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Posted by shannonmuir in animation, characters, game design, interactive, Interview, world building.
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SHANNON MUIR:  Your early experience in the gaming field included sound design and being a director of photography.  When and how did you make the switch over to game design?

RANDY LITTLEJOHN: During the time I was working as a Director of Photography on Sierra On-Line games, such as Phantasmagoria and Gabriel Knight II: The Beast Within, I acquired some allies that came in handy later – people who believed in me.  The most important of these allies was the video production manager, Bill Crow.  Later, when Sierra On-Line and other companies decided to discontinue doing live action games, rather than sending me to the wolves, I was given the opportunity to use some old skills from my rock and roll band days and early college education as a music major to land a position as a co-sound designer of a game called Lighthouse.  During the production of this game I began lobbying for an opportunity to get into game design, and with the help of Bill Crow, I did indeed manage to get a job as an assistant game designer.  From that time on I remained in game design.

SM: Generally speaking, how is character development handled in game design?

RL: With rare exception (Jane Jenson’s and Christy Marx’s adventure games, for instance) computer games have been controlled by the idea that they are ‘games’.  Thus, arcade-like experiences and artificial puzzle-solving have been the main emphasis in game production, even while the graphic and sound environments have become more and more realistic – even as non-player-characters (NPCs) have become embedded with so-call ‘AI’ (artificial intelligence).  The idea of ‘story’ has largely been used to set the stage for first person shooters and role-playing games.  Once the game begins, story elements become simplistic, linear or at least pre-defined, and ‘underwhelming’, if they exist at all.   With the exceptions mentioned above, character development is something left behind after opening movies and seldom-read documents that come with the game, which outline who’s who, and why they’re doing what.  It is rare indeed to find good character development and multi-layered, gradually unfolding stories in computer games.

Half-Life II seems to be a partial move towards a remedy to this.  The NPCs in Half-Life II have more ability to communicate a range of emotions than perhaps in any game before, except for the days of live-action games.  They are also the most ‘life-like’ of any computer-generated characters in a game thus far. Nevertheless, judging only from the E3 demo, Half-Life II seems still to be basically a ‘shooter’, rather than an interactive drama, albeit in a more realistic universe than usual.

SM: Again, generally, can you paint a picture of how story is determined in game design?

RL: Today computer games are often serial incarnations of a good-selling franchise title.  So the ‘stories’ are extensions of what has already been set up in previous games.  In general, people who are often not professional writers or professional storytellers, but who may be ‘designers’ or ‘producers’ will hash out a story premise for a game, or will decide on a setting populated by a certain kind of characters and monsters, and will pre-define game features.  The operating system and the genre of game will help determine what kind of action will take place in the game.  Sometimes a professional writer will be brought in to take what has already been decided upon and flesh it out.  The professional writer may write a background story that sets the stage for the action and/or will write up biographies for the main characters.  Much of this will never been seen in the game itself, beyond opening movies and cinematics (non-interactive interludes). Sometimes professional writers will even get in on dialogue writing.  But in terms of actual game design, my experience has been that in general, there’s little attempt or little interest in interweaving story and character development into the non-linear, interactive design for the game.  There are exceptions.

The massively multi-player on-line game Earth and Beyond makes a gallant attempt at interweaving an evolving story and interesting characters into their game engine.  A professional writer with a background in drama was finally hired (after some false starts) to oversee the narrative elements of the game.  Professional writers were also called in to help with dialogue writing (Christy and myself, among others).  This game, however, is an exception to the usual computer game, and missing is any kind of autonomous narrative activity by NPCs.  In addition, the NPC animations are very limited.  This game does not try to represent a ‘real’ experience.  It’s very much a ‘game’.

SM:  Considering your educational background in drama, are there things that you feel you be improved in the approach to character and storytelling, and can you provide an example of the feel of a game might differ whether or not such principles were applied?

Randy responded by citing from a work-in-progress paper:

RL: I think that the masses are ready to spend money for an interactive drama that leaves the trappings of “computer games” behind.   Whoever builds this groundbreaking system is going to get rich.

