Series Info...Building Stories, Telling Games #40:

Don't Look Too Closely

by Travis S. Casey
August 18, 2002

Earlier today, I was listening to the radio, when the song "The Way You Kiss" by Faith Hill came on. The first couple of times I heard it, I liked it. I still like it to just kind of bob my head to, but if I actually listen to the lyrics, the song gets spoiled for me, because they don't really make sense.

I'm going to make a broad statement: all entertainment is illusion. That's especially true of the kind of entertainment I talk about here — computer role-playing games. As anyone who's ever tried to do sleight-of-hand knows, looking too closely in the wrong place can easily spoil an illusion. When that happens, the entertainment can also vanish.

Suspension of Disbelief

That's a pretty heavy phrase that gets tossed around quite a bit — and when heavy things get tossed around, sooner or later they're going to hit something hard. I'm going to assume that most of you have an idea of what suspension of disbelief is, and just make a few comments about it.

First off, the original phrase is "willing suspension of disbelief", but the "willing" gets cut off by a lot of people. That can lead to an idea that suspension of disbelief is solely the responsibility of whoever's providing entertainment. To go back to what I was mentioning with Faith Hill's song up above, I can willingly choose to not pay close attention to the lyrics that muck things up for me.

Secondly, though, there's the opposite problem — that of assuming that since it's willing suspension of disbelief, the audience is entirely responsible for suspending their own disbelief. To borrow from Stephen King (in his wonderful book on the horror genre, Danse Macabre), you can use a weight-lifting metaphor for suspension of disbelief — some things are light (easy to suspend disbelief for) and some are heavy; the first type almost everyone can handle, the second type a lot of people can't. But, to stretch the metaphor, if you put out a 30-ton block of unbelievableness, you shouldn't be surprised when no one can suspend it.

One thing that determines how "heavy" something is for suspension of disbelief is the set of expectations you've formed from other entertainment you've seen. Take the fact that in movies, almost no one ever seems to have to go to the bathroom — or the fact that people who by any ordinary standard are handsome/beautiful can be "plain" in a movie or TV show. Stated baldly, these would seem like hard things to disbelieve, but we're so used to them being "the way things are" in movies and on TV that we normally don't even notice them.

I've noticed this more lately as I've started watching Japanese animation and reading Japanese comics. There are conventions for showing things that are used in American animation, like the little birds shown tweeting around someone's head to show that they're stunned, which I don't even really notice any more, I'm so used to them. Japanese comic and animation conventions, however, struck me as very odd at first — things like the bulging vein used to show that someone's angry, which sometimes is actually shown in the air next to the character, instead of on the character. At first, I went, "what the heck is that supposed to be?", but after a while, you get used to it, and it becomes just like those twittering birds — just the way things are.

Of Orcs and Temeryces

This same thing applies to settings for novels, games, etc. Someone who's familiar with fantasy isn't generally going to have a problem with "orcs" being in a novel or game — they know what an orc is and are used to it. If you start making up your own monsters instead of drawing from "generic fantasy", however, the mere newness of them can make it harder for people to suspend their disbelief.

For example, I'm currently reading Michael Stackpole's novel The Dark Glory War. It's a fantasy novel, but rather than using standard "generic fantasy" monsters, it has unique monsters — termeryces, gibberlings (no, not the AD&D ones, for those who remember them), sullanciri, and more. It has a couple of unusual "ally" races in place of the standard ones as well. The only "standard fantasy" creature in it so far is elves, and the author has put his own twists there as well.

All of that's well and good — I like seeing something new instead of the "generic fantasy" stuff. However, it does require a bit more effort out of the reader, since the reader has to become comfortable with these new creatures and races. Further, if there's something "odd" about new stuff, readers are more likely to notice it and balk at it than they are to notice odd things in what they're already used to.

That's not to say that you shouldn't come up with new things. Rather, it's a warning that if you do come up with new things, you may find yourself being held to a higher standard of believability about those things than you would be if you stuck with the known. People don't tend to mind large numbers of supposedly carnivorous orcs living deep in caverns where you'd think that they wouldn't be able to get enough food — they're used to that from other fantasy that they've read before. But stick a race of your own invention in the same situation, and people are more likely to notice.

What They Don't Know Won't Hurt Them

If a tree falls in the forest and no one's there to hear, does it make a sound? Well, philosophers can argue that one back and forth, but for the purposes of someone making an online game, it might as well not. What's the point of putting events and objects where no one can perceive them? None, really — you can fake it instead.

For example, I've seen recurring discussions between people who want to try to realistically simulate animals and monsters in their games. One of the ideas most often expressed is to have the animals and monsters wander about the game. When, say, a wolf pack comes across a deer herd, the wolves would chase the deer and try to catch some of them, and the deer would run away. The wolves would need to eat things in order to survive — if a wolf didn't get anything to eat for too long, it would become more likely to attack things it wouldn't normally attack — like humans. If it goes too long without food, it would die. Thus, if players came through and wiped out all the game animals, the predators would start attacking villages and the like. Nice and realistic.

That's all well and good, but having all those animals loaded up into the game, wandering about, and doing things with each other is going to eat up a fair bit of memory and CPU — which is the usual argument against trying to do it. But there are ways around this, if you think about the fact that the players aren't in a position to see most of it.

One way would be to abstract it by one level. Don't actually create the creatures in the game and move them around in the real game — instead, make a map of the game world and move them around as dots on the map. Keep track of where player characters are on the map as well, and you can load the creatures fully into the game on as "as-needed" basis. You'll have to expend some memory and CPU time keeping up the map, but it probably won't be as much as you would have needed to keep the creatures and the areas they're in loaded into the game... and there are other possible uses for having a map of the game world, like using it in path-finding.

Another way would be to handle it on an abstract statistical level instead of the more concrete way being used above. We have X deer, Y rabbits, Z aardvarks, and W wolves roaming the forest. As players kill animals, you can modify those numbers. You can also have functions (probably semi-randomized) to make the populations go up and down over time. The game's "wandering monster table" could be linked to the local creature populations, so that if the deer population goes down, the chance that you will run into a deer as you wander around the forest goes down. With a bit more such cleverness, it's possible to get most of the good points that would come from actually having the creatures wander around, without most of the overhead.

To Be Continued...

Join me next time as I ramble a little bit more about keeping up the illusions in your games! I've got "Castles vs. Pegasi", "But It's Magic!", and "Getting There Isn't Half the Fun" on the agenda.

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