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.
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.