Archive: August, 2009

The Sims 3

[Games,Research] (08.26.09, 3:24 pm)

Generally, my point of interest is in comparison to other Sims games. My interest here is not the way it plays exactly, but the changes in the simulation. These changes are primarily the new systems of character traits and moodlets. These are promising from the perspective of useful character simulation.

I don’t mean to suggest that I want to adopt the mechanics and model that are used in The Sims 3, but rather, I mean to illustrate that these mechanics solve a major problem in simulating agents that are believable as characters. Sims characters have always been only somewhat believable. The characters are dolls: they are not characters, but rather they are objects from which we can interpret characters. The work here lies in the player’s imagination.

My problem with The Sims has always been that it is very difficult to create fundamentally different characters. In both the Sims 1 and 2, characters were differentiated in that they had several numeric stats. These are: sloppy/neat, shy/outgoing, lazy/active, serious/playful, and grouchy/nice. The Sims 2 expanded this by adding another layer on top of this model, which is aspirations and fears. It was thus possible to create several conceptually interesting characters, such as a very shy person who aspires to popularity. However, with an intention to create a specific character, or create characters referenced from fiction, the system of statistics is awkward.

Furthermore, the statistical model itself is difficult to apply to other domains. The example I tend to consider in these situations is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Considering the main cast of characters, we can come up with values for them in the sloppy/neat sorts of parameters. However, we cannot distinguish exactly what it is that makes Mr. Collins horrible in these statistics. A possibility would be to extend the statistical model, and for instance, have numeric statistics that represent the spectrum of differences between the characters: for instance, there might be an axis of gentlemanliness, one of stuffiness, or rakishness, but these are clumsy and artificial. What’s worse is that these parametric systems create dangerous middle zones: what does it mean to be halfway between rakish and gentlemanly? Most frustratingly, it conceals and muddles the complex relationship between the inner and surface lives and natures of the characters.

While the mechanics present in The Sims 3 does not provide a solution to this problem, it offers a pleasing shift in perspective. The trait system offers several traits that sims can possess. Each sim may have 5 traits, plus a lifetime aspiration. Traits may be things indicated by the earlier sliding-value system. For instance, a character may be neat or a slob. But the trait system also distinguishes between several more subtle social qualities. A character could be flirty, friendly, or charismatic. Each trait represents something slightly different. These give more detail and subtlety to characterization. There are also other sorts of social traits, which guide how the characters might act in social contexts. My favorite of these is “inappropriate” which causes (permits, really) sims to do things that are socially inappropriate.

The traits system also defines how sims respond to the world around them. In a simple example: a sim who is neat will get more pleasure out of being clean than a slob, but a slob will not mind dirty surroundings as much as a neat sim. These differences are manifested mechanically through moodlets. Moodlets last some period of time, and usually have a positive or negative effect on a single mood variable. The character’s overall mood is thus the sum of a base value and all of the sim’s moodlets. What is more, an NPC might respond favorably or unfavorably to the actions of a player controlled sim. The NPC behavior is controlled by their own traits and moodlets, which are usually opaque to the player. This creates a very simplified resemblance of an inner-life.

One could imagine a more robust authoring system whereby it is possible to author new types of traits, moodlets, and all of these other details, which could be authored modularly. So, with the earlier example, it would be possible to create a Mr. Darcy by having traits of “gentleman,” “proud,” and “shy.” Austen has a trend wherein in each of her books there is a “talky” character, which could be manifested as a trait. Similar sorts of traits could be attributed to every character. This solves the issue of ambiguous in-between values, and also opens up a method for thinking about the characters not just in Austen’s works, but in other character-driven story worlds. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t think that the Sims 3 mechanics are exactly what I want to use, as, after all, Mr. Darcy changes considerably over the course of Pride and Prejudice, and the system as described is not capable of representing complex relationships, but it is a good system to keep in mind.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorElectronic Arts
TitleThe Sims 3
Tagsai, games, simulation, social simulation
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

State of the grad student

[General] (08.25.09, 8:26 pm)

Classes started last week. So far, it’s looking to be a good semester.

