Thursday, December 1, 2016

The problem with making a game that's self aware

I'm not talking about artificial intelligence here.  Fiction of any kind can be written in a self aware manner.  The characters in a book realize they're in a book, for example.

Games can be the same way, but they risk a serious problem.  The problem is recognizing bugs as bugs instead of the self-awareness of the game.

I was a beta tester once on a game where it was just an ordinary (action-adventure FPS-RPG) story unless you stumbled upon/sought out enough indications that the world wasn't the world.  Touch the sky, find a place with a default texture, hit a glitch, do . . . whatever.

If you hit enough of them then the player character could put the pieces together and either play out the game as if they didn't know or decide to break free of the bonds of the game.

So I was testing, and I was doing that ending, and I convinced a debugging subroutine to crash the all powerful (within the game) entity that controlled the game's universe and kept everyone doing what they were supposed to be doing instead of going all free-will on the player.

The debugging subroutine went forward with the plan to insert bad code into the game-world and thus crash the whole thing and . . . the game crashed.  Crash to desktop, don't remember the error number.

I never reported that as a bug.  I didn't realize it was a bug.

As it turned out there was an entire cinematic that went with that ending and the game was not, in fact, supposed to crash to desktop.  Fortunately someone else noticed the problem and thus it was fixed before release.

But that's the risk you run.  If you're letting the player see behind the curtain and notice the unpainted surfaces or the things that appear to be full structures but are instead just facades, then the player often has no way to distinguish between when you're doing that on purpose, and when it's a real live mistake.

Thus: Teen Titans the GameCube game.  The Teen Titans, animated iteration at least, well before Teen Titans Go, got to deal with things that were less serious than other DC things.  On the other hand . . . you know what?  Footnote.  On the other hand: *.

But, in addition to the other hand [Added] which is back on the first hand, for those keeping track [/Added], they dealt with some less serious things.  Becoming trapped inside of a video game is exactly the sort of plot that fits their style and, all things considered, not a particularly bad premise for a video game.  Certainly if it had been a TV episode people would wonder, "Why the fuck can't I play this videogame?"

Things start out seeming fairly normal, they begin to pick up hints that things aren't, finally realize that they are, in fact, inside a game, and that's when the game starts having fun with itself.

You bump into unfinished parts where the geometry is there but the textures aren't.  At one point to progress you have to walk through a clipping error.

Clipping errors have been an unintentional part of games for a long time.  Long enough that the usage here is basically fossilized idiom.  The exact same code was used for occlusion detection (occluded surfaces are clipped off/out hence the name) as collision detection, and so "clipping error" could refer to a problem in either domain.  In these modern times that's no longer necessarily the case.

The "glitch" that managed to fool me into thinking that the game had actually gone wrong was falling through the floor.  This is something that happens all too often in AAA games.  Everything seems to be going fine and then, suddenly, you drop through the ground and that's it.  You fall through infinite void.

If you're lucky you're playing a game by a publisher that hasn't turned into a full fledged Knight of the Anti-Cheat Crusaders and you can quickly type in a console command that frees you from the bonds of gravity and begin the long climb back up to the world.  Maybe.  Doesn't always work.  If there was any horizontal component to your fall or ascent you're definitely screwed.  Even if not, you may not be saved by the combined powers of masslessness and lack of conservation of momentum.

On a console, you're probably fucked no matter who made the game.

Playing a GameCube game (resolution 640x480) at 3840x2160 on a system that is not fifteen years old is something that involves a lot of going beyond what was intended anyway so some problems are to be expected.

So even though the game had already shown complete self awareness that it was a game and had thrown various fake bugs and glitches at me, that one I believed was real.

Then the game brought up the oddness of falling out of the world, there was combat, and things shortly moved on.

Perhaps it was that the game successfully managed to fake me out with that, but when I found myself on an (occluded) wireframe cargo ship fighting hordes of mundane enemies in an unwinnable boss fight (because the boss wasn't there) . . . it took me a very long time to realize that the game had glitched for real.  I kept on looking for some fake bug that would let me win instead of realizing that a real bug was the only reason I couldn't.

