Ghost Writer

I was recently playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution. It’s well-made and manages to fill the planet-sized shoes left by its predecessor, the original Deus Ex.

The DX games are renown for giving the player a sizable amount of agency. Naturally, whenever I meet an important story-critical character, I surround them with live grenades.

The grenades detonate. But as long as a character is critical to the story, the grenades don’t leave a scratch of damage. Why? Because, well, the character is critical to the story. Casablanca would be a pretty short movie if Ilsa was killed off after the opening credits.

You need to keep the love interest around because you need to ultimately ride off into the sunset together. You need to keep the villain alive because you need that climactic final showdown. You need to keep the spunky best friend alive long enough to generate a bond, then you kill him off to propel the protagonist into a raging rampage of a third act.

To which I say: yeah, but this is a video game. It’s interactive: you can poke and prod and steer, and the game can respond in kind. What happens if you lock the antagonist’s keys in his car? How will your love interest respond to your secret double-life of underground breakdancing?

One of the most fascinating aspects of games is transferring authorial control to the player. This is certainly not the only way or best way to make games, but it’s something I find most compelling about the medium.

Let’s take DX for example. Under the hood, DX is a variation on a Choose Your Own Adventure story. Decisions you make ripple out and affect other characters and the story.

For every decision fork, the developers have to create more content, resulting in “more” everything - more art development, more animations, more designer scripting, more writing, more recorded dialogue, more bugs, more QA testing - more of everything. It’s a production nightmare. I’m always very impressed whenever a game with branching structure turns out polished and complete.

I’d love to see someone take the general DX framework - an agent tackling problems aggressively, stealthily, diplomatically, what have you - and scale it down. Instead of several cities, make it take place in a tight, richly-detailed area. Say, a hotel restaurant.

On top of that, remove the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure scripting and have the characters behave autonomously (I’m going to be very hand-wavey and vague here, so bear with me). Instead of following a script, story characters “improvise” via granular AI decisions.

Let’s say at game start, character roles are randomly assigned.

Drop these personalities into a constrained area. See how they bounce off one other. See how you bounce them around.  On the AI systems’ own accord, various situations emerge:

Now, regarding this mythical game I’m talking about: ideas are a dime a dozen, and execution is where things matter. This is far from being executable. It’s the opposite of bulletproof. It has more holes than a sieve, hence the hand-waveyness. It’s a phenomenal way to lose a frightening amount of money and resources and hair.

And I can’t wait to play it.

Some games that explore these concepts: