Tuesday, January 30, 2007


Criticisms of violence in games are essentially about a lack of empathy. Behavior modeling, presented in person or via media (like games), are a constant source of learning...for adults as well (learning how to live doesn't end in our teens or twenties). Questions about the appropriateness and nature of violence in art have been raised since Plato, if not before. The main concern has always been that art must not discourage empathy where empathy is due; conversely, it should encourage perverse empathy (anything good can be perverted into an evil shadow).

Where empathy is due is a matter of reasonable debate, but let's explore methods of its communication. If nothing more, perhaps this will help some of us to achieve our goal of making game stories (verbal and non-verbal) as compelling as celebrated dramatic works.


In Gears of War, the player can smile as his character takes the face off an enemy with a chainsaw and says "Nice!". The player is able to enjoy this because of disassociation. He perceives the enemy as an object, rather than a person with whom he can empathize.

In Call of Duty: 2, the player can see a fellow soldier ripped to shreds by machinegun fire and never think of the fallen soldier again. In real war, it may often be necessary to focus on one's enemy before looking to one's fallen comrade, but would one simply leave the mate behind like dropped popcorn?

In games like Neverwinter Nights, in which the player may choose between a variety of henchmen, I'd venture to say that few players choose a particular henchmen for more than complimentary powers or skills. How often does the NPC's personality come into play?


Empathetic value results from a perception of personal kinship, rather than of human kinship.

The Locust in Gears of War are what we often call "humanoid", separated from humanity by only a handful of characteristics. Their similarity to humans...in body, behavior, and language...is an appeal to empathy, but falls short enough that most Western guys aren't afraid to laugh as we slice our enemy in half.

Now consider a wild, snarling Rottweiler. Could most players saw through the dog's head with as much glee as they would a Locust? I doubt it. But they might still enjoy it.

What if the dog was not aggressive? What if it stood before the player with its head down in submission? What if it seemed happy to see the player, wagging its tail excitedly? How would it feel then for the player to saw the animal's body in two?

Lastly, think back to the Locust of Gears of War, and try to imagine one that was culturally and personally unlike its fellows. Try to imagine one without menace in its expression as it sits back and smokes on a pipe. Imagine one smiling as it watches two young squirrels chase each other around a tree. Ugly as the Locust is, would you then still feel fine carving it into a bloody mess?


Things don't need to be complex or even have cognition to be objects of empathy.

Southerners often perceive an old Live Oak much the same as they would perceive an old person. It's almost criminal to kill a tree that's lived over a century just because you don't like the inconvenience of having to build around it. We perceive the tree as a living being that has outlasted many hardships and has a wealth of experience, much like a person. Bear in mind, these aren't tree-huggers I'm talking about; these are no-nonsense country folks. I'm sure people from all parts of the nation, all parts of the world, perceive their own local trees in a similar light sometimes.

The point is that even a tree, an inanimate object, can take on aspects of personhood and have empathetic value.


How about tackling that muddy ground of distinguishing between an "enemy" (a label which discourages empathy) and an ally? In the early years of World War I, German and English soldiers once sang Christmas songs together from their separate trenches. Some even got out to shake hands and share Christmas gifts. This is an exceptional example of empathy between enemies, but it is common for soldiers to witness acts and objects which encourage such empathy (if only temporarily).

In a video game, a player could be encouraged to sneak slowly upon his enemy. During the approach, the player might witness any number of empathy-encouraging acts...such as talk of children, talk of home or favorite meals, whistling a familiar tune, exhibiting symptoms of a cold, etc.. This does create a more serious tone and a greater degree of care expected of the game developer. But as I've said before, "games" don't need to be fun; they need to be appealing, and that may be as Saving Private Ryan or Schindler's List were appealing.

Keep in mind, empathy for enemies needn't be limited to violent situations. An equally compelling situation may be created in which the player perceives a character as both a friend and an enemy. A relative who has a long history of support for you but believes in an opposing cause can be a point of deep trouble and contemplation.

True Comradery
One way of encouraging the player to take personal interest in an NPC comrade is for the player to witness a painful sacrifice that NPC makes for the player.

The pain is the key there. Developers tend to avoid realistic presentation of pain in their games. John Cleese once said that a Vietnam-era American audience didn't seem to appreciate the humor of the black knight losing his limbs in The Holy Grail until they recognized the absence of pain. An absence of realistic pain in supposedly painful situations discourages empathy.

