The history of non-player character (NPC) interaction in Interactive Fiction is not overly glorious; it says something about the development of this area that the XYZZY Award for Best NPC a few years ago went to a character with whom the PC could only interact by saying "yes" and "no." (The character was richly developed in other respects, of course, but the award highlighted the extent to which authors have chosen to develop NPCs by means other than direct interaction with the PC.) It's that history that makes Emily Short's Galatea, the Best of Show winner in Marnie Parker's Spring 2000 Art Show, all the more startling: it's not only a remarkably detailed and intimate portrait of an unusual NPC, but it's one without any parallel in the annals of Interactive Fiction.
Granted, no other work of Interactive Fiction in memory has been structured like this one. Essentially, it's a reworking of the myth of Pygmalion--which involved a sculptor who fell in love with his statue, which then came to life--but done from the statue's perspective; moreover, the time frame is translated out of ancient Greece right past our own time, to a time where fully animate and intelligent creations aren't considered revolutionary. You're viewing the former statue, which is on display in an exhibition. That's the premise, but the heart of the game is the statue herself--her views on being put on a pedestal, on the artist, on the show, on you--and the underlying mythology is important only insofar as it bears on her psychology. In other words, the NPC is the story, and there's virtually nothing in the game that isn't interaction with the NPC. Not surprisingly, then, there isn't a way to win as such--there's a wide variety of endings, some of which the player is likely to consider better than others, but the game studiously avoids making any ***you have won*** sort of judgments.
Interacting with Galatea--or, at least, understanding your interactions with her--involves gauging some highly subtle psychological reactions, many of which couldn't easily be guessed in advance. This, in itself, is fairly novel, considering that the preexisting state of the art generally limited NPC psychology to the crudest of reactions: gratitude if given something, anger if provoked, etc. Here, the player must calculate (or, again, understand) how Galatea will feel when touched in certain ways and in certain places, when asked about her relationship with the sculptor before and after certain other questions, when told about the nature of the exhibit, and in many other situations. To be sure, the average player probably won't get all the connections, and is likely to elicit some reactions without realizing what buttons he or she pushed, so to speak--but that also means that there's always more room for understanding. In one sense, then, this is puzzleless Interactive Fiction--it's certainly not puzzle-solving in the usual sense--but in another sense, there are multiple puzzles, and it's impossible to encounter all, or even most, of them in a single session. (On a side note, this game also vindicates those who advocate ASK/TELL as the best conversation system for Interactive Fiction, since that's the way you speak with Galatea--and the game translates your ASK ABOUT and TELL ABOUT into natural sentences, so that you don't sound like a caveman. It's difficult to imagine any other way to implement such a complex system of interactions that allows so much freedom.)
Okay, a novel premise; is it done well? Yes, in my book. Admittedly, the nature of the beast makes it difficult to say that the author has done it wrong--who are you to say that a given response shouldn't have followed a certain stimulus (within reason, of course)? That aside, though, the personality that emerges from the playing of Galatea is both complex and realistic, and it never feels like the author is being deliberately obscure. If it's initially difficult to get her to open up, realism demands as much--since you're trying to win her trust--and your options for interacting with her are varied enough that you're unlikely to hit a roadblock as such. (Though she comments on the disconnect if you run out of things to say about one topic and jump to an unrelated one.) It's sometimes hard to keep track of where the conversation has been, though (especially if you've restarted multiple times), and though the latest release implements THINK (which reminds you about the state of conversation) and THINK ABOUT (which reminds you of roughly what she's said about a given topic), they're partial solutions at best. (She also turns toward and away from you at certain points, though the motion doesn't really function as a gauge of how she's feeling, as such; mostly, it opens up different possibilities.) The best approach to making sense of her reactions to different combinations of inputs is probably making a transcript and poring over it, admittedly rather tedious--but, on the other hand, this is one NPC that rewards such careful study.
Moreover, even if it's frustrating, the ability to close off paths by doing certain things or asking certain questions is part of what makes the character realistic. After all, one of the main defects in an unrestricted ASK/TELL system is that you can move freely from harmless banter to intrusive probing without the character noticing, seemingly, and while not every conversational leap is policed here, the game certainly tries to restrict wildly erratic questioning. Certain topics yield responses at some times but not at others, for instance, and sometimes the game just gives you some variant on "Better not ask about that right now" when a given topic would be inappropriate.
While Galatea is an admirably thorough job of NPC creation, the built-in biases of IFers make it difficult to see it as a complete work in itself. One of the hardest things to shake for Interactive Fiction players is goal-orientation--finding that treasure, etc.--and when faced with as hard a nut to crack as Galatea, it's easy to become obsessed with finding every last reaction, reading every last bit of text. (At least, so it seems from the newsgroup traffic: several people have posted to ask for lists of solutions and such.) Moreover, it's hard to ask for help as such if you're not getting anywhere, since you don't really know where you're going, and a result-oriented approach ("I found ending X, and here's how you can do it too") is at odds with the feel of the game. Probing to see how the character reacts is one thing, but probing because you want a specific reaction is another. The author has put up a (partial) list of endings and how to get to them on her page, but perusing that is a spoiler in itself. The best way to go about it, I think, is to keep experimenting until you've found some endings that make the interaction feel complete, and then to look at what you missed. (That, or find someone to give you some nudges, if you really can't get anywhere.) Starting from a list of endings makes the character a little too much like a gumball machine.
Is Galatea a model for future NPC creation? Maybe--her already immense complexity is limited by her relative immobility (at least, she's confined to one room) and by not having to interact with other NPCs. A 300K-plus Z-machine file that essentially consists entirely of one character should give any designer pause, if that's the standard for realistic NPC design. It 's unquestionable, though, that this character represents a quantum leap--in intelligence and in vividness of personality--and that the author did it with essentially the tools that every author has.
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