Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
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Tuesday, Jun 30, 2009
A closer look at The Path and its various elements.

Discussing The Path without discussing spoilers is mostly an exercise in generalizations. The entire game design is a weirdly subversive content delivery system and abstaining from explaining that content doesn’t really do the game justice. Spoilers Abound, as always. The Path is a video game variation of the oldest known version of ‘Little Red Riding’ which you can find here. The moral at the end explains that girls who are just reaching maturity and are taken advantage of by, “The Wolfe, I say, for Wolves too sure there are of every sort, and every character. Some of them mild and gentle-humour’d be Of noise and gall, and rancour wholly free”. The wolf in the story is a metaphor for those who relieve young girls of their innocence, often as the story notes often by acting nicely as well as cruelly. The game is a literal manifestation of this: you play as six different girls walking to Grandma’s house. The game design entices you off the trail to discover a wide collection of secrets, one of which will prove to be the end of the child’s journey and the beginning of another.


The game design is setup to give the player a few key choices about how to conduct themselves. If you stick to the path you will make it to grandma’s house and see your young self sitting on a bed while an old woman still lies dormant. Off in the corner is a wolf frozen in motion. The game will rattle off all the secrets you missed and point out that you did not encounter the wolf. It is preying on the typical gamer habit of collecting secrets and the curious power that telling a gamer “You didn’t win” seems to have over them. Fire up the game again and you can wander off the path into a forest full of secrets. There are 144 randomly placed flowers that can be collected along with a set number of unlockable secret events for each girl that are unique. Throughout this exploration section a girl in a white dress will run about who will occasionally take you back to the path if you engage with her long enough. The forest itself is disorienting and visually difficult to navigate but eventually a mapping system takes over in the form of symbols of various wolf sites. Running causes your view of the surroundings to go away because the camera moves up so the best way to travel is walking very slowly. Depending on how many secrets you collect the final montage at the end of the game will change, particularly if you find the wolf event.


Finding a concrete interpretation of the game is surprisingly difficult for two reasons. The first is that the wolf varies from being metaphorical to literally drinking a few beers with a guy before the screen fades to black. Dark and disturbing noises follow before the girl wakes up on the path disoriented and walking slowly to Grandma’s house. Inside the house a linear rail sequence starts up that has you looking through a variety of disturbing rooms while lights flash that all echoes of David Lynch cinematography. There is, to put it lightly, a great deal of room for interpretation about what this is supposed to imply. The other problem is that all of this symbolism changes depending on how many secrets you chose to discover. 8 Bit Hack argues that each girl is a stage of the grandmother’s life. He explains, ““Each of the Riding Hoods play the role of one stage of the old woman’s young life, from the bright eyed Robin to the learned Scarlet. The wolf, in his many forms, represents the betrayal and cruelty waiting out in the world when you stray from what you know, what is safe, and what is easy.”


We got into an argument about how many of the girl’s scenes were implying rape (a similar one came up at Brainy Gamer) and realized that we had both seen very different imagery. Whereas he saw one of the girls tied up with razor wire and bleeding, I saw an image of a scarecrow chasing children underneath a bed. This then becomes problematic because although I usually tried to get two or three secrets per girl I rarely bothered to find every single one. Given how difficult such an act would be, the designers seem to have created an interesting method for insuring their imagery always remains vibrant or unique for each person. With the exception of the wolf scene, the game is actually quite open to interpretation because the game design generates its images based on the player’s actions.


It is also worth noting that the game plays with your relationship with these girls in a very unique way. The initial tropes of the game start off as role play, we empathize with the girl in the way one normally does with their avatar in a game. The initial shock and horror begins to fade as one becomes accustomed to the system however, leading to a certain kind of transformation in the player. The 99th over at Play This Thing! argues that the player themselves are becoming the wolf. He explains, “The core gameplay involves figuring out what the 3rd person characteristics are of each of the girls. Figuring these things out enables you to say “ok, I bet this girl would interact with that object”, which leads to results.” In this way we are a kind of seducer, studying the girl and taking her to the places we know will resonate with her. We discover little bits of information about them through poetic reactions to the items they discover or by what they’re wearing. And with this knowledge we guide them to their inevitable wolf, their violation and loss of innocence.


