Stan the Absentminded Kleptomaniac Journalist

It was a quiet Saturday evening, and since you had no plans, you decided to spend it with a good book on the sofa and a little classical music on the radio. You had just settled in when you heard a knock on the front door. It was your friend Stan. You hadn’t seen him in a while, so it was nice to have him drop by without notice. You invited him in, and he obliged.

Oddly, Stan started scanning the foyer, taking it all in like he had never seen it before. He seemed to take particular notice of all the things there — the ficus tree, the impressionist painting on the wall, the coat closet. That seemed a little strange to you, but the feeling soon passed. You invited him into the kitchen for something to drink.

When you reached the kitchen, you noticed Stan had not followed. You looked back and saw him still in the foyer. He took a moment to view the nice painting, and then, quite unexpectedly, he lifted the painting to look at the blank wall underneath. After replacing it, he then went to the closet and opened the door, scanning the coats and shoes you kept there. He spent a moment rummaging inside, and then quietly closed the door. Then, oddly, he began poking at the soil and dead leaves at the base of the ficus tree, almost expecting to find something there. When he finished, he took a minute to check all of his pockets, but all he seemed to have were his keys. Finally, he scanned the room once more, almost as if he temporarily forgot where he was. He spotted you waiting in the kitchen, so he apologized and joined you there.

Once in the kitchen, he did that odd scanning thing again, looking all around at everything. It was like he had never been in any kitchen before, much less yours. You went to the refrigerator to get him a glass of iced tea, and as you started pouring it, you noticed Stan out of the corner of your eye fingering the can opener you had left on the counter top. He quietly slipped it into his pocket.

“Did you need a can opener, Stan?” you delicately asked, quite certain you had never borrowed one from him at some point in the past.

“Yes, thanks, I hope that’s okay,” he said. As you reached to hand him his glass, you noticed he had already started opening some of the cabinets and drawers, leaving each one open as he went to the next.

“Is there something you’re looking for?” you asked, now a bit concerned at his actions.

“Nothing specific,” he said. “Don’t mind me.”

He opened the drawer by the kitchen phone and found the set of keys you keep there that unlock the door to the garage. Again, he quietly slipped them into his pocket, even as you watched him do it.

“Stan, those are my keys.”

“Oh, don’t worry, I’ll return them,” he responded. “What do they unlock, by the way?”

“I don’t think–“

“That’s okay, I’ll figure it out later.” He turned back to the phone, and saw your address book sitting next to it. He started flipping through the pages, curiously interested at the names and numbers inside. Maybe he thought you weren’t looking his way, but again you watched as he slipped the address book into his coat pocket.

“Stan, what gives?” you asked. “I need that book.”

“I told you, don’t worry. You’ll get it back eventually. Good tea, by the way.”

He sat down at the kitchen table, so you warily followed and sat on the opposite side. Then, unexpectedly, Stan proceeded to grill you with a long series of questions about a wide variety of topics, one after the other. It was almost as if he was checking off a list as he went. The strangest part about it was that most of the questions were about things you thought he already should have known. It was like he was interviewing you for something, like a journalist might. When he finished you realized that you never had the chance to ask him anything yourself.

After the last question, Stan quickly stood up, thanked you for the drink, and walked back to the front door. After one last scan of the foyer and another check of his pockets, he walked out. Just like that, he left, with you still sitting at the kitchen table. And strangely (or perhaps not anymore, at least), he never bothered to close the door behind him.


I suspect that, to a certain degree, this is what life might be like if you were an NPC in an interactive fiction game, and your friend was the player character. We as players exhibit some odd behavior in games. We’re absentminded kleptomaniac journalists. I imagine our reaction in real life to a typical player character like this would be something like the astonishment portrayed above, and yet in most games the NPCs rarely respond in an appropriate way to our actions or behaviors, and just sit there blindly accepting it all.

As the Writers Cabal Blog has asked, what kind of NPCs do we want? How about NPCs that realize what we’ve done? NPCs who have moods and motivations that can shift based on how we interact with them, and as a result have a significant impact on our subsequent approach? NPCs that don’t just act like errand dispensers or information booths?

