Is there any reason we can't do this?
I remember debating the point some time ago with a fellow design enthusiast. They argued that mouse based interaction allowed a designer just as much freedom as a text parser, and this was my counter argument. The text parser, theoretically, allows us to append all the usual additional flourishes that make our languages work. Can mouse based input effectively allow us to ">pretend to be interested in what Adam is saying". Can it allow us to ">fall asleep", to ">remember my mother" or to ">pretend to cry"?
More to the point, can any method of interaction allow this?
Sure, we could build a parser that accomodates all these and more. It'd require an extraordinarily large library, but it'd be possible. That's hardly the point, however.
What I want to know, is can we do so in a way where it's truly effective as a method through which we allow players to propel themselves through our narratives?
|Freelancer allows you to travel freely between missions, and talk to a huge range of characters, but the interactions quickly become bland and similar.|
Providing the player to do any of these things is simple enough in terms of design philosophy - all we need to do is to construct a database that supports all of this input. Building a reactive, dynamic world to make these valuable interactions, however, is a completely different thing.
I don't think it's merely a matter of building an artificial intelligence or forgetting about the idea completely. Realistically, it's possible to build a world that not only accepts the inputs, but also reacts to it.
I suppose, then, that the real question is: "Is this worthwhile?"
There are two types of content for games - created content, and generated content. Dynamically generated content is an amazing idea - the possibility for replaying a game in which the dungeons are totally different each time you play it seems fantastic. But if you're killing the same enemies for the same reasons in a place that's laid out slightly differently to last time, is that really a unique experience? Personally, I much prefer content that was created by a human being and provides me with a dynamic experience that varies based on my input, not a random level generating algorithm. Give me one piece of meaningful feedback, and it will compel me to become invested in the game. A dungeon that changes each time I play it requires no real investment at all.
Which brings us back to the "Is this worthwhile?" question. Let's envision a game that allowed a near infinite parser library. Let's say we could get our character to ">feel guilt for stealing socks" or ">hope that I get to see my mother before she dies" or ">fall in love with Annah". There's no doubt that this provides an electric, reactive, dynamic world for us to participate in - an exciting playground in which every possible action is rich with potential consequence, without the burden of not being able to start over with a fresh reputation and health that often dictates much of our conservatism in real life.
But is that what we want from our games? I'm not so sure. To me, there seems the slightest chance that perhaps we like being led through games. Perhaps we don't really want the ultimate in escapism, but to partake in a story with the added ability to influence some of the outcome.
After all, what would Beyond Good and Evil be like if Michel Ancel hadn't led us through the story in the way he did? What would Baldur's Gate have been like if we'd never been compelled to do what Gorion wished of us and were left to do our own thing? Sure, games like The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion and Fallout: New Vegas can be far more rewarding when we're left to our own devices and don't follow the central plot, but I don't think that's what I want from all of my games. Sometimes, I want to be told a story, and as much as I want to take part and be given difficult choices with interesting consequences, I also want to be carried along a narrative path.
|Aquanox is far more linear - restricting your activities between missions to a small area, but as a result the characters are more unique and the world feels far richer despite being much smaller and more restricted.|
Is there any reason we can't ">fall in love with Annah"? No, not really. But will it add to games as narrative devices? I'm not so sure. If I want a dynamic, reactive and free form environment, I'll turn off my computer and go outside. I don't think I need all that freedom to enjoy a game. Games as a narrative vehicle can be absolutely compelling, and while I think consequence adds a lot to a game, I also think there's a point at which it stops a game from being a medium through which we can deliver a story and turns it into a sandbox type situation.
Narrative in games is beautiful. I don't think we've really seen it hit its true potential, and until it does, I'm quite happy to be a little limited with my input, provided I'm given a good story in return.
Of course, if someone does build a game with all that freedom, let me know about that. I'd play the heck out of any game that lets me ">make bus driver feel guilty about staring at me".