Algorithmically Suspenseful

By February 20, 2014 Uncategorized No Comments

Wow, time flies when you’re having fun! It has been quite a few weeks since posting but I’ve been staying busy. Contract work continues to stay a good portion of life but thankfully the Prologue Games project has been able to receive a bit more attention. I’ve seen some awesome scripts from talented writers and even done some work on dialogue and story engines (more on that in a future post). Today I wanted to share some fascinating concepts put forward from the academic world on storytelling from a computer science perspective.

I know, it sounds contradictory, right? But Dr. Michael Young from NCSU has been using advanced AI to construct dynamic stories as part of his Liquid Narrative Group for years now. I was recently pointed to a few papers the group wrote that go over some very interesting ideas for how to model suspense and plan for conflict. Prologue Games is very unlikely to do a full implementation of these methods (and I won’t even try to summarize the algorithms used) but I did latch onto a few key points that is worth discussing.

When it comes to modelling suspense, they identified that a core element to suspense was to remove a key piece of information from the viewer’s knowledge of the scene. From the paper:

In computing the potential suspense of an action’s effect, we consider the action’s possible causal relationship to accomplishing the protagonist’s goal from the reader’s point of view. For example, in a scene in the film Back to the Future directed by Robert Zemeckis, the protagonist Marty McFly who just came back to 1985 from 1955 saw Dr. Brown being shot by terrorists. A moment later, however, it was revealed that Dr. Brown was still alive because he was wearing a bullet-proof vest. Although Dr. Brown survived from the shooting after all, the viewers would experience suspense in the shooting scene because they are ignorant of the bullet-proof vest.

(2.2.2 Measuring Potential Suspense for an Action –

The initial reaction is probably “duh, I could have told you that” yet too often games try give all the info up front. It’s so easy to want to explain everything to the player with the hopes that extra info will help them understand a scene better. But if we can take a scene and deliberately remove a key piece of information, the suspense is increased. This isn’t just a matter of trimming out unnecessary exposition, it’s finding a key piece of the puzzle that we can remove and suddenly tell a new story.

As for the conflict paper, this probably will apply more directly to Prologue Game’s projects. I had hoped to build a story space where non-player characters (NPCs) are able to advance the plot based on pre-set actions, dialogue, or tools given to them by the designer. The paper here helps reinforce the delicate balance between NPCs solving their goals and creating conflict without just being a single minded jerk. While conflict requires characters to be competing or interfering with each other, you don’t want them to just go out of their way to constantly harass the other person. At the same time, you don’t want them to just find the most efficient way to solve a problem as it will often avoid conflict.

These reminders come at a perfect time for Prologue Games. While we’re writing these scripts we can hopefully use these tools and ideas to build intentional space for conflict and suspense to thrive. The goal is still to have some basic scripts and initial engine pieces in place before GDC in a few weeks. I can’t wait to dig into these topics more and explore how they affect the development.

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