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Dream Machines

By Steve Darlington

In which the author explains that role-playing is like cat-skinning: there is more than one way to do it.

In our last issue, Steve, our illustrious editor poured his heart out in our Once Upon a Time column.

The question is "Can computer games be role-playing games?". The real answer is that they have been all along. Or rather, they are just different methods of playing the same game; a game of imagination.

Imagination games are different to games of skill or luck. Such games are designed such that the player or players with the most amount of the luck, and/or the best application of the skills which the game tests should achieve the victory conditions. Though these games often engage the imagination - it is easy for a wargamer to feel what it would be like to lead the troops at Waterloo, or for a Doom player to believe that he is really dealing death to countless evil creatures - but this does not make them imagination games.

Imagination games are designed to make the players engage in a daydream, to play imaginary people facing fictional situations in fantastical surrounds. The only skill they require is a willingness to take part in the daydreams, and the winners are those that enjoy doing so.

Engaging the imagination, however, is not always an easy task. There are two requirements for this to take place, which I will refer to as illusion and interaction. I use the term illusion here to describe the idea of suspending disbelief, of allowing yourself to go with the story, to see and feel what is going on around you, to become part of the imaginary world. The second requirement is being able to interact with this world, and take control of what you see, feel and do, and eventually, write the story yourself.

Steve tends to share Gary's views on the nature of role-playing, so we suggest that that article would be a nice compliment to this one.

These two are equally important, and must both be balanced to propagate the fantasy. Clearly, it is impossible to fully pretend to be the hero of a story without the suspension of disbelief, without an acceptance of the fictional scenario. Without the fantasy, the game becomes ridiculous; five grown men sitting around a table talking about slaying goblins seems rather sad to an outside observer. However, it also works the other way: it is also impossible to pretend to be this hero without full interactivity. Unless you can do and say exactly what you want, the fantasy becomes artificial, and when the action is taken too far out of your control, it stops being a game and becomes a story. Anyone who has read a Fighting Fantasy Game Book knows this feeling.

It must be made clear that this checklist of elements only applies to games. Books, films, TV, and other art forms follow different rules: the immersion of a book, for example, will always outclass that of a game. Anyone who has read Moby Dick knows exactly what it feels like to ride on the bow of a whaler across a stormy sea; a mere few pages of Death in the Afternoon and you will never need to go to a bullfight. There is no need to interact with these stories in order to enhance the sensation of being there.

But we are not discussing novels or films, or other static arts, but games. Games cannot achieve this same level of immersion from just an engrossing fantasy. As an interactive rather than static art, true immersion can only come by combining the surrender to illusion with full interactivity. The challenge then is to get the balance right so that you can make the game the equivalent of being in a movie, or a book. If it not only feels like you are Captain Ahab, but can control what he does, when you can not just read, but live these fictions, then you've created possibly the greatest experience on earth, the ultimate entertainment. The problem is that this is very hard to do.

In recent times, there have been two significant breakthroughs in achieving this goal of living fictions. One of them was in computer games.

In 1983, Gary Gygax predicted that text adventures would be replaced with games where each part of the dungeon appeared before you as you entered it!

Once upon a time, computers were only used for games of skill. But then some bright spark realised that if you stored a Fighting Fantasy in memory, you wouldn't have to deal with turning all those pages. Thus was birthed the "Adventure Game". In these early days, they were text based, which meant that you generally went crazy looking for exactly the right combination of words the computer required. Though ultimately just as frustrating and pointless as the FF books, this was the beginning of computerised imagination games.

Computer games have come a long way since then. Increases in the quality of graphics, the size of memory and the speed of processors have combined to give us the games of our dreams. In Quake II, you can experience combat like you were actually there, seeing through the eyes of your character. You can know exactly what it feels like to have a snarling demon coming right for your throat, and you can feel what it is like to pull the trigger of the gun in your hand, and blow him to kingdom come, or miss and be torn apart. This is intense stuff. And as VR technology gets better, we're going to be able to feel things - and also do things - even more intensely, and even more realistically. It will be our hand on that trigger, and our body that gets shot.

Obviously, Quake II and its ilk are primarily games of skill, but the techniques used by them can be used in imagination games. As well, these effects are having some interesting side effects. They present such intense fantasies and engage the emotions to such a degree as to give the games a small imagination element. Players can play to win, but also to create some sort of story, especially if there is a multi-player option. These days, even shoot-em-ups are bought not for gameplay, but for things like "atmosphere" and "storyline". It seems the line between the two is blurring slightly - Final Fantasy 7 a good example - just as it has for wargames and CCGs.

Final Fantasy freaks are directed here. Thank you.

But what of adventure games? They're still around, only now they are called "interactive movies": the text has been replaced by movie-quality images. Like the childhood fantasy, you can now crawl into your favourite movie, direct the action and play the star. Real stars and real footage, controlled by your characters' actions. My friend spent most of last week telling Mark Hamill to join John Rhys-Davies in rebelling against president Malcolm McDowell. This was in the adventure part of Wing Commander IV, another good example is the new Blade Runner.

If this is true then, if we can crawl into movies, it seems that the dream has been achieved, the ultimate experience of living out fictional stories is right here, right now, just a mouse-click away. Or is it?

What it all comes down to is interactivity. Illusion is important, of course, and computers do it very well, but it is nothing without interaction. But despite the great leaps and bounds in hardware, the degree of interactivity in computer games is still lacking.

