Saucers of Mud

October 11, 2009

Emotions in Emergent Storytelling: An Example (or, Virtual Kitties)

Filed under: Uncategorized — matt w @ 9:50 pm

Emily Short has a column up about Fable 2 and its attempt to allow interactive character development in a computer role-playing game with a linear part, emerging out of the choices you make when you play the game. The “emerging” part is important because of the ongoing debate in game design about how a game can move you through its play rather than its narrative. It’s uncontroversial that games can tell stories that move the player, but that storytelling usually takes place in non-interactive cutscenes, coming in between the gameplay parts of the game. (Not to say that the gameplay parts aren’t essential to the emotional impact, or to disparage this style of storytelling.) The question is whether a game can develop character and move you through what happens while you’re playing. This is difficult, in part because it’s hard to develop a way for a moving narrative to develop procedurally in response to whatever the player does.

Fable 2 tries to do this, in part through keeping track of the relationships it thinks you’ve formed and the moral choices it thinks you’ve made. Short doesn’t think it succeeded entirely, partly because it didn’t really recognize what she’d done. For instance, she accidentally charmed a besotted man into following her around, whereupon he may have been killed by bandits when she didn’t take care of him during a battle. But the game didn’t realize that she’d done something wrong, or that this was why she wasn’t going to let anyone else fall in love with her again.

Anyway, this reminded me of one of the most complex emotions I’ve experienced coming from emergent play, and why I don’t think it shows any artfulness on the game designer. Nerdy story below the fold. [Note to mom: Yes, I should be working on my tenure file.]

Some necessary background:
1. I like cats more than most people. Nothing against most people. I am very fond of cats.
2. In the game nethack and its variant SLASH’EM, you have a pet, usually a cat or dog to begin with, though you can tame more exotic monsters.
3. Your pets fight beside you much the way you fight.
4. nethack and SLASH’EM aren’t big on narrative — there’s a bit of deliberately cheesy cut dialogue, but just about everything happens by moving around, attacking monsters, and doing things with items. Your pets aren’t very characterized; they move around, fight, retreat when they think they can’t win, yip/bark/purr/meow when you talk to them and follow you around some of the time (there is some characterization here; the more you they eat, especially if you feed them at the right time, the more likely they’ll be to fetch you useful stuff). Oh, and this is what a nethack cat looks like: f
5. Nethack creatures can be hostile (will attack you), tame (your pet), or peaceful (none of the above). Your pets will attack peaceful creatures as well as hostiles, but not (except in exceptional circumstances) other pets.
6. Cats and dogs may attack you, but it’s very easy to get them to stop. To quote kawaiifan4, “Little kitties ^.^ do have sharp claws … but they’re not angry, just hungry. They want your food (or, failing that, they want you as food), so try throwing some food at them instead.” If you throw a vegetable at a cat or dog, it’ll become peaceful; if you throw it something it wants to eat, it’ll become tame.
7. Your pet starts out fighting at least as well as you do. After a while, you’ll be a much better fighter. Your starting pet can last a very long time, because it won’t pick fights against monsters that are too much more powerful than it, but it’s pretty hard to keep your pet to the end of the game unless you polymorph it into a more powerful monster.
8. If you leave a pet behind in the dungeon for a long time, when you see it again it may have gone peaceful or even hostile if it’s hungry enough. (Though you can retame it by throwing it food.)
As I’ve said, I’m fond of cats. I don’t like even reading about bad things possibly happening to cats. So I won’t attack a cat in nethack if I can possibly avoid it. Since the best way to avoid fighting a cat is to throw it food, I often wind up with a fair number of cats following me around. Sometimes I morph the cats into better-fighting creatures (sometimes this happens accidentally), but that seems kind of mean. I feel sad when a cat of mine is killed in cat form, and if I’m doing well in the game I usually wind up leaving at least one cat behind in the dungeon.

I’ve just started playing SLASH’EM, which is nethack with extra stuff, and have a pretty good game going. I’m playing a gnomish ranger, which means I started with a dog (and that cats and dogs and koalas often start peaceful). My starting dog died after attacking a (peaceful) dwarf who was too heavily armed for it, all the way on the other side of a level when I couldn’t effectively control it. I also got another dog killed very quickly softening up a monster that was beating me up badly; I felt bad about that but better about surviving.

Eventually I tamed a cat in Mine Town, who I named Townser. (I always name my pets, because it helps to keep track of them. The names I choose are generally silly.) By this time I was able to survive on my town, and Townser started out as a pretty tough cat. Both of us were able to level up, and I accumulated enough stuff that I had to leave piles of it stashed in various parts of the dungeon. I also made a magic whistle, which instantly summons your pets to your side. When I went into one of the tougher side-branches of the dungeon, I would leave Townser behind for a little while, but we made it pretty far down.

Once I whistled for Townser and he didn’t come. This was annoying, because I had something I wanted him to do (check whether something I was about to buy was cursed). It was also disturbing, much as in real life. I found him using my telepathy: “a peaceful large cat named Townser.” Somehow he had quit my team. I thought perhaps I had used my whistle too much, so I went back out and threw him some food. But he still wouldn’t come when I whistled. So I went back out, tamed him again, and saw him attack a (peaceful) koala. Then, “Townser looks calmer.” Once again he was peaceful. Apparently koalas make anything that attacks them peaceful, which means pets stop being your pets. I ruthlessly dispatched the koala; I prefer not to attack peacefuls, but the one thing I won’t tolerate is messing with my cat. A bit more food and Townser was my pet again.

