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Sunday, October 25, 2009

~"I'm sorry to tell you this, but you have Chronic Normalcy Syndrome."

Sunday, October 25, 2009

"I'm sorry to tell you this, but you have Chronic Normalcy Syndrome."

[scribble, scribble]

"What's your diagnosis?"

"I'm very sorry to have to tell you this. You have what we call chronic normalcy syndrome, or CNS. It's a development disorder that impedes your ability to form an identity. Most people form patterns of behavior and thought based on their genetics and their surroundings, but that has only happened with you to a very limited extent. To put it simply, you've never experienced any part of life as strongly as a healthy person would. Anything that happens, anything you come into contact with, you're only experiencing on a very basic level. And that's not a reflection on your intelligence at all, it's just what this disorder has done to you. You're just not equipped to form emotional reactions like the rest of us.
"Now, I don't want you to get too scared. Chronic normalcy syndrome is a very common disease, and most people who suffer from it manage just fine in life. It's uncommon for a person with CNS to ever get depressed or to have serious social difficulties. But it's just as uncommon for a person with CNS to ever be strongly happy or to achieve anything beyond the mundane; that means that unless you really work at it, there's an upper limit to what you can get out of life.
"The good news is, there's treatment. A few years ago, this problem wasn't widely recognized and there were no reliable options for getting better. But awareness of chronic normalcy syndrome has jumped forward recently, and there are many support groups available. I also would advise that you continue to come to me once a week, so that we can work on this together. But ultimately, it's up to you to decide what you want to do about the situation. I'm just letting you know what the situation is. But I strongly recommend that you start dealing with this as soon as possible."

"How did I get this?"

"The causes of CNS aren't really understood yet. There's research going on to figure that out. There are theories that it comes from a certain kind of upbringing, but there are new studies that suggest it's mainly genetic. But this is all still pretty unproven, it's only recently that people started paying attention to the problem. It used to be that people with chronic normalcy syndrome were just called 'boring', and there was nothing they could do to help themselves. But now the situation is very different."

"I understand. How is it that you know I have CNS?"

"Well, you're actually a very standard case of the disease. There's a list of symptoms we look for, like a lack of personal interests, a tendency to agree with other people without thinking, a very simple and straightforward manner of speech, and other similar indicators of a lack of personality development. Trust me, you have CNS."

"Thank you. So what should I do?"

"You should understand that treatment is not going to be quick, and it's not going to be easy. But it is important. I had another patient who came in without any signs of individuality at all, a real textbook case of CNS. We've been working on it for around two years, and he's almost unrecognizable now from what he was. He's got interests and personality traits, he looks distinctive, he acts distinctive. He quit his old job, and now he's got a high-paying management position. And understand, when he came in to this office he had no signs of ambition at all. You would have thought he'd still be in his low-paying job until the day he died, and never realizing he could move up. He recently said to me, when he left for the day, that he feels like he used to be asleep, and now he's waking up. So understand that this is my personal experience: you can get over this problem. You're not going to be an artist or a visionary, but we can find lots of little ways for you to add to society and have a more healthy, aware state of mind. But the road there may be unpleasant. If you're ready to start, we can do this once a week."

"Sure, sounds good."



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Wednesday, October 21, 2009


Wednesday, October 21, 2009


I'm wondering about switching between two or more parallel storylines or settings, and whether that can be done in a way less like film. In film, the story keeps going until the writer has decided that it's an appropriate place to end the scene, and then it suddenly switches to another scene. Afterward, it might even jump right back to where the first scene left off. This doesn't strike me as particularly elegant: I think the only reason I'm comfortable with this kind of forced-switching is because I'm so used to it that it barely registers. But there's got to be a more interactive way of doing that.

The problem with the film method is that control is so out of your hands. What if you're enjoying a particular scene so much you want to see it go on longer? Well, too bad. It's decreed that you shouldn't see the continuation (even though there is one) until you jump to a different scene. And contrariwise, if a scene's really dull, you can't go see what's going on anywhere else. You have to wait patiently.

I guess what I'm advocating is along the same lines as the game flow control post. The player ought to be given the tools to decide for himself when to switch from A-plot to B-plot.

I guess it's not good enough to let the player decide - you need to let them make an informed opinion. If the two storylines are going to come together in the end, what happens when you play through an entire branch all the way to the end, and haven't even started the other one?

You know, this really isn't as complicated as I thought it would be. Now that I'm thinking it through, I realize that you just need to lock the parts of the story which (for whatever reason) the player isn't ready for yet. You don't need to explain it, you just say "You can't continue until you go back and check out what you missed." in some simple way like putting a padlock icon on the screen and offering a button to go straight to what you missed. So if you switch from story A to story B, and the two stories eventually meet up, then when you get a bit before that point in B it'll give you a button to jump back to exactly where you left off in A. Makes sense.