It takes a lot of work and skill to create characters with personality, depth, and motivations of their own. Maybe not even a lot of work and skill, but an incredible amount of work and skill. But isn’t that true for everything worthwhile?

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  1. georgeolivergo
    Posted May 6, 2008 at 7:53 AM | Permalink

    Very entertaining :). A game developer that has influenced how I think about NPCs is Tale of Tales and their Drama Princess creation (they are the ones behind The Path, The Graveyard, etc.). The thing that stuck was that they had gone down the road of creating NPCs with great complexity and depth, and decided that instead they needed to simulate not natural behaviour but dramatic behaviour — for a lot of the time the player wouldn’t necessarily interpret the NPCs actions correctly, the player would ascribe meaning to actions where there was no meaning at all, etcetera. In any case I hope I remember the gist of their design ethos well enough here, but you should check them out if you haven’t already.

  2. emshort
    Posted May 6, 2008 at 8:38 AM | Permalink

    If I’m writing a game that involves a lot of character nuance, I’m probably also writing a game in which the PC is better characterized than Stan, and has a more restricted (or at least different) set of viable interaction — more conversation, gesture, and culturally meaningful behavior, less grab-everything-you-can-see.

  3. Rubes
    Posted May 6, 2008 at 9:25 AM | Permalink

    You’re also really good at what you do, Emily. 😉

    Of course, “If I’m writing a game that involves a lot of character nuance” presupposes that you’re going to spend a good deal of effort creating that nuance, and the game will likely be more richly developed than this. My example here is obviously something of a caricature of PCs in IF; actually, I had intended originally to imply that this wasn’t necessarily a representation of IF specifically, but rather games in general. As I suggested in my prior post, I think IF in general has done better than most game forms at developing character depth, an certainly your work is a noteworthy example of this.

    George — I’ve tried the demo version of Graveyard but have yet to try the full version, or any of their other works. I’m eager to check out The Path, though. I’ve heard a lot about their stuff, and I think it might represent some interesting steps forward in this area.

  4. emshort
    Posted May 6, 2008 at 11:41 AM | Permalink

    Well, I didn’t mean that to be a boast! What I was really getting at is that I think it’s not necessarily productive to think of NPC improvement in isolation from other techniques one might use to strengthen story or to make the interaction more story-oriented: the question isn’t just “how do we want our NPCs to behave and how aware should they be?” but “what kind of character interaction do we want?” (which also has implications about the player character and the game design as a whole).

  5. Rubes
    Posted May 6, 2008 at 11:46 AM | Permalink

    “what kind of character interaction do we want?”

    I agree completely — and this is actually a big part of an upcoming post (soon, I hope).

  6. Jimmy Maher
    Posted May 6, 2008 at 6:44 PM | Permalink

    What you’ve (very entertainingly) described is of course default adventure game behavior. It’s not a new idea to send it up, although you did it well. See the “adventurer” that you can view in Enchanter, who not only goes through many of the same actions you describe but also has some fun just trying crazy things to see how the parser will respond — trying to eat his sword, etc.

    We’ve learned through playing many old-school games that this is the way we we HAVE to play to get anywhere. I don’t think IF (or any other form of interactive narrative) has to be bound by those rules, however, and I’m happy to say that many recent games, notably those from Emily and from Eric Eve, have been able to steer their players away from that sort of thing and introduce NPC interactions that feel more fluid and natural.

    As an author working on a game of my own, I would simply never allow the interactions you’ve described in the situation you’ve described. I don’t think it’s too much to ask my player to accept the premise and situation of the story she is in, and to behave in a reasonable manner. If my player was paying a friendly visit to a neighbor and tried to start rummaging through the cupboards in front of him, I would simply tell her that she’s not going to do that sort of thing. I think most good-faith players would accept this and realize that they should be focusing on the conversation and generally behaving like a reasonable human being. In other words, she will shift her frame of reference from “old school adventure game” to “(more) realistic interactive story.” In a another situation — say, the neighbor does or says something that makes her suspect him of a crime, and she breaks into his house in the middle of the night to investigate — the explore and loot approach would be natural and thus allowed.

