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August 08, 2005

Discussion: Information

The Sweet Smell of Success

The Sweet Smell of Success is one of those old-time Hollywood movies, which doesn't clearly fit any obvious Hollywood mold today. It involves the circle surrounding one J. J. Hunsecker¹, the most powerful gossip columnist in town. Getting your name in his column means the death, birth, or rebirth of your career, depending on what people can read between the lines. It's worth seeing, especially to see Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis play against type, even if the dénouement feels a little stale and forced in this day and age. But those two amoral characters at the center of the drama, both dominant and submissive, make it worth viewing even now.

The theme of how information gets around is an interesting one. Back in the days when Molyneux was hawking Fable before its release, he mentioned a feature whereby village kids would emulate your hero, to the point of wearing their hair in the same style and being tattooed the same way. At the time, I thought this was a pretty neat feature from the standpoint of reinforcing the player's identification with his character. After all, your actions are having a tangible effect on the world, as kids look up to you and try to emulate you².

I thought this was really interesting, the sort of somewhat simple mechanic that achieved a great deal. But it got me thinking about how those kids got to know about your exploits. How does information make the rounds in the fantasy realms we so often explore in games?

In The Sweet Smell of Success, information as gossip got around via a sort of feudal system. Small-time publicists fed upwards to bigger and bigger columnists, and above it all was the tyrant, Hunsecker, who then decided what went out as a decree via his column. Fortunes were made and lost on his say-so.

There are other sorts of information networks that are interesting. Just starting with the Fable example, there's lots of different aspects of information you could model:

  • Imperfect information. One thing that struck me when I heard of this feature was the vanishingly low likelihood that all these kids would have a) gotten tattooed in the first place, but b)managed to get the tattoos exactly right. You can just imagine the variety of tattoos that might derive from a description along the lines of "he had the figure of a serpent above his brow." Horizontal? Vertical? Coiled? Cobra? Rattler? And imagine being the kid who got it right -- he'd be the cock of the walk for a week.
  • The Speed of Information. These days, of course, a significant amount of information flies about as fast as you can download it on eMule. But even early in the last century, news could take quite some time to make it to the common man's ear³. This could make for some interesting gameplay scenarios -- in some cases, the player could outpace the information, and even deliver it himself, thus being the first and perhaps final authority on the slaying of yonder foul creature beneath the mountain. But in others, the player might be delayed (or distracted by other subquests), and others might step forward to take credit for his achievements, thus stealing the limelight. I can see all sorts of scenarios: the player arriving to an enormous festival held in honor of Sir Guillaume the Dragonslayer, only to discover that Guillaume was that wretch "Dirty Bill" he threw out of a tavern a town or two back, pulling a con on the gullible townsfolk.
  • Channels of Information. How information gets around is sometimes as important as what information gets around. For example, the film Desperado4 begins with Steve Buscemi coming into a bar to tell about the horrors he's seen a town back. Because he's a stranger and more than a little creepy-looking, his story isn't completely believed. That is, until Banderas shows up...

This is just the beginning. I can also see managing reputation systems based on the way information gets around. Sure, you're really popular with the orcs over in Ogrimmar, but across the ocean on the other continent they've never even heard of you. And that big bad guy who always seems to be watching our hero in the BioWare games? Maybe he only learns of your presence once you've made enough of a mark, and word has gotten back to him.

Some games have managed to incorporate information into their play, but it's usually as a side note, a little local color, as it was intended to be in Fable. As another example, Deus Ex brought in a fair amount of written material that referred to earlier actions of the protagonist, though these were obviously not dynamically created. This can be really effective and reinforce the player as critical actor in the world.

The programmer in me thinks it'd be really neat to me to see some information modeled in different ways, and incorporated into gameplay, and not as some set, pre-scripted event. But then, it'd be just as neat to see that Fable example play out with multiple kids each sporting their own variation on the snake tattoo -- scripted or not, that'd be a pretty cool sequence. Throw it in so it only happens to five percent of your users, and you can claim a lot more is going on than appears at first blush. And then you can watch as that information makes its way in the world through reviews, boards, and word of mouth.

¹Interestingly, I remembered the character as Walter Hunsecker. The character is based on Walter Winchell, which might be the source of my misremembering, but I think I was confusing him with Waring Hudsucker, who is the titular character of The Hudsucker Proxy. Okay, maybe it's not interesting. That said, The Hudsucker Proxy reminds me of a movie that Hollywood made even though Hollywood didn't make those kinds of movies anymore. Now I'm really digressing.
²I'm not certain whether this feature shipped with the project. Anyone know?
³Anyone think that ordinary folks were able to find T-shirts akin to the Onion's Local Man marked "Common Man"? Probably not, but the image is funny to me.
4A film I can't recommend, much as I like Robert Rodriguez.

Posted by Brett Douville at August 8, 2005 09:05 PM