Sorry if this is a bit rambly, I'm just working out my thoughts. You understand.

I'm not sure it's a good idea to always force the player to play through everything. Surely some parts are optional, no? You know how whenever they edit a movie, there are good bits which they cut out because they're inessential? Well, why not keep that kind of thing in, but make it perfectly clear that it's optional and can be skipped? Let's say a minor character leaves the story, and the writer has come up with some great scene for him, but it has nothing to do with the rest of the story? So a notification pops up on the screen saying that a new optional scene has been unlocked, and you can go to that whenever.

But it isn't really whenever, is it? You want the player to play that while it's still relevant, but you don't want to force him into anything. I mean, if he waits until the end of the game that minor character might be in a totally different place, and the little side-scene will no longer interest anyone.

Let's think out the logistics of all this. There really needs to be a map of the story, with lots of lines of different colors, the colors indicating whether you've played it already and whether it's optional. (Or maybe just whether you've played it; "optional" could be an icon of some sort.) So you see how the storylines branch out and reconnect, and where you stand in the whole thing. It would also have a name for each storyline (which you'd see by clicking on its line), saying which character stars in it and maybe roughly how long it is. All this stuff could sometimes be a spoiler, so you hide it then. But there could be a red vertical line at some point on the map, saying "We won't let you know what happens next, but you can't continue until you " you know what, this is silly. There's no need to be so cryptic. The player can know that two stories are going to intersect, it won't ruin anything. Okay, that's not true. I can think of specific cases where it would ruin some cool surprise. But you can find some kind of work-around in those specific cases. There's certainly no need to make it a regular thing.

I just had a thought about how flashbacks can work, and this is actually specific to Dreams of a Fractured World, an RPG I'd like to make someday. When the character reaches an object that reminds her of her past, that object goes to the menu (Okay, it's not really a menu. But it's the easiest way to explain it without going into a detailed description of the game.) where you can access it at any time. As soon as you see the object, you're brought to the menu and are able to play it, but maybe you don't want to. Since it's just a flashback, there's no rush. But accessing the flashback changes the character's behavior in the present a little bit.. you know what, this is way too specific to Dreams of a Fractured World. I'll just carry on.

I think in exploration games, it makes a lot of sense to keep any settings you're switching between distinct. Like, I have this idea for a game where you're wandering around a world at war, and at any time you can switch to the first time the character was there (years earlier) and the last time the character goes there, years later. And all three are in real-time, they're not just static images. (Okay, the one in the future might be pretty static.) But you can switch back and forth at any time, because it doesn't matter whether you know how each part ends. You can play through the entire past part first, or you can play through the present first and then go back and see how it all started. I think both work, dramatically.

But that kind of total control over progression is only for stories specifically designed for them. Especially exploration, like I said.



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Monday, October 19, 2009

~The correct way for How I Met Your Mother to end

Monday, October 19, 2009

The correct way for How I Met Your Mother to end

I mentioned earlier that I've been watching How I Met Your Mother. Very good show. I started watching around Thursday or so. I've only watched the first two seasons so far, so this opinion may change, but I'm convinced that there's only one correct way for the show to end.

I'm speaking, of course, about the question of how Ted meets the kids' mother. (If that means nothing to you, then you aren't watching the show and won't be interested in this post.) Some people say it should happen only at the very end, some people say it should happen some time in the last season, some people say it should happen long before the end and there should be more story after that, some people say it should never happen at all. I'm with the people who say that he should only meet her at the very end. But I'm going to be more specific, and say he can't meet her until the last minute of the series.

The final episode needs to bring back discarded plot points and characters from every single episode. The plot needs to be so outrageous that it lets the random details of continuity throw the characters to places no viewer could ever have expected, and which only make any kind of sense because of the many years of episodes building up to that moment. In the last minute, as they're knee-deep in the chaos of all their continuity crashing around them, Ted meets a girl we've never seen before who just so happens to be in that place at that time. And they either have the most bland meeting you can imagine, or an actively hostile one. (I'm partial to the idea of them meeting by her slapping him in the face.)

"And that's how I met your mother!" It cuts back to the couch, with the "kids" now adults because this story has taken so ridiculously long. (The boy now has a long beard.) For the first time in the series the two of them are on the edge of their seat waiting to hear what happens next. They beg to be told how their parents fell in love from that bizarre beginning. "Well, that's a long story. It all began with a [insert crazy non sequitur here]..."

..and credits.



This sounds disturbingly similar to the Seinfeld finale.

That did occur to me. But bringing back characters at the end isn't exactly a strange idea. Anyway, here the purpose of the gag is different: it's not to show how crazy the show has been, but to give an excuse for why Ted was going on and on and on about random stories when his kids just wanted to know how he met their mother. The punchline here would be that each of those stories (improbably) actually was absolutely necessary background for the actual story, which in the end doesn't turn out to be too interesting.


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so I'm jumping into another play.

