Rendezvous with Rama

Now that I have had more time, and after reading the link and re-adjusting my views, I concede the point that indeed the narrator is the agency I’m communicating with. You put it very well when you say the narrator mediates - the games “Bellclap” and “Crystal and Stone, Beetle and Bone” even illustrate that very well.

Going back to the NPC talk, however, I still disagree. Because if the narrator mediates, then you’re not interacting with an NPC directly. If you want to strip it all down, you’re interacting with the author. If a player character is the entity in-game that is controlled by the player, it follows that an NPC is a character - an entity - which is not controlled by the player. It follows that the difference is that it’s not controlled by the player, and on the heels of that, it follows that apart from that an NPC should ideally be able to do what the PC does.

I’m calling it “faked” because I want to distinguish between a fully modelled in-game object and something that works just enough to retain suspension of disbelief. Of course an NPC is as fake as every object, but if we start going that way we can get very lost very quickly and very messily. When we play IF and are confronted with a puzzle, we will try lots of different things. We can only try them is the object is as well implemented as possible, and so if it feels as genuine (as opposed to “fake”) as possible. You would expect to be able to open, close, pry, push, look under, look behind, look inside, touch, smell, taste, feel, hit, knock on, and many more, a closed crate - although you wouldn’t expect all these verbs to be implemented, it would depend entirely on context. Similarly there’s a whole sleuth of things you’d expect from an NPC, but even if you cut down about half of the things you could possibly do, there’s a very complex number of things you have to account for. It depends, of course, whether you want a reactive sidekick you can question and follow around, or if you just have a static NPC that’s waiting for receive a certain item - fake the latter, and it’ll be quite enough. The former will still be “fake” by your definition, but it will need meticulous care and coding if we are to preserve the illusion of a living, sentient creature.

I’m thinking aloud as I write this and I think we might disagree on the specifics but agree on the basis: will the player notice? Mostly if you can fake it, that’s just fine. But now let me go back to what started this, because I’m getting very sidetracked.

I have stated in this post why I don’t consider the narrator to be an NPC, although I concede him to be an entity. In fact, your words make me think of him even more as the author - straight up - rather than a narrator. But that way it gets far too meta and we completely lose track of what an NPC is. Given my definition of NPC I invite you to expound on your definition. Because it seems to me as though your definition means a game is a player and an author and, incidently, a world which the author has created. The PC versus the NPC, or, by your terms, the P versus the NP. But then how do we classify the NPCs which the PC will encounter? I therefore distinguish between P and the PC, and consider than when I type commands I’m the P addressing the NP, the author, who will direct my commands to the PC.

I did say earlier I was thinking aloud as I wrote, right? This is pure thought process, no looking back except to delete arguments no longer applicabble. Sorry if it’s confusing.

Let’s speak in practical terms now: the only way I see that happening is by bypassing the creation of an object entirely and having an NPC exist solely in narration, i.e., you will never be able to speak or interact with them. THEY will interact with YOU, and any attempts to reach them will be fruitless. Like ghosts. When you want interaction they have to be manipulated. Of course, “Fail-Safe” is a brilliant example of the other side of the coin, and worth mentioning, but it’s not the standard.

Mind you, the practical advantages are vast. By not making any demands on an NPC, they automatically meet the demands. By not being interactable, they are perfect. But that heavily conditions the game you’re writing, and you’ll soon be writing a Myst/Rama/Infocom game. In fact, more like Myst than ever, where the only characters appear - till the end - in very static, un-interactable form.

That’s ok, I probably look like I’m floundering heavily. But I’ve laid my tought-process bare for you. Feel free to take it apart. :slight_smile:

So, to go back to the original issue: if a story requires an NPC (not an NP), it can do it in one of two basic ways: it can model them as interactable objects, or it can not. The latter would result in flashbacks, overheard conversations, or conversations you have no control over (well, maybe a TOPIC SELECTION menu for a dialogue in this way would be reasonable, but you’d have no control on whether or not to start that conversation). This is, of course, an option - “Babel” is the most famous example. Unsurprisingly, “Babel” feels Myst-y and Infocom-y (given the aspects we are currently discussing) - because, I daresay, we’ve reduced the NPCs to something we can’t directly interact with.

The former is a technical feat - the more ambitious we are, the more amazing the feat will be. And once we establish that, then we can safely say that yes, environments ARE easier to model than NPCs.

Is it necessary to create a whole load of characters with hidden agendas, relationships to each other, moving around, making deductions, doing everything the P and the PC can, plus being able to take commands from the P/PC? Thank God, no, and in this matter we fake it a bit. But even when it’s faked, an NPC will always be harder to model than the environment.