What is at the core of these numerous choices and unlockables is a story about the loss of innocence. When Scarlet sees flowers she opines about how dirty nature is, when she approaches a piano in the woods she muses, “Art is where the nobility of humanity is expressed, I could not live in a world without it.” As the grey haired musician teaches her to play the screen fades and we awake outside Grandma’s house. The final scene is to a clapping audience, a green curtain rising up, and a thud as the screen goes to black. Her juvenile views of music and art are gone, the child that would’ve been sitting on the bed next to the dormant old woman is gone. The young Robin contemplates, “People die. It’s hard to imagine for a kid like me. They die and we put them in the ground. Like flowers.” A hulking wolf wanders about the graveyard when we approach and Robin leaps onto his back just as she does every secret she has found in the woods. As funeral bells begin to ring out, wolf carries us to the top of the hill, and gives out a great howl in triumph. The final scene is us falling into a dark hole, a grave. Robin’s innocence is lost as she realizes the true nature of death and its inevitability. So it goes with the other four girls offering a new take on a development in a person’s life. Impressions about art, death, and for several sex are all explored.


I would ignore reviews that complain it is not a game or who take the imagery literally. Death is symbolically the mechanics of change in people, the current personality must die in order for the new one to grow and take effect. Michael Abbott once wrote that you can’t ever dictate the meaning of imagery to someone in a game because our relationship with these things is always unique. The point has merit, particularly in a game like this that is full of so much nuance and ambiguity. You can, however, accurately predict people’s relationship with game design elements. There is a path and if you stick to it the game will tell you that you did not discover all sorts of secrets. Irked, the player will go exploring on the second round, collecting items and trying to navigate the confusing forest. Making the controls minimal and passive will generate uneasiness in the player while large amounts of conduct and action continue to happen with little input from them. Eventually, you will be placed in a situation where you have no control at all and can only watch as the inevitable happens. Like a dream where the subject is helpless, The Path is a game that frightens you not with thrills but instead with how it makes you feel.


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Text:AAA
Friday, Jun 26, 2009
Consequences are better represented through story than karma systems.

The opening scene in Indigo Prophecy is one of the most memorable moments in gaming for anyone that’s played it. The main character, Lucas, goes into a trance and kills a man in the bathroom of a small restaurant. Play it once and it seems fairly unremarkable: You clean up the murder scene and flee out the back door. Not much happens. But on a second try, when the player realizes the wealth of options available, it’s impossible not to feel a sense of wonder. Clean up the murder? Hide the murder weapon? Wash your hands? Pay your bill? Call someone? The vast number of small choices is impressive, but the real accomplishment of this scene is that all these choice are presented to the player without any moral implications. There aren’t any “good” or “bad” options. Cleaning up the murder doesn’t make you a bad person, and paying your bill doesn’t make you a good person. The game presents the player choice without morality.


Unfortunately the rest of the game failed to live up to that level of ingenuity. The story of Indigo Prophecy was split into several scenes, and while each scene has its own variety of choices, their consequences had little effect on the next scene. The game was structured like a series of sandboxes, giving players a false sense of control when really we were being pulled along a traditional linear narrative. For all the choices we had to make, the consequences ultimately didn’t matter.


A karma system would have fixed this dilemma by putting our actions in a larger context. Even though players would essentially be leveling up their character with arbitrary points, we would at least know that our actions were contributing to something greater than our current situation. A karma system lets us know where our actions stand in the grand scheme of things. If game doesn’t use arbitrary points to give our actions consequence, than that consequence must come through in the story: The consequences of any decision must directly affect the story for the player to feel like their input genuinely matters. If we can see the results of our actions on the plot or the characters, than there’s no need for a system of points.


The flash game Storyteller by Daniel Benmergui takes this approach to consequence in games. It’s beautiful in its simplicity: Told in just three panels, it distils the classic adventure story into three pivotal scenes and three pivotal choices. It revolves around three characters, and depending on how the player rearranges them within each scene, the outcome of the story changes. Does the knight kill the wizard or does the wizard kill the knight? Does the prince save the princess or does the princess save the prince? We could make a story with no conflict and a happy ending, or one in which all the heroes die. There’s no need for a karma system because we can immediately see the short-term and long-term consequences of our actions on the lives of these characters. The downside to this is that there’s not much of a story to tell. The characters have no names and there’s no plot, the only real story is the one we make up and it can be as complex or as thin as our imaginations let it be. Bernmergui is giving up authorial control in order to let us experience the full breadth of choice and consequence.