From Wikipedia:
The Matchmaker is a play by Thornton Wilder. The play has a long and colorful history. John Oxenford's 1835 one-act farce A Day Well Spent had been extended
Actually, let's skip through the colorful history -it's not that colorful. We can sum it up by noting that the lack of originality in popular entertainment is nothing new.
…the expansion of a previously minor character named Dolly Gallagher Levi, who became the play's centerpiece. A widow who brokers marriages and other transactions in Yonkers, New York at the turn of the 20th Century, she sets her sights on local merchant Horace Vandergelder, who has hired her to find him a wife. After a series of slapstick situations involving mistaken identities, secret rendezvous behind carefully-placed screens, separated lovers, and a trip to night court, everyone finds themselves paired with a perfect match.

The play was a success at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland and at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in London's West End before finally opening on Broadway on December 5, 1955 at the Royale Theatre, later transferring to the Booth to complete its run of 486 performances. … In 1964, the play enjoyed yet another incarnation when David Merrick, who had produced the 1955 Broadway production, mounted a hugely successful, Tony Award-winning musical version entitled Hello, Dolly!
You've probably heard of that one. I only knew about it from the snippets in WALL•E, and from my father singing "Hello, deli!" any time we ate deli sandwiches. (He's never thought it out past those two words, so those are the complete lyrics right there.) So the story is fresh to me, even though it's a 50-year-old play based on a 175-year-old play. The Matchmaker isn't a musical, which is new ground for me, and it looks like it'll actually be funny, which is also new ground for me. (I kid. No I don't.)

The auditions were on Wednesday. A "45-second comedic monologue from a witty play" was called for, so Yakir Feldman lent me (on VHS) the movie The Goodbye Girl, I watched it, and then I learned a good monologue from it. He was absolutely right, it was exactly what I was looking for.-------
Not everyone in the world is after your magnificent body, lady. In the first place, it's not so magnificent. It's fair, but it ain't keeping my up nights. I don't even think you're very pretty. Maybe if you smiled once in a while, okay, but I don't want you to do anything against your religion. And you are not the only person in this city who's ever been dumped on. I myself am a recent dumpee. I'm a dedicated actor, Paula, you know? I'm dedicated to my art and my craft. I value what I do. And because of a mentally arthritic director, I'm now playing the second-greatest role in the history of English-speaking theater like a double order of California fruit salad!
I think I can do it pretty well. And not anything like it was done in the movie- I've got my own take on the material.

Anyway, none of that mattered because by the auditions the director had changed her mind. Her name's Tanya. She decided, without telling anyone, that she'd rather have people read out of the scripts than have them prepare other monologues. Everyone who came (I counted five, including myself.) was disappointed to hear this. Some insisted on doing their monologues anyway. I didn't, which means I'm probably going to have these random lines of dialogue rattling through my head until the day I die, but what the heck. They're good lines, my head can survive it. Two of the actors who auditioned I recognized: a guy who was with me in 1776, and a girl who was in Oklahoma!.

I auditioned together with someone who claimed he knew me through the Feldmans. I remember one time when I was at the Feldmans that someone came in and said I knew him, and everyone acted shocked when I didn't know who he was. That may or may not be this same guy, but it makes his story plausible so I'm inclined to believe him. The audition went decently, though I felt like he was getting all the good lines and I was just saying "Holy cabooses!" a lot. But I had to play that role because he's older and one character needs to be older than the other. Then the director told us to improvise with the characters. That didn't go well; I've never done acting improv before. I tried to play along, but I just didn't think fast enough and the end result was awkward. Though it might have made sense that it was awkward. No, it probably didn't. I just messed up. Anyway, the other guy left and I stuck around.

I stayed because Tanya said that (after she got her flat tire fixed) she'd let me read again. I was eager to snatch up this opportunity for four reasons: because I wasn't entirely satisfied with how I'd done, because there was nothing in particular waiting for me at home, and because if I tried to make the director happy, I'd be more likely to get a part. At the time I didn't think about why she was asking me to stay, but I think it was because the turn-out was so poor that she wanted a male auditioner to have someone to read lines with. (She seems more interested in how we act together with other people than how we act on our own.)

So I went back to read again, and in the meantime I'd come up with a different way to play the role. So I read the same lines off of this other guy (who'd just replaced Tanya's tire and therefore seemed confident), who wasn't as good as the first one. And I read my part in a different voice than before. Afterward I asked Tanya whether it was better or worse, and she said it was "Definitely better.". So I kept doing that. She then had us try two other parts.

But I think by that point I wasn't really being judged anymore. She'd already said to me that she thought I had a talent for comedy. I don't really know whether she was telling the truth or not, because she doesn't have Asperger's Syndrome and I'm not a telepath. But she insisted that she wasn't just being "nice", if that's worth anything. Anyway, I mentioned all this to a whole bunch of people, and the response has been split along pretty clear lines. The people who know me as a casual acquaintance all responded with a "Sure! You're funny!". And the people who actually know me (family, friends) all responded by laughing hysterically. I'll let you know when I decide which side I agree with.

