January 3rd, 2012

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Faceted Soul

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012

One of the fundamental challenges with making a game that is focused on an historical narrative is that by definition, much of the story is pre-ordained. While we do want the player to be able to make meaningful choices and experiment with alternate histories, it’s imperative to us that the core narrative of the Lewis and Clark expedition is still conveyed. Not to mention, every possible deviation from the main branch of the story requires additional production work. (Which is a problem in most other RPG’s as well.) While most RPGs make the player’s character a tabula rasa, it is important to us that Lewis’s intricate personality is conveyed. Rather than allowing players to choose any identity, we want players to instead create their own “tweaked” version of Lewis.

This problem primarily manifests itself in dialogue trees. Since conversations are our main source of narrative progression, as well as our primary window into Lewis’s mind, we decided to try to tackle both issues with a single solution: most decisions should hinge around how Lewis approaches something he does, rather than what he does.

One of the first steps in identifying how Lewis might approach decisions was to identify the various aspects of Lewis’s personality. To help focus a broad task, we decided that the identified aspects should be those that relate to the expedition, to how we are portraying Lewis, and to aspects that are perceptible through our medium. We identified a number of aspects and eventually were able to combine them into four facets: leader, soldier, diplomat, and scientist. These facets directly relate to Lewis’s (and the player’s) “authentic professional identity.”, as James Gee says, “a distinctive way of seeing, knowing, acting in, and valuing the world.” (Gee, James. Video Game Are Good For Your Soul. p57.)

There are certainly many other facets we could have chosen, many of which were not particularly relevant to the game. For instance, we could have focused on his life as a planter or secretary to Jefferson. Alternately, we could have included more generalized facets, such as “friendship”, which could have largely focused on his relationship with Clark.

Each choice in a dialogue tree will be associated with one of the facets. The association is conveyed by a small icon next to the choice. We plan to associate the leader facet with choices that reflect decision, command, honor, inspiration, and passion. The soldier facet represents rules, battle, following orders, and duty. Diplomat reflects negotiation, compromise, friendship, peace, mercy, and respect. And the scientist facet represents curiosity, intelligence, nature, medicine, ethnography, instruments, and journal-keeping.

It is important to us that these facets are directly tied to the gameplay and are more than just flavor. Whenever a player chooses a dialogue option, the related facet’s “level” increases by a point. This allows players to craft their own version of Lewis — not too far deviated from the historical Lewis, but customized enough to feel personal. These facet levels are integrated into the game in two ways. The first and most direct is that each dialogue choice has a minimum threshold at which your facet’s level must be (otherwise it will be disabled). So if you specialize in a facet, you will tend to always be able to choose that facet, but you may prevent yourself from switching to a different facet down the line. If you generalize, you will generally be able to choose any dialogue option, but may be locked out of certain facets in extreme specialist situations. There are some ways to lower the threshold required for each facet, but their discussion is not important here.

This system is actually quite similar to Mass Effect and especially Mass Effect 2 (both of which are influential on other aspects of the writing as well.) They use the concept of having a minimum threshold for dialogue choices. The primary difference is that the two “facets” used in Mass Effect, paragon and renegade, are diametrically opposed, and only apply to the extreme versions of choices. We aim to instead relate one of the facets to every possible choice.

Each facet is also related to the gameplay in at least one way outside of conversations. The leader facet influences the party’s morale, soldier increases your marksmanship ability; diplomat gives you a bonus when trading and gift-giving; and scientist gives you a bonus when discovering plants and animals and when playing the medicine minigame.

Melancholy is a fifth facet that works in a completely different way. This facet represents Lewis’s depressive personality, his self-reflection, and his struggle to reintegrate with society upon his return. Whenever Lewis is unsuccessful at a task, or doesn’t “get his way”, his melancholy stat increases. If it ever reaches a certain level, the player is not allowed to converse with other characters. The player can reduce melancholy by simply “walking it off”, but reduces it faster through exploration, hunting, and discovery.

We have been experimenting with this new style of facet-based dialogue while we create content for our Fort Clatsop level. The above screenshot (with placeholder art) shows a conversation with Colter, in which you can reply as either a leader (the black espontoon icon), in which you discipline him for his carelessness; as a soldier (the red rifle icon), telling him to “man up” and ordering him to solve the problem himself; or as a diplomat (the blue handshake icon), telling him to let bygones by bygones in order to maintain good relations with the Chinook.

I’m currently reading The Character of Meriwether Lewis by Clay Jenkinson. In the preface, Jenkinson calls Lewis a “fractured soul.” I think he’s correct – but for our purposes I want to think of him as a “faceted soul.” Clay’s book has helped further my understanding of Lewis’s personality and I hope as I finish it I have some more insight. Likewise, as we continue to produce more conversations in this style, I hope our ideas will come to full fruition.