Sunday, 18 November 2012

"One City Block": the future of RPGs or a far flung utopia?

In very recent times, I stumbled upon an idea by Warren Spector (Deus Ex, Epic Mickey) known in the game development circles as One City Block RPG. The best definition comes from its own creator:

"My ultimate dream is about finding someone fool enough to bankroll the creation of what I call a One City Block RPG, where we simulate a building or a small neighborhood in the greatest detail. I strongly long for worlds with deep interactions. My ultimate game would take place in a single neighborhood, and I'll get to do it one day or another."

In other words, according to Spector, simulating every single detail of the reality and life of a definite space (like a building, for instance) would be more than enough to sustain a high level RPG experience. It's a mighty interesting concept, as it envisions highly interactive stages where every single action the player does, even the most trivial one, can lead to enormous consequences on the surrounding context: the player would be given the chance to manipulate each and every single object in the world at his leisure, in their normal functions or in creative and unusual ways. The same goes for social interactions, with non playing characters (NPCs) able to respond to the player's interactions according to fully simulated personalities and behaviours.

This kind of description immediately sets the One City Block RPG up as a system where a considerable amount of procedural processes takes place within the general boundaries established by the authors (the rules of the world and the goals of the game), generating for the most part unpredictable events. It's a system that implies and glorifies the so called 'emergent narrative' (*) as a mean to diversify and branch out the game experience. Previous examples shows that this is a viable solution (I think about the Radiant AI algorithm used in Bethesda's role playing games, though still limited to the creation of small linear subplots hinged on small sets of variables).

On the other hand, waiting for research to get to a point where deep, rich and nuanced plots can be generated automatically, and in financial compatibility with both the budgets of AAA productions and the final retail price, doesn't seem as viable. The main concerns are that such an achievement may be dozens of years away, with devaluation of human literary talent as an unpleasant side effect, which is certainly not among Spector's desires. A realistic One City Block RPG will have to make do with "simply" marrying the procedurality of its simulations and the high granularity of the interactions with story elements provided by a writer, ensuring the necessary narrative quality, with stricter rules for the game's world.

Luckily enough, Warren Spector is not the only one researching the One City Block RPG - on the contrary, he's at risk of being predated. France based Arkane Studios has stated that similar principles lays at the heart of Arx Fatalis (2002 - PC, Xbox), and more recently, Quantic Dream got remarkably close to the idea with its sandbox adventure Heavy Rain (2010 - PS3). The Yakuza series contitutes a far approximation. Furthermore, 2013 will see Fullbright Company releasing Gone Home, a project solely based on exploration of a solitary, deserted mansion; environmental interaction will be the only way to unravel its mysteries.

* Under the name of 'emergent narrative' goes the events caused by the user's interaction with certain automatisms implemented in the game software. As the effects are entirely dependent on the player's actions, they are not always predictable by the designers and thus constitutes a new, 'emergent' story.


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