(Holy cabooses that's a ramble. Please take the length of this post only as a sign of how excited I am about everything, and not as a personal offense to you and your free time. Thank you.)

Today (technically yesterday but I haven't gone to sleep yet so I'm still calling it "today") were the callbacks. I'm almost certain I'm in, if only because so few people seem to have tried to get in. (All four people I met on Wednesday were there.) I'm also almost certain I know which role I'm getting, because while I got to read a few different roles (including the one I hadn't gotten to read on Wednesday; I had to practically beg Tanya to let me read that), there was one role which she never gave to anyone but me. That was the one I did with the weird voice. So apparently she likes that. It's a good part. Not as good as some others, but I get to do all sorts of wacky fun stuff.

When the callbacks started I was nervous and twitchy, but by the end I was having lots of fun. I met a few nice people there, though I'm not sure that counts if I've already forgotten what they look like and what their names were. (And I have.) But they were cool. There was one girl who was playing Dolly sometimes, though she's a few decades too young, and she was great. Everything Tanya had told the others to do, she was doing seemingly effortlessly and with lots of humor. Very impressive. Apparently she's not even going to be in the show (or the country, actually), she just came to help out with the callbacks. There was another woman I talked with while she graciously drove me near the central bus station, who is a doctor with ADD who in America would use her impressive skill with accents to convince people of other races that she was "one of them" and that they should listen to what she's saying. Astounding.

See, I'm having all this fun and I'm not even in yet. And of course I shouldn't get ahead of myself. I only find out whether I'm in (and if so who I'll be playing) at the beginning of the next month. But I do think I'm going to be in, and I'm really excited. This could be so many kinds of fun.



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Friday, October 16, 2009

~Pussywillow's embarrassing jump

Friday, October 16, 2009

Pussywillow's embarrassing jump

Pussywillow is getting over a bit of a mid-life crisis lately. He was spending almost all his time outdoors, until one day he noticed a box in our hallway that hadn't been there before. So he spent many hours in that box, and though the box is now gone he seems much more enthusiastic about the house again. He wanders through rooms he knows like the back of his paw, trying to find some spot to curl up in that he hasn't found yet.

The upshot of all this for me is that in the past week he's gone back to curling up in my lap, which is something he hadn't done in a while. And he just stays in my lap and purrs for a long time, longer than I can remember him doing before. I love cats.

Anyway, this is all just a preamble to a cute story from maybe a half hour ago. Willy wanted to come in, so of course I let him in in a hurry. He ate, started hopping around some bags by the wall to see if there were any good spots for curling up in them, and when he didn't find any he excitedly started running upstairs like he wanted to curl up in my lap as I sat by my computer.

He was so eager, that rather than walking up the steps he tried jumping up to the next floor, or more accurately he tried to jump up to the stack of DVDs that was on the chest that was on the next floor, since (in fairness) that was the most direct route. I'm not sure if he's done that before. But it's not a good idea. I was sitting at my computer waiting for him to come up, when suddenly I saw him trying desperately to hold on to the DVDs (and failing miserably). He fell back down onto the stairs.

I went over to see if he was okay, and he didn't want me to touch him. When I tried, he ran downstairs as though he was just trying to get away as fast as possible. I considered waiting for him to calm down, but then he meowed at me to let him out. So I opened the front door, waited for him to take two tiny steps out, then called him back, and of course he ran back in. Suddenly he didn't seem embarrassed anymore, he just wanted me to pet him. Now he's asleep in my lap. He's twitching a lot but I'm petting him to calm him down. I adore this cat.

That was entirely too much detail.

Right, you don't like cats. Well, I find this story very cute.
I think you're obsessed with that creature.
Look, he is pretty much my only company most of the time.
Well, whose fault is that.
Excuse me?
You heard me.
Yeah. Look, you don't exist. I'm sorry, but I get more out of a cat who I can pet and care about than a person who is entirely in my head.
Disclaimer: The statement "Look, you don't exist." was a factual inaccuracy. All characters on this blog exist as data on the internet, as well as in the minds of the writer and readers. We do not take any responsibility for any reality-biased sentiments which have been expressed, and humbly apologize to all fictional readers who may have been offended.
Great, the blog takes your side. Perfect.

