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  • The Lost Art of Conversation In Games

    [09.10.09]
    - Oluf Pedersen

  • Literature on ACI

    There is a lot of literature on ACI in computer games. Unfortunately, none of it really deals with what has been done in past games or indeed, what is being done right now in new games (except "Twisted Little Passages" by Nick Montford, where he deals with older text-based games like the Infocom titles). Most articles[5] are about the problems and dilemmas concerning possible future development of autonomous agents, which have a near human intelligence and knowledgebase, and may converse about almost everything.

    One such article is the aptly named "Can we talk?" by Bill DeSmedt and Don Loritz. In this article they take it for granted that the development of autonomous agents will revolutionize computer games because of the influence these agents will have on player immersion.

    The main problem for this article, and indeed most of the literature on the subject, is what I would dub the "Why?"-factor. Why would highly able autonomous conversational agents improve gaming? Because it seems to me, that people have a hard enough time listening to real people in the real world, so why on earth would they want to discuss for example existentialism with a gnome in a fantasy setting? And moreover, why build/license an autonomous agent to simulate such a conversation, when it's already possible to do so, with existing technology?

    Obviously the autonomous agent would also be able to address other interesting subjects the player might want to discuss, but the basic question remains: would the majority of players want to discuss any "deep" subject altogether with any NPC?

    Another problem would be how the agent would receive input. I think typing can easily be ruled out, and dialogue choices would necessitate a lot of writing.

    It might be solved with speech-interpretation software/hardware, but there is no guarantee this would work in a gaming context (and what about all the natural pauses in conversations?).

    I do feel that autonomous conversational agents are an interesting prospect, but I can't help thinking that it's going to be either a novelty that quickly wears off or even worse, the final nail in the coffin of what is basic human-human interaction. Why talk to your friends about daily life for example, when you could design your own friends, and take them adventuring into wonderfully crafted virtual worlds? Why indeed have real life friends at all?

    Yet another problem concerning autonomous agents is the time-frame involved. The authors of "Can we talk" mention a number of 25 years from one of the projects (Cyc) involving these agents. This today would mean about 15-20 years from now before we see this technology implemented in games. So 15 to 20 years of waiting for something that might be useful, if even technologically possible or feasible at all ... I'm not impressed.

    All in all the literature about ACI to me seems very strange; not that it isn't interesting to speculate and argue about the future, and not that there's a huge general interest in AI-projects in general, but why no-one (publicly anyway) has taken the time to delve into what has been done in games in the past decade, what has worked, and what we can learn from it?

    Metaphorically speaking, it seems like people are starring at the sky, when they should be tending the earth.

    The only real source of information and opinions on conversations in computer games today, which I've found during my long search, is mainly in the internet forums. So only at grassroots level does one find useful insight into the subject as it stands today.

    ACI-relevance

    So what do the forum-members say? Well, I'm in no doubt that they would all unequivocally support as many dimensions influencing dialogue options as possible (my subjective interpretation after reading hundreds of posts on the matter of dialogue in computer games). Why? Because it gives them a feeling of the dialogue adapting to them, as individual (role?-) players, and not the other way around, where the more linear dialogue controls and restrains them.

    They also like well written dialogue, and would like quite a lot more of it.

    This view is probably also held by readers of Gamasutra who recently held a vote on quantum-leaps in RPG's[6]. The two games at second and first place in the top 5 were Torment and Fallout respectively. Due in no small part I'm sure, to the dialogue and dialogue options available in the two games.

    Against this, one could argue that forum members (and Gamasutra readers) only constitute a minority of gamers, and that they are usually the more "hard-core" gamers.

    The majority of gamers, it might seem, don't care that much about dialogue choices and options available. This is certainly the conclusion when looking at the success of so-called RPG's like Oblivion or Morrowind before it (the Gothic-series also spring to mind). Indeed most games in general do not include changeable dialogue options or even dialogue options at all.

    Conclusion

    The conclusion, as a summation to the past three points must be that: no, developers have not overlooked dialogue options in games (at least not to a point that I can prove they have). Certainly the new game Neverwinter Nights 2 proves that there definitely is a large amount of focus (from some developers) on the subject of dialogue choices. The newer games that do not implement much in the way of dialogue choice, obviously do so with the blessing of the majority of their audience. I may lament that fact, but I too was stunned by the wonderful visuals, and the sheer number of quests and opportunities which awaited me in Cyrodiil.

    As for the framework, I consider it a good attempt at mapping the player's experience of what influences his or her dialogue options, and why they do so. It is however by no means perfect, as specific dimensions are certainly debatable.

    The relevance of ACI is in the eyes of the beholder. I might appreciate lengthy well written dialogue like in Torment, but this is not every gamer's dream. Also, with current consoles and the fact that their displays are often an "ordinary" TV-screen, there are clear problems with long-winded (written) dialogue on them.

    So in the end, it boils down to a simple cost/benefit-situation: "Who's your audience?" and "What's the platform(s) of the game?", to name but a few of the players in this equation.

    The future

    For me personally, I would like to investigate further the findings of this paper, in particular the unanswered questions regarding the framework. I also look forward to some hands-on training in working with the NWN2-toolset.

    The framework also opens up for a possible new view of creating stories in games. If one views the dimensions as possible story-building blocks, then maybe the story in a game would feel more "natural", due to it being built from that particular game's dimensions (dialogue-engine). Instead of trying to force a "classic" story onto a game, the storyteller could build the story within the game's limitations so to speak. However, this is obviously not in any way a proven point, but certainly something that I will look into in the future.

    For the industry, I think the future will hold, not autonomous agents in quite a while, if ever, but instead more dimensions in general, and a better "flow" and focus on each one of them. Through testing and common sense it should not be difficult to ascertain which dimensions are more important than others, and it should also be possible to detect/feel whenever a particular dimension might be useful to enhance the story or the game-play in general.

    Literature List

    "Can we talk?" by Bill DeSmedt and Don Loritz:

    https://www.lggwg.com/wolff/aicg99/desmet.htm

    The Gamasutra Quantum Leap Awards: Role-Playing Games:

    https://www.gamasutra.com/features/20061006/quantum_01.shtml

    Penny Drennan's webpage on "Dialogue in Computer Games":

    https://www.itee.uq.edu.au/~pennyd/CompGamesSummaries.htm

    Game List

    Law of the West: U.S. Gold Ltd., 1985.

    Pool of Radiance: Strategic Simulations, Inc., 1988.

    The Secret of Monkey Island: Softgold Computerspiele GmbH, 1990.

    Fallout: Interplay Entertainment Corp., 1997.

    Planescape: Torment: Interplay Entertainment Corp., 1999.

    Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn: Interplay Entertainment Corp., 2000.

    The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind: Bethesda Softworks LLC., 2002.

    Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines: Activision Publishing, Inc., 2004.

    The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion: Bethesda Softworks LLC., 2006.

    Neverwinter Nights 2: Atari, Inc., 2006.


    [5] Try this site for typical articles concerning ACI: https://www.itee.uq.edu.au/~pennyd/CompGamesSummaries.htm

    [6] https://www.gamasutra.com/features/20061006/quantum_01.shtml

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