Unless the NPC is a dull, unresponsive character and the environment was coded by Zarf. But that’s another matter entirely.

I followed you all the way until that last bit. I just don’t see the connection there. The NPC should be able to do what the author wants it to do in response to the player’s actions, according to what is the meaning he or she wishes to be produced from the game. I don’t believe that an NPC ‘should’ be able to do any more than that. It ‘should’ only do what’s required to achieve the meaning while disguising its computational nature, and nothing more. I can understand the POV that you’d prefer the NPC to be able to do whatever the PC can, but I can’t see it as a requirement for a good NPC.

OK these are good points, and you’re right of course that even if I were to implement an ‘objectless’ NPC, technically it would not be objectless, because I even if I didn’t have an NPC object wandering the rooms in a player-like fashion, I would still have to create an NPC object (as scenery, or just a global noun) just to intercept the player’s inevitable attempts to poke and prod any named entity.

I see what you meant now by ‘fake/notfake’: even though everything is technically fake, you were trying to draw a perhaps-overbroad distinction to make a point. I’m hoping you might similarly see the point I was trying to make by distinguishing ‘objectified’ from ‘folded into the narrative’, even though everything typable probably technically needs an object created, at least to attach error messages. I’m perfectly willing to abandon my distinction if it means you will understand my actual point, instead of us getting lost in definitions.

So to that end, let’s say that I back off and say that I meant that an NPC (by my definition, or just an ‘ancillary character’ if you wish) does not have to be an object intended to be manipulated with verbs, in order to be a rich emotional part of the narration, and that this allows you to get away with a lot more (as evidenced in the games maga listed) without exposing the personality to such a harsh test of direct interaction that it is likely to fail. I agree that it’s a cheat (I find this word better than ‘fake’) but it’s a damn good cheat, and most of art is a cheat, anyway, so I really have no problem with it and in fact prefer it to conversational systems, because conversations that don’t make sense actually bug me a lot in IF. I hatesss them preccioussss… 8)

I had a little trouble following the last half of this paragraph, but I can tell that if we get too far into definiing this stuff, I’m going to get sidetracked as well, by the fact that I don’t think the standard parser grammar makes any sense in a 2nd-person game. The narrator tells me, ‘You do X.’ So I type ‘Do Y.’ But that is an imperative sentence, which means that there is an implicit ‘you’ at the start. ‘You do Y.’ So who is the ‘you’ that I am referring to in my command there? It can’t be the PC, because the narrator calls the PC ‘you’, meaning me, the person typing commands. And this is the point where my head starts to hurt and I start to think that writing IF in 2nd person is for the birds. But like I said – sidetracked.

Is there any other way? This is pretty much the way I type all the time. 87

I feel like I have answered this at least somewhat in my response to your notes on the necessity of objects, above. Essentially, yes at least a token object would probably be required – just not emphasised as a target of action. i.e. you could try things, but the NPC for whatever story-based reason, is not amenable to your direct attempts at conversation. (My favourite excuse is to write story in third person, explicitly separating the player from the PC, and then just have the PC unwilling to take dictation. My error message for ASK DUDE ABOUT X is simply, ‘The [PC] can speak for him/herself.’ So I put the stop sign between the player and the PC, not between the PC and the NPC. I find it works smoother this way, but you really have to go first or third person.



Not directly interactable does not mean not able to be influenced indirectly; after all, the NPC will likely witness all the player’s actions, and that could be huge, if those actions have meaning. Also, not directly interactable does not mean ‘static’. (Even further, non-conversational does not actually mean non-interactable – there are degress of interactibility and we are both trying to turn a spectrum into a dichotomy for the sake of debate, but I didn’t really focus on that in this thread; I lumped them together too, so let’s not go there and complicate everything.)

You did a great job. I took apart only what I could.

Nah, I would consider topic selection menus to fall foul of my line in the sand: just another conversation interface by slightly other means. Your references to ‘flashbacks’ is quite key, actually – think about just how much narrative territory that could entail. But the only problem with flashbacks is that since they happen in the past, the NPC can’t really adjust his behaviour to account for witnessing the player’s recent actions, so it would risk falling into your ‘too static’ sandtrap. But how about flashforwards? 87

Well I can agree with you there. NPCs are harder, regardless of how you do them, just not so much harder or as restrictive as many seem to think – if you eschew direct conversational verbs.

Yes true and a good point, which I concede.

THanks for the good talk so far, too bad it’s so far off-topic, but maybe the OP will benefit from a glimpse into what kinds of issues we all wrestle with.