True, charming dialogue can make an NPC likeable, but few things invite personal concern so quickly and effectively as a loving sacrifice. If you can create a situation in which the player watches that sacrifice, like the NPC shoving the player out of an enemy's crosshairs to inadvertently take the bullet (to use a clichè example), and the player's attention is drawn to details, such as the injured man's labored breathing and weakness, then the player will be much more likely to take notice when the NPC is harmed or killed later in the game.

Personality Matters
Sometimes, one's personality has a suggestive effect, such as annoyance or inspiration. If a player must decide between possible companions, it's possible to include among valid considerations that a less combat-capable NPC is clever and able to aid in intellectual/social tasks (think of the archeologist in the Stargate film). On the other hand, an extremely combat-capable NPC might have such an annoying or abrasive personality that the player bypasses his/her obvious abilities (that NPC's design costs would obviously have to be justified somehow, such as future story involvement: "You could have shared this power with me, but you chose the snivelling sage!").

Or an NPC's personality can have a more immediate and tangible effect. If I understand correctly, Bioware's Mass Effect will present the player with the possibility of violent dissent among companions. It may also be interesting for companions to commit acts of treachery or aid behind the player's back. This could sometimes be visible to the player (such as the companion leaving the player's side to whisper to another NPC) or it might be hidden (story events during game-level transitions).

Needless to say, there are many opportunities for improvement in the promotion of empathy in games. Empathy's purposes go far beyond qualifying presentations of violence, but that's what got me thinking on the subject.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

dwelling on darkness

In drama, there is often a tendency to dwell on the darkness and pain. It can be easier to capture an audience with sadness than with joy. We should make a conscious effort to focus some gameplay experiences on events of joy and comfort; not just the resolution of a crisis, the avoidance of catastrophe, but also the discovery of new levels of happiness and fulfillment.

I was just thinking that most upbeat moments in game stories are, if not humor, little more than the end of unhappiness. Joy should take us far beyond mere relief.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Perspective of Sound

I may have mentioned this before, but it's worth restating. I was looking at my computer's background, a painting by Caspar David Friedrich called Moonrise by the Sea, and considering the illusion of perspective artists create by making objects in the background smaller than objects in the foreground.

It reminds me of an element that seldom appears in games and is sorely missed: a thorough perspective of sound.

When I was young, I watched nature shows all the time. I was fascinated to learn that a lion's roar, an elephant's trumpet, or the howl of a howler monkey can be heard from over a mile away. When walking in the woods, I can hear not only what directly surrounds me, but creatures and events a great distance away.

Current games commonly make use of positional audio and surround sound. But they still tend to offer the player only those sounds immediately around the character. In Gears of War, the player catches fleeting glimpses of great monsters and bosses levels before having to engage those enemies. The same thing can be accomplished with sound...and with the added value of inspiring the player's imagination to create its own figures of horror.

Extended perspective of sound needn't be limited to frightening sounds, of course. A howler monkey, for example, is hardly a frightening animal. The effects of creature noises can range from the frightening and disorienting to the angelic and inspirational. There are also environmental sounds such as waterfalls, landslides, encroaching thunder, the easy to misinterpret wailing of wind, etc.

Distant sounds can even be used to have more direct non-mood effects on player actions. Suppose the player is unknowingly surrounded by many creatures of a particular type, but only one voices a call at a time. The player may hear noises to the north. When he crosses a particular threshold, the noises shift to the west (different beings, but of the same voice). This could be used to disorient the player, leading the player to believe he is tracking a particular individual when he is actually being led in circles...or toward a trap.

One of Oblivion and Vanguard's big selling points is the vast range of visibility it offers to its players. It would be nice if game developers would employ the same range of player perspective with sound effects as they do with visuals.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Technical Writing

So I started my Technical & Professional Writing course today. It was supposed to begin last week, but San Antonio had ice on the roads and we don't get that a lot down here (even less so where I come from).

The introduction impressed me for two reasons. First, we will focus on writing and collaborative techniques more typical of most business opportunities than the critical research papers most college English courses focus on. Second, our instruction will be largely experential, placing us in a volunteer contract position with a non-profit organization.

The reasons I am impressed are the same reasons that I am unimpressed. My first and only such course should not have come at the last semester of my senior year. It never struck me so blazingly before how inappropriate most college English coursework is, with so myopic an obsession with creative fiction and critical research.

