Archive for March, 2011

Worldbin: Creating Realistic Characters

In most games you play now, most of the characters are quite shallow and two-dimensional. This happens because the writers either try to make too many characters appealing to you, and fail, or, most commonly, they just didn’t care. Take, for example, Gears of War. Or Halo: ODST. Or Black Ops. Now tell me something about the characters that isn’t related to how well they can shoot, or how badass they are, or even what their full name is, in some cases. Most characters can be summed up in two adjectives and a noun. The hot, nerdy scientist. The arrogant, loud-mouthed rival. The evil, British antagonist. When the entirety of a character can be said in three words, something is wrong.

The most common set-up is the Five Man Band. It goes a bit like this; (I’m stealing this shamelessly from TvTropes, here)

  • The Hero— The leader of the group. He’ll be a upstanding American bloke, no matter what the setting is, and will adhere to American values, be exceptionally noble, generous, and perfect in every way.
  • The Lancer —  The second-in-command, usually a contrast to The Hero. He’ll make snarky remarks, and bring a touch of humour to the game. He’ll probably be a bit more laid-back than the relentlessly meritorious Hero.
  • The Smart Guy — The physically weak, but intelligent or clever member. He’ll be the youngest, and might wear glasses. He will probably have no real-world knowledge, but can hack a computer in 4 seconds, and will talk constantly in long, long words.
  • The Big Guy — The strongman of the team. May be dumb. Or mute. If he has any characterisation at all, it’ll be that also he is a bit thick and clumsy, but will be soft on the inside, until his comrades are attacked.
  • The Chick —  A peacekeeping role to balance out the other members’ aggression, bringing them to a nice or at least manageable medium. Also the love interest. Because the Hero will be white, she’ll be Black (But not too Black), Asian or Latino. If it’s fantasy or sci-fi, she might have differently coloured skin. Most likely Blue or Green.

Now keeping this set-up is fine, as it is a tried and tested set-up, and should be easy to work with. However, characters need to be expanded on in order to make them both believable and likeable. (unless it’s the antagonist, in which the player should hate him with an ungodly passion) The simplest way to do this is to add another layer to the character, via backstory, sidequest or dialogue, that either explains why the character is how they are, or gives you an insight into how they think, and how they became who they are now. In both cases, this should give you greater understanding and empathy about the character, and maybe even raise some moral questions. In better cases, this should help the plot along. An example.

(Mild Metal Gear Solid 4 Spoilers in the next paragraph. Nothing big, though.)

Johnny Sasaki, from Metal Gear Solid 4. He’s a bit thick, and has a profoundly stupid haircut. He wets himself in combat, and is overpowered many times throughout the series, and is a bit of a joke character. Solid Snake frequently escapes because of his incompetence, and his bouts of Irritable Bowel Syndrome. He constantly draws fire, attracts unwanted enemy attention, and is mostly useless in combat. However, it is later revealed that he never had an injection of the combat nanomachines that every other soldier has due to his fear of needles. These nanomachines control your hormones, share your senses with your teammates, and give people a “combat high” – quicker reactions, faster aiming, and better accuracy. However, when Liquid Snake shuts down all the nanomachines, he suddenly becomes extremely useful, as hardly any of the other soldiers had ever had to fight without their nanomachines doing all the hard work for them, and becomes a great asset to the team.

He is set up originally as a comedic sidekick with some legacy appeal, a standard flat character. But the game explains why he is less effective than everyone else, which, although originally is a nice bit of trivia, and becomes a (minor) plot point later.

Here are a few things you should not apply to your characters, unless you can do it very well.

  • They are the last of their kind.
  • They are the secret heir to the throne.
  • They have sworn vengeance against the murderers of their parents.
  • They have an evil sibling they have to kill.
  • They are stuck in an unwanted arranged marriage.
  • They were abused when they were young. (Seriously, it’ll be trite and spoil the tone, and maybe even destroy the character. Be careful with this one, it’s exceptionally hard to pull off well. Look, don’t even try OK? And don’t say I didn’t warn you…)
  • They are subject to prophecy / are the chosen one.
  • They were born in extreme poverty.
  • They are grieving over the loss of a loved one.
  • They are suffering from a terminal illness.