I agree. Because the character exists in the game world in the same way any other implemented character does, any other character should ideally be able to do whatever the PC does - the only difference being, one is PC and the other is NPC, i.e., the agency behind them is the P or the NP. However, in practice, just like you said, it’s not really required. If you fake it well enough, both you and your audience will be satisfied.

I can get behind that. :slight_smile: This seems to be the stage we find out we’ve been saying the same thing, only using different words.

My girlfriend is already rather jealous that this discussion is taking up so much of my time, so let’s agree not to complicate for now. :slight_smile: Your post has already elucidated to me why you disagree that it would automatically create a Myst-game.

I started playing role-playing games way before I started worrying about literary theories. That’s where my understanding of “NPC” comes from - from tabletop RPG:s - and to me it just a complete no-brainer that the voice of the narrator in IF is much more akin to what the game master is saying about the world, and that this is not the voice of an NPC.

Which is why I find @Laroquod’s perspective refreshing, and I feel a bit like a geek for thinking of IF more like RPG:s and less like other literature. But out of curiosity: Laroquod, did you not play RPG:s as a teenager?

Yes I did! Lots of them; however, I also feel that the gamemaster is the voice of an NPC. After all, who actually plays the NPCs at the table? But for perspective, I have always been into English lit – so even in the days I was into D&D, I was trying to take it seriously and think about what it meant as a literary form, and I often thought back then, realising my own awesome power as DM to ‘fix’ situations, that fundamentally the rules are kind of a smokescreen (much like ‘objects’ in IF) and the DM is actually in control, regardless of whether he/she is playing an NPC, consulting a rulebook, or saying ‘Once Upon a Time…’ I bet if you have DMed a lot, when it comes to the dice you know what I mean; I just took that second step and applying the same lessons to the NPCs. I feel like Dungeon Mastering taught me a lot about what you can get away with interactively, but it’s a lot harder in computer games, because in pen ‘n’ paper, people can’t look behind the curtain by pressing ‘restart’ on the session and trying different choices this time and checking how truly interactive is this?

How the two types of gaming cross over is a great topic that probably deserves a big thread (I’m sure it’s had several already back in the mists of time). But as to your characterisation, for me at least it was not as simple as RPGs = unmediated NPCs, vs. literature = mediated characters. I felt that they were both mediated. However, some DMs play very differently. I knew a DM who, when the PCs sort of accidentally drifted apart, refused to contrive any circumstances to bring them back together, because ‘there was no logical reason they would run into each other again in the vast territory’. Therefore, the campaign had to be over. That is pretty hardcore! Not like my play style at all, I’d be like, ‘Everybody bored of those characters? Yes? OK guess what, they never see each other again. Wait, you want to play them again? Oh hold on, I just realised that a wizard zapped them inexplicably all into a room together…’ 87

Anyway I just wanted to tell that story, I dunno how relevant it really is, except that for the DM to truly be not the voice of any characters, he or she would have to take a weird hardcore approach to their motivations and keep them independent of his or her own goals for the narrative – and that’s not the way I’ve ever seen anybody play, except for that one (I thought) weird guy.

The way I’ve always played, the NPCs are like pawns for the DM to use as needed to move the plot along and keep it interesting. If the DM is good, you don’t notice it. If the DM is bad, or just being lazy at the moment, he says something like ‘A wizard did it’ as I just did above and it’s quite transparent (sometimes quite funny), but in my experience, whether subtle or overt, the fix is always in.

Or author, or NP. I never really thought of it as being the “narrator” any more than I think about the images in a graphic adventure, or that my clicking in a graphic adventure is directed at someone the way verbs in IF are. In fact, I never thought about any of this, which is why Laroquod caused me to think so much about it. :slight_smile: I’m not sure anyone is saying the narrator is the voice of an NPC, however.

I kind of still am, but it may be an overstatement. Let me go back to the idea of the character being ‘mediated’, or maybe let me put it closer to the way I learned it in a lit class: the person who is reporting all the characters’ thoughts and words to you, is the narrator. If the narrator is unreliable, then so are the thoughts and words of all the characters. Compare with a news article: if the reporter is unreliable, then you can’t trust any of the quotions. Even though things are in quotation marks, the reporter is still the reporter of those things; he or she is reporting what other people said. Similarly, even though the DM might put on a funny voice to play an NPC, or a book might put things in quotes, it is still the gamemaster/narrator who is narrating those things. THey are quotations being narrated to you by a narrator – they are both the voice of the NPC and the voice of the narrator – there is no such thing as a narratorless quotation.

These ideas are all very closely tied up with the idea of an unreliable narrator, when they become extremely important.

