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Merits of an Old Turn-Taking

It isn't sexy: the secret to interactive story could lie with the humble card game.

Ron Newcomb

April 18, 2009

3 Min Read

In Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman's fantasy series Dragonlance, gnomes converse simultaneously, all talking and listening and participating in multiple conversations at once. Created as a parody of our real-world engineers, they produce a cacophonous racket as each gnome races to conceive and explain his ideas first.  Presumably, after agreeing on a plan of action, conversation stops, construction begins, and the gnome whose idea "won" is himself a kind of winner, socially speaking.   Gnomish conversation is conversation as a ludic action game.

For homo sapiens, conversation is turn-based.  So it follows that a game which adds interactivity to its dialogue will also be turn-based there, and that would-be creators of interactive story should study lots of turn-based games.  But then what?  How does one make a game of human conversation itself?

In 1969, John Searle posited Speech Act theory, which condenses the billions of possible utterances of any natural language into a handful of discrete categories called speech acts.   Examples would be commissives -- subdivided into oaths, promises, threats, etc. -- and acknowledgments -- greetings, apologies, and similar ritualistic exchanges -- among others. Though linguists debate the exact categories and even the theory as a whole, the game designer has an advantage:  a ruleset to design.  With that goal in mind, he has a guiding principle or theme by which to divvy up a player's inputted language.  When he finishes, he has his discrete actions and resources of gameplay.

So when we look across the broader field of gaming for something which is turn-based, discrete, essentially non-visual, amenable to being themed, and not a consumable puzzle, we find card games.  (And board games, if you really must have your travel.) Card games exhibit gameplay without violence or consumable puzzles or undue logistics.  Cards themselves can be defined to have any number of properties, relationships, and usages that the designer cares to require.  And they are infinitely re-theme-able because of their abstractness.

When we use card games as a basis for gameplay in a computer game, extra benefits present themselves. "Cards" can be endlessly duplicated, just as a juicy secret, once shared, is still held by the sharer. "Cards" can be subject to rules too complex for a human to comfortably operate.  Forecasting which "cards" to play is tractable enough for an NPC's goal-driven AI.  (The fact that a drama manager could piggyback on the same programming is just gravy.)

Finally, card games are already understood.  Characters debate talking points like a trick-taking card game.  They make promises like temporary gameplay rules, build concepts like canastas, and if asking "what's wrong" isn't a one-sided game of Go Fish, well, you're far more perceptive than I.

Perhaps our industrious gnomes dismiss dramatic narrative as the practice of making mountains out of molehills.  Even if the exaggeration proves correct, there's nothing wrong with molehills.  I like canasta; a close game is the only drama I ever see grandma get caught up in.  So what happens when we theme it with theater?

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