On pointlessness

If you've played through Mass Effect 2, you've met Thane. He's an assassin with morals: a stoic figure who only kills those that he believes are causing suffering to others. He has a deep belief in the old gods of his people's native religion; after completing each assignment, he retreats to his quarters for solemn meditation.

His characterization works well in the game; I found him to be the most interesting supporting character, anyway. It made me think, though: how much more interesting would an instance of "the assassin who prays after each assignment" be if it weren't a pre-baked, special case occurence? This is outside the expectations for Mass Effect obviously, but it got me thinking.

Consider a game in which a couple of elements exist: some method for being assigned assassination targets, and a church or altar at which characters are able to use the verb "pray." If both of these elements can be used by either the player or AI characters, the potential for self-expression and discovery are enormous: the player is able to roleplay the above "assassin who prays after each assignment" in a completely self-driven way, imbuing his avatar with a unique and specific character in the gameworld; alternately, the observant player could follow an AI to the mission assignment-dispensing element, observe them tracking down and killing their target, and then follow them to the church to see them pray. The discovery of this systemic characterization might be that much more memorable than encountering a pre-scripted story character.

For this sort general paradigm to be successful, a few things would have to be true about the gameworld:

  • A plethora of unique interactive objects such as the above altar/church would need to be present.
  • The majority of these objects would need to have absolutely no input into the game's central success mechanics.
  • The objects would need to be interactable by both the player and AI.
The first two points are required to make any potential chain of interactions unpredictable and personally meaningful. If there's a game with only assassination missions and a church, well, the potential combinations are not especially surprising. But as the number of mundane interactable objects rises into the dozens or hundreds, the potential for drawing meaning from performing one interaction after another increases as well.

Divorcing these expressive interactions from success-based systems is important, otherwise the player has a purely optimal reason to interact with them aside from expressivity. So if the player receives bonuses from a "Serenity" stat, and killing someone lowers that stat, but praying at the church raises it, then the designer is telling the player in a fairly straightforward way to pray after killing someone. This makes the chain of interaction less an autonomous player choice, and instead simply the most optimal reading of the game's numerical systems.

The third point is less essential, but preferable: if only the player can interact with the expressive elements in the world, their use feels less authentic, more special-case, more predestined in function. If only I can pray at the church, then this church has been put here for me to pray at, and I as the player am separated from the gameworld. But if an AI is able to perform the same actions I can, it confers not only the advantage of the above player integration into the gameworld, but hooks into discoverability: I can see someone walk into the church and kneel down to pray, which clues me in organically to the fact that this interaction is possible, without simply scrubbing the world for interactable objects.

Allowing NPCs and the player equal interactive access to these objects gives the designer the ability to script characters with specific cycles of expressive behavior: one could create an NPC named Thane (for instance,) then set him up so that he tended to take assassination missions, only accepted assignments for targets with certain traits ("criminal," "corrupt,") then always went straight to the church and prayed as soon as his assignment was completed.

Fostering this sort of "systemic characterization" would clearly require a lot of work in a game's development be put towards completely "pointless" interactions. This is already done with some frequency in certain aspects of mainstream games: for instance, visual avatar customization is completely pointless, but it's been acknowledged that many players see value in imprinting a specific appearance on their in-game cipher, and so the work is expended. Extending this kind of personalization into the interactivity of the gameworld, into not just how your avatar looks but who they are, seems that much more valuable. Broadly, it might help foster the feeling of a gameworld where "anything is possible," and the specific occurences played out or observed are authentic and unique expressions of that potential.

This entry was inspired in part by Alex Hutchinson's talk at GDC09.



An obligation

Here's the typical internal exchange:

When something terrible happens in the world; when people are sick, hungry and dying, uneducated, unjustly treated and suffering, doesn't it seem like if everybody turned their efforts to those causes, the world would be a better place?

Maybe. But then who would take out the trash? Sell us groceries? Keep the phone lines connected and the trains running on time?

And what would any of us do when we're tired, bored, need to escape from mundanity, need to relax after our hard work, need something less concrete to stimulate and rejuvenate our minds?

And so it's alright to dedicate your life to creating entertainment. You're not curing cancer and you're not passing laws and you're not even keeping the streets swept or the shelves stocked. But diversion is important to everyone. And somebody has to make it.

I think, then, that there's some obligation one has in creating entertainment that is meaningful and enriching in whatever way their chosen medium can be.

Video games by their nature rely on the input of the player to mean anything. The fact that you can fail at your entertainment is in some ways a barrier to entry for video games. But it's also the medium's defining characteristic, and our one inherent hook for engaging the player and making them important.

It's our opportunity to make the player think. Not to encourage or invite players to in the way that challenging music, art or film might, but to absolutely require demonstrable logical reasoning from our audience. To immerse them in a world and motivate their progress through it with the promise of constantly evolving core interactions and intriguing fiction, then require them to engage their powers of visualization, abstract thinking and mental mapping to proceed. It's good for the health of the player's brain. I think of that as being meaningful and enriching entertainment.

This kind of on-the-fly problem solving is accomplished by activity in the player's prefrontal cortex, employing fluid intelligence and working memory. One's fluid intelligence decreases over their lifespan, making them less able to formulate new ways of thinking. However, some scientific and military studies have shown that engaging in interactive mental exercises that require us to make these kinds of connections can slow the decline of fluid intelligence, essentially keeping our brains younger and healthier as we age. They're the kinds of mental challenges that video games can ably provide-- creating and maintaining logical connections between new and abstract concepts and spaces to overcome obstacles-- that might confer this benefit to players, along with their escapist fun.

Not all games work this way, certainly. As blockbuster, spectacle-focused rollercoaster games rise in popularity, we seem to see less of these sorts of challenge structures in gaming's mainstream. When the game I'm playing doesn't need me-- when I can sleepwalk through it, when I can tune out and let it wash over me, when it doesn't make me think-- an opportunity has been wasted. Our work can be more than an empty waste of time for our players. We can entertain them while engaging their minds in ways beneficial to their cognitive wellbeing. I think that there is practically an obligation to do so, if we're going to dedicate ourselves to creating interactive entertainment at all.