[MUD-Dev] Respecting NPCs

J C Lawrence claw at kanga.nu
Thu Oct 25 01:17:12 New Zealand Daylight Time 2001

On Wed, 24 Oct 2001 16:21:34 -0400 
Lee Sheldon <linearno at gte.net> wrote:

> From: J C Lawrence

> You win, JC.  


> Yours was the only response from three lists that I felt the need
> to print out and study.  

Mind mentioning the other lists?

> Yours is also the only response from this list from someone also
> not represented on another, and I find that somewhat surprising.

I can't quite parse that.  On another list?

> Yep, this is mostly due to the fact that NPCs are viewed as
> objects that perform functions, and who just happen to not be
> shaped like accordians or pencils.

Yup, thus my deconstructed comment.

>> I like a fifth category:

>> 4) Incidental outgrowth

> Now that I've trivialized them sufficiently, let me say that I
> whole-heartedly agree with your observation, if not your
> conclusions.

Excellent.  (I'm much more interested in productive reaction than

>> Is there an NPC anywhere which can be even remotely compared or
>> contrasted functionally with Alice's Father William?

> No, however we often don't have the luxury of populating worlds
> entirely with these characters.  

Which doesn't really suit the question.  Creating a Father William
is non-trivial.  Its safe to assume with cost and time to market
constraints that such attempts would be limited.  The critical point
to me is not that there are no MUDs which are entirely NPC populated
with Father William analogues, but that there are no MUDs which
contain anything close to a Father William analogue.  This suggests
that not only is the attempt not being made, but that the value of
the attempt is not realised (or considered valuable).

  I suspect that the reason is in the second camp.

In my original reply there was a fairly long section which was later
deleted as I didn't have the time to do it justice (leaving a post I
already felt was excessively weak in its last paragraphs) centered
on the analysis of MUDs in terms of control and definition of
interested vs interesting and their interplay and reversal between
the MUD and player, and how NPCs could produce both story perception
and non-retrospective story telling in players.

  I'll have to write that out in full some time.  I get enough
  challenges on not detailing my assumptions or the thought
  processes that got me to a particular point.

The core of my contention is that speakers are of necessity
interested and listeners are explicitly interesting (to the speaker
-- they "attract" communication).  Think of it in terms of a clown
on stage vs his audience and it becomes quite clear.

A problem I see is that unlike fiction, which has firmly resolved
the interested/interesting dichotomy by using the interest of the
author to evolve interest in the reader ("Hey, come look at this,
its really interesting.  Come with me and see this?  Yeah, I don't
know about that either.") MUDs are stuck halfway between poor
burlesque productions (all razzle and no meat -- "interesting" thru
glitter) and attempting to be interested (to prompt the player to be
interesting and thus originate action/communication) thru goal
proposal and plot syncopation (player fills in the gaps).

  The current scene is about the initial grab and take-up values (to
  use Marketing terms).  Wham them with pretty images, get them to
  buy the box, and then try and figure out ways to make it sticky --
  typically thru puerile expansion as its cheap and well proven (its
  no accident that Pamela Anderson sells videos).  And that's not
  even counting the commercial games.

I don't find that either interesting or promising for the field.  I
also don't find the current model of games/worlds with expected
product lives measured in low single digit years interesting.  We're
still looking at MUDs as products instead of services and
relationships.  (Technically we're not ready to produce such, but
that doesn't mean there isn't value in trying)

  cf Idoru.

Once a MUD is a long lived service the definition and role of NPCs
can have much larger, and more incestuous scope.

> And I for one see no reason why the Cheshire Cat couldn't dispense
> little pills that shrink and grow you, or was that the
> Hooka-Smoking Caterpillar?  

It was the latter.  And yes, there's no reason to not have
cross-over between the categories (its a cheap form of complexity
and thus richness).