    As far as conversation: yes, we have a long, long way to go, but just introducing a TADS 3 style conversation node or two can go a long way toward making it seem more like a real conversation between two people, as opposed to a series of transactions between the player and an information vending machine. Authors should try to give their NPCs some personality and life. Maybe when you ask a sensitive question, they ask one back instead of immediately answering. “Why should I tell you?” If you ask them the same thing twice, they raise their eyebrows and say they just told you that. Etc, etc.

  7. Rubes
    Posted May 7, 2008 at 3:34 PM | Permalink

    Excellent points, Jimmy. Granted, as I mentioned this was really something of a caricature of PCs in IF games, but really part of bringing it up is to point out that some of the tools already exist to make PCs and NPCs more lifelike and their interactions more rich (and that some, of course, do not yet exist). There’s a lot authors can do to flesh out their characters and make situations more realistic, but it takes a lot of work and skill.

    I think another point of this is highlighted by your approach to “never allow the interactions described.” That’s one approach, but sometimes it’s hard for players to accept a limitation like that. Alternatively, characters in the game could be designed to react in certain ways to the actions the player performs, although that introduces increasing levels of complexity to the code. That’s something I’ll address in a later post.

  8. Jimmy Maher
    Posted May 7, 2008 at 8:40 PM | Permalink

    The problem with trying to code for all of these interactions is two-fold: 1) on a purely practical level, it’s impossible to anticipate and allow for every crazy thing the player might try to do, as the combinatorial explosion factor is simply overwhelming; and 2) it takes away from the story I want to tell as the author. If I want to tell a character-driven domestic drama and my player wants to rape and pillage, my response to him is to simply find another game to play. Players have expectations of the author, and that’s well understood and fair enough. I submit, though, that authors can also expect certain things of their players: namely, a good faith effort to play the role they have been given within the boundaries of the genre of the story. If that role doesn’t interest them, the solution (again) is simply to find another game to play. I don’t see a work of IF as a sandbox for the player to muck about in, but rather as a way of experiencing a (hopefully compelling) story in a very immersive way. Granted, this is my own idiosyncratic take on IF, and may be at odds with that of you or others…

    I’m not for a moment advocating a railroaded design. I’ve complained about games like Photopia at length in the past. I want to allow as wide a scope of reasonable action as possible. The emphasis here, though, is on “reasonable.” For practical AND aesthetic reasons, I think this is really the only way to go.

  9. Rubes
    Posted May 8, 2008 at 10:12 AM | Permalink

    I think that’s a great set of comments, and it brings up a fascinating discussion about the expectations authors have for their players (good faith efforts) and the boundaries they are willing to, and need to, place on the players.

    Interestingly, though, in many ways game designers have, in many ways, encouraged this type of sandbox-style play. Hidden objects, puzzles, easter eggs, and the “testing” of how the game responds to different, unanticipated actions, all seem to encourage this type of play, and in many games it’s still encouraged. That’s not to say, of course, that as an author you can’t discourage it quickly, nor is it a bad thing to do so.

    To me, it relates back to one of the central ideas I’m trying to forward: that games should try to be more about people and their emotions, motivations, and relationships, rather than about objects. Games in general (including IF, although to a lesser extent lately) have for so long been about objects — at least with respect to puzzles and puzzle-centric games — that I think players have been programmed to think in those terms.

    As someone working on a 3D project closely related to IF, it’s interesting how an open graphical environment really encourages this. For instance, in text, you can pretty easily get away with describing a room without going into intricate detail about every last item in the room — a good example from Vespers is the kitchen. And by doing so, you effectively steer the player away from the things that don’t matter and towards those that do. But when you design a kitchen with graphics in 3D, you sort of have to include those little details — pots and pans, utensils, plates, and so on — or else you don’t do a very good job portraying the environment. But seeing all of those objects just seems to trigger an object-oriented reponse in players that steers them towards TAKE, SEARCH, and OPEN.

    There are ways to deal with that, too, but in general I think it all comes down to design. The author sets the boundaries, and players either respond to those boundaries or they don’t. The question is how much the author wants to allow for.

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