January 9th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

If I Were Designing a Cyberpunk Game (#03)

Like I said, the idea of hacking your own mind and skills with drugs is a core concept of cyberpunk. Various intoxicants, from heavy-duty caffeine abuse to alcohol to you-name-it, are an important part of almost any subculture, too, especially among those who get the grunt work done (as I've argued before). This poses something of a problem for two reasons. For one, no game designer has ever really captured, in any kind of a plausible form, the experience of doing drugs with other people. Whether it's because the War on Information about Drugs that don't have corporate sponsorship puts that data where they'd never think to look for it, or because people who do a lot of drugs don't become game designers, or for fear of having ratings problems for "encouraging drug use," drugs in most online games end up being almost exactly identical to potions in Dungeons & Dragons. You gulp down the drug, you instantly get a specific repeatable benefit, repeat ad infinitum.

So here's what I'd do, instead.

First of all, every surface in the game would be represented by three different textures: the ugly one, the normal one, and the fun/beautiful one. There would also be non-collidable client-side rendered 3-D objects and 2-D "decals" that only show up when things are ugly to you, under normal circumstances, or when things look beautiful to you. Cyberpunk being dystopian, the default mood is ugly. There are cracks in the sidewalk that you normally wouldn't notice, blemishes on peoples' faces that you normally wouldn't notice, trash in the corners that you'd normally overlook, dirt on the surfaces including the eating and drinking utensils that you'd normally fail to spot, wear and tear and stains and threadbare spots on the clothing that would normally be beneath your notice, the color palette is noticeably grayer, and you only notice the really angry, really bitter graffiti - and so on. What's more, when you're in an exceptionally bad mood, no matter what expression the other players have hung on their characters' faces, or no matter what mood the NPCs are in, they all look either depressed or angry. On the other hand, when you're in a good mood there are flowers in the grassy areas that you normally wouldn't notice, the colors on the leaves of the trees and so on are brighter and cheerier, peoples' clothes all look much more attractive, the garbage and filth are all effectively invisible, the light seems vaguely brighter, the graffiti seems much funnier, and everybody around you seems to be having a pretty good time. The normal mood is a mix between the two, and if you are in a rare state of hyper-alertness, you see both the good and the bad.

Your character's mood (and therefore perceptions and "real" facial expression) can be shifted, slightly and steadily, by use of the standard emoticons in chat with other players. Your mood is also affected, slightly but perceptibly, by how well you're doing lately. If you're a Dealer and you've just been robbed, all the "smilicons" in the world won't make your character look happy; if you're an Artiste and just signed a major record deal, all the negative smilicons in the world won't wipe the smile off of your face. And yes, your facial expression will be powerfully affected by the intoxicants, if any, in your system.

One of the most important character subsystems of the game would be a simplified multi-variable reputation server. NPCs will only talk to you if they know vaguely who you are, and have at least a vaguely favorable impression of you; otherwise, they'll tell you to buzz off. Even player characters will be restricted from engaging in certain kinds of trades with people who have a negative reputation with them, with anyone they've identified as a close friend, or with their self-identified subculture. You can only start building reputation with a faction or an individual if you've been introduced. One of the standard trade items that any player can give any other player is "I vouch for you to (name of person or subculture)," and that's a potentially valuable trade item. The catch is that then, anything bad they do reflects negatively on you. But any favors they do reflect at least somewhat positively on you. But once you've been vouched for, you only gain reputation for two things. The harder of the two is doing very successful mutually beneficial business. The easier of the two is by hanging out with them.

Social spaces in the game, run (eventually) by teams of player-character Scavengers, provide a 3-D chat environment where people can show off their new clothes, where Dealers can pimp their own and each other's Deals, where Artistes collect life experience credit towards creating art or music, where Scavengers exchange tools and materials and meet and potentially recruit volunteer labor for projects, where everybody trades information they've received through their various contacts, and so on. But you can only do that as long as you're all sharing the preferred experience of that social space. If it's a dance club, you do so by spending at least some of your time out on the dance floor, using the dance emotes; doing so raises your familiarity and reputation with the subcultures that hang out there. But especially for many of the seedier ones, that involves doing drugs with them, which is the game's standard way of enabling your character (and theirs) to think better of this experience and to think better of each other.

But each drug, from beer to heroin, involves some risk of dependency, and more if you use it more often than is safe or more heavily than is safe. Once you get a drug dependency, then there comes the risk that any time you're not logged in, your character will go off without your permission and get in trouble trying to score. You run the risk of logging in for the first time in a day and, instead of finding yourself in your Spot (more about that later), you find yourself in the gutter, having lost valuable items, and/or valuable information, and/or reputation with one or more factions. Because by definition, there are times when an addict is "not under their own control," as we put it? I would want to design the game so that it would be possible, especially for certain combinations of character class, skill/resource sets, and goals to achieve your goals while staying completely clean and sober, yes. But this is cyberpunk. Doing so should be much, much harder.