Ergodic Characters

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

While much of the attention towards ergodic fiction has been focusing on plot (either dynamic or multiple-path), its characters still lack complexity and expressiveness. In this paper we will explore two different techniques to face this problem.

One major issue in videogames is the lack of personality in user-controlled characters. In other words, the author of a videogame cannot give a deep personality to her character, because the user will be the one who will control it. For example, you cannot design a melancholic, non-violent character, if there is a knife available in the environment. Many users would just take the knife and start a Doom-like game, turning the originally pacifist character into a serial killer. The designer can obviously prevent the user from manipulating harmful objects. However, through this arbitrary rule, users will see their freedom limited. This would also diminish the environment's coherence: why some objects can be manipulated and other cannot?

So, how can we restrain the users' freedom of choice without disappointing she? Actually, the game structure does exactly that. Games set rules that limit the user's actions and usually players accept them as natural. Thus, the simplest workaround to achieve our goal is to transform the character impersonation into a game. Instead of "being" the character, the user would "pretend to be" the character. If the user does not behave according to her role, the elements of the environment (including other characters) will react in a way that may difficult the user's performance in the game.

All these elements do not necessarily imply major technical difficulties for its realization. The idea, a simple change of point of view in the traditional perspective of ergodic characters, is almost banal. However, current videogames have not explored this path, which, as we will show, can open interesting possibilities.

In videogames, the usual metaphor is "the user IS the character". Some time ago, we proposed a system ("A Blueprint for Laura") where the user was not the character. Instead, he was just able to modify the environment in order to affect the independent, computer-controlled, main character. We propose to upgrade this system, adding user-controlled secondary characters, while keeping the main one controlled by the computer.

A clear way to explain this is using the movie "The Truman Show" as an example. In this movie, Truman is not aware that his life is an illusion, taking place on a TV set, where everybody he knows are actors. Now imagine "The Truman Show" as a videogame, where Truman is an independent character, and the user just controls the environment and secondary characters. The goal is to keep Truman thinking that his world is real, while trying to influence on his actions.

In such a system, we not only break with the convention "the user is the main character", but we are also able to have a main character (controlled by AI) with a richer and deeper personality. Now the author has much more control over his character than in traditional videogames. The "pretender" technique can be used in this system to control the secondary characters, who have to act without doing any suspicious action that let Truman suspect about his condition.

(Source: DAC 1999 Author's abstract)

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Scott Rettberg