥???1...2...3...4... ߠ嬈ߵcan be ?素2...3...4... even when ߴ嬠߬?ߠ冠??and your 2...3...4... mother plays gran tursmo 4, bring virtual worlds into virtual light in ?嬠???ߠin 2...3...4... virtually no time at all. I feel the earth move under my feet. I feel the tumblin' down, the tumblin' down. 5...6....7... Take me to your Mon-El, but I think my point is made more appositely by quoting:

"Please; I may take all events into consideration; no, no. And it is no; a boy has never wept...nor dashed a thousand kin... did you hear me? Now leave it or take it. No, I might be in the playing for I know. Come on over here, come on over. Oh, Duckie, see we skipped again."

Posted by peterb at May 8, 2006 03:37 PM

Oh yeah. I forgot:

>All you need is a model of physionomy.

So what you are saying is that all we have to do is learn how to completely simulate people and their personalities, and then the current game structures involving manually built characters will be obsolete. Well gosh, let's get right on that. Strong AI here we come.

Posted by psu at May 8, 2006 03:41 PM

Richard's argument appears to be "if you just solve almost every single hard problem in computer science first, you can trivially auto-generate compelling games".

Well, gosh, if only we'd all realized it was *that* easy we'd have done it before.

Posted by Nat at May 8, 2006 03:43 PM

The Mentifxe Meme of AI and Robotics, that non-derivative, uniquely innovative brain-mind theory, can do it all!

| The Environment |
| ____________ _____________ |
| _____________| The Senses |______________| The Muscles |___ |
| | \ \ \ \ \ The Body | | | | | | |
| | ________\ \ \ \ \__________________|_|_|_|_|____ | |
| | | \ \ \ \ \ | Cerebellum || | |
| | | \ \ \ \ \ | (Motor Habituation) || | |
| | | \ \ \ \ \ \___________________/ | | |
| | | \ \ \ \ \ / / / / / | | |
| Feature Extraction: | | | | | The Brain / / / / / | | |
| | |------------+-+-+-+-+----------+-+-+-+-+--------| | |
| | Oldest |Memories: S| |M| |C| |||||||| |M| |M| |C | | |
| | | e| |e| |h| |Concept |o| |e| |h | | |
| | | n| |m| |a| |||||||| |t| |m| |a | | |
| | | s| |o| |n| |Fibers| |o| |o| |n | | |
| | | o| |r| |n| |||||||| |r| |r| |n | | |
| | | r| |y| |e| |as the| | | |y| |e | | |
| | Newest |Memories: y| | | |l| |||||||| | | | | |l | | |
| | | | | | |s| | Core | | | | | | | | |
| | | | | | | | |||||||| | | | | | | | |
| | | | | | | | |of the| | | | | | | | |
| | | | | | | | |||||||| | | | | | | | |
| | | | | | | | | Mind | | | | | | | | |
| |(Future |Memories:) | | | | | |||||||| | | | | | | | |
| | |________________________________________________| | |
| |___________________________________________________________| |

Posted by Sean McGuire at May 8, 2006 03:52 PM

Another thing to note here is that there is a big difference between the goals of different games. A game like World of Warcraft absolutely cannot provide a compelling narrative, because there are too many actual people playing the game and interacting with you.

Oblivion is a classic example of the traditional "western" RPG--a fully developed world, in which you can go off and do whatever you want to do. And, oh, by the way, there's this plot, but you can ignore that, too.

KOTOR (and friends) are sort of a middle ground between the traditional western and eastern RPGs. The plot is strongly significant, but some effort is made so that even when you are on rails and stuck with the plot, you feel somewhat free to do what you wish. (The best example of this is when there are "side-quests", which you feel like interacting with whether you're light side or dark side in the games. Sure, you're on rails--these quests are things you're expected to do: but it feels *right* to be doing the things. As opposed to some of the side quests in BG, where you needed to go find some sod's lost dog to get XP, because you needed XP to fight the boss who was going to destroy the world. What hero in his right mind is going to help someone find their dog when the end of the world is nigh?)

On the far side, are the totally-on-rails eastern RPGs, in which you really never have a choice about what order to do things in. Maybe you can choose to clear the whole level out or proceed to the next level, (in which case you should always clear the level out), but that's not really a choice. Still, learning what plot has been laid out for the character can be fun. Kind of like a book in which you get to play video game combat whenever the hero is in trouble.

I'm a big fan of KOTOR and the sequels, along with BG and BG2, and their friends as well. These have all tried to tell a story, and done a pretty damned good job. By the time of Jade Empire, it's gotten somewhat formulaic, and we'll have to see how they do in the next generation. But, they're still fun. There's enough flexibility that you feel like you're in control at times--but you're never left wondering where you left the plot.

Oblivion, on the other hand, and Morrowind, the plot is easy to lose track of completely. You're left wondering why you care about the plot. There are all sorts of things to do, and if you're the kind of person who likes to do that, it's great. Unfortunately, I'm the kind of person who likes to follow the plot.

