While most of the guys at Namaste are reasonably highbrow (well, ok, I’m talking mainly about Stephane and Brian, who are both pen and paper roleplay geeks) I’m actually a bit of a low brow kind of guy. I’m not quite at the level of enjoying fart jokes, but I do enjoy a bit of comedy and deviant behaviour.

So I wanted to explore with this post, some issues I’ve been wrangling with myself about. Namely, how do we use the storybricks toolset we are working on, to create characters rich enough to be funny? Or to be interestingly flawed and/or deviant?

I started thinking about characters that were both funny and broken. One of the characters that popped into my mind was Talkie Toaster from the brit comedy Red Dwarf. Here’s a clip.

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As you can see, he’s a chirpy breakfast companion that is delightfully broken and just a little bit hot bread product obsessed.

There’s something inherently interesting about a character with an obsession for something, but even more so for a character obsessed with something other people wouldn’t be. But how do we go about designing a system that a) actually allows a character like that to function and b) lets the user of the storybricks easily express that type of character?

Making obsessive characters

The (a) part is actually reasonably simple. We employ drives to give characters a purpose. Drives can be things like “do your job” or “protect character x” or “aquire x number of resource units of y”. Drives fight with each other for importance during action selection, which means that we compute how intense the drive is for each occurence and choose the highest value as the priority to pursue. Of course these drives change over time and as events occur, so that characters can react to the world and other characters. But fundamentally we are modelling the self-interest motivation that occurs in human behaviour. Of course there are many different drives, so for instance much like in the sims we might have drives to achieve normal bodily function, like eating, sleeping and going to the bathroom. But it is the more complex drives, like the need to attain social status, or the need to protect another character from harm, that allow for richer meanings to occur.

Getting back to the method of making drives work for this pupose, we can simply make the drive artificially high, indicating an obsession. This would simply select something that would occur naturally, but select it more often and with greater vehemence to keep moving towards achieving the resolution to that particular drive. This brings up an important part of the answer, which is that there is a notion of “expected reward” for fulfilling a drive. All this means is that when you choose to do something, you choose to do it with some future expectation of the gratification involved in that fulfillment. So for instance, I might take on a particularly arduous and complex task, with the expectation that the end result will be gratifying.

One of the interesting things about humans, is that we tend to function not simply from pure logic, but from logic that is altered with emotional experience before we make decisions. This means that instead of simply selecting an action via some logical step, we apply some emotional processing to the selection such that the emotion helps us choose. This is needed, because some choices are unknown and we need a method to still make a choice, so emotion gives us a push in a particular direction. But perhaps more importantly, emotions give us some warning that choices are actually not good for us. A classic example is told by Antonio Damasio in the book “Descartes Error” where he recounts the tale of Phineas Gage. Gage was a rail worker in the US who was helping build a railroad and one day had an accident that damaged his brain. The area of brain damage did not effect his logical function, memory or reason. But it did damage his emotional processing. What happened after the accident is a sad tale, but essentially it ended up that Gage was no longer able to apply emotion to his decision making and as such made poorer and poorer choices for his actions because he had no way to “feel” about the correctness of the choice and its consequences. He couldnt tell when a deal he was entering into was a good one. He had no feeling for the mood of other people or when he was being used.

I point this out, because it is important to understand how emotion colours action. Just as we have drives for our basic needs, we have drives for our pschological ones too. I’m not sure about the definition of clinical obsession, but it seems reasonable that we can express obsession within the system by applying both a hightened drive for the item being obsessed about, plus a more intense emotional reward for the attainment, interaction, or ownership of that obsessive item. Basically, we model in a simplistic way, the human behaviour of obsession.

How do you author obsession?

So getting to point (b) earlier. How do we create storybricks that allow us that level of control?

My first thought, is that we have modifiers on “wants” bricks. So instead of “x wants y” we might have “x wants y *how*” with the *how* being something like “obsessively”. The same could apply to “x likes y” and similar bricks too. Obsessive relationships that are one sided tend to be quite dramatic after all.

But I’m not entirely sure that’s how people express notions such as obsession when they think of authoring. “Jane is obsessed with reading the Harry Potter books” is a simple statement, but how would we express this in terms of bricks? Is she obsessed with reading, or is she obsessed with Harry Potter, or books, or only reading Harry Potter books? Clearly the latter is the intent of the statement. So the brick might be something like “jane wants to” whereis an action she can perform andmodifies the drive of that action.

So it suggests that actions are actually compound. “Read” might be an action, but it only makes sense when applied to one or more books. So maybe the “Read” action part of the “Wants to” brick has a compound that gives the things she wants to read. But also allows for the action to be modified.

There are a lot of things we need to figure out in this way. Both from an execution perspective, so that we can enable the characters to perform the action, but also at an author level, to allow the authors of the story to actually direct it in a way that makes sense. I’m sure that part of our ongoing feedback loop will help us refine the latter, which should help us improve on the former.

So what other types of characters would you find interesting? I’d love to hear the kinds of characters you find interesting so that we can start to form the tools to help build those characters.

Eric Heimberg did a great post about the state of the art for NPC’s that can get us started. But it would be great to hear about more characters you would find interesting. Also, how do you describe those characters and how do you think you would want to describe them in terms of bricks?

Comments welcome as always.