What do NPCs do when the player is not around? Set inside another game, Playerless offers a glimpse of the backstage. Bring up AI in this uniquely cute puzzle adventure with dark undertones!
How many games can you play at once?
1, if you’re a normal person.
604, if you’re a chess grandmaster.
2, if you’re playing Playerless.
Playerless happens inside another game, which was perfectly normal - until the player abandoned it and the AI gained self-awareness. Your character - the debug unit - was built by a team of long-forgotten developers to help them fix it when needed. But the task you two are facing now is much more difficult than that - is fixing what the world truly needs? See for yourself what years of solitude and prayerlessness can do to NPCs - and the player character himself.
How many buttons do you have?
104, if you’re using a keyboard.
120, if your keyboard is an accordion.
1, if you’re playing Playerless.
The game’s physical mechanism is broken, too. Only one button is still working. While you’re still figuring out a way to communicate with the debug unit, you’ll encounter obstacles that require you two to cooperate - and figure out what this all is really about.
Can self-awareness appear all by itself?
No, say the religious.
Probably, say the scientists.
Hi, say the Playerless.
Your character is not your property. But as long as you’re on friendly terms, you can gently nudge it in the right direction. Just remember - unlike the player of the other game, you have real influence on the game and its inhabitants. To the AI, you’re like a human parent, and you’d better be a good one.
Since gaming had become a humongous and significant medium, developers compete in the quality of the details. Modern technology allows them to create games nearly as realistic as our world; make everything more natural, even if the applied features are, for us, so common that we do not even notice them in the real life anymore. In fact, the more tiny elements are included in the game, the more players are going to remember it, because they admire the particularity. To achieve this, creators need to design elements which perfectly fit the exact moment of gameplay; the goal is to make an obvious element in the right place while making it surprising at the same time.
For example, take a look at Spider-Man made by Insomniac Games. When your friendly neighborhood hero uses his communicator and gets exhausted from fighting or chasing a villain, we can hear how he draws his breaths more deeply. It’s a feature that some players may not pay any attention to, but those who do will be astounded by the developer’s attention to detail.
Let’s go for a quick journey into the past, back to 1998, when the first Half-Life was released. This game has been a revolutionary title for many reasons. And one of them still makes a huge impression today, despite the passing years. All the NPCs use sense of smell - when we’re accompanied by one of the friendly characters, they can comment on the odour of the enemy we have just killed. Initially, this surprising addition was overlooked by players, but now, almost 20 years after the launch of the game it’s been rediscovered leaving the community admire the game even more for such an innovation.
Another example of such feature can be found in Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth. To fuel the conflict, AI is taking an, opposing to the player’s, political direction to provoke it’s enemy on purpose. The gameplay becomes more and more interesting over time, because inconsistent ideologies keep on feeding the fire between the player and one’s virtual opponent.
Another innovation in gameplay was presented by both Devil May Cry and Bioshock developers, who shared the similar idea about crowd controlling enemies that are behind the players back. To simplify the gameplay, the antagonists that are not in the visual range of the player are slowed down. Thanks to this feature the player is unknowingly being reinforced, when they’re outnumbered or taken by surprise. This developer’s trick not only helps to survive a challenging quest, but also boosts the player’s self-confidence.
All of the examples above are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to adding distinctive features to make a games memorable and forever entertaining. Sometimes the game creators may go even further in surprising their audience, even by altering the game basic principles.
When making a game that is broken on purpose (in a lore context, it works just fine!) the creator needs to decide what aspects make the title visibly broken but playable at the same time. Precisely for this reason, Playerless: One Button Adventure contains so many elements being a visual representation of the game code. Most of the NPCs are aware of the mayhem, others - due to the in-game errors - have become a part of this havoc. The player isn’t the main protagonist, but only plays a supporting role for a Debug Unit. At the same time, we experience the phenomenon of a game within a game – we play the Playerless, but during its gameplay, we enter another one. Repairing the game requires traveling beyond the frames of a common game world. We literally need to pierce the walls of the game code and find the right mechanisms to make the whole game work. This roots from our specific role within the game and the urge for fixing the player’s surrounding; without it none of the characters will survive within an unfinished game world, and they’re not even aware of incoming death.
Every single game production can become even more interesting thanks to the addition of all the small things that eventually make the whole world of game complete. Sometimes we might not even notice those details, especially during the very first playthrough. But it doesn’t change the fact that their presence makes the game feel even more real and complete. And that is what extends the player’s sympathy towards the title.
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