Maybe the blog was talking about itself, did you think about that? Did you think about that for even a moment? Or are you too much of a selfish jerk?! My god, you think the entire world revolves around you!
I do not think
I'm not finished. How long has it been since you let me exist last?
You always exist, in the back of my mind, that's kind of the whole
Oh, how sweet, you unbearable jerk. It's been thirty-five bleeping days, that's how long it's been, you horrible person.
I'm not horrible for doing anything I want with my own creations!
Okay, yeah, you just, you just keep talking. You're just getting better and better here.
What do you want from me? All I can do is pull you out whenever I want to make a point, I'm not going to have my blog revolve around you. For that matter, this post has gone so far off what I intended it doesn't even make sense anymore! What the heck does this fight have to do with Willy missing a jump and feeling embarrassed and trying to enter the house again? If I'd known we were going in this direction I wouldn't have picked that title. And this coloring doesn't exactly make sense except that it's the color of Pussywillow's fur so if the post were about himShut up! Shut up shut up shut up! I don't care about you and your titles and your coloring and your stupid cat! Why don't you just marry that cat and leave me alone! If I'm only going to exist in someone's head, I'd rather it to be my own head! I'm so sick of you, and your excuses, and your plans, and your stupid cat!
Look, maybe we could calm
Go to hell!


What the heck! There aren't even any doors here! What are you slamming?
I can imagine my own doors!

Insane, that woman. Wouldn't have it any other way.

Whatever, she'll get over this.



I've gotten a few comments in person, telling me that this isn't a good post. I can kind of see where they're coming from: the imaginary girlfriend bit has gotten repetitive and stale in its unpleasantness. (That means that when I do it again, I'll need to be extra careful to justify the character's existence.) But I wrote this post to lead into the next one, and I think it does a very good job of that. Sometimes I have to remind myself that this blog is for my own amusement, and it doesn't matter so much if readers don't see what I'm doing.


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Wednesday, October 14, 2009



BlitzMax isn't a very good programming language. I spent a few days trying to get rid of a nasty glitch in the way the game was displaying, a glitch which didn't make any sense to me. I looked over the code over and over, and it all looked correct. So I pinpointed the problem to the specific lines of code that were causing it (though they seemed to be perfectly fine), and then I made a test program to see if the basic function they were using was working. And it's not. This isn't a function I programmed myself, it's a built-in function of BlitzMax. And it doesn't work.

Specifically, what's not working is viewports. A viewport is the area of the screen that the program's allowed to draw to. If I don't want to draw over something, I use a viewport which doesn't include that spot, draw whatever it is I need to draw, and then go back to a viewport that covers the whole screen. This makes sense to me. Apparently it doesn't make sense to BlitzMax. Tests have shown me that when dealing with images (rather than shapes), the viewports only work on the X axis. If I tell it not to draw on a certain portion of the Y axis, it just ignores me. This is why my game, which I painstakingly programmed to not draw things in the wrong place, has gray rectangles showing up where I specifically told them not to go.

I asked the BlitzMax programming community to help me out, and they responded with a general "What, viewports? You've gotta be kidding!". Okay, so not that rudely, but politeness is not helpfulness. Apparently BlitzMax's viewport function is notorious for only working with specific graphics cards, so people who program in BlitzMax never use them. There is no alternate function that does the same thing; you just don't do that if you want your code to work. One user suggested a function he'd programmed himself, which lets you draw a part of an image rather than an entire image. That wasn't exactly what I was looking for, but I figured with some creativity and time I could probably get it to do what I wanted. So I tried using it, and immediately got a compile error. This function is apparently broken. And since I don't understand any of what it's doing (that would take a more advanced understanding of BlitzMax's inner workings), I can't really learn anything useful from it either.

So here's where I stand. Ever since I decided that I really wanted to program, every day I didn't program was a day I felt slightly depressed in. I can't program my game, because I'm running into a glitch to which there is apparently no fix. I started watching yet another TV show (How I Met Your Mother this time) to make myself feel better. It's working okay; it distracts me from my problems for a little bit. I've also been playing piano a lot, and playing more games than usual. But eventually I'm going to have to get bak to working. And while I do want that, I'm scared that I'm going to spend hours and lots of effort on this game only to find that what I'd like to do isn't something that's doable for some inane reason which I can't possibly predict right now. (If not the viewports, then something else.) What if I really can't do this?

No, I'm not really being serious there. I can do this. If I'm patient, the problem with the viewports will disappear. Maybe I need to rethink the whole way the game is functioning, but there's gotta be a way to get around that. And then something else will pop up, and I'll deal with it, and so on. Programming isn't supposed to be this annoying, is it?



While I definitely don't think March of Bulk needs to be made in another programming language, I would strongly suggest that you start looking into XNA and the whole C++, C#, Visual Basic programming thing.

I haven't had time to really get into it, but from what I understand, learning to use XNA could lead into a much broader framework for making games. It is harder to use at first, but in the long run will open much more potential. I also suspect that Microsoft does a very good job of support their products.

Check out It might be a little painful in the short term, but it will have huge benefits in the long term.

Update: I programmed a function that mimics viewports, using the other function I mentioned, and it looks totally broken. I can see from how it's being drawn that all the math is right, but this function-on-a-function is too imprecise. Clearly the forum is not going to be any help, so I'll need to find some creative way of making it look right without using viewports along the Y axis.