My intent is the creation of a new kind of interactive experience that is comfortable and compelling for the masses. This new art form would immerse the experiencer inside of a reality very much like what he or she is already familiar and with – film and television.

My primary interest can now best be described as R&D in “interactive drama.”  By focusing on drama instead of storytelling I free myself from the restraints of preconceptions of linearity in my search for a method of ‘interactive dramatic narrative presentation’.

In my imagined design the moment-to-moment experience is not defined.  Nevertheless,  a satisfactory dramatic experience demands there to be a definite beginning, middle, and end, which will support a rising level of tension until the dramatic climax and resolution are achieved.  My goal is to create a system in which the dramatic and narrative support elements and principles and macro-level structure are pre-defined, in order to achieve “drama,” but in which these elements are active in a non-linear, non-branching way at the micro-level.

In a nutshell I want to create an environment in which the player and AI-smart NPCs, each with their own goals, biases, and methodologies, co-create the narrative at the micro-level, in real time, as their actions trigger the results of dramatic situations that are pre-defined.

I have long believed that combining a story/drama world-authoring engine with something like Haptek’s “People Putty” (www.haptek.com) represents some of the major software components of such a project.  At one time the People Putty engine was being considered for an adventure game at Sierra.  I was present for long demos and was able to talk at length with the founder of Haptek, Chris Shaw.  So I am very familiar with what they’ve done.

People Putty creates 3D animated agents and provides for their 3D environments.  These agents are low-polygon creations covered by photo-realistic skins.  Their software automatically creates “fidgets,” eye blinking, reflections, shadows, etc. and provides for an environment for the characters to be in.

Agents can respond to input.  The input can be from a keyboard, mouse, or through spoken words.  Text input can be embedded in scripts with emotional and movement cues.  Code embedded into text input can also cause the agents to physically morph, change costumes, change backgrounds, etc.  In other words, scripts written for the agents to speak can also be embedded with code that will cause other actions as well.

A big deal is made out of the fact that these characters can morph in real time into new characters as demanded by the user via scripting.  But it is more interesting to me that these agents can be “taught” to react with “apparent emotion” to objects within their physical environment – including to other agents.

Much of what Haptek has achieved is now also available by way of the characters in Half-Life II.  The work that is left to be done is the creation of an experience that is based on a ‘drama engine’, focused on a dramatic experience.  The bias of ‘game-thought’ is central to role-playing, first person shooters and massively multi-player on-line games.  I seem room for a new paradigm for the masses that leaves game-thought behind.

I see technology advancing at an incredible rate, but few people outside of academia seem to be thinking about how to evolve the tools of drama so that they can work in an interactive environment.  That’s my interest.  But this interest needs a test bed.

I look out there and see that all of the components (though dispersed in various non-entertainment fields) are now available, and if combined, could lead to a new kind of interactive entertainment – call it interactive drama – or interactive drama worlds – call it working towards an evolution of drama towards preparation for a real ‘Star Trek Holodeck’ experience.

I envision a system combining interacting modules into system to support life-like NPCs with the ability to ‘act’ – call them ‘synthespians’.  The list of modules would include at least the following: Adaptive Learning, Pattern Recognition, Expert Systems, Speech Processing, and Text Parsing.  But I do not envision creating autonomous agents that are truly ‘aware’, of course.

As a metaphor let me give an example: stage sets are only designed to the degree that they will be used. If a door in a flat is to be used, it is built strongly enough so that it can be used.  If the door will never be used there doesn’t even have to be an opening in the flat – just a door painted on the surface.

Drama is smoke and mirrors – it only needs to seem real.  There doesn’t need to be “real” understanding by the machine, or “real” communication.  It only needs to appear to the experiencer that there is real intelligence, understanding, and communication.

This is what I mean by synthespians: I’d like to explore the potential of creating autonomous agents with “dramatic character”.  In other words, I’d like to see autonomous agents with goals, biases, and abilities to carry out “intent” – all inspired by the principals of drama.  I’d like to explore the possibilities of autonomous interaction between agents that move forward by the principals of drama.  These agents would have as much potential to be “aware of”, interact with, and change their persistent environment as the interactive drama experiencer.