Or rather, it was never so clear to me how sorely baccalaureate English programs need to be divided into two programs: one which prepares the student to become a creative writer, a poet or teacher of literature; and one which prepares the student for the majority of employment positions for writers...public relations, advertisement, publishing, instructional writing, corporate outlines and memos, etc.. These vastly different modes of writing merit independent degrees.

For example, this will be the first class under an English department, as opposed to a Computer Science department, that I have witnessed which will instruct students how to correlate texts with visuals...as one would be expected to do in advertising and marketing positions.

Perhaps a division between these different modes of writing is realized in separate degrees at many universities, but none that I have attended or considered attending offered such foresight.

Anyway, I've had experience with many types of technical writing before, but I'm looking forward to the more formal and guided experience this class seems to be offering.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

MMO cutscenes

I like cutscenes when they're fluidly implemented from normal art assets. Neverwinter Nights merely took control of the camera and scripted events with the usual models. Battle for Middle Earth 2 does it slightly different, fading the usual art into something more like painting...but really not that far from the original models.

I'd like to see this done in an MMORPG. Imagine having just triggered or come into contact with a major story event; the camera swings into first-person view, and you watch (the camera turns and zooms as necessary) as a scripted conversation or other situation unfolds before you... something akin to the cutscenes in the Condemned 360 demo. Maybe the artists even have a way of applying a temporary effect to the scene to make the normal models appear more cinematic.

If the game is capable of making your character's face provide expressions, then maybe the camera will swing around in a 3rd-person view to show your character reacting to, or taking place in, the events. Honestly though, I like cinematic story progression mostly when it doesn't employ my character significantly, because I like as complete control as I can get over my character's actions and personality.

Anyway, I've heard about a couple MMOGs having cinematics before, but it didn't sound like they shared the incorporative style of Neverwinter Nights cutscenes.

I'd be particularly interested in seeing a method like this used to bring the audience (player) into the perspective of his or her antagonists at times. I'm still thinking about how best to do that though.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

manner of expression

I've noticed a lot of folks commenting on the hullabaloo surrounding the Columbine game. Of course, most of what I've read is people saying that the game is at least respectable for its willingness to ask the hard questions. I'm still out-of-town, and I'm not all that interested anyway, so I haven't tried out the game yet. But I would like to make a general comment about situations like this, if not this specific situation.

It's not only what you say that matters, but how you say it. There's a reason we don't accept the comments of young kids until they say them respectfully (without yelling, abrasive language, insults, etc). There is no reason we shouldn't maintain expectations of respect with adults. The manner in which actions are performed has an impact, and it is the responsibility of all individuals to attempt to maintain the most thoughtful and peaceful manner possible.

Peace without justice and truth is not a good thing. It is sometimes necessary to be loud or rough to force witness to reality and responsibility. This doesn't seem to be one of those times.

In a case like the Columbine shooting or a similar atrocity, a confrontational manner is not necessary to make such a breakthrough. If the game designers truly wanted thoughtful consideration of the influences upon the killers and their motives, then the most effective avenue of approach would have been to begin sympathetically with the designers' opposition and make the explorative journey together. Any playing out of the actual shooting would be counter-productive (I don't know if the game includes such a phase).

In any case, many things for which censorship calls are made are rightfully censored...not because the message is impermissable, but because the manner in which the message is delivered is immature and needlessly disruptive or aggressive. Concern for others can and should be expected from all, individuals and companies alike.

It's easy to tell when confrontation is genuinely aimed at coming together and when it's just childish, hopeless confrontation.

the appeal of familiarity

"She's putting her face on."

It's a great way of saying a woman's putting on her makeup. Someone said it today and I thought it could make for an interesting creature/NPC concept: one that puts its face on, literally.

Then I wondered... Could frequent real-world allusions like this in a game add a layer of player satisfaction without disrupting positive escapism?

People who read Tolkien's LOTR book before they saw the films, people who saw the Star Wars films before playing the video games, people who experienced the boardgame Clue before the film (or vis versa); all of these are familiar with the additional layer of appeal which comes from recognition of the elements from the first media representation in the second representation. When I played SWG, hearing those classic Star Wars musical themes went a long way in augmenting my enjoyment of the game. But what exactly is the nature of that enjoyment?

