Is it a Game, or an Experience?


I touched upon some of these elements in the FREE AI post (originally from my RANDOMIZED VERNACULAR blog), but want to share a little more of the ideas that have been festering in my mind over the years about this very area of games.

If you’ve ever heard the old African phrase “it takes a village to raise a child“, you will know the truth behind the environment you live in; defining and shaping who you are. This same principle was to be the foundation of a game I’ve wanted to develop for a long time.

I was writing a proposal for a game called “MARAUDERS” back when I was at Warthog (around 2000). The premise of the game was to mix deep, meaningful character interactions and emotion into the action/adventure genre. The story revolved around a unit of soldiers shot down close to the border of Cambodia, during the Vietnam War. The corps consisted of a band of varying relationships, similar to the ones found in films like Platoon, Blackhawk Down, Predator and the Dirty Dozen; A collection of very distinctly different people fighting for a similar cause; survival and escape.

I wanted to create a title that broke a lot of the normal gameplay rules found in the action genre. There was no preset order of events, tasks or specific way of “winning”. The world was large, but not enormous, and the only barrier was the terrain and the characters themselves. Players knew what they had to do, but it was up to them on how they achieved this goal. What also added another dynamic to the game was the interaction with the other “players” of the military unit. To achieve victory, you could do it with or without them. With them it would be possible and complicated, alone it would simpler, but it’d also be a nightmare situation that would border on the impossible, due to situation and problems ahead of you.

Owing to where the helicopters went down (a huge ravine in the middle of nowhere), the idea was to first get out of the ravine and eventually, get back out over the Cambodian border, but there were a set of “small” problems to overcome before that was possible:

The Environment

The jungle is dense and fraught with sheer drops, water rapids, quicksand, intense heat, traps and a whole range of other dangers. The environment created a natural puzzle to be solved and traversed, in anyway the player wanted.

The “Known” Enemy

The Vietcong were fierce and dominant in this area of the country. You were to be out matched by sheer numbers and their expertise of the area. The good news though, was that the Vietcong would only attack between the early morning to sunset hours, allowing for free movement at night.

Each Other

The varying characters were complex and self-motivated, their choices affected how they reacted to each other, creating millions of possible outcomes and relationships. In-fighting and reluctance to follow orders were all possible, but, it was also possible for fierce camaraderie and bravery.

The “Unkown” Enemy

Deep in the bowels of this environment, a hidden enemy would show itself, but only at night. Attacking quickly, savagely and infrequent…it was an enemy who didn’t win by numbers or guns, but with utter power, speed and brute force. They killed indiscriminately, they took no sides and players wouldn’t know how to beat them, only on how to keep them at bay. This added an element of stress and unpredictability and FEAR to everyone, including the player.

Dynamic Dialogue

Dialogue, or VO (voice overs) adds so much to the play experience. Having a wide gamut of responses to a whole host of situations makes characters seem more organic and real. If we put a lot of emphasis on this, including their animation and AI, we would truly be playing games that are much more than jumping platforms and shooting mannequins. I mean, could you shoot somebody in a game if the character was injured, unarmed and pleading for their life? You could let one go, couldn’t you? How would your unit react? Would the freed person bring reinforcements? Would they help you in exchange for their life? Hints for this sort of game play decision would be done via the persons’ dialogue, facial and body expressions.

Intelligent Decisions

The game was to be very heavily based around creating an advanced AI system which developed as you played. Each person would have a large set of emotional values that were to be tweaked by data taken in based not only YOUR actions, but the other characters in your unit, and the enemies. Not only would the characters start to act different, they would also “talk” different. Their reactions to situations would develop to the player via sight and sound. There was so much to this area of the game that I can only write a little about a couple of the factors of the AI’s choices.

Stress / Relaxation: Exposure or Cover from Pressure

Prolonged intense battles, fleeing danger, in-unit arguments, and displays of anger or extended time in high anxiety stealth situations placed more stress on characters. Characters set up to be “unstable” or “crazy” would already have a higher than normal STRESS level, so situation like the aforementioned would develop their “character” further down that path. If characters were setup with a very low stress level, they could handle pretty much any situation, over any amount of time and could be depended upon.

Friend / Foe: Aiding & Protecting or Lack Off Positive Attention to Others

The more help a character showed another character, values would weight in the favour of that person. If numbers were BELOW a certain threshold, that person was considered somebody they disliked. If players took the time to increase another characters “friend” setting, it would benefit them in many different ways. For instance, if you dragged an injured person to safety and healed him, they would not forget it. If they saw you in danger after that, they would “Prefer” to protect, heal or aid you in some way (share ammo, weapons, items etc.).

Fear / Courage: Quick and Constant Loss of Safety and Displays Valor

Fear could be caused by seeing friends die, or knowing danger is close, but not where and when it will happen. Characters, whose fear levels went high, would flee a situation or hide, unable to help others. Courage worked in the complete opposite way to fear. Low fear, made characters rise to situations of fear, thus visually displaying acts of valor in the eyes of others. Characters would fight when badly injured, risking their own life to save others or something they found dear.

People’s perceptions change based on their situation, but games stay constant. In current games, an enemy is always an enemy, irrelevant of the odds against them. What if you captured an enemy who could help you with a common, more dangerous enemy? Would you allow them passage? Take them with you as a guide? Kill them?

With all the varying data shaping the characters situation, players would see and hear the changes, all due to how the game was developing….all due to THEIR choices of play. I find this subject to be riveting, more like a playable experience than an actual game, but something I’d love to see happen. Gamers have been promised big ideas before, but they have never come close to their original “PICTHES”.

Conclusion

There will always be a place and market for fun games which play on the principles setup by the generations before them. For games to advance and take advantage of today and tomorrow’s technology, we need to break old rules and not write new ones, because there should be no rules. The only problem is, I really don’t see people taking these sorts of epic chances to evolve games; they take so much money and time to create now. When it was just a programmer, or a programmer and an artist, the time and risks were so minute, the world was their oyster, now it’s the other way around.

I’ll leave you with the SLOGAN from the Marauders military patch “Abyssus Abyssum Invocat“, which translates to HELL CALLS UPON HELL.

Remember that the next time a situation goes so bad, that the only answer is to make it worse.

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About Haydn Dalton

Videogame Designer

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