Emergent Properties of Language

Emergent Properties of Language

We generally understand that life is an emergent property. A single atom is not alive, and not all combinations of atoms in a large enough group form something that is alive. But with plants, animals, and humans and our specific collection of many many atoms, the emergent property of life applies.

Now within interactive storytelling I think there is a serious misconception along the same structure. A single word by itself has a use or a definition, it is like an atom. It definitely exists, but it does not do very much on its own. I would argue that 1 word by itself does not contain meaning. By meaning I mean a concept or idea within a specified context. 1 word by itself is more like a topic for a brainstorm than representative of a consistent part of a whole sentence which has meaning. To make things simpler, assume it took 100 atoms to reach the critical mass at which the emergent property of life was part of the whole. 1 atom does not contain 1% life. The atom is in no way by itself alive. In the same way a sentence built of many words (assumingly constructed just like atoms to life, correctly to achieve meaning (life))-

A sentence built of many words at that point has meaning. It has an idea within a context. But no single word has 10% of the meaning. The meaning is only a property of the whole.

This is the error that the architects of many previous interactive writing tools have made. They think that because most sentences can be altered by changing one word or many different one word segments within a sentence, that this is the correct level of interactivity for the user. I think if we reflect more critically on the formulation of language as the vehicle for communicating ideas then we may realize this is a poor mechanism to systematize human language use.

Swapping out individual words of a sentence is meaningless because the individual words do not have inherent or consistent meaning. In fact sentences are not even reliable conveyors of meaning. It is a great tool for getting across meaning, but in practice has to be restructured multiple times both from the speaker and reiterated by the listener to achieve a reliable shared interpretation of meaning.

It is not lost on me, that I’m trying to communicate a consistent idea across many sentences, but with enough attempts at the same idea structured in different ways- if you do a good enough job the idea can be seen as the pattern across all your attempts to express it in language form.

Through this theory, exchanging words within a comparatively fixed sentence structure is futile. Because the words themselves do not have a consistent meaning across all sentences, and therefore the words themselves are not useful tools to the player. I do not mean to say swapping out words leads to the same meaning in a sentence. In fact very obviously if we take the sentence ‘I love her’ and made it ‘I hate her’, we clearly have a completely different meaning.

But the question becomes what the pros and cons are of extending to the player the option between ‘I love her’ and ‘I hate her’ and the pros and cons of extending the action words of love and hate which can be swapped into sentence structures with the blank of ‘I ___ her’.

At first having the swap mechanics of ‘I ___ her’ open to list of verbs (love, hate, admire, envy, ignore, etc) is really appealing. Almost immediately we see the parallel to normal game mechanics where simple rules are exposed to the player to use in any and all situations.

But! If the mechanical power we are trying to extend to the player which we also want the game to understand is the ability to express a set of meanings, we have a serious issue of interpretation. I love her is actually pretty complex and means a lot of different things in different contexts as far as the actions you are hoping to evoke on behalf of your own character players as well as others. Is it romantic, is it familial, friendship, mocking, hesitant, angry? There are contexts where it could be all of those things.

And if we operated on words alone, as if they have consistent meanings across all sentences with the format to swap in that word, then there’s actually a really high probability that in the most important moments of a game based conversation, you completely disconnect from what the computer understands about the word love you’ve been swapping in all game.

What seems like a sincere confession, could actually be a despairing release of the feelings, hopeless for the prospect of reciprocation. It could be used as emotional manipulation to reinforce virtuous feelings of care and demand action or change on behalf of the other person. It could an uncomfortable forced and panicked response that upon deeper thinking turns out to be empty.

And normal conversation is a lot more complicated than even this in my experience. So what’s the solution?

Stop using swappable words into dialog choice. The meaning is at a bigger picture level just as life starts beyond the atomic level. It may be impossible to communicate through language without a consistent risk of misinterpretation. I think most of us have experienced how surprising someone’s interpretation of our words can be and it’s a separate topic the degree to which language can be improved or made worse in search of maximum or optimal clarity, but when the specific meaning of the language is important in strongly divergent player options, players have a right to know what they’re saying.

One of the best solutions I can offer to this problem is to have multiple sentences that all carry the same meaning, but with different expressions. So I’ve basically done the opposite of the traditional word swap approach, by creating multiple different sentence versions that all attempt to communicate the same idea, rather than different ones.

And then I also allow multiple options that have these multiple expressions. Through this process the player actually gets a very clear idea of what they are contemplating saying within the game. Don’t swap words, swap meanings and use expression type to further communicate the meaning.

Interested how this works in practice, check out my recent rundown of my writing tool Electra: https://youtu.be/22AnkBROlqY


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