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Saturday, October 10, 2009

~Another one for the pile of regrets

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Another one for the pile of regrets

The annual ICon science fiction convention in Tel Aviv was this week. I've gone before, but it's always a pain to go to Tel Aviv. Or more accurately, the pain is in getting back. When I'm there I'm constantly afraid that I'll miss the last train (which is early) and have to sleep on the street and starve to death because there's no kosher food anywhere. I really don't like Tel Aviv.

Now that the convention's over, I find out that the guest of honor was Bill Willingham, who writes one of my favorite comics (Fables). To see him talk I would have gone to Tel Aviv in a heartbeat. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I missed it.

Why didn't I know he was there? Because I never even bothered to check the ICon website. I am so mad at myself right now.



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Sunday, October 04, 2009

~The Garden and Droplets: Role-Playing

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Garden: Role-Playing

There is one Form used entirely for storytelling, another Form used for resolving short-term conflicts, and a simulation strategy system for long-term planning. When these three distinct gameplay systems are present and dominant, you've got a computer role-playing game.

This complex Form should not be confused with the original (Dungeons & Dragons-style) role-playing games, which I think were actually a simple Form. Sadly, I have not had the opportunity to spend any significant amount of time role-playing in the old sense, so anything I say on that subject ought to be taken with a grain of salt. But it seems to me that the dominant element of original role-playing is the improvisation of a story. This improvisation is usually guided by a "game master", a player who controls the world of the game. Lots of rules (and therefore strategy, puzzles, and luck) were added on to make the game more consistently entertaining, but they were subordinate elements to the improvised storytelling.

At some point, someone came up with the bright idea of having computer games mimic role-playing. It obviously didn't really work, because you can't really improvise a story within the rigid framework of a computer program (and without a human game master guiding you along). So a lot of the complicated structure of role-playing games was kept intact, but with much less focus underneath it. That's the computer role-playing game, which for the sake of convenience I'm going to refer to as the RPG.

Like any complex Form, the RPG's primary content is story. The genre is almost always fantasy or science fiction, and the format of that story is also rather specific. It's a story where the player is given:
  • Context for the character(s), in relationships and history and ongoing plot
  • The opportunity to experience the moment-to-moment struggles of the character(s)
  • The opportunity to chart out how the player would like the character(s) to progress
So even though the triple-faceted structure of the RPG comes from a strange place, it does make a certain amount of sense. The player is experiencing the lives of a character or group of characters from three very different angles, each one simple in itself but together forming a more comprehensive view of the story.

Let's start with the simulation strategy, since it's what RPGs have come to be most known for. The traditional RPG simulation is built around a vast collection of statistics. Some numbers represent how strong a character is, some represent how skilled the character is at specific tasks, some represent how well-defended against specific kinds of attacks. There is almost always a central number of general experience for each character, called "experience points" or "EXP", which pushes all the other statistics up when it reaches predetermined points. All this comes handed down from Dungeons & Dragons.

Where the strategy comes in is in deciding which attributes to augment, and which collectible items to use -such as weapons, armor or spells- to do that. There is typically a wide array of items to find in a game of many types, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Another important decision the player needs to make is when to engage in conflicts. If a conflict is won, experience points are gained. But if a conflict is lost, the player loses progress. So the player needs to choose his conflicts carefully, fighting when better statistics are needed but running away when the risk is too great. The player needs to decide how to best use money to acquire the items necessary for conflicts. Finally, a player can usually decide on the characters' jobs or skills, which can drastically change what those characters' roles in the conflicts will be later. (Granted, little of this strategy is very involved in most RPGs. But if you imagine each element of the strategy taking itself seriously, you can see why this complicated simulation makes gamistic sense.)

This set of rules is almost constant among all RPGs, and has become so associated with the Form that any game (of any Form) which uses experience points or (to a lesser degree) collectible skill-endowing items is said to have "RPG elements". Nonetheless, the definition I've given of RPGs does not assume the presence of any of these specific rules, just that there should be a simulation strategy system of some sort controlling long-term character growth. The list of standard rules I've mentioned should be seen as a long-standing tradition, nothing more.

The conflicts themselves have a similarly long-standing tradition, but there's been much more experimentation with radically different kinds of gameplay. The tradition is that conflicts should be a battle strategy game (distinct from the simulation strategy), where the player and the computer take turns picking actions to take. These actions are usually as simple as one character attacking another character, though a series of menus is usually provided to allow more complicated operations such as using items in supply and supporting other characters. Each character has a statistic called "hit points", which indicates how far away from death that character is. That particular element is so useful that it appears in nearly every version of the RPG. The battle normally continues until either all the player's characters or all the computer's characters are killed or incapacitated, at which point play resumes from wherever the player was before.

