Monday, February 23, 2009

February '09 Round Table: A Transitory MMO

Last month Corvus Elrod asked Blog of the Round Table contributors to translate a piece of literature into a videogame as if the game were designed first. This month, the Round Table revisits these adaptions and asks participants to build upon an other's design theme while ignoring the original literary source. Choosing one post to draw was difficult with such a fascinating collection of entries. I settled on an interesting adaptation of Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren by Travis Megill of The Autumnal City, which I encourage you all to read. I have never read the source material, so all of the following is inspired solely from Travis' design goals; forgive me if I mangle Delany's original intent.

I cannot get enough of bizarre, surreal, and cryptic literary works. I love it when my narrator is flawed, psychotic or completely untrustworthy; all the better if the world shudders under the weight of mysteries, red herrings, and symbolism. Naturally, I was intrigued by Travis Megill's version of Dhalgren, which puts players in an unpredictable world of "twisted reflections" and shifting realities, a graphical adventure game amidst a fragmented and "circular narrative." This game constantly asks the player to reassess their identity and their understanding of the reality that surrounds them. My goal with this post is to imagine similar circumstances in the traditionally persistent world of a massively-multiplayer online role-playing game.

Shifting Worlds

The Dhalgren MMO, at a basic level, is a class based experience in which individuals belonging to multiple factions accomplish quest objectives, gain experience, and level-up. However, players do not share one world, but many worlds. Each server is composed of many realities, some in different time periods, some in different environments, and yet others in different universes with alternate physics rules and character models. At any given time, a player can occupy one reality and share this reality with hundreds of players or be completely alone. These worlds are not stagnant, and at early levels, players are frequently transferred to alternate realities, sometimes becoming another person with entirely new personal histories, motivations, and quest objectives.

The avatar's deeds will effect their own world, but may also create ripples through some other realities. Players may log in to find themselves inhabiting a new reality, a palimpsest of their former home in which non-player characters recognize them for actions they did not commit. Perhaps helping another player accomplish their quest objectives will result in your hometown being destroyed, creating new objectives while removing old ones.

Level Progression

In keeping with Travis' adaptation of Dhalgren's symbolism, level progression in the MMO will represent how well your persona can "make sense" of the universe. As characters gain experience points, they are rewarded with new gameplay abilities that allow them to better accomplish tasks, control their movement through realities, and interact with other players. Some non-combat abilities may include expanded speech options, voluntary realm transitions, or time travel.

Rather than change an avatar's appearance with level specific gear, all players will have a home that will reflect their level progression. Starting from a foundation, characters will improve their house and will soon find it populated with remnants of the journey, including some usable objects. The house will be a powerful node for your travels, and its appearance may change depending on your circumstances. Family portraits may change, walls may crumble, room may shift position, and objects may appear or disappear.

Player Interaction

The characters inhabiting Travis' game will occasionally switch roles, appearances, and identities. In order to maintain this aspect in the Dhalgren MMO, players will rarely be certain if another character they are interacting with is an NPC or a real life individual. NPCs will wander the world much like player characters.

When a player initiates communication, a fullscreen dialogue tree opens up. If you are lucky enough to communicate with a real person but they ignore you or leave mid-conversation, an NPC copy will be created to handle the rest of the conversation. Players can accomplish group quests, even across realms, by accomplishing individual parts of a quest line which will open up a shared realm.

Guilds can be formed relying entirely on this mode of communication, though some members of the guild will not be real at all. In line with the alternate reality elements Travis' incorporates, some guilds will be entirely populated with NPCs and one unaware player. A website and guild events will be controlled by members of the development team to further the illusion of player interaction.

Guilds will have a village or town populated by the home's of its constituency. Just like your private home, this town will grow and diminish based upon the "understanding" level of its members. Players must consistently report back to the guild, as identity changes make consistent communication difficult. This town can also be infiltrated by enemy players posing as members. Taking on a new identity to accomplish this task can have unsettling consequences however. Infiltrators may permanently lose their previous identity and become real members of their previously opposed guild or faction.

Successful endgame players become explorers of reality, managing to make lasting relationship with fellow mavericks, letting themselves find meaning by abandoning a sense of place beyond their home. You can always create a new character to explore new worlds, just don't be surprised if you bump into your old self wandering the universe.


  1. Great idea, Jorge! I think an MMO might be a better type of game to explore Dhalgren than an adventure game. Since the novel attempts to describe the relationship between author, character, and reader, an MMO where the player never really knows who their character is, or if any of the other characters are player-controlled or NPC's, would be an interesting experiential way of exploring that theme.

    For dialogue, are you suggesting that no player to player communication would be allowed? Instead both players would select responses from a dialogue tree? That would be neat, though I'm not sure how players would respond to it. Maybe they would be able to alter the responses in some limited way, by flipping words around or something.

    I particularly like the idea of the home, from a player's perspective, because I'd love to see something like that successfully implemented in an MMO.

  2. @Dhalgren

    I'm glad you enjoy this one, since I had no way to know if what I was imagining would at all fit with the book. My notes on your piece were all over the place and labyrinthine, it would have made Delany proud I'm sure.

    As for player communication, I would allow players to communicate only through dialogue options. I was thinking something like Fallout. But players can increase speech options as they raise their understanding level and could even gain special abilities that allow them limited control over what to say. Perhaps a voice-speech option but with a limited time and cool down. Of course, even this could be doctored for an NPC.

  3. Now you've got me wondering about the equivalent of a Turing Test with regard to responses amongst a forest of dialog trees... Assuming both prompts and responses, quips and backquips, are written well ahead of time and by a limited authorial environment can you tell if the responses or the prompts are driven by an actual person...