Is it nostalgia? If it is, then the experience alluded to must have made a pleasant impression for an allusion to also be pleasant. If the referenced experience provoked no emotional response whatsoever, like a bland and familiar expression (ex: "don't count your chickens before they hatch"), then an allusion would likely produce a similar lack of response...or annoyance at an intrusion of everyday life into the gameworld.

Or, rather than nostalgia, is it personal pride in making the connection? When I was younger, a game was common in which the player attempts to identify a common word, phrase or expression in a pictorial representation. "Head over heels" is an easy example to imagine.

If it's a mini-game like that, and not nostalgia, then perhaps a game could benefit from allusions to reality, like the figure which has to put its face on. I'm not suggesting that any game could do this. Where appropriate, however, the effect might be substantial.

cooperative variables

In my last blog, one of the scenario examples I offered was of players saved from a particularly daunting battle by the discovery of a trapdoor. At the time, I thought it was a bit of a stretch for the players to happen to discover the trapdoor just when they need it. But, on reflection, such an occurrence needn't be a coincidence (from the dev's perspective).

Adventure movies are full of such jaw-dropping coincidences. Indiana Jones and his father are tied to chairs as fire spreads through the room and threatens to kill them both...but when they hop to the temporary safety of the fireplace, one of them happens to hit a lever which spins the fireplace (a secret door) to a room safe from the fire. Hans Solo finds himself at the mercy of an Imperial Cruiser and its fighter battalion, but there happens to be an asteroid field nearby in which to dodge and hide.

Going back to the tomb-trapdoor scenario, imagine that the trapdoor would not be revealed until such a great level of danger is present. One variable is dependent upon another. The group might experience a particular dungeon several times before variables combine to create a situation of high enough difficulty that the secret escape route is revealed/opened to the adventurers. Note that this is not a form of instancing which divides the gameworlds of separate players or groups (the creation of a temporary universe, like some of the quests in EQ2), but instead just a toggling of accessibility.

I'm sure this could be applied to scenarios other than setting variation, but that's the most obvious application.

Perhaps another could be a weapon that has a chance of producing a particular effect (ex: cast [X] debuff, add [y]-type damage, etc) and that effect has a chance of interacting with other variables to produce an additional effect. If a weapon happens to apply its frost effect during a battle with a Coldstone Golem, the golem will shatter like something transformed with liquid nitrogen. If the weapon's application of its frost effect was uncommon enough, then players would not be able to count on it to chop through an area of Coldstone Golems with ease, but just the chance of witnessing the consequence of the combined variables again would be enough to excite the players with anticipation. If similar combinations were common enough, then all players, including those who had never witnessed such an effect, would enjoy similar anticipation.

Fun can be produced, not only by the things players experience, but by the things they can hope to experience. Anticipation and surprise are vital elements.

rate of content consumption

A reprint of my response to York's post here: http://tatteredpage.net/archives/65

I don't think the best avenue of slowing content consumption is to encourage player-made content...though the social inventions of players (strategy sessions, group events, player ceremonies, etc) are very useful to that end.

Instead, the best route is increasing replayability through variation within static content. It's an old challenge, and one developers have tried and failed to overcome numerous times, to make content less linear, but it is achievable. SWG allowed a great deal of lateral exploration, and that game didn't explore half the methods I would use.

Here's an old example of mine: Imagine that players are exploring an Egyptian-like tomb full of statues of various sizes and representations. Each of the statues are inanimate until triggered to come alive by player presence or actions. Each has a different probability of being triggered, ranging from very unlikely to very likely. Those probabilities are not static...they are adjusted weekly, monthly or however often the developers desire (and those adjustments could be randomly determined by software, so the devs would not have to spend time on that). This means that the same player can explore this same tomb many times and continue to enjoy fresh experiences in doing so (assuming that other elements of the tomb experience vary as well). It also creates uniquely individual player experiences for memory (important to player retention) and social discourse.

Variation can make old content into fresh content. In Mario Kart, I enjoyed the same racetrack countless times because there was enough variability to make it fresh. In Counterstrike and Gears of War, players enjoy the same maps over and over because of the variation brought by their fellow players.

In MMOGs and RPGs, replayability in small experiences, not just the cumulative adventure (i.e., playing as an undead warlock instead of an orc warrior), can greatly reduce the average rate of content consumption.