So consequences free from morality must affect the story, but giving the player too many choices can dilute the story. A middle ground can be found in Mass Effect, which strikes a nearly perfect balance between these two options. We don’t have nearly as much control over the story as we do in Storyteller; Mass Effect, like Indigo Prophecy, is very linear. When we’re finally able to explore the solar system, we can only choose the order of which story-progressing missions we accept, but we still have to complete all of them before we can advance. We can change how the story is told, but not the story itself. To make up for this we’re given choices at key moments with dire consequences, such as the possible deaths of central characters. Since death is a real possibility, the tangible consequence of our actions can be felt in the main story. There are also several short stories within the game whose endings are entirely dependant on our actions. There’s the mourning man who wants the military to give him his wife’s dead body, the gambler who wants us to test a device that will help him cheat, or the waitress worried about her sister working as an undercover agent. By giving the player choices within these short stories, and consequences that play out with these minor characters and sub-plots, we don’t notice how little we actually affect the main story.


But there’s no ignoring the fact that Mass Effect does have a karma system. Every choice we make gives us either Paragon points or Renegade points, and for most gamers these easily translate into “good” and “evil.” Such associations are unfortunate because the Renegade options are hardly evil. Some actions may make Shepard act cold, but never truly evil. The game does a commendable job giving us a range of emotions in our choices without making those choices blatantly good or bad, but the presence of the karma system undermines everything the game does right by separating all the consequences into only two categories. Sometimes the Renegade option is the best choice, but it may be difficult to convince a player trying to play through the game as a good character to go with that option simply because of its unwarranted assumption of being “evil.”


The karma system is a narrative shortcut: Instead of writing consequences into the story, a player is given points and measures consequence by how full the “good” or “bad” meter is. Yet it’s become an established feature of open ended games, sometimes to the detriment of the game. Even though it’s a relatively new mechanic (at least in its more comprehensive forms) it’s already outdated as games like Storyteller and Mass Effect prove it’s possible to represent consequence without the morality.


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Jun 24, 2009
Playing video games is not usually Zen.

A couple of weeks ago, L.B. Jeffries wrote a column on gamer burnout that examined how playing video games can become a kind of work.  Jeffries asked a number of industry folks as well as games journalists to comment on such burnout and the focus of the column largely remained on how difficult it can be to review and work with games that are not enjoyable.  As someone who has written on games and reviewed games for a number of years, I could certainly relate to the notion that having to play a game that you don’t enjoy is a bummer and can turn the process of prepping to write about it into pure drudgery.  However, I was more interested in a comment that Jeffries made about an essay that concerned avoiding burnout generally by focusing on relaxing, less work-related activities: “The article makes a point of saying that video games or surfing the net are NOT relaxing because you’re still mentally working and stressing yourself out.”


Indeed, while often regarded as a past time, playing games is not at all a leisure activity like reading a book or watching a movie.  As I thought about the idea of gaming as mental work, I couldn’t help but reflect on how I hate playing games before I go to bed.  When I do so, I almost inevitably find myself awake with my brain still actively chugging away.  Growing up, I was that kid with a flashlight and a comic book under the sheets.  Reading a copy of The Avengers seemed essential to a good night’s sleep.  My wife always reads before she goes to bed and often enough falls asleep with a book lying in the sheets next to her.  I can’t imagine sneaking a Gameboy into bed and helping me get into any kind of relaxed state at all.  I even have similar experiences playing board games.  Some friends and I meet every Saturday night to play such games, and we usually wrap up around midnight.  However, I usually don’t fall asleep until about 3 AM.  My brain remains occupied by working out strategies and tactics, calculating odds and decisions, and considering what mistakes I might have made.  None of these thoughts are at all conducive to relaxation. 


In an effort to differentiate “cybertextual” narratives from other standard forms of narratives, like those found in books and movies, the media critic Espen Aarseth uses the term ergodic to describe cybertexts, deriving the term from the Greek ergon (work) and hodos (path).  Aarseth’s terminology seems to nail down an essential feature of video games as a medium as opposed to more traditional media, claiming that games necessarily produce a kind of effort that other entertainment media often do not.


That is not to say that reading a book or watching a movie is not work.  Indeed, as a literature professor, I clearly do not underestimate the work required to read a book well (and I believe that my students suffer from some kind of fatigue as well).  But interestingly, I differentiate between reading as work and reading for pleasure on the basis of my interactivity with a text.  When I read a book to prepare for a class, I do so with a pen in hand and post-it notes close by because I am marking up my text to indicate significant passages and using post-its to remind myself of passages that I want to focus on discussing in class.  However, when I read for pleasure in the summertime, I distance myself from the pen and other apparatus so that I can simply read with the passive pleasure of someone experiencing the story rather than attempting to shape it to my purposes.