I am taking a computer science course, Storytelling in Virtual Worlds, which has been fun and looks to be promising. I don’t exactly agree with the stated goal of the course, which is to develop a story generation system. Instead I have been more interested in story world simulations. However, there is a lot to be learned by looking at generation, and it’s an exposure to a lot of AI literature. Furthermore, it’s exposure to how computer scientists think about narrative theory. This is valuable, since a lot of AI projects seem ill suited toward the types of stories that I am thinking of adapting. The class has a lot of readings, and I am going to be posting notes for them up here very soon.

Quals are over, miraculously so. Maybe I’ll be able to post the actual fruit of that endeavor at some point. At the moment I am stepping back, getting a good look at what it is that I have done, what it is that I can do, and trying to identify what it’s likely that I’ll be able to accomplish. It’s been my hope for some time to produce some sort of artifact, a prototype or proof-of-concept, but it’s looking at the moment like that may not come to fruition. This is very irritating, but it can be difficult to allocate time toward the project. Right now I am engaged in two primary activities. The first is a review of games and AI projects, to look at how mechanics of social worlds (and story worlds) have been expressed, and then come up with a few ideas as to how this could be synthesized into something cohesive. The second endeavor is coming up with a solid outline and view of the entire dissertation project. This is especially difficult, since what I want to do touches on so much: games, AI, narrative, adaptation, and sociology. I may need to break it down, but I really hope to make something solid out of the works. Ian has suggested to me an idea of writing a single 500 word document that captures the entire thing. It’s a great idea, I definitely will do it, but it’s going to be hard. I’ve looked at a few “conceptual mapping” programs to try to untangle the mess of ideas in my head, and have come up with a VUE chart mapping some of these ideas to readings and other such stuff. It may not be going anywhere, but it’s good for thinking things out.

In other projects, InTEL has undergone a huge UI overhaul this summer. It’s going to be deployed to a hundred students or so this semester. We’re smoothing out UI and other sorts of issues, and I think it will turn out OK. Mermaids is going to have a huge team this semester, with lots of programmers, so I am hoping it is going to move smoothly of its own accord. I am going to try to get it working with Multiverse 1.5, and hopefully that will prove to not be disastrous. I have a secret independent project that I have been working on, which, at the moment, doesn’t do anything at all, but it might at some point in the future be worth talking about. Independent projects are very strange. They are hard to focus on, but can be useful to keep perspective in times of stress.

In the meanwhile, I’m going to indulge my immature side and play Overlord. Moo hoo ha ha ha.

No need for typologies

[General] (08.18.09, 10:01 pm)

I happen to subscribe to the International Hobo RSS feed. Recently they posted about a project called BrainHex, which describes a 7 point typology that is supposedly the result of some neurobiological research. I spent some time with the test that they offer, to find out what “class” of gamer I was, but quickly got frustrated. Part of this frustration was derived from the format of the questionnaire, but a lot of frustration came from the  typology, and the implicit claims made by typologies.

BrainHex aims to find a neurological justification for the pleasures and motivations of play, but this research cuts out precisely everything that is interesting about games as a communicative or rhetorical medium. We rarely get into typologies of readers, theatergoers, film goers, and the like, except at superficial levels. All of these media can be mastered in a way to produce very calibrated experiences; often films are categorized as tear jerkers, or adrenaline rushes, and so forth. There are neurological explanations for why we enjoy these things, but these operate at a very low level in the brain. Studying neurology says what I am feeling at a certain moment, but says nothing about why I am enjoying or am not enjoying a film. It furthermore is not reasonable to say that there are typologies of film goers that can be deduced from neurology. A typology of film goers based on neurology would divide films into absolute categories such as action, slapstick comedy, horror, and romance, without their being any complexity or middle ground. We do not enjoy films strictly because they are generic, or because they induce calibrated emotional responses, but because the films have meaning.