Now, I’m not saying that these are bad, per se, but just that if you do not construct your character from the ground up with these traits inbuilt, and just try to slap them onto them later, then there is a high chance your whole character concept will fall apart. Here’s some ideas, taking these ideas above, and modelling some possible characters around them.

  • The foolhardy, highly religious character is plagued by visions of the future every night, most of them concerning how he is going to die. This explains how he charged into combat readily, as he knows how and when he will die, but he is so obsessed about death and the afterlife because it is such a prevalent theme in his life.
  • The gallant paladin is conflicted over whether to depose his brother who stole the throne from him, as under the current occupant the country is finally better than ever, and the populace love him for all the improvements he has made. He is happy to seem how the country is now, but he cannot forgive his brother, and is conflicted by this quandary, and instead retreats back into his puritanical teachings for solace.
  • The cheerful spoony bard is in fact noble herself, as in stuck in an arranged marriage, but she requested a grace period in which she could see the world before she takes a much more active role in running the the estate. Her fiancée is likeable, open-minded, and is fairly comely, and she’s quite fond of him, too. It’s a professional, mercantile affair, and will benefit both of their families greatly.

Ah, well, these are just a couple of ideas. Feel free to steal them if you wish.

Gaming: The 3-Act Story

This is a technical post, of a sort, so feel free to skip it if you were expecting more space travel goodness. Basically, it’s an introduction to storytelling in games, with a couple of examples, and some soapboxing at the end.

First of all, here are the 7 plots;

1. The Quest
2. Voyage and Return
3. Rebirth
4. Comedy
5. Tragedy
6. Overcoming the Monster
7. Rags to Riches

However, a couple of these are not applicable in gaming, or at least not for a mainstream game, so in gaming terms, it looks more like this;

1. The Quest – this is the staple of any shooter / RPG / whatever. The plot is “You want to do X! Now do it!”
2. Voyage and Return – The big JRPG one here. “You are in another world / time / dimension! Find a way to return home!”
3. Overcoming the Monster – This is more horror than anything. Plot is “X is bad! Overcome X!”

Now, for a brief explanation of the 3-Act structure.

Act 1 – Set-Up.
The protagonists and antagonists are set up, exposition is given, you learn about the world in which you are set, and the Inciting Incident kicks off the plot. This is the tutorial, when you meet your team, but then your home town is destroyed, and you set off into the big wide world.

Act 2 – Confrontation
You now know who the Big Bad is. Now you grind, do sidequests, and collect all the pieces of the Deus Ex Machina Plot Device to defeat the Evil Empire. You learn more story, visit exotic locations and play through all the loyalty missions. When you have recruited everyone, and reached Level 99, you set out to kill the bad guy.

Act 3 – Resolution
Fight your way through the fortress, defeat the Minibosses. Meet the Bossm, kill him, watch the cutscene, start a New Game Plus.
Standard time allowance is about 10-20% for 1, 60-80% for 2, and 5-10% for 3. Because of the huge amount of time Act 2 has, it can be broken up into 2A and 2B.

2A – This is when you explore your world map, recruit your party, and discover magic. You will meet your first Bosses (outside of Tutorial Bosses) and see what the Antagonists have wrought, and be angry. Meet the people of the land, and marvel that they all sound like white, middle-class Americans, even though they look nothing alike.

2B – Now you’ve specialised, and reached advanced classes. Loyalty missions are here, and you discover all the heavy lore-based stuff. You start to understand the idiosyncrasies of the world further, and do a couple of Serious Moral Choices. The Bosses become more varied, and your party gets all the top-tier gear. Then the suit up and go off to face the Big Bad, and have your horrifically cheesy romance cutscene.
Of course, these Acts only hold true for games with story – RPG’s and the like. Modern Brownfare 8 – Brownfare Evolved can’t have the same level of story. However, it can have a similar set-up – Basic Training, then learn how to use all your weapons, then advanced tactics, then kill the Big Bad Corrupt Multinational. (or something equally bland)

The 3rd Act, however, is where a game can truly shine. It is also where most twists come. (Spoiler – it’s always a betrayal.) If it has been foreshadowed enough, then it can make the game go to new heights, and reveal hidden depths in the world, the story and your companions (Jade Empire, System Shock 2), or make it worse for you due to the twist being trite (Star Ocean 3) or downright confusing (Metal Gear Solid 2).

A risky gambit is the 4th Act. Here’s an example;
1. You meet the Evil Guy. He’s killing people, enslaving them, and forcing them to work down the mines of in his hell-hole empire. He also kiled your father, or something.
2. You meet like-minded revolutionaries, and set out on a quest to restore PollyAnnaLand back to it’s original glory. You disrupt all the evil things he’s done, free slaves, and rob trains. You even find your missing sister/mother/whatever! The people revolt, and you march on the Fortress of Doom.
3. You kill everyone in the Fortress (why else would they be there?) and free the rightful Prince from the dungeons, go to the Throne Room, defeat the Black Dragon of Doom, and prepare to kill the Emperor.

Normally, this is where you chuck him in the dungeons, and watch the sugar-sweet, clichéd epilogue. However, this is where it diverges.

4. The Emperor reveals that Horrible Lovecraftian Monsters are going to invade in world in the next 8 months, and the Ancient Superweapon is the only way of defeating them once and for all. The weapon in question is in the mines, which you have just closed down. He’s really got your best interests at heart, but no-one will believe him if he told them, and if you work down there, you will die within the year. Now the player has to make a Serious Moral Choice about whether to

a) Kill the Emperor or Not
b) Believe him or Not, and
c) Re-open the Mines or Not.

If people don’t expect this, then it can come as a fantastic plot-twist. However, if it is implemented badly, it’ll all fall to pieces. Fable 3 tried to do this, but everyone knew about the twist, and the choices were stupidly polar. (Do you want to destroy the Adorable Woods, and die in a year, or do you want raze them to the ground, kill everything in them, and survive? No, you can’t strip-mine half of the woods. Or reforest somewhere else. Choose one.)
Another 4th Act Twist is changing the genre of the game suddenly, due to an left-field introduction.

Example – a horror shooter. You’re going along, having fun, and have nearly , but then a new strain is released, a gate to Hell opens, or the Mothership arrives, but either way, it’s not good. Everything goes to pot, and you run out of ammo quickly, and the monsters are much, much more powerful than anything you’ve seen recently. Their health can regenerate like yours, and they are quick, jumpy and fast. Your exploration of the derelict ship / scary island / strange town  is now lower priority. You retrace your path through the earlier levels, and try to get to the exit, and back to your ship / vehicle / airplane before you become food.
Most writers have this grand idea of a world, and want to implement it. The set-up is good, too. So that’s Act 1, and some of Act 2. But people tend to forget that it doesn’t stop there, and Act 3 is generally the most disappointing. You’ve got to plan each Act out, scene by scene in some cases, and make sure you try not railroad your players at any opportunity, or make the decisions the character makes illogical. Put a bit more love into your work, and don’t dumb it down for the “mainstream” audiences. They’ll enjoy a good plot as much as the next man.

Gaming: The 1 Hit Point Problem

Health is a tricky concept to put into game systems. There is a whole spectrum of health systems that have propagated over the years, the most prominent at the moment is the fast regeneration, popularised by the Halo series.