A sub-Form called the "tactical RPG", "simulation RPG" or "strategy RPG" (depending on who you ask) expands each battle into a much longer and more sophisticated strategy game. In such games battles can involve moving characters around a large board, interacting with objects or buildings in the area, and even speaking with non-player characters. As such, the storytelling Form (while still present) is minimized in importance and length, since many of the elements it would provide the RPG with are already covered by the battles themselves.

Another sub-Form of the RPG is the "action RPG", which as you might imagine uses a direct action game for its battles. The player controls one character (with any other characters on the same side being controlled either by computer or by other players), and moves around and fights with that one character. This action game can take any form; the most bizarre I've seen was Sigma Star Saga, in which the battles were side-scrolling space shooters. I've also played one game (Mario Tennis: Power Tour) in which the battles were tennis matches.

There are lots of different RPG battle systems out there. Some are hybrids of action and strategy. The strangest I'm familiar with is the sub-Form "puzzle RPG", which has for its battles abstract puzzles. The reason RPG conflicts haven't been stretched any farther than that is because RPGs are expected to tell fantasy action stories, and there are only so many Forms that can fit that narrow genre. Theoretically there are few Forms that couldn't serve as the conflicts in an RPG of some other genre.

A battle can start at any point during the game: it can start by itself at random intervals, it can be started by the player deliberately (making that choice a part of the simulation strategy), or it can be started by a plot point in the storytelling section.

Now let's talk about that storytelling section. The most usual medium for it is a complex combination of adventure game and film. It could work just as well (or better) with a simple Form -either adventure or film, one without the other- but this particular combination allows the developer to eat their cake and still have it: to say that their storytelling is interactive, but to make all relevant points of the story 100% noninteractive. In truth, there's no need for this section of the game to be interactive. Tactical RPGs rarely have interactive storytelling in this third section. I don't know what public reaction would be like, but gamistically speaking it's perfectly valid to have nothing outside the conflicts and strategy except film. I also think that the adventure game is perfectly capable of handling whatever emotions the plot requires all on its own. Other possible Forms are comics, text, audio, multiplayer improvisation (to be more like Dungeons & Dragons), puzzles, strategy, pure exploration, or even some sort of story-writing tool which would leave the story entirely up to the player. Just so long as the story that's not being told via strategy and conflicts is being told somehow, it doesn't matter what the format is.

But few of these options have been seriously explored, and most RPGs just use adventures with cutscenes. There's nothing to say about the cutscenes (It's film. You know film.), but the adventure part has accumulated some traditions of its own. The game will normally be split between areas that are thin on plot but heavy on conflicts, and towns free of conflict but heavy on plot. This affords the player a break from the tension of constant fighting. In the towns there are usually many people who need help; this help usually boils down to getting things from one person and bringing them to another person, a simplification of the adventure game formula. There can also be puzzles and exploration, since those activities are associated with adventure games as well. This adventure-lite gameplay is a small element of RPGs, but it was fleshed out into an entire game in the RPG-derivative Animal Crossing which also inherits from the simulation strategy system those elements that one would find in an RPG town (collecting, shopping).

I've already mentioned all the sub-Forms that you get just by substituting some kind of gameplay for the battles. Another important sub-Form is the massively multiplayer online RPG, which builds an entire online society on the foundation of traditional role-playing games. The wide range of perspectives on a character that the RPG brings to the table are perfectly suited for the experience of creating and maintaining a character in a virtual world.

The only Form that the RPG is particularly close to is the strategy game, since most RPGs have strategy as two-thirds of the experience. The game Warcraft III danced around a little on the border between real-time strategy games and RPGs, so it's worth bringing up. The game was a standard RTS with cutscenes like its predecessors (though perhaps with more cutscenes than its predecessors), with base-building and deploying troops and searching the map for the enemy and trying to break past their defenses and all the elements you'd expect. But the game also gave the player a single "hero" character, which would get EXP and items and learn new skills. Warcraft III is certainly a strategy game, but whether you also call it an RPG depends on how dominant you find the elements of simulation strategy in the larger experience. If they are subordinate to the RTS gameplay, then it is not an RPG. Otherwise it is. (I say it's not.)

There are many possible genres that RPGs could tackle: soap-opera, comedy, political, horror, abstract. Each would doubtless demand a different kind of simulation and a different kind of conflict gameplay. That explains why these subjects haven't been tried. But I do think that in the future, they will be. Some day, RPGs may be the most broad category of game out there with a kind of character to appeal to any person on Earth. The online RPG communities will become bigger and more welcoming, and much of the world will identify more with the RPGs they hang out in than the countries they live in or the races they were born to.

Meanwhile the single-player RPG will evolve in a radically different direction. They will get shorter and more focused, with more interesting characters experienced in more diverse ways. Those without the luxury of time will gravitate to these shorter experiences, designed to be played for short periods at a time. Some RPGs will be serialized, with new plot points being introduced that the player's version of the character will react to in his/her own way. Judging by potential, I fully expect the RPG to replace movies and TV as the most popular storytelling medium for any genre.