Thinking about interactivity and creativity in this sense, I am strangely reminded of a particular passage by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, in which Rilke describes how poetry is derived from experience:


Ah, poems amount to so little when you write them too early in your life. You ought to wait and gather sense and sweetness for a whole lifetime, and a long one if possible, and then, at the very end, you might perhaps be able to write ten good lines[. . . but] it is not yet enough to have memories. You must be able to forget them when they are many, and you must have the immense patience to wait until they return. For the memories themselves are not important. Only when they have changed into our very blood, into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves—only then can it happen that in some very rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them.


Part of Rilke’s point in this passage seems to be that poets do not so much work to write poems but that instead poems emerge simply from being.  There is an almost Zen-like quality to Rilke’s description of the production of poetry as if it is generated (or maybe simply is something that necessarily is) in a state of complete contentment and repose.


Listening to music, watching a movie, or reading a book all seem to allow for such natural experiences of art that I have a hard time comparing to the usual experience of playing a video game, which in my estimation requires not contentment and repose but a focus on process and strategy. Nevertheless, I have made an effort to attempt to think of games that have a Zen-like quality to them and that can produce a calm or relaxed state of mind.  Thinking about the restless state that most games put me in before I retire, I tried to consider if there were any games that could pass a “sleep test” (that is a game that I could play before bed that wouldn’t lead my mind to continue on in a working mode and thus disturb my effort to sleep).


Largely, the only games that come to mind that might pass a sleep test and that might contain some semblance of Zen are rhythm games.  For me, Harmonix’s Amplitude is a game that I have been able to play for an hour or two before bed and shortly thereafter fall quickly to sleep. In fact, sleep seems to even produce solutions to the the game’s more difficult moments.  As I have heard other fans of music games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band attest to, sometimes a particularly challenging track that seems impossible to play or play well can be mastered after a good night’s sleep.  I have gotten stuck on some of the more challenging songs on the Brutal and Insane difficulty levels of Amplitude like “Rock Show” or “Synthesized” and played them for hours one day.  With a little sleep, my brain seems to unconsciously and without effort to have worked out what my reflexes could not the day before, and I breeze through them. Such moments seem akin to Rilke’s observations that poetry is something that emerges when experiences are not even memories any longer.  Instead, they seem to “ have changed into our very blood, into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves.” 


As anyone who has attempted to play the drums for the first time in Rock Band can attest to, that is not to say that games that produce a Zen-like reaction from the player that is instinctive and seemingly almost thoughtless are necessarily immediately so easy to grasp.  Games like these seem to be founded on principles of simplicity and elegance, though, that when mastered provoke an almost trance-like quality in the player that is less like work and more like being.  The most recent Prince of Persia has this quality in that some very limited visual cues in the landscape allow a player who has practiced a little while with the controls to pretty instinctively send the Prince through a variety of complex acrobatic motions with just a few button pushes.  Likewise, when I was in my Street Fighter II phase 10 or 15 years ago, I could nearly instinctively fire off “shoryukens” after countless hours of playing the computer and others in this basic combat game.  Games that train you to become instinctive as if the experience and understanding of them are have become “very blood” seem to move us away from thought and strategy towards a place of almost pure being.  In other words, it is as if the game is not something that I play to solve any longer but instead something Zen-like that simply is.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Jun 23, 2009
A closer look at why so many game avatars are scowling all the time.
From Prince of Persia: Warrior Within, Ubisoft

From Prince of Persia: Warrior Within, Ubisoft


Easily one of the more prevalent facial expressions in video games today is the scowl. Although their anime and cartoon inspired counter-parts break the trend along with faceless protagonists such as Master Chief, overall the heroes of video games all seem to be having a bad day. Why are angry video game characters so prevalent? The basics of the scowl are explained in a guide on how to surgically alter your face to not scowl. It recommends removing the vertical hatchet lines between your eyebrows and always keeping you lips just slightly parted to avoid pursed lips. The scowl, based on the instructions on how to avoid making one, involves keeping your jaw clenched and your eyebrows arched down. Doing so will make people feel intimidated, cost you potential business clients, and make everyone think you’re unhappy. So why are we so desperate to play as people with this facial expression?


From Netflix.com

From Netflix.com


How does one make a scowl appealing? A random Twitter cast for people’s favorite celebrity scowls brought up everything from Harrison Ford, Adam Baldwin to Uma Thurman and Alan Rickman as favorite scowls. Clint Eastwood, whose scowl continues to intimidate people to this day, still manages to bring in the fans. An old article from People Magazine about Eastwood interviews several industry people that have worked with him. One comments that the really impressive thing about him is the fact that he’s genuinely a tough guy. After almost collapsing while filming a scene where his character was climbing a rocky wall, Eastwood clawed his way up when the photographer told him he had no choice. Another relates a story where a boulder almost fell on their mountain guide and maimed another crew member. Eastwood, who was funding the film, nearly broke down into tears. He was ready to cancel the film right there. The crew member states, “Clint seemed so simple I thought he was phony. But after a while, I realized how sharp he was. He isn’t verbal, but he is one smart mother…He always comes off very callous and pragmatic, but inside, he’s just mush.” Eastwood’s scowl thus communicates both a sense of hostility but an underlying belief that there is something genuine about him, that his contempt only comes from the fact that he cares.