Firstly, let's again look at these "pseudo" imagination games like Final Fantasy. Adventure gamers tend to get bored by shoot-em-ups like Quake, as there is no interaction. Though the illusion in these has an intensity of almost dangerous proportions, the only actions you can take are shooting things and occasionally opening doors, (Am I the only one who wonders why you can't shoot open the doors in Quake?), which you do until all the monsters are dead and all the doors are open. In terms of living fiction, this is merely Space Invaders by another name. Sure, it's a frighteningly realistic version, but still Space Invaders.

For a very different view on Quake, see the previous article by Murray K.

The idea with Final Fantasy was to add a small amount of choice to make it more interesting. Unfortunately, this generally boiled down to allowing you to go left or right occasionally, and depending on which direction you chose and how many people you killed, you got to read different parts of the "Choose Your Own Adventure" that was the manual. Calling this a role-playing game was about as ludicrous as asserting that a game with six sequel was somehow "final".

So what if we add more choice? This can be done in two ways. Firstly, the way the so-called CRPGs do it. Here you can make unique characters with unique statistics and talents and then go out and again kill monsters for no particular reason. The change here is that you now have a choice how to kill them - magic, sword or arrows. You also have a choice about when and where you kill them, too. You can wander around, get lost, bump into things, collect information and complete puzzles, and then kill them. And again, the amount of info you collect and the way you complete puzzles will depend on your type of character. Indeed, in a new game I recently read about, you can even determine the PERSONALITY of your character, which in turns affects how NPCs react to you. Though most of the time the plots are merely a haphazard collection of combats, puzzles and dialogues, the more they add this kind of deeper character interaction, the more entertaining these games become.

The other way to add more choice is the "interactive movie" variety, that I mentioned earlier. Here you can chose between one character, with one set of abilities and talents, but in the plot region, you have real choice. Every dialogue, every action can set you off on a new plot development, changing not only the eventual outcome, but the paths you can take to get there. To an extent, you can choose what you see, what you say (and thus your personality), and what you do, and these choices affect the world around you and the ending of the game. This high level of interaction makes these games fantastic fun also, as long as you don't mind playing the same character again and again.

One problem with having this much choice is that you may only get to see half of the scenes in the game. And when you're paying over eighty dollars for it, this might not seem fair...

Slowly, these two are being blended, and one day, they may combine to create the true living fiction experience. I don't doubt this. Currently they do have a few hurdles to handle before they get there, as Murray pointed out in his article. Things like coding a speech synthesizer that actually responds to and produces natural language. Things like including a graphic for every possible action without running the memory requirements to impossible amounts. Things like creating an intelligence flexible enough to balance full plot interactivity with a good storyline, possibly the hardest task of all. Daggerfall showed clearly what happens when the players are given too much freedom - players wandered around lost and undirected for hours, because every room could be entered, and every person talked to. Unfortunately, most of the people were dull and inconsequential, which was far too close to real life to be fun.

But sure, one day computers may have enough capabilities to handle this sort of thing, and get around these problems. They also might not have memory banks the size of a battleship and may cost less than the US GDP. And one day everyone will have their own rocket ship and fly to Mars for lunch. And they WILL, most assuredly - but the question here is one of time scale.

Which is not to say I won't be enjoying watching them get closer and closer. No, I most certainly will be wasting hours of my life playing these games, because they do come closer to creating the ultimate fantasy of living fiction than any other type of game ever has.


Which brings us to the other contender in the living fiction stakes: role-playing. Role-playing games are better than computer games in providing both illusion and interaction, and were closer to creating living fiction before computers could even play Pong.

RPGs get around most of the problems that computer games have by replacing the computer with a human. A human GM can out-do a computer in almost every way. They can improvise NPCs on the spot without losing consistency. They can handle any action from the players without losing control of the game. They can balance the rules with dramatic necessity, making sure the game is always the most fun for everyone concerned. They also are able to balance player freedom and story progression smoothly, putting the story around the player's actions in a way of which a computer could only dream. They possess a quality of spontaneous creativity, something computers will most likely never grasp. Plus they're a fair bit cheaper than computer games, and you rarely need to upgrade your hardware just to be able to use them.

If you wish to take issue with Steve on any of his points, send your opinions to our readers' Forum.

The biggest advantage that a human has over a computer is that she is, well, human. Role-playing is very much about story telling, and storytelling will always be done best on a personal and intimate level. Books and films have nothing on the power of the human Storyteller, and computer games are even further down the list. The same goes for character play. If I'm playing a role, it helps if I am actually acting it out. Maybe not in an overtly physical nature, but at least with my voice, my expressions, and my reactions. It also helps if the people I'm role-playing with are present, in the flesh, and responding back to me. The social, face-to-face dimension makes the role-playing more real, hence the interaction is heightened, and thus the fantasy is stronger. Having to force my interactions through a computer interface adds another level of abstraction that can too easily destroy the atmosphere.

This is why theatre has survived despite the onslaught of film and TV - because having that close, human presence transforms the drama into a much more personal and affecting experience. The same could be said of RPGs.

Of course, the problem is getting a like-minded collection of these humans together at the same place and time on a regular basis, not to mention finding one willing to do the difficult, time-devouring job of GMing them. But nowadays we are lucky, for when our GMs and players fail us, we can just plug in our computerised GMs and play by ourselves. Sure, they might be not be quite as flexible or imaginative as their human counterparts, but they're pretty close, and very handy for all those times when we can't actually be role-playing. What more could we ask?

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