And that's why I like the oriental RPGs, as well. I'm a story addict. They're like cheap cotton candy, but they can be entertaining for a little while.

Now--on the subject of World of Warcraft: It's worth noting that while I despise the sort of open plotlessness of the Elder Scrolls games, I love World of Warcraft. I think that this is because the bases of the two games are very different.

In Morrowind, there was this core plot, and you had to do lots of crap to become tough in order to face that plot. But by the time you became tough, you didn't care any more. The designers put so much time into the "making a world" part that they lost the story. And a single player game with no plot is... not my thing. Also, the various quests in the game were never very compelling to me--perhaps because they were trying to be too realistic?

But World of Warcraft isn't a single player game. And, it's not trying to be realistic. In World of Warcraft, you try to get bigger and tougher so you can see more of the world, and get together with your friends and take on bigger and tougher evils. There's no over-arching plot, but you accept that because you know that with hundreds of thousands of players, having an over-arching plot would be ludicrous. And yet, the game somehow remains fun. For the people who liked Morrowind, I suspect it would be fun for different reasons than it was for me. For me, it's fun because of the other players, and *also* because the developers somehow managed to make the repetitious zombie-like NPC quests fun. I think, probably, because they opted for more over-the-top characterization, rather than subtlety.

Anyway, my point of view on the different things at play here.

Also: Torment is fabulous, but definitely feels a little aged these days. And, yes, it is sad that I doubt any "major" game will be able to get away without voice acting any time soon. Maybe more will follow the path of KOTOR and friends in having "foreign languages" for most of the characters so that they can manage to only really have voice actors for the important parts. That irritated me at first, but I've come to approve.

Posted by John Prevost at May 8, 2006 04:11 PM

In the end it comes down to whether you want someone to tell you a story (BG, Torment, NWN (Neverwinter Nights), et al) or whether you want to make your own story (Morrowind, Oblivion...). Currently I'm playing Oblivion and enjoying adding mods to make my own story for my character, but when I run out of imagination I'll probably go download a new NWN module (maybe even buy one) and let someone else make up a stroy for me. Or I'll go back to playing Galatic Civilizations 2 (;)

Posted by Steve at May 9, 2006 11:05 AM

We'll get back to the notion that there is a single, universal and predictable concept of "boring" and that a game can successfully avoid "all the boring bits" for all of its users....

I'm rather puzzled by the number of people who can't seem to differentiate between artificial intelligence which models something we don't understand (intelligent consciousness) versus modeling physionomy & anatomy which we fully understand at present. And why be so defensive that the game industry has patently failed to apply known facts and models? Oh right, because these people are quite satisfied with the games industry whereas I'm not.

Well, we can be glad that Will Wright understands this difference, and also the difference between what you have to understand versus what you don't, to make a game, otherwise he would never have attempted to make Spore. Happily for my argument, Spore exists as an existence proof that those who poo-pooh automatic generation (which WW calls "procedural methods") are full of shit. Happy for me too since there might finally be a game I like.

Getting back to the notion that games are "reality minus the boring bits" which is actually an intelligent comment and a fact that's too often ignored by simulation makers.... the problem with it is that there's no universal criterion of "boring".

Something is boring if it provides a person with less than their comfort zone of novelty. If situations are too novel, they're stressful. If they're not novel enough, they're boring. The problem there is that everyone's comfort zone is in a different place and also that everyone has a different threshold for novelty. What seems novel to some may seem derivative and self-evident to others, what seems unthinkable to the former (eg, that we CAN abandon manually authored content by programming at the metalevel) may seem mildly intriguing to the latter.

As it happens, I find "collecting" (the primary activity in most computer games) to be deadly boring. Actually, I find most games to be too boring once I've learned to play them. You see, I need a very high rate of novelty and I also need a very high *quality* of novelty. Most games just don't cut it for me. The point here is that I'm arguing for *more* novelty and that the notion that I would advocate less novelty, more boredom, is quite frankly absurd.

I don't want, I can't stand, scripted experiences. This doesn't mean that I don't want experiences at all. If you really think about it, "no" experiences is the same as atomic experiences which are really the ultimate in scripted experience. What I want is vastly complex experiences *unique to me*. This can't be done with manually authored content for simple and obvious economic reasons. But it can be done with automatic generation.

Posted by Richard at May 9, 2006 06:57 PM

Richard, I think you're failing to see that there's more to implementing a simulation of a system than just being able to understand how that system works.

Sure, it's "just engineering" once you understand the actual system, but that can be rather a lot like saying it's "just rocket science".

Simulations can be very difficult to build, and they can take up a lot of time, effort, memory, and CPU power. Those are not free and infinite resources.

Also, I think that if you dig into what game developers are actually doing, you'll find that your belief that they aren't "employing known facts and models" for the things you're talking about is quite incorrect. In many cases, those things *have* been tried, and they turned out not to result in particularly enjoyable games.

Also also, enough with the "you're just defensive / you just love the current state of things" accusations. People can disagree with you without necessarily being shills for the game industry.

Posted by Nat at May 9, 2006 08:05 PM

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