On one level I had wiped out all the monsters except for a peaceful dwarf and a unicorn (which wouldn’t have been a threat to me) when I got a message: “You have a sad feeling for a moment, but it passes.” This means that your pet has died out of your sight. I was very upset. Townser could have taken either monster individually, but they’d ganged up on him, and I hadn’t known to whistle him away. I rushed back over to find “a large cat corpse named Townser.” Previously, I’d found a wand of undead turning, which can resurrect monsters including pets, but it was back in one of my stashes. I had to rush poor Townser’s corpse back to my stash before it rotted away completely.

When I said “I had to,” I mean: I felt so bad about losing my cat this way that I felt like I should bring him back. I didn’t actually need the pet to help me in the game at that point.

I was able to bring Townser back, and soldiered on. (I kept the wand with me, and had to use it once more when Townser went after a nasty monster when I was in the midst of a big battle. I didn’t feel as bad about this, partly because I knew I could bring him back, partly because I was right near the monster and couldn’t whistle him out of danger.) Eventually I had finished the main sidequest and the next step to either descend deeper into the dungeon or go on one of the most dangerous sidequests available. Neither of them seemed like a good place for Townser.

Except that in nethack and especially SLASH’EM, you can always do more preparation before you go on to do anything. There was a side branch with an altar to my god Venus, and I had a wand that would create hordes of monsters that I could sacrifice to her. I popped in through the magic portal, leaving Townser behind in the main dungeon, and started in with the wand and the altar. Among the sacrifice fodder there were many peaceful monsters; dogs, horses, and even a koala. I left them alone as I tried to deal with the hostiles. Some of them wandered back through the portal to the main dungeon.

Back in the main dungeon I whistled for Townser again, and he didn’t come. A quick check revealed “a peaceful large cat named Townser.” Once again, he’d attacked the koala and gone peaceful. Grumbling, I prepared to tame him. And then I thought: Shouldn’t I leave him alone? I didn’t need him to fight by my side anymore, and the safest place for him probably was wandering around peaceful on that dungeon level, where he wouldn’t fight me or any other monsters. That’s when I had the most complex feeling I’ve had in emergent play of a computer game — not sadness, not frustration, but a sort of renunciation.

What does this tell us about emotion in games? Well, I’m pretty sure the designers of the game didn’t mean to evoke this kind of emotion. The gameplay is deep and complex, but it’s mostly about killing things in various ways, not about emotion-laden interaction with anything else. And the emotion I felt doesn’t necessarily effect any skill on the part of the designers. I brought most of it to the game; I like cats so much that all they have to do is tell me that a letter represents a cat and I’ll feel differently about it than I do about any other letter. (In the discussion of whether a game system can make you cry, the most compelling example was of a girl who cried when her Tamagotchi died. But Tamagotchis aren’t exactly great art.)

Another moral may be that life is going to be hard for designers who want to exploit the moral code they think you’re living out in a game. Would the makers of Fable be able to detect that a player’s main guiding principle was that he should be nice to cats? Should they want to?

[UPDATE: Oh dear, I’m Belkar.]


  1. Have you ever heard of “Eliza”–sure you have–the interactive computer program that emulated a Rogerian therapist? That is, it took input and reflected back to the user, or said, “Tell me more.” It evoked very strong feelings.

    I didn’t know about the tenure file. Now I know.

    Comment by Matt's mom — October 13, 2009 @ 8:57 pm

  2. “Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)

    Samuel Beckett’s Film
    The AFL grand final
    Monster Hunter Portable 2nd G Airu DX – Import Preorder
    Lost Cat? Hire a Cat-Detection Dog”
    As a friend of mine said in another context (Amazon’s “you might like” suggestions): I’d like to have dinner with that algorithm.

    Comment by Matt's mom — October 13, 2009 @ 8:59 pm

  3. Actually the file’s in, I just should be working in general. Oddly enough, at the moment I am working.

    Comment by matt w — October 13, 2009 @ 8:59 pm

  4. […] going on there. [Also it entirely averted the animal cruelty button, though that's really a cat cruelty button more than anything […]

    Pingback by IFComp: Resonance « Saucers of Mud — December 5, 2009 @ 11:46 am

  5. […] "Emotions in Emergent Storytelling: An Example (or, Virtual Kitties)" by Matt W (Saucers of Mud), 11 October 2009. Linked in the comments of Less Cause, More Effect, Matt W takes his cats in games seriously. Interesting read about how players bring their own meaning to a game. (I'm not sure I really like the term "emergent storytelling" that much, but don't let that stop you.) “You have a sad feeling for a moment, but it passes.” This means that your pet has died out of your sight. I was very upset. Townser could have taken either monster individually, but they’d ganged up on him, and I hadn’t known to whistle him away. I rushed back over to find “a large cat corpse named Townser.” […]

    Pingback by This Link Drag Is High Scoring « Electron Dance — May 11, 2012 @ 5:42 pm

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