The reason regen is popular is simple – it makes the game easier for the designers, and to some extent, the players. In the old days of medkits, if you were a good player, you would get the the climatic boss fight with 100HP remaining. However, if you had screwed up the early stages of the level, you would be fighting it with 15HP. This meant that the level designers had to either put large amounts of health and ammo directly before the boss fight, telegraphing what was about to come, or they could try to balance the boss fight for players with different HP. The second option requires excessive testing, and is expensive, and hard to do. (A good example of this is in Half-Life 2 – when you have lower HP, the Combine get less accurate. Most people don’t notice it, therefore it is a good example.) But with regen, you know how powerful the player will be, meaning it is easier for the designer, and the game requires less testing.

Unfortunately, this also means that weapons now have to do more damage, in order to compensate for people being able to go back to full health after 3 second’s hiding. This is why Call of Duty multiplayer is so fast-paced – the regeneration speed, and resulting increased weapon damage, means that whomever gets the drop wins. Contrast this with, say, Team Fortess 2, where it is a lot slower – you can empty a full clip into somebody, and they still might not die, depending on the characters you are playing. This means that there is a more tactical play, as reflexes are no longer the be-all and end-all.

 

The other way, with fixed-health, as the titular 1HP problem. This is prominent in D&D, and goes a little like this;

I have full health, and can walk, run, climb, swim, fight, whatever. The world is my oyster.
Now I have 1HP, and can do everything I can do at full HP with no penalties, even though I have multiple stab wound, been recently electrocuted, suffered massive blunt-force trauma and am on fire.
Then I take stub my toe, take 1 point of damage, fall over and die. (or bleed out, or whatever)

Perfectly realistic.

The 2 easiest ways to combat this problem is to have  a sliding scale of damage, and the associated penalties.

Sliding scales are always tricky, as they can feel a bit arbitrary, or they can have only quite minor penalties. As someone gets more and more hurt, they get slower, hit lighter, and can’t run as far. In the end, a long-running battle would end up moving at glacial speeds. Locational damage is a good compromise, but is trickier to implement, though Deus Ex did it well. Your body was split into six sections – left arm, right arm, left leg, right leg, torso and head. Each had it’s own health-bar. If you lose one arm, your aim goes shonky and your reloading speed is slow. Lose both, and it’s spray-and-pray with a long reload time. Lose a leg, and you’re hobbled. Lose both, and you are shuffling along the floor at crotch-height. However, if your torso or head goes, you’re dead. As Deus Ex was a shooter, it was relatively easy to assign damage – where you we hit, you took damage. However, other than called shots or random hit tables, it is much harder to implement in tabletop games. (Unless the thing you are attacking is huge – then you can call it simply by which way it is facing, and where you are when you attack it.)

However, due to the advantages of regeneration, and the fact that it is the current status quo, then a way to combine it and static HP is for slow regeneration – you still have 100HP, but you regenerate at 1HP/second, after not being shot at for 15 seconds. This means that when you move from room to room, you will have max health, but in a hectic fire-fight you cannot rely on ducking behind cover for 5 seconds and wiping the jam off your eyes. Medkits are now a combat item, and bullets do not have to be the insta-kills they are in faster-paced games. It’s a nice middle of the road for people who prefer the older style of gaming, but with the convenience of the newer games.

Worldbin: Space Travel.

(Sorry for the gap – I was in Scotland. Nice place, wide open skies and blisteringly cold, but no internet)

Space, as I have already said before, is big. And because it is so big, when you travel across it, you have to go into ludicrous speeds in order to get anywhere anytime soon. Here’s a few real-world projects that have been floated about how to accelerate stuff in a vacuum.

Ion Drives

An ion drive (also called an ion thruster) is quite simple. Space is not empty – it has about 1 atoms/cm3 (this can rise to 1000 atoms/cm3 in gas clouds, however), normally in the form of Hydron nuclei – protons.  Your ship fires these backwards via electrostatic or electromagnetic force, and Newton III means you accelerate because of this. Now, the speeds at which you accelerate are very, very small. However, the energy needed to use the drive is also very, very small, and can easily be powered by solar cells. It is a lot more effective on smaller craft, like probes, as you can have a body that is mostly ion drive. But for larger ships, you need to factor in things like living quarters and air recycling. Also it will take years to get up to any decent speeds, which is not useful for crewed missions. However, as it accelerates, it will move quicker, and cover more space, so fire more protons, and so move quicker still. That’s nice. Also, to slow down – just reverse the polarity of the neutron flow electric field.

