Of RPGs and Knowledge


Rampant Coyote posed a question which Shamus then picked up, “What makes a [computer] RPG great?”

I responded in Shamus’ comments with something to the effect of, “We can’t know.” — Yeah, a cop out, but a true one.

A lot of the other responses seem to be geared towards, “I want a world with real choices.” Although I tend to enjoy freestyle games like that, the more open-ended the game the weaker the story usually ends up being. That, to me, tends to make me lose interest. For example, I loved Fallout, but I’ll never finish it. Same with Baldur’s Gate. These games are too long, and their main storyline is too removed from the actual play of the game for me to be able to see them through.

I was also on the phone for about an hour today with one of my acquaintances, a guy who pretty much lives and breathes computerized RPGs. Although this guy is primarily a player, he also envisions himself as a designer/developer/programmer. When I posed the question to him he responded with how he was using ELIZA scripts to modify NPC behavior in Neverwinter Nights to create truly dynamic NPCs. Though I’m more than a little bit skeptical of treating ELIZA as anything more than the facade of intelligence, the approach has merit in at least creating the illusion of dynamism in NPCs.

From that point he started telling me about how he wants to simulate internal states, likes and dislikes, and all this other material relating to NPCs — This is done with The Sims, so is not impossible, nor is it a bad idea. Then we got on about how a game should process speech, and NPCs should react to your speech as if you were actually talking to them. And then we got on the subject of NPCs reacting to speech they aren’t programmed to be aware of, like talking about a “revolver” in a game world where that technology doesn’t exist. It was posited that NPCs wouldn’t have knowledge of that device, but that in a truly great RPG you could assemble the parts in the proper way to create a revolver, or draw one, or any number of things, and teach NPCs what revolvers are.

In other words, we need NPCs with internally defined personalities, with a robust method of generating language, a spectacular text-to-speech interface with an all-encompassing dictionary, a dynamic intelligence for NPCs, and physical laws of the game world defined down to the molecular level (or below). This is the danger I see in thinking greatness is necessarily an aspect of “choice.” Where does that end? By this sort of understanding, there have been no great RPGs. In fact, the term RPG might as well be replaced by “alternate life simulator.”

Although the category of RPG is vague and problematic enough to begin with, we shouldn’t keep moving the goalposts until the term essentially requires the creation of an alternate universe. Though we might make it there eventually, with truly sentient AI and lifelike visuals using a completely transparent interface, I wouldn’t expect that in the next twenty years. The programming obstacles are pretty great in a number of areas, and the art-asset creation time itself will be huge (though, theoretically, we may have the computers creating the art assets in the future, or at least doing the heavy lifting). For the time being there are some great games being made — I just don’t know why they’re RPGs, what that is, or what makes them great other than being really enjoyable experiences.

Ignore the ensuing epistemological crisis.

8 Responses

  1. This is why, I would argue, MMOs are so popular. This is an approach to the “Why bother writing a program to do all this, when you could just have a PC playing an NPC?” question.

    Amusing: the captcha is “human”

  2. A good RPG, for me, uses whatever level of technology that is available to create an immersive environment. I’m willing to forgive a lot if the level of immersion is so high that for a minute (or hour or 4) I forget I am playing a game, forget I am interacting through the world via bandwidth-constricting keyboard and mouse… a good RPG will leave memories like a good film does.

    For all of the fancy graphics and AI and other advances in the past years, my most vivid game memory is still Flood Control Dam #3 from Zork. I can see it very clearly in my head, and for a game that consisted of text on a screen that is a major accomplishment.

  3. I agree with the immersiveness. But in your article, essentially you’re raising NPCs to the level of open-minded 10-year-olds. Eventually the memory required to handle all the AI scripts on your computer would be ridiculous. (Altho having the world taken over by robots would be cool, NPCs would just be silly.)

    Another thing that I think makes a good RPG is the economy and crafting system. Some of the best times I had in WoW was crafting. Then Burning Crusade came out, but that’s the subject of another rant.

    Story. Characters. Growth of the Player. Voice-Acting. All these are the same thing, essentially: How well the designer/whoever wrote the story. After that, it’s just code.

    I totally agree with you about the mini-management bias in some RTS. A guy could have a crap strategy, but because he executed it earlier in the teching-up rush, he deserves to win? Forget that.

  4. script run NPCs are ok for “extras” that acknowledge your presence and go on their way.. but NWN allows a DM (or a team of DMs) to “possess” NPCs and run them live.. talking, etc.. they could respond to your revolver conversation however the DM wanted them to.. NWN1 with a DM is the way to go.

    Again.. I have to sigh.. as nobody that isn’t already playing NWN1 (not as released.. but after years of community content and official patches).. if you ain’t playin’ it.. you most likely won’t be… your loss.

  5. @bkw: Unfortunately, not all the players in MMOs are interested in fostering an immersive game setting. Even that aside, another reason why the idea of MMO-as-living-persistent-world doesn’t seem ideal to me is that someone is going to have to play the roles normally taken by NPCs. Though there are some people who enjoy this, I don’t, and I don’t think a substantial enough portion of the MMO community does to support a game that was purely player-to-player interaction.

    @hank: That’s a pretty good alternative vision of what makes a game great. Still, what if someone made a really amazing text-based game today? I think we could refine that to say, “Uses its chosen tools/technology to create an immersive experience…”

    @Davesnot: I tried NWN1 online, but I was turned off by all the additional material I had to install and get working for the thing to work. After the game’s uninspired singleplayer campaign and several nights applying patches, updates, and mods, I lost interest in it.

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