Justin Li


Philosophy Game

2008-01-02

Last year I took a computer game programming class for a few weeks before dropping it. The class (or at least the part I sat in) was more about narrative and story telling than about things specific to computer games. It should be fine, really, except that I suck at telling stories. Since our first assignment was to write a piece of interactive fiction, I didn't feel like I would do that well. I wrote a terrible outline for a detective story, then dropped the course. The class did, however, make me pay more attention to the interactive fiction scene since.

I did have a better idea in mind, but it wasn't so much a story than an exploration. Not the "let's go on an adventure" type exploration, but a "let's sit and reflect on yourself" type inner exploration. I wasn't sure if it would qualify as a game, so I didn't choose to develop it. The idea stuck with me though, and I would dearly love to see someone write an IF with this.

Here's the idea: the "game" is really an exploration of different possible philosophical beliefs, as many as the author can cram into something like an IF. When the player starts the game, the "room" has little to no description. The idea is that the world is determined by what the player chooses to do. This is hard to explain, so let me demonstrate.

The player starts the game, but seems the initial empty prompt. Pressing enter and seeing nothing, they type "look", the standard descriptive command in IF. The description then replies with that the player discovers he "perceives" something.

The trick to this "game" is that the player's words are taken to be literal, in an unformed universe. By "looking", the player assumes that they (as a character in that game world) have eyes (or a "mental eye"), and which in turn implies that not only the player exists, but they have a physical body and have the sense of sight.

Ideally, the "plot" would be a series of discoveries until the player arrives at the philosophy or a certain period, or even a certain philosopher. The interaction in this game is merely a way of deciding which branch of the game tree the player would traverse.

It is interesting to note that this idea has been used partially in fiction before. Here's the beginning of a chapter from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows:

He lay face down, listening to the silence. He was perfectly alone. Nobody was watching Nobody else was there. He was not perfectly sure that he was there himself.
A long time later, or maybe no time at all, it came to him that he must exist, must be more than disembodied though, because he was lying, definitely lying, on some surface. Therefore, he had a sense of touch, and the thing against which he lay existed too.
Almost as soon as he had reached this conclusion, Harry became conscious that he was naked. Convinced as he was of his total solitude, this did not concern him, but it did intrigue him slightly. He wondered whether, as he could feel, he would be able to see. In opening them, he discovered that he had eyes.
He lay in a bright mist, though it was not like mist he had ever experienced before. his surroundings were not hidden by cloudly vapour; rather the cloudy vapour had not yet formed into surroundings. The floor on which he lay seemed to be white, neither warm nor cold, but simply there, a flat, blank something on which to be.
He sat up. His body appeared unscathed. He touched his face. He was not wearing glasses anymore.

This is the same way the player would discover the philosophical terrain around his character. Once the player understands what is going on (I suspect most players would end up with the same "philosophy", since IF assumes a certain background), they would begin trying to see what other philosophies are in the game. I have thought a few interesting branches:

Interactive fiction is always hard to write, especially when the verbs are numerous in this case. For this philosophy game, the author must not only anticipate what people will write, but also know the logical implications of that verb and what it means for the player's worldview. It will be an exercise in creating a taxonomy of different philosophic viewpoints.

When I read Raph Koster's book A Theory of Fun for Game Design, one of the things that struck a cord with me was his projection for how games can become an art. One of his complaints about current games is that they don't change the player. The player is not affected by the game, but only steps into and out of the game world as the same real world person. This is in contrast to how art has the capacity to influence the individual, and lead the perceiver to some unexplored aspects of life. I think a "game" like this, while it probably will not be immensely popular, definitely falls closer to the category of art than of game.

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