James Wallis levels with you

Dogs about towns

Over at Extenuating Circumstances Dan Hon has already done an excellent job of liveblogging chunks of GaME 07 (Imperial College, yesterday) so I won’t duplicate his effort. I will say that it was a good day, the talks were of variable quality, and the stand-outs—as you’d expect—were David Braben talking about ‘Creating Games for the Next Generation’, and Peter Molyneux talking about ‘Emotion in AI’.

Braben swiftly junked the idea that better graphics, better sound and more realism are enough to make a next-gen title (as if the success of the Wii and the failure of Motorstorm hadn’t comprehensively proved that they’re not) and talked a great deal about The Outsider. So far as I could tell TO is a free-roaming open-ended urban game in the post-GTA mould, with two important differences:

  1. Game characters react to environment, context and behaviour, not just yours but those of other NPCs. Save a cop’s life, word will spread among cops that you’re okay.
  2. The game starts just after the assassination of the US President, and you may or may not have been the guy behind the rifle.

As we used to say at Bizarre magazine, “Money down.” I’m sold.

Molyneux did a re-run of his much-documented GDC talk about Lionhead’s next game Fable 2, only without the Powerpoint slides because he’d just dropped his laptop and without the game-sound because Imperial College couldn’t make the sound on an Xbox 360 work. Specifically, he talked about the dog. Every player of Fable 2 will acquire a dog. They won’t all be the same dog; they’ll start off looking different, and will grow to resemble their owner as the game goes on. As Molyneux put it: “If you turn out to be an evil bastard, you’ll have an evil bastard’s dog.”

(—Dan had left by this point and I did make a concerted attempt to liveblog the talk, but my laptop died half-way through, despite having been recharged over lunch. Thank you Asus, that’s why I pay an extra £100 for an extended life battery. Honestly, I tried. Sorry.)

The thing is, I went into the talk as a skeptic. We live in a post-Nintendogs world, and putting a cute animal into a plot to elicit player-empathy is a cheap trick. I was expecting to be unimpressed, and twenty minutes in I was a convert. Not an evangelist, mark you. I can see how this can work. I’m not saying it will work, but I think it might.

The dog is more than just a companion and a tool, which were my two fears. (Having said that, it’s a fine companion and tool. It’s been built around the intelligence and training AIs developed for Black & White, plus Molyneux’s Three Laws of Dogotics, and thanks to some nifty graphics work including animating the tongue, ears and tail separately from the main body, looks and behaves like a believable dog. It’s not under the direct control of the player, but of your avatar—this is something I’d been messing with for Frup the day before, in the context of ‘Dei-Ex-Mechanicae‘, which I will describe in a later post—so you make the avatar make the gesture for ‘Bad dog’ and it’ll react and learn from that. And yes, you can issue commands by whistling into the Xbox 360 headset. The dog will also apparently pee on the corpses of your enemies. Like I said, money down.)

But more than that, it’s a lens for the rest of the game-world. The dog is a path-senser, an enemy detector and will fight to protect you, yes, but those are all tool aspects. But game characters won’t just react to you, they’ll react to your dog as well. Even if you’re not a dog person, even if you regard the dog as a game-resource to be optimised, another useful bit of equipment that you don’t suffer encumbrance for… if someone kicks your dog, you’re going to object to that. Because it’s yours. And if Molyneux has got it right and you do feel a sense of emotion towards the dog, then you’re going to feel that kick yourself.

I don’t think this is the solution to the problem of getting players to react emotionally to their experiences in video games, but I do think it’s a start. Like I said a while back, we’re going to spend a long time taking small steps and getting things half-right. (Braben says that, in movie terms, it’s about 1930. I’d say it’s 1925. We’ve found our Keaton and our Chaplin. We’re still waiting for our Welles and our Hitchcock, and talkies.)

For example, I have worries about whether, in a narrative game with a fantasy setting, it’s a wise idea to have the game-element the player cares most about be a dog, and I said as much. Molyneux’s answer was as polished as the rest of his talk but gave me the sense that he’s actively thought about this and built compensating mechanisms into the game. Whether he’s built them into the narrative is another matter.

But… after all, this is a game where the player’s avatar can marry and have children, and we know there will be other dogs in the game too. Can your dog find a mate and have puppies? And dogs have a shorter lifespan than humans… multiple generations of dogs? The whole subject opens up a ton of possibilities, and if there’s one developer who can be relied on to think through the implications and do something interesting with them, it’s Peter Molyneux.

Having said that, if the dog turns out to be a prince who’s been transformed by an evil fairy, I’m going to go down to Guildford and pee on every car in the Lionhead carpark.

Categorised as: conference | game design | narrative

One Comment

  1. […] by COPE’s James Wallis (currently to be seen hyperventilating because Peter Molyneux has promised him a digital dog). Venue-wise it was nigh on perfect: not too large for our (growing) crowd, and fitted out with […]

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