I think it depends on each story: in some you’ll have a personal narrator, and in others an impersonal narrator. There’s no hard rule saying whether or not the narrator should be considered an NPC.

I actually remembered something much simpler. When I first started playing IF, having never played D&D, the game itself (Zork, Adventure, and quitre a few others) actually came out and said “I, the computer, will be your eyes and ears. Tell me what you want to do and I’ll see that it’s done”.

I suppose I’ve been typing instructions for the COMPUTER all this time, then, even though we’ve since then shifted quite a few paradigms. There’s me and there’s the COMPUTER.

Yes, this. It’s pretty much the same thing as in static fiction, where the narrative voice is often identified with the protagonist’s perspective even when it’s written in third person. In that case, the narrator isn’t an NPC; it’s something more akin to the PC talking to themselves. As a rule of thumb, if the narrative voice is in conflict with the PC - whether in voice, motivation, knowledge, whatever - then the narrator is an NPC.

(It’s been brought up in recent years that IF, thanks to default parser responses and received writing patterns, does tend to have a standard narrative voice - a snarky, academic, somewhat prudish deadpan. Efforts have been made to get a more neutral tone, in large part because of the implicit assumption that the narrator is by default the same character as the PC.)

Unless of course the impersonal narrator is also omniscient, then it’s ‘personal’ to and represents everybody and everything, rather than nobody. (Not that I really favour the kind of total omniscience for the narrator I’ve demonstrated below, but it’s been done in fiction plenty.)

The reason the author has total freedom to peak into any character’s head they wish, is because the narrator actually ‘represents’ every character mentioned, which is merely disguised in the case of a highly personal first-person tale. It is disguised by the word ‘I’, and by refraining from directly describing other people’s thoughts — nothing more.

Also, I am trying to show that the difference between a PC and an NPC is so thin as to not actually be very meaningful, narratively speaking. The only way you can detect which is the PC below is by which one follows the commands. That’s an interface difference, not a narrative one.

[code]Sue walks into the bar. Jack is there. He’s always at the bar. Sue can’t remember seeing him move from that spot in years.

Sue sidles up and slaps a fifty on the table. Frank pours her the usual. Jack looks over at her with one eye, and a slight nod. And then that eye turns inevitably downward toward that 50 dollar bill.

“Just got paid?” says he.
“Just got fired,” she shoots back, with a smile. “Wanna celebrate?”

Jack just looks away and drains his shotglass, no longer interested.

Sue slides the beer over to him, practically under his nose, but Jack just sneers.

“Whisky,” says he. “And we’ll talk.”

Frank pours both of them another round, while Jack thinks over what he’s going to say next. He knows Sue is here about The Book, but he also knows that she won’t ask him directly. She wouldn’t dare.

Wasting no time, Sue pulls out The Book and slams it on the table. “Care to talk about this?” she says.

Jack is so taken aback he’s made a half-turn in his seat – an alarming amount of action for him, which Sue picks up on. “Not here,” says he, glancing around, suddenly off his game, thinking ‘Damn. I may have underestimated this one.’

“Out back,” he adds, picking up his drink and stalking toward the rear door. “And for Pete’s sake, put that thing away.”[/code]

Sure. But this is vanishingly rare in IF, and that isn’t because IF authors haven’t thought of it yet. (Feel free to make a game that contradicts this.)

I’m not sure which parts of this you mean to be true of IF generally, and which you mean to be true just of the particular fragment you’re describing.

I don’t think, outside the context of bloodless theory, that this distinction can generally be tidily sustained. In actual gameplay, narrative and modes of player interaction are heavily entangled: the sort of narrative you get is deeply tied into the sorts of things that the player spends their time doing, and the ways that they express those actions.

Just because few have found a particular technique worthwhile doesn’t mean definitions should be set up to omit it. I probably wouldn’t choose an omniscient narrator but that has no effect on whether I think it should be covered by the models we use to think. It is very easy to set up a self-sustaining philosophical echo chamber in which one constantly misses creative opportunities because one has essentially defined things so they don’t exist. I’m not saying that anyone in particular is missing things, I’m just saying I would miss important possibilities if I didn’t think in this way making distinctions or eliding them in ways that don’t seem to matter at first. It’s the source of most of my formal creativity.

I admit I muddied it a little but I was really addressing the first paragraph generally but the second toward my sample text.

Good point. They aren’t tidily separated but I still think the point I was making with that distinction is important – that it is way moire significant than the PC/NPC thing.

Also the commands in a game could be interpreted to apply to either the PC or NPC, depending on context. I haven’t seen it done but it’d bust up these categories even further.