That is not to say that it will prevent the most fanatical achievement-oriented gamers from continuing down a linear path. But personally, I don't consider that small population to be a great problem as long as you've got enough loyal, equally-vocal fans to counteract the publicity impact of ranters. The majority of achievement-oriented gamers, who are not so fanatical, would be able to enjoy the replayability.

Imagine: The first time your group traverses the main hall of that tomb, the avian statue and the wolf statue come alive for two separate battles. The second time through, four statues come alive, two of those at the same time for a bigger battle. The third time through, only one statue comes alive, but you also trigger a boobytrap that makes the single statue more difficult to fight (combinations of triggers could be limited in advance by developers to control the range of difficulty...though some of that control could be offered to individual players). The fourth time through, 6 statues come alive, three of them together and one of them a particularly formidable foe...but a trapdoor is discovered, allowing the group to escape.

That's the sort of gameworld I want to play in. =)

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Grice's Maxims

Here's a bit of miscellany, inspired by comparing my huge "5 things" response with the nice and short responses normal folk supplied: http://www.ux1.eiu.edu/~cfbxb/class/1900/prag/grice.htm

I'm particularly talented at violating the fourth maxim, but I excel at breaking them all.

5 things

So, apparently I've been tagged...and by two people, one of which I wasn't even aware knew of my site (Sara). So for the 5 or so people who glance at my site from time to time (enough that I'm feeling guilty for neglecting it so much over the holidays), here's 5 odd things about me.

1. The left side of my body is colder than my right. I have mild scoleosis between my shoulderblades. My spine bends and twists, and the particular vertebrae affected influence blood circulation, among other things. So my naturally cold blood (thanks Mom) is even colder on my left side, resulting in the odd situation of my left hand being cold as ice while my right hand is just fine sometimes.

Over the years, I've come to think of this as somewhat representative of my whole person, in that I'm really a mix of many extremes. For just a couple examples, I enjoy Tori Amos as much as Pantera, reading Catholic apologetics as much as watching Bama football and violent, evil horror flicks. I can listen to a symphony and play the melody back to you after a little fiddling on my guitar, but I couldn't tell you what I was doing 5 minutes ago. Sometimes, I'm kind of like everyone in one, I think.

2. I love puns. That makes me evil, I know, but I can't help it. I'm not saying I make puns a lot...I'm just saying I can appreciate them. Blame it on my dad, who got me into watching Marx Brothers movies when I was young:

secretary: "Do you want that sentence in brackets?"
Groucho: "It will never make it there in brackets. Send it in a box."

3. I prefer just being around interesting people and talking (not chatting...not small-talk....i mean talking) to anything else. There's no game, no movie, or sport, or anything I wouldn't stop immediately to simply enjoy another person's company. I can get along with just about anybody. That doesn't mean I'm social. To the contrary, I'm usually alone outside of school or work and I always feel "outside" wherever I am (even my own family, to a degree). But I still love people (even when I hate them).

4. I'm strong-willed and often bull-headed, but I'm still probably the most easy-going person you'd ever meet. Even as I take things very seriously, I'm very relaxed about it. I'll joke as I argue with people. I'll eat pretty much anything put in front of me (even after it's been dropped on the floor), watch whatever show you want to watch, play whatever game you want to play, etc. Perhaps it's from being a middle-child in a family of five kids. It's not that I lack assertiveness or strong opinions or such...just that I'm able to enjoy or deal with whatever comes my way. I could win the lotto and I could learn that I'm dying of cancer both with a quiet smile.

5. My degree and profession choices are almost whimsical. I'm interested in pretty much everything, so being asked to choose one field to focus on is like being told I can only watch one genre of movies. At different times in my life, I've considered pursuing: game design, anthropology, archaeology, zoology, astrophysics, marine biology, meteorology, novel writing, poetry writing, screenwriting, editorialist, rockstardom, songwriting, symphonic composition, paleontology, geology, photography, sketching, computer graphics, AI programming, robotics, woodworking...and the list goes on. I have an insatiable curiosity, and I prefer to view things as a whole, rather than by separate categories.

Anyway, the business world isn't very kind to generalists like me. So, for now, my focus is writing, songwriting and game design. (I thought up a fun design idea the other day, by the way, so maybe I'll have enough on it to post soon)

P.S. (6) I'm long-winded. But I guess you've noticed that. =P