I was looking for a wall or floor I could glitch through, anything to get out of the area I was stuck in so I could track down the boss I was supposed to fighting.  But it was a real glitch for once: the boss was supposed to be there and wasn't.  No progress until you beat the boss, and you can't beat the boss because there is none.

But it took me forever to realize it was a mistake because, by the time the game got there, I had been trained to believe that apparent bugs were part of the story.

And that's the danger in self aware games.  Once you've taught the player to take views behind the curtain in stride, the player doesn't realize when they've wandered off of the stage entirely, or a cast member unexpectedly failing to showing up is really real instead of part of the script.

The same thing can happen in other media.  A movie that subtly breaks continuity to hint at this or that will have actual errors latched onto for epileptic tree theories.  Though not the epileptic tree theory, as that wasn't a movie and was a result not of errors so much as the people running the show having no idea what the fuck they were doing.

Hide codes within a story and pretty soon you'll have interpretations hinge on an honestly accidental typo.

When "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" was recorded, McCartney fucked up.  The final verse was supposed to be:
Happy ever after in the market place
Desmond lets the children lend a hand
Molly stays at home and does her pretty face
And in the evening she's a singer with the band
McCartney accidentally swapped the names of Desmond and Molly which makes the song make no sense.  People have spent 48 years trying to make it make sense.  It doesn't make sense.

The Beatles reportedly liked the mistake (in spite of at least half of them not liking the song itself) and intentionally left it in the version of record as well as intentionally putting it in the versions they played live after that.

You can read volumes on what people read into the name reversal at the end of the song.  Then again people thought "Come Together" was a secret message that McCartney was dead so . . .

I've lost any kind of closure I might have tacked onto the end of this post, and my brain might be a bit overheated.


* One of their major characters (even though she wasn't around for that long) was a homeless not-by-choice girl who was run out of every place she stayed more than a few days in, probably had lots blood on her hands through no fault of her own, thought she was betrayed by her only friend, was taken in by a manipulator intent on turning her into the perfect child solider, felt that duty and obligation forced her to do things she knew were wrong, was abandoned by the only friend she ever had, had her psyche shattered by that, was further manipulated as part of the perfect child soldier project, was forced to (she thought) kill people she once cared for, had those people turn around and try to kill her, lost her bodily autonomy, and finally did the right thing leading to her pseudo-dying, and, depending on how you view the mind-screw ending, may have had here entire sense of self ripped out of her leaving her with nothing whatsoever except the, presumably externally imposed, role of high school student (or may have retained her memory but abandoned all of her hopes and dreams because pursuing them led to soul-crushing-ness, or . . . it was a mind-screw, there are many possibilities.)

Keep in mind that all of the content in the previous, very long, sentence, refers to a character who, though major, was featured in only a handful of episodes.

The show wasn't afraid of going to very serious (and dark) places, though it did it in an upbeat vaguely anime inspired way, and it had plenty to time to visit those places.

So while it had the opportunity to do dark themes, it tended to do them with a sort of safe remove that insulated one from losing all hope and all faith in humanity.  This might be how generally avoided serious dissonance when it shifted between dark+serious and light+fluffy.


  1. Seed of Bismuth from Fred Clark's Left Behind decon
    good article about the problems of meta-games and meta-stories in general also yes teen titan cartoon is the greatest and yes Terra is a true tragedy as in good story, and not you know the writers tragically mishandles a character.
    [fan theory Spoilers] Rot13
    jura Fynqr ernavzngrq uvzfrys gurer jurer bgure synfurf bs fbhyf rfpncvat gung ner gur zbafgre gurl svtug va gung rcvfbqr naq Green'f gura lbh unir gur frnfba svir unccravat fb fur unf gvzr gb perngr n snxr vqragvgl naq fgneg n "abezny" yvsr jvgu cbffvoyr ha/xabja uryc sebz Fynqr, V fgvyy gbff hc ba vs fur fgvyy unf urer cbjref? your thoughts?

    1. Ok, spoiler stuff:

      Onfrq ba jung "Qba'g pnyy zr Green" fnvq ng gur raq, fur'q qrsvavgryl Green. Vg'f cbffvoyr gung Ornfg Obl oebhtug ure zrzbevrf onpx bire gur pbhefr bs ... onfvpnyyl gelvat gb qb whfg gung. Vg'f cbffvoyr fur xarj sebz gur ortvaavat.

      Zhygvcyr gurbevrf jrer chg sbejneq va gur fubj sbe ubj fur pbhyq unir pbzr onpx: Bar bs Enira'f fcryyf jbexrq jvgubhg Enira ernyvmvat vg (harkcrpgrq qrynlrq ernpgvba creuncf), Fur serrq urefrys, gur rssrpg jber bss.

      V'q nqq "Jura rirelbar ba rnegu jnf qr-crgevsvrq, cbfg Gevtba, fur jnf gbb." Juvpu vfa'g zragvbarq ohg frrzf gbb boivbhf gb yrnir bhg.

      Gung fur serrq urefrys vf gur bayl bar gung unf qverpg vzcyvpngvbaf ba ure cbjref. Vs fur ghearq urefrys sebz ebpx gb syrfu nf cneg bs n gjb(?) frnfba ybat cebprff gura fur unf ure cbjref, naq yvxryl unf n yriry bs pbageby sne orlbaq jung fur unq rira jvgu Fynqr'f uryc.

      Gung fur eriregrq va gur cbfg Gevtba qrcrgevsvpngvba vf gur fvzcyrfg rkcynangvba orpnhfr vg onfvpnyyl obvyf qbja gb "Jura qvq fur fgbc orvat n fgnghr? Gur fnzr gvzr nf rirelbar ryfr."

      Enira qbrfa'g guvax vg jnf bar bs ure fcryyf, fb gung frrzf gb znxr vg yrff yvxryl.

      Gung vg jber bss qbrfa'g ernyyl srry yvxryl gb zr, vg frrzf yvxr gung jbhyq or n tenqhny cebprff naq gurl'q unir abgvprq fbzrguvat jnf unccravat onpx orsber rirel cyna unq snvyrq jura gurl jrer fgvyy npgviryl gelvat gb serr ure.

      Sna gurbevrf, yvxr lbhe bja, ner fbzrjung uneqre gb rinyhngr orpnhfr gurl vaibyir zber, "Vs jr nffhzr guvf, gura jr pna pbapyhqr gung," naq jr'er arire ernyyl fher vs jr fubhyq nffhzr gur guvf.

      So . . . I don't see anything wrong with you theory, but I, personally, would prefer to go with one of the ones proposed in the show or elephant in the room Trigon thing.

    2. Seed of Bismuth from Fred Clark's Left Behind decon
      (facepalm)[rot 13]
      V pna'g oryvrir V arire gubhtug bs Gevtba'f syrfu gb fgbar phefr/erzbiny orsber. Ohg V guvax V xabj jul naq jul V arire gubhtug vg jnf ure cbjref gung vf V nyjnlf nffhzrq gung fur jnf n Tubfg bs Cbzcrvv rssrpg engure guna n zntvpny crgevsvrq.
      gung vf gur grra gvgnaf erirefnyf qvqa'g jbex orpnhfr gurl jrer gelvat gb erivir n pbecfr ab abg rira gung gurl jrer gelvat gb erivir n sbffvy ohg v'yy rzvg gung jnf na nffhzcgvba ba zl cneg gung zntvp pubbfrf gur zvavzhz nzbhag bs nygrengvba bs abezny culfvpf fb fur jnf erzbivat urng sebz fgbar naq gung urng unq gb tb fbzrjurer fb vg jrag vagb gur nve fheebhaqvat ure guhf vafgnag pneobavmngvba.
      naljnl vg'f pbby gung green vf terra in rot13

    3. Mentioning Pompeii somehow had the power to make me absurdly happy, so thanks for that.

      And, for the record, I do find your theory interesting.

    4. your happy about people dying in pyroclastic fury? I kid, I kid thanks for finding the theory interesting but can't get over never seeing the Trigon shaped elephant in the room.

    5. Pyroclastic Fury = great band name

      This has probably been said elsewhere.