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Friday, 31 January, 2003, 10:21 GMT
Video games without frontiers
Unreal Tournament screenshot, Infogrames
Unreal helps to create lush, convincing worlds

Keen gamers can rejoice as US scientists are working on ways to make computer games that never end.

The researchers are adapting AI techniques used for robot navigation to manage game worlds that constantly present fresh challenges to players.

Games created using these techniques will be less like scenes from a film and more like a reactive and interactive world that players can explore almost endlessly.

Already the researchers have created several virtual environments overseen by their story management system.

Lost plot

For all their good looks and edge-of-the-seat action many computer games prove disappointing.

Many settle for a linear storyline that forces players to plod through it step by step.

Game companies are realising that story telling has a lot of potential that has not been tapped yet

R Michael Young, North Carolina State University
R Michael Young, head of the Liquid Narrative Group at North Carolina State University, said this was because of the way many computer games are written.

Typically, he said, games creators write computer code for every event, action and object in the game to pre-script what is going to happen.

"As a result," he said, "there are a reasonably small number of paths through the story space."

He said most games do a bad job of balancing the coherence of a story against the control players have within the game.

By limiting what players can do, game makers keep their story on track but this can make players feel like extras rather than the star of the unfolding drama.

But if players get too much freedom, game makers face the impossible task of working out the consequences of any and every action.

High-level control

Professor Young said his group steps back from the scene-scripting approach and instead creates an over-arching system that develops the story around the player's actions.

Killer whales at an aquarium, AP
Researchers simulated a visit to the aquarium
Before the game is played, the basic interactions of objects and characters in the world are worked out and some possible ways of working through the story are prepared.

But the possible outcomes, events and interactions are re-written as the game is played by watching what a player is doing, remembering their past actions and working out how these actions change the larger story and the world it is taking place in.

Some actions, such as swishing your sword or taking a stroll in a garden, have little impact on the overall story.

However, other actions, such as destroying a key artefact or murdering a potential ally, can radically change the game.

The story management system would not prevent such events, but would re-make the world to take them into account.

Prof Young said it does this by drawing on narrative theory to create convincing stories that explore the consequences of player actions.

The result is a game that has no fixed ending but adapts to the player to constantly put fresh challenges and encounters in front of them.

The Liquid Narrative team has already created some trial computer worlds overseen by its story manager.

Untapped potential

One of the first was a recreation of a mead hall from the story of Beowulf.

Another was a simulation of the Monterey Bay aquarium that remakes exhibits and sights to take account of what people have seen before and what they are interested in.

The team from North Carolina is using the graphics and game engine from the first-person shooter Unreal to create their virtual worlds.

Prof Young said the growth of desktop computer power and the proliferation of graphics cards was making games makers think more deeply about AI.

"Game companies are realising that story telling has a lot of potential that has not been tapped yet," he said.

See also:

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24 Mar 01 | Entertainment
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22 Nov 02 | Asia-Pacific
17 Dec 02 | Technology
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