Why not modals? – Toward Ron Newcomb

Ron Newcomb advocates using modals in his recent blog post.  And I agree, we should use modals in IF.  And I thing we would use them if we could easily.

So I think we should ask, what would be needed for us to use modals?

Ron uses the analogy of strategy games like chess to motivate his arguement.  Just as players in chess have plans and intentions, so NPC intentions could be queried in-game by the use of modal sentences.

My reply to Ron is that, I think that’s great, but it’s really not about modals.

In order for this kind of thing to even be an option, you *first* need to have a strategy game with well-defined rules.  That means the game must have a logical space which the NPCs can make moves in.  They must be able to sort for contingencies, in much the same way a chess program sorts for contingencies.

Really, that’s the challenge:  making that happen in a way that’s still story-like.  We will return to the “story-like” question in a moment.

As I currently see it, the programming end would require:

  • A sufficiently deeply-implemented simulator, to act as the “board” of the board game.
  • NPCs must be able to evaluate the board for value.  (This would be tied in to the NPCs goals.)
  • NPCs must have a menu of options which will change the board status.

–Now, I’ve said in the past that it would be fascinating to implement a minimal dungeon with a few locked doors and thorough attention to NPC verbs, that allows the NPCs to “play” the game ahead, in simulation, a few moves.  In other words, in this simple proof-0f-concept game, the NPCs would use the game engine itself to look into the future.

In other words, they would be omniscient and, for a move or two, prescient.

A year or so ago, Emily Short burst my bubble by pointing out that, to *really* get this to work, with every NPC having its own understanding of the game-board, you’d have to model the entire game once per NPC.  And, you’d have to model each NPC once for every other NPC…

However, I don’t see that as the real problem in creating deeper NPCs.  The real problem is simpler:

In general, we don’t understand human emotionality well enough to create NPCs that react to the simulator in emotionally salient ways.  So creating believable NPCs isn’t something we know how to tackle; and believable NPCs is a prerequisite to narrative.

But, we can probably fake it.  The Sims [TM] is a game that does not offer believable NPCs, but they are, apparently, “believable.” — People get sucked in.  In general, it seems a little bit of emotional salience goes a long way.  The lesson of the Sims ought to be that we don’t need to get a perfect portrayal of the human animal to make a good game.

(The reason the Sims is not a text game is that the graphics go a long way to sell the “humanity” of the NPCs:  another, less welcomed, lesson.)

I’m currently working on developing (in TADS 3) some interactive creatures.  Currently, I’m only to the point where they can find paths through an arbitrary map — provided the map has no one-way connectors.  Soon they’ll be able to wander on an invisible tether, respond to hunger, and chase and flee each other.

I’m thinking this could be useful in two ways:  one, to create a social backdrop against which the gameplay could happen; and two, to make the map more easily dynamic.  On this second point, for example, perhaps you couldn’t rummage through Lord Winston’s closet when the servant is around, but if you use a sausage to lure the hounds into the house, she’s too preoccupied to worry about you.

This is currently doable, of course, but having a set of general tools I think would make designing these dynamic, social puzzles easier.  You would no longer program a series of flags and state changes, but a set of behaviors.

Creating NPCs that strategically pursue emotionally salient goals is a long way off, but creating instinctively driven NPCs, that can learn where the food is, behave territorially, and dynamically make friends and enemies seems a first step.

Published in: on November 7, 2009 at 10:25 am  Comments (7)  
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Take the Foster-Harris Survey!

Although I haven’t written anything on Foster-Harris in a while, I see that I’m still getting traffic on his writing system.  If you’re interested in his emotion-based formula for building stories, you can take the survey here.

If you’d like to let others know of this survey, you’ll find the tinyurled link most convenient — it won’t break under cut+paste:


Published in: on November 5, 2009 at 8:08 pm  Leave a Comment  
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more notes from Cambodia

cows chased out into traffic – Those same three cows that I wrote about before…


…apparently just hang out in this neighborhood.  They were hanging out on the other side of the road, and wandered up into one of the open stalls, like the ones you can see in the background, where vendors sell cigarettes and such.  As one of them started to nose its way into the store, a nine-year-old grabbed a stick and, waving it uncoordinatedly over her head to give herself courage, ran at the offending cow.

The cow, seeing something larger than a cat moving rapidly toward it, ran out into the road, sparking the others to do the same.  Herd animals.  A guy on a beat-up motorbike blew his horn and veered around them; he was followed by a girl on a bicycle and another motorbike.  They slowed down, but barely.  The nine-year-old and her teenage brother looked on with, “Oh, yeah,” expressions.  The little girl seemed worried she might get in trouble; the teenager clearly didn’t give a crap. 

innocent Cambodians – When I had a beer with Cody, the other American teacher at my school, who’s ex-military, he said something I didn’t mention in the longer blog post, which I think is important.

He said that he finds Cambodians to be very innocent and child-like.  I think he’s falling for the flattery they give people who they figure have more money than judgement.  And I think it’s a stupid and dangerous misconception. (more…)

Published in: on September 5, 2009 at 9:19 pm  Comments (1)  
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Free ebook – Emotional Logic, by Aristotle

We’ve been talking about emotions a great deal, but it’s all been about using emotion to write powerful stories.  We haven’t said much about how emotion works.  Let’s remedy that.

I have for you here a classic work on emotion, by Aristotle.  It’s part of a larger work, which you may have heard of, called The Rhetoric.

Aristotle was a greatly practical-minded guy, and human nature hasn’t changed all that much in the past 2,300 years.  Definitely worth a read.

Here’s Aristotle on Emotional Logic.

ps – Also, you’ll notice I’ve conveniently added an item, “resources,” to the sidebar, where you’ll find this and any other ebooks I may add.

Published in: on June 26, 2009 at 7:39 pm  Leave a Comment  
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