Friday, March 4, 2011

Is this what you call roleplaying?

Nemorem is torn about what to post today. He or she (depending on whether this is regular Nemorem or FemNem we're talking about here) has a number of different issues on his or her mind, and can't figure out a way to tie them all together in one post. In short, Nemorem needs help making a decision.

 Bitch about the dialogue wheel again
 Follow up on the (nonexistent) DA2 toolset
 Go off-topic
 Screw it - I'd rather be reading Kotaku

 Bitch about the dialogue wheel again

An article at Hooked Gamers serves as a rational filter for the nerd rage over the changes in Dragon Age 2. It's basically a comprehensive list of grievances raised elsewhere, but the author also makes what I think is a new and trenchant point about the dialogue wheel:
As far as the dialogue scenes are concerned, this is not role playing; this is interactive playing. The dialogue is so simple that it could be replaced by a choice that you make at the beginning of the game: "Do you want to be a compassionate, humorous, or obnoxious character?" After that choice, you would only have to watch the dialogue scenes play through with no player-input at all.
This is something I've overlooked in my other posts on the dialogue wheel. As implemented in Dragon Age 2, the wheel attaches an icon to each option indicating what tone Hawke will use when speaking the line. This addresses the most common complaint about the wheel - that there is sometimes a difference between what you intended and what the PC (Hawke) actually says. The icons in effect signal what personality goes with each line.

As the article implies, perhaps the signal is a little too strong.

With the dialogue wheel holding their hand so forcefully, what reason do players have to break out of the personality type they've chosen for Hawke? I'd like to believe the game will present the player with complex situations that provoke - and sometimes even reward - different types of reactions in the protagonist. However, my experience with the demo tells me otherwise. If dialogue options are mostly just boilerplate roleplaying, and the icons tell the player exactly what personality goes with each line, then the choice between options is indeed pretty meaningless.

 Follow up on the (nonexistent) DA2 toolset

I've noticed a couple of threads popping up on the Bioware forums asking about the possibility of a toolset for Dragon Age 2. There's still no official response, and there's not likely to be one for some time. However, it's encouraging that people are talking about it this close to release.

There's one thread in particular where people express more support for a toolset than DLC. That's especially cool given that a good percentage of players will be playing the game on consoles and won't even be able to use mods. Of course, the usual disclaimers about forum dwellers not being representative applies here.

And yes, that's a false choice - Bioware is going to do the DLC because it, you know, has the potential to be profitable. Unlike a toolset. Whether they take the time to provide a toolset to the community is a separate question.

 Go off-topic

This actually isn't off-topic, but it may seem so until I get around to explaining. There's a thought-provoking article in The Atlantic on the Turing Test. If you're not sure what the Turing Test is, by all means go to Wikipedia, or just read the article in full. Here are the basics - it's a (somewhat controversial) test of artificial intelligence in which a computer attempts converse with humans without the humans being any the wiser. This is supposed to be a measure of the computer's ability to think.

The article is written against the backdrop of an annual Turing Test competition, a sort of blind "chat-test" in which people have keyboard conversations with both computer programs and actual people (known as "confederates") to see if they can tell the difference. Written by one of the confederates, the article focuses on strategies for coming across as more human - both for actual humans and the programmed pretenders.

I don't think it's much of a stretch to apply these strategies to game conversations. In fact, the article mentioned that insults were relatively easy for computers to fake, which immediately made me think of a certain NPC in Arcanum. The character, a foulmouthed halfling with a raging Napoleon complex, trades insults with your character for as long as you choose, his conversation continually looping back until you've had your fill (which, unless you're a glutton for punishment and/or easily amused, doesn't take long).

Of course, there's no deception here. Even if the halfling's insults didn't come across as 100% canned, players aren't going to be fooled into believing they're talking to another person (especially since that person would be, um, a halfling). Still, I think there's an obvious connection between, say the halfling's primitive dialogue tree and the current programs that attempt to mimic human conversations. Neither are really thinking (sorry, Turing), but both are using a limited set of tricks to simulate an interaction that is, for all intents and purposes, infinite in variability.

There's another, more obvious connection here as well: When we do get fully conversant AI, you can bet one of the first applications is going to be in games. By that time, we'll probably also have convincing speech synthesizers. Anyone care to have a free-roaming conversation with Minsc?


  1. You ever try talking to A.L.I.C.E?

    I still prefer branching dialog. I'd like the super wordy style of planescape:torment to be the standard that took the world by storm.

  2. Heh, I just chatted a bit with Alice.

    Human: are you going to play dragon age 2?
    ALICE: That was my original intention.

    It seems even she was disappointed by the demo.

  3. How about another Rotted Report? The DA II rants are all well and good, but those of us burnt out on the toolset need some sort of vicarious creative fulfillment!

    Although I do find the idea of the tone system intriguing. From what I've heard, your first few choices set your character's 'character', so to speak, and subsequent dialog is delivered in a consistent voice. I think this is closer to what I would call roleplay than what comes out of traditional systems, in the sense that you're actually playing a role.

    Giving the PC a bunch of different voices to choose from in each dialog opens up the possibility of their character coming across as a bit bipolar. This way, you're picking an archetype instead of vacillating from snarky to psychotic from one dialog choice to the next. You've still got choices to make through dialog, but they're delivered in a consistent tone. It also opens up interesting but highly unlikely possibilities for a player character with an actual dramatic arc for once - although in all likelihood you will be just as snarky/heroic/bloodthirsty at the end of the game as you were at the beginning.

    But depending on how well it's implemented, it may be a way to give the player character some actual character for once.

  4. Interactive fiction has interesting conversation development. Emily Short tries more innovative things then bioware. She writes interesting things about game design also.

  5. Malacola... yes, I need to do another Rotted Report. For that matter, I need to be working on my mod more.

    That's interesting if the dialogue really works like that. I don't see how it would improve roleplaying, though. At best, it's just a superficial thing to help avoid those "bipolar" line readings. At worst, your character gets pegged to a category on the simplistic nice/mean spectrum that limits your choices.

    Either way, it would indeed be cool if you could gradually shift your character's personality - though whether character arcs are possible (or should I say, meaningful) is dependent on whether the story provides the motivation for them. I'm skeptical.