The typology used by BrainHex comes from a couple of surveys, the first of which being DGD1. The results for this survey were published in a book, and then a subsequent survey was used to build BrainHex. A quick review of the questions asked reveals a few distressing generalizations in asking how the respondents play games. One of the questions, number 12, asks the respondent to put in a binary response to this question: “I’d much rather play with other people than play alone.” In this question alone there is a lot missing. What if I enjoy playing alone and playing in groups? What if I enjoy playing alone in some games and not others? What if I enjoy playing in groups sometimes, but not other times? What if I enjoy playing with only one specific group, under a certain context, and enjoy it immensely, but not do not enjoy any other group play? It is not fair to collapse all of these variations into one binary response. The surveys are therefore hard wired to produce restrictive typologies. They do not permit any complex contextual understanding of players or their motivations.

Like Bartle’s taxonomy, which divides players of multiplayer games into the groups of achiever, socializer, explorer, and killer, BrainHex idealizes player types, and conflates motivations with behavior. Two players may perform similar actions, but with very different reasons behind them. Bartle attempts to partition players based on their activities, while BrainHex attempts to classify them according to affinity for neural responses. In BrainHex, player motivations may as well be the same as their neurochemistry. Like rats pushing levers for pellets, the players of the BrainHex typology seek out and engage in activities which is rewarding to them. Both Bartle and BrainHex implicitly imply that players are belong to only one category, or at most, a combination of two. They do not allow for the possibility that players may enjoy many types of experiences, or have more than a few shallow desires or motivations.

Typologies are damaging and unnecessary. They are detrimental to the idea that games could be used communicatively, rhetorically, or expressively. They imply that players are much less complex and rich than they are, and imply that players are limited to only one or two categories. Typologies marginalize games that do not fall within the generic types that cater to the types, and they marginalize players who escape classification.

Lost: Via Domus

[Research] (08.01.09, 11:08 pm)

Ubisoft and ABC Studios released Lost: Via Domus in February, 2008, for the PC and a couple of the major gaming consoles. The game was not received particularly well, getting mediocre ratings and poor reviews. A lot of this is due to a variety of reasons, many of them technical. My focus here is to look at it as an adaptation, and understand whether it is a good or bad adaptation of the television series Lost.

I’ll preface this by pointing out a few of the glaring problems with Via Domus as a game. The gameplay is based off of the adventure format, and places the player within the world, to interact with other characters and objects. The visual feel is meant to have the same crisp, vivid atmosphere as the show, so everything is meant to be photorealistic. This proves to be a major undoing, as the implementation of the game is not quite up to that level of detail. This is not to disparage Ubisoft which developed the game, but the multitude of characters that are present in Lost, and the variety of poses, scenes, and expressions, is far beyond the normal development practice for most games. Ultimately, the voice acting is often off, and the animations and expressions of the characters are stiff and awkward. As Audrey put it, it looks as though the characters emigrated from the uncanny valley. Another problem that particularly irks me is that “Via Domus” is grammatically incorrect Latin. As anyone who has seen Life of Brian should know, the locative case of “domus” is actually “domum.” As it stands, “Via Domus” means “House Road;” to get the intended translation of “The way home,” the title should have been “Via Domum.” Putting these assorted complaints aside, it is possible to examine the game from an adaptation standpoint.

I’ll summarize some important elements from the game, and then will compare these mechanics to the mechanics of the show itself. Judging Via Domus as an adaptation requires building an interpretation of the TV series, and I will try to do that.

To start with, the player has amnesia. This is a little cheap as far as introductions go, many games have used giving the player character amnesia as a convenient method to introduce the player to the game setting without forcing them to know what to expect from it. The player character, Eliot Maslow, who does not even know his name for quite a while, has a complex history. Discovering this history is the primary goal of the game. There are other ways of introducing complex character histories, but this requires making the character having goals and motivations that the player does not know about at the start. This is a slight flaw in the design of Via Domus, because none of the characters in Lost ever have amnesia. Rather, they have backgrounds which direct their actions, but early on, their goals are related to the immediate predicament of survival. Giving the character amnesia puts the player and the character close together, because they will be at the same level of knowledge, and presumably goals. Without amnesia, the player and character are at odds, having potentially conflicting goals, being in a position where the character has more knowledge than the player. This is a strategy used by the television show, where the audience follows one character, observes their behavior, and then gradually, though the flashbacks, comes to understand the motivation, and why the character does what he or she does.