Railguns

Yes, you read that right, railguns. Now, I hear you cry, how can a railgun launch ships into space? The atmosphere is too thick and too turbulent to launch from Earth, and without a space elevator, how could we construct one in space? Both are realistic points. Without power beaming, carbon nanotubes and batteries a magnitude more efficient, we cannot have a railgun in space. But we can have one on the ground, as long as we sort out the atmosphere first. Now, I’m not talking about pseudo-scientific weather magic, nor putting the railgun on Mount Everest. All you need is magnetised ice. Ice itself is not magnetic, but if you add iron filings to the water as it congeals, then you can accelerate it in a magnetic field. To launch someone, you will need quite a few megaton, maybe even gigaton, blocks of this ice, as well as your ship. (NB- the ice blocks must be larger in size than the ship, otherwise this will not work at all)

You get a long railgun – several km in length, and in quick succession (and I do mean quick), you fire your ice blocks, then the ship. As the ice hits the atmosphere, it will “burn up” and release high-energy, high-pressure water vapour into the atmosphere in a trail behind it, like a comet. This will mean there will be a low-pressure “tube” where the ice has passed. The second block will go further than the first, as it has less atmosphere in the way, and will extend this “tube”, as well as dropping the pressure of the original tube. As this goes on, you should create a low-pressure, stable area where you can fire you ship. If you time it right, the “tube” should start to collapse at about the time when the next ice block moves through it to stabilise it. But when the ships passes through the near-vacuum, it will collapse behind it, propelling it forwards, and accelerating it further.

The big downside to this, however, is that when the “tube” collapses, there will be some atmospheric fallout because of it. For example, the shockwave. This will deafen anyone without ear protection in a 20km radius, and flatten anything within 5km. All free-standing structures (i.e. everything that isn’t a bunker of 1 storey tall) in about 10km will be destroyed. Then there will be the second shockwave, as the atmosphere rushes backwards, which will do the whole thing over again. Yay. Also – the weather. If you’ve ever seen one of those super-storm things on the TV, you will now be able to see it in real life. And the atmosphere will be exceptionally ionized, due to the passing of the charged ice, meaning that there will be al lot of lightning. So really, this thing is only viable in the desert, where everything is tightly tied down. But still – think of the speeds you would obtain!

Project Orion

This is actually an older idea, first mooted back in 1946. However, you may know it by another name – nuclear propulsion. (Un?)Fortunately, the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (or, to give it it’s full name the “Treaty banning Nuclear Weapon Tests In The Atmosphere, In Outer Space And Under Water”) means that it will never get off the ground. The idea behind it is very simple.

1. Construct a large ship (most likely a colony ship) in Low Earth Orbit, with a large dish at it’s rear that could collect the energy.

2. Move it away from Earth via Ion Drives, or Solid Fuel Rockets, whatever.

3. Detonate many, many nuclear bombs behind it.

You see, nuclear bombs no not need oxygen to work. Only the critical mass. The energy released would propel the ships forwards as it landed on the collecting dish, which it could then use.

The downside to this is that there would be some serious fallout. As in nuclear fallout. The amount of it, and the danger it would pose, would be determined by how far the ship was away from Earth, in which direction it was facing, and how powerful the bombs would be. The “ideal” situation would be when you spend 6 months moving the ship away from Earth, and then hit the big red button. The EMP would do minimal damage, as Earth would be shielded by the Sun, and the fallout should have dissipated and decayed enough to be safe by the next time Earth came around.

So, in summary;

Ion Drives – clean energy for probes to hit c and to boldly go where no man has gone before.

Railguns – launch small crews to Europa, but destroy the surrounding countryside.

Nuclear Propulsion – get rid of the excess nuclear stockpile in order to launch generation ships to Proxima Centauri.