When gamism expands to interface directly with our brains, and everyone intuitively understands how to play the most complex RPG just by turning it on, RPGs will be both the place to get mind-expanding experiences, and the place where everyone in the world goes to relax. Single-player RPGs will let players understand interesting characters more fully than they understand themselves. And multiplayer RPGs will finally have the technical capability to bring back the element of improvisation, to allow the millions of players of the game to together determine how the story plays out. Like most everything about the RPG, its future is complicated but exciting.

Droplets: Role-Playing

Adventure game (with dynamic interface) for conflicts. There are branching paths, where one wins the conflict and one loses the conflict and either way the game continues. Progress in the simulation strategy unlocks paths in the conflicts, and not all those paths would be good. (But it's always nice to have more options available.) You'd have to keep making decisions of which option to choose, and it would never be entirely obvious which is best.

Dealing with several teams of characters, rather than characters on their own. You decide who goes in what team, try to get the teams to work together, and then most of the moves you have in conflicts are joint attacks that an entire team pulls off together. Statistics like experience points, and specific items, are thrown out. All the simulation strategy comes from getting people to work together.

An RPG set in the real world about managing a business. There is no violence: conflicts are arguments, usually with employees but sometimes with the bosses (and I mean the word literally). In the long-term, you're positioning the company to compete in a harsh economy. Meanwhile, you're dealing with personal problems at home. So you've got conflicts, strategic planning, and story context, but it's a totally different genre of story!

Simulation strategy following the model of Civilization, with real-time strategy battles. When you're not fighting and there are no pressing matters of state, you explore your kingdom and watch the people in it just living their lives, and in their behavior you understand how social and technological progress is affecting them (both negatively and positively). You also get to wander through all the magnificent cities you're building, and the landmarks which are a testament to the greatness of your empire. So as you're playing emperor, you're also thinking about the story of your people and how everything you do affects them. So again, there are conflicts and planning and context, and it's an untapped genre for RPGs.

An RPG whose storytelling Form is an RPG whose storytelling Form is an RPG whose storytelling Form is an RPG whose storytelling Form is an RPG. Yeah, I'm not exactly sure how that works either. :D

An RPG serving the purpose of a puzzle, where the player can travel backwards and forwards through time as needed but the character doesn't. The character is off on a very-nearly-impossible-but-not-quite fantasy quest. "Not quite", because there is one (and only one) very complicated way to play the game in which the character can possibly survive the story. The time-traveling isn't a part of the story, it's the way you figure out what that one correct timeline is. You can rewind the story as much as you like, and you can fast-forward the story as much as you like. Rewinding undoes anything that's happened (good or bad), and fast-forwarding skips all the tedious gaining of experience. So you can tell your character to get better at a certain job, then fast forward until he's amazing at it. But by that point years have passed, and the world has gotten much scarier in that time. So you rewind until you're just good enough to beat whoever it is you know you need to beat. The important fights can't be fast-forwarded through, you need to do them yourself. And they're really complicated strategy games (which are entirely unwinnable unless you've meddled with the timeline right). You look for the points in the timeline where the bad guys gain their power, and try to prevent those. Oh, but look at me go on. I do think I'd very much enjoy this game.

A serialized space opera RPG, Star Trek-style. What's being simulated is the goings-on on a starship, where you try to promote those who are doing a good job, decide what to do with those who aren't, deal with morale problems, and generally improve the efficiency of your crew. It's not precisely predictable, but you can usually guess how your crew is going to react to your actions, so this is strategic. The efficiency of the ship matters for space battles, and the morale of the crewmembers (and their relationships with each other) determines how they'll behave on missions. In each episode you come to an alien planet, learn about the situation via an adventure game, and encounter many problems that call for RTS fights. Nothing you do can ever be taken back. Depending on how your ship and crew are functioning, it might be very difficult to get the good ending in an episode.

A soap-opera text RPG. You have a complicated flow chart showing how everyone feels about everyone (this would include a lot of statistics and facts), and the strategy is in trying to get that to someplace healthier. So you try to pull people away from people who are no good for them, and get them to spend time with people who you think are good for them. Because there are so many possibilities to program, the way it plays out is read in plain text. Conflicts are conversations, as turn-based strategy. You pick one person to play in the conversation, and the other part will be automated. You have a lot of options of what to say or do, and each one says exactly how that would effect the statistics. But the other character also has a bunch of options of what to say or do, that effect the statistics just as much, and you can't control what the computer will pick. (The computer might pick any of them, but some are much more likely than others and that all depends on the statistics.)



There are probably some notable sub-Forms which I've overlooked; I'm not particularly qualified to know. That lack of qualification is why I've put off writing this post for so long. But I figure it's better to get it out of the way than hide from it. If I'm wrong about things, I'm wrong about things.


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