I envision an experience in which synthespians and the experiencer interact in a “drama-world” made of theatrically atmospheric environments saturated with exposition (story elements), dramatic potential and events orchestrated by a “drama-engine”.   I see a dramatic work arising from an environment where, given certain starting criteria, there can be an emergent and yet dramatic story. This emerging drama would be co-created by the synthespians with conflicting goals and biases and the experiencer as a result of their actions in the drama-world.

I am especially interested in the potential of creating a dramatic situation in which an autonomous “sidekick” or “partner” would join the human experiencer in an adventure/ quest.  I envision a human stranger in a strange land, with the sidekick being the liaison, as well as potential friend, helper, and fighting partner.  This sidekick would be an AI-smart ‘synthespian’ that can apparently learn and reason, who is afflicted with needs and desires, as we all are, and who is motivated by a strong dramatic goal that is in conflict with the state of the ‘drama-world’.

Invisible in all of this is the “dramatist” in the background – behind the curtain, who uses a new kind of tool to ‘direct’ the theatrical potential of the experience by inputting narrative elements, inherent conflict, characters (with wants, needs, goals, schedules and action abilities) and dramatically “soaked” environments through a software interface, and where the user does not have to be a programmer – just a dramatist.

What I see is an interactive drama for the masses who have computers, but who are not ‘gamers’.  The masses will be drawn to this experience because of three things: it’s familiar like TV and film, the interface is simple and intuitive, and because the synthespians are emotionally evocative and their plight is understandable and just.   There are no brainteasers laid artificially and superficially into the design.  If there are to be puzzles, they are puzzles that evolve out of the dramatic backbone of the experience.  In fact, everything that can be considered a trapping of ‘game thinking’ would be absent from this new kind of interactive dramatic experience.  Though the designer knows that the experience will have a beginning that sets up the narrative, a middle with evolving conflict, and an end with a good resolution – know one knows how the dramatic experience will evolve.  Going from A to B to C will be a non-linear, yet emotionally powerful, experience.

SM: How do you feel a change in viewpoint could be injected into the existing interactive entertainment arena?

RL: I don’t know.  As large corporations have bought up smaller game companies the tried and true gaming genres have become dogma, even though the interactive entertainment industry is just a child compared to TV, which is a child compared to film, which is a child compared to thousands of years of dramatic evolution in theatre.   But large corporations are good at making money and loath to take a risk.  This puts the brakes on the evolution of interactive entertainment – for now.

It will take a design team to create such an experience – not just a designer.  The team will be composed of a programming lead, a dramatist/ storyteller/ writer, an art lead, and a sound/music lead.  There will be no talk of ‘levels’ and such.  There will be no talk of whether the experience will be a shooter, a role-playing game, or a massively multi-player on-line game.  There will be no mention of the word ‘game’.  Instead there will be talk of ‘narrative environments’, synthespians, synthespian directors, motivations, subtext and goals, emotional environments, and real-time adaptive music.  There will be talk of the macro-level ‘drama engine’, which provides for a three-act structure, like an umbrella, over non-linear narrative development.

I suspect that some day, someone with vision will be in a position to create a dramatic and interactive computer experience for the masses.  It will become the biggest thing ever.  And then everyone one will want in.  Suddenly the bean counters and marketing people who now advise against risk will be clamoring to be a part of the new ‘next great thing’ – before it’s too late.

SM:  How likely do you think it is that this will actually come to pass?

RL: I think it’s inevitable.

SM: What can consumers who would like to see this kind of storytelling approach in their interactive entertainment do?

RL: Support ‘games’ that include story and character development.  Write to the big interactive companies and tell them that you demand strong, non-linear storytelling and well-developed, believable characters.  Don’t have low expectations about what is possible.

Thank you, Randy, for sharing your insights.

(originally conducted 2003)



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