>> I like NPCs as opaque, inscrutable, and purposed.  That doesn't
>> necessarily mean they are super-AI driven, but that they are
>> neither poor reflections of the players, or poor props for
>> players, but can credibly be viewed as having a discrete
>> existence.  I dream of AliceInWonderland-like NPCs.  They're not
>> typical even among themselves, they're relatively uncommon,
>> they're not world or player reflections, they behave according to
>> internal logics which are only partially determinable and
>> fractionally visible but which are also readily apparent as being
>> present, and they don't ego stroke.

> I would love to see these (more of these?) in a world.  I also
> think a world populated solely by them would look a lot like Pi,
> and give players similar symptoms to Pi's lead character.

One of the challenges is to keep such incidentals both humanly and
intellectually friendly.  To paraphrase, they have to be huggable.

Its easy to make incidental NPC which are so convoluted or
contradictory to typical player values that they are almost
antagonistic to player interest.  Critical to Father William, the
Walrus, the Caterpillar, the Cheshire Cat etc are the fact that they
are friendly, familiar, easily grasped and easily intellectually
befriended images.  

We're all familiar with the icons of crotchety old men.  Father
William builds on and extends that.  Yes, its partially picaresque
as you note -- its already proved a successful recipe else where in
the book -- but there are other models used as well.  The Queen is
hardly picaresque other than as an antagonist for Alice, and yet
builds on the same friendly backdrop.

>> Of course from a functional definition, what do such NPCs offer?
>> They offer a chance for the game to speak, for it to beckon and
>> say to the player, "Come over here, this is interesting, it will
>> reward your interest, have a look," and for it to remain
>> mysterious without being crass.  Which is perhaps my largest
>> complaint on NPCs to date; They've been so excessively
>> deconstructed that all that's left are pure functional entities
>> wearing incongruously frilly skins and affectations.

> Here we are both back on the same wavelength again.  The entire
> thrust of this portion of my tutorial is to encourage looking at
> NPCs in ways that may help to make them into something more.


>> How about inscrutable not-quite-deterministic NPCs?

> How about just not all of them?


I've long been tempted to just remove/banish NPCs entirely as a
failed model.  Ultimately MUDs are about communication and
specifically, inter-human communication.  Sure, there are filters
and abstractions and even time lapses (consider the human
communication between the game designers and the players via the
game implementation), but in the end the entire perceived value is
that there is communication, that mutual understanding is reached,
and that the quality of that communication is high enough to be or
to approach "art".

NPCs tend to break that.  They are not only machines, they are
obvious machines that can't actually be communicated with, not in
any sense of achieving mutual understanding.  They can only have
their buttons pushed in rigidly deterministic fashions along
pre-defined other-intentioned goal-lines (the goal is originated by
another, not the player, tho the player may agree to it).  Hardly
exciting.  Hardly more interesting than a door handle on someone
else's door.

I don't find talking to doors, mail boxes, or cars rewarding and I
find "talking" to NPCs in games even less so, especially when that
NPC exposes interfaces which mock humanity via speech patterns.  Am
I the only one who played things like Galactic Civilisations
(Stardock) and found the text spat back by the various opponents
both distracting and unappealing?  The mumble words, posturing and
adjectival overload were just annoying.  I kept wanting a mode for,
"Tell me yes, no, or how much in no more words than that, and then
shut up."

Cruel mockeries of sapience.

>> Or, more recently, how about NPCs ala the Vorlon Kosh?

> I had to look that reference up.  Sorry, some small and ancient
> personal baggage with J. Michael doesn't allow me the ability to
> respond favorably to such references.  But I expect I see the
> point.

I'm not a B5 fan either, tho for rather more literary reasons I
suspect. (I just don't consider it very good or admirable SF) I
figured Kosh as the likely most widely recognised enigmatic yet
obviously purposed character in popular media, as well as one which
is regularly (and poorly) aped.  Current American mass media is not
keen on the sorts of sustained mysteries that real enigmatism

J C Lawrence
---------(*)                Satan, oscillate my metallic sonatas.
claw at kanga.nu               He lived as a devil, eh?
http://www.kanga.nu/~claw/  Evil is a name of a foeman, as I live.
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