The mechanism for recovering knowledge, and restoring Maslow’s memory, is through flashbacks. Flashbacks in the television show are given throughout an episode, and serve to contextualize the events. The game creates a game mechanic for flashbacks, which is actually very successful. Maslow is a photographer, and in the flashbacks, the player sees a scene which has filters applied to seem hazy and indistinct. Then the player must use the camera to point at some specific and significant detail, and then take a picture of it. This amounts to finding the critical element in a scene. Following that, the player sees the scene play out in focus and in color, representing the return of the memory. Instead of occurring throughout the episode, the flashback occurs in the middle of the episode, so there is a part on the island before the flashback, and then afterward. The flashback is used to give the player some insight or clue as to how to handle the situation on the island. In comparison to the television show, instead of the flashback being a mechanic to explain why a character does certain actions, it explains how the player can do certain actions, or what the player’s goal and motivations should be. I believe the adaptation of flashbacks is successful, that it takes a mechanic used in the series and then finds an appropriate analogue which has an effect that corresponds and is appropriate to the medium.

An issue which is problematic for me is the linear gameplay. The narrative in Lost is linear, and the style of adventure game is linear, and furthermore the episodic structure requires a light-state model (deep nonlinear play would require a heavy use of state). However, the flaw with Lost being linear is that the player never feels lost. The only area in which open exploration is possible is the jungle area, but even this has only two exits: where the player came from, and where the player is supposed to go. Movement through this space is also mediated through the use of a variety of artifacts: trail markers, a compass, and at one point, the dog Vincent. Lostness is usually not a desired feeling in games, but in lieu of that, the player simply will get stuck. With the game being linear, the player is forced to find the correct solution to the paths and puzzles. To maintain cinematic presentation, several areas in the game are designed to be seen from one perspective, and cannot be circumnavigated.

Spatial navigation is only a small part of the issue of lostness. In the television show, the characters are lost, but in several senses. They are lost on the island, in that they do not know where they are, but they are also lost in themselves, in a more metaphysical sense, in that they do not know who they are. While the player does not know who Eliot Maslow is, and, since he has amnesia, neither does he, the player is simply not lost in identity. History is part of the matter of identity, this answers where the character comes from, but it is also coupled with a side of agency. The audience does not know who the characters are, but despite this, the characters know their own history. They only come to know who they are when they confront their history and decide on new actions. The player only has a few potential actions, and ultimately has no agency. Many of the puzzles and plot elements are treated as though there is a single correct solution, which advances the story, and anything that is not this solution is a failure. The result of this is handing to the player a solution, which is given as a result of puzzle solving, not deliberation or introspection. Many characters in Lost have taken an exceedingly long time to grow and mature, and during this time they have avoided and fled history, until finally confronting it and moving on (eg, Charlie, Sawyer), or failing to and disintegrating entirely (eg, Jack). In these cases, there is not a single correct solution or answer to the characters’ problems. Rather, there is a difficult and dizzying space of potential actions, and it is rarely clear as to which of these is the correct or best one. This is why the characters in the television show are lost. By making there be a right answer, the game deprives the player of this possible state.

Another issue, though admittedly a somewhat minor one, is the role of canon. Via Domus has an ambiguous relationship with the show’s canon. Lost’s producers have explicitly stated that Via Domus is non canon with the show. While this makes sense on one level, because the player in the game is arguably one of the most important islanders based on the events he experiences, it does not make sense to write-in a new character on the show based on the character from the game. However, the alternate reality game, the Lost Experience is largely considered canon, so there is some murky territory around the games. Parts of the player’s adventure lead to areas in the world which have not been in the show, some of which may appear at some points, and others which may not. The result of this is that the game does not feel quite at home with the Lost world. Like an “artist’s rendition” of astrological phenomena, it is denied authenticity even if the subject, the text of the game, is itself considered a fiction within the world.

Reading Info:
TitleLost: Via Domus
Tagsgames, adaptation
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon