My golly-gee education in state-of-the-art-form video games continues. For the past couple nights I’ve been playing Red Dead Redemption, which came out six years ago, or the Pleistocene era in tech terms. I’m coming to understand the possibilities of open world games in which you can just sort of wander around. I’ve shrugged off the main narrative to embark on excursions to a variety of regions in the game’s expansive geography. Last night I found myself in the north, amid trees that evoked my native Pacific Northwest. I hunted coyotes and encountered two guys fighting. I shot them, stole their money and ammunition, and wandered over to another guy who challenged me to some sort of herb-picking contest. When I took out my knife to attack him, he shot me, which returned me to the porch at the ranch where my adventure had begun.
I’m also reading Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter. I’ve always admired Bissell’s writing and remember when this book came out around the same time as Red Dead Redemption. I don’t really know Tom, but we have friends in common, and I remember hearing that he had gone off the deep end, gotten addicted to cocaine, and holed up with video games for days on end. Those of us in the literary community who care about such things shook our heads and figured the world of literature had lost a bright mind to an inferior medium.
It’s dawning on me just how prescient and ahead of the curve Bissell was. He was there to document an extraordinary moment in the evolution of storytelling. I imagine there are a lot of people who would respond to my realization by saying well, duh.
Bissell brings up the concept of a ludonarrative, or a miniature story that depends upon the player’s choices rather than the larger, framing narrative of the game. The framing narrative might be that you have to defeat a posse of outlaws. The ludonarrative might be that you decide to murder a frontiersman and steal his horse. These oftentimes competing narratives result in something called ludonarrative dissonance.
What’s even more interesting to me is that the non-player characters are governed by artificial intelligence. Last night I had beers with Halo lead artist Tom Doyle, who is quickly becoming my go-to advisor on making sense of the world of video games. Tom explained that an AI is essentially a decision tree. This is making me think differently about how to create characters. Instead of fleshing out characters with back stories and attributes, what if I could create an AI that would simply govern what the character chose to do in a variety of situations?
I’m beginning to imagine an explorable open world in VR as vast as the west of Red Dead. If I were to design such a world, I’d make it full of things to do but with no pressure to accomplish anything, with NPCs governed by sophisticated AIs. I’d want the NPCs to behave in weird, unpredictable ways. Sometimes they could even seem crazy, irrational, prone to bizarre outbursts. I’d want to create a world that offered rich aesthetic rewards just for exploring it.
I’m not nearly as interested in solving the objectives that Red Dead Redemption lays out before me than I am in simply discovering the world and engaging in little ludonarratives along the way. The game came with a physical map of the territory, and after playing it the last couple nights I consulted this map to see how much of the world I’d actually explored. Not much, it turns out. There’s so much more to explore. This is true both for this particular game, and the world of video games in general.