A comparison between a good scowl and a bad scowl can be seen at Sports Manifesto that compares the scowls of Dick Cheney and Bill Cowher (retired Steeler’s Coach). The blog notes, “Cowher’s scowl seems more genuine than Cheney’s, his is a classic scowl which is solely intent on eliciting fear in the victim. Cowher seems capable of unthinkable acts when that scowl is strewn across his face…Dick Cheney’s scowl seems contrived, as though he accidentally shoved something up his ass as a child and can’t get it out.” The blog concludes that Cheney is scarier because his scowl is something that is simply worn like a mask while Cowher is reflecting his inner turmoil. In the case of both Cowher and Eastwood, we accept the scowl because of its authenticity.


From chickenbetty.wordpress.com

From chickenbetty.wordpress.com


Yet the scowl is not just something used in film or politics, even the fashion industry is dependent on creating a scowl that is genuine to sell their clothes. An excellent article at The New York Times asks why fashion models always look unhappy. The article is about a random survey that showed the unhappier the model looks the more expensive the product they’re selling. One of the first comments to the story explains that models are technically not allowed to smile. They will even be fined money if they do it on the runway. Smiling, as opposed to scowling, is psychologically interpreted as an act of submission while scowling communicates superiority. The article quotes from a Professor Ketelaar, “Lower status individuals appear to smile more than higher status individuals. I suspect that this is due, in part, to the fact that there are several different types of smiles, including a true happiness smile and a true embarrassment smile. The latter smile, the embarrassment display, is often seen as an appeasement display in primates… Thus, the non-smiling faces of the higher status brands are not trying to make the consumer feel bad; they are simply attempting to display the signals that are associated with higher status.” The irony is that the higher the status you want to communicate to a person, the more negative the signal you need to send to show that you don’t care.


From Half-Life 2, Valve

From Half-Life 2, Valve


It is hard to conclude this blog post without stopping and appreciating the power of the smile in a game avatar. Even the fashion article above points out that there is a difference between an embarrassment grin and a pure happiness smile. Just as the scowl indicates superiority and indifference, the smile creates a sense of being welcome. You don’t even have to do it with your mouth. A guide on how to smile with your eyes at wikihow explains that a good smile is not just turning the mouth upwards. The essay notes, “Fake smiles involve just the mouth, and people notice something wrong. The next time you are REALLY smiling, take note of the muscles in your cheeks, forehead, and temples.” A real smile should make the eyes glimmer and it has to come from something real. The article goes so far as to suggesting thinking about a happy thought when you try to smile, even if what you’re smiling at doesn’t qualify. For all the excitement that may come from playing as the ultimate scowling badass, it is hard to not appreciate the big goofy grin on Mario’s face when he invites us to come fly around the galaxy with him. Or feel welcome when we see Alyx Vance smile after we just blasted our way through a tough level. If the scowl’s function in video games is to empower the player, it’d be nice if they had enough character to drop their guard as well.


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Text:AAA
Friday, Jun 19, 2009

Valkyria Chronicles is a unique game within the genre of turn-based strategy games. It’s a mix of that classic slow paced strategy with the fast action of a third-person shooter. But the most unique feature of the game is its surprisingly well defined supporting cast. Since these characters are not part of the main story, their development must be done outside the narrative of the game. Valkyria Chronicles manages this with a system of menus, descriptive traits, and the slow reveal of each character’s past.


In other turn-based strategy games, players build up their army by recruiting low-level soldiers with no special skills and then train them into something useful. Since these soldiers are not part of the main story they have no personality, no back story, and no individuality. Not so in Valkyria Chronicles.


From the very beginning we’re encouraged to view the supporting cast as real characters and not as cannon fodder needed to fill out our team. When selecting our squad for the first time in the Command Room, we pick from a list of 30 potential candidates. The first thing players will notice is that every character on the list looks different. From their facial features, hair color, hair style, skin color, or age, there’s no mistaking one for another. Each is visually unique and easily identifiable, and certain soldiers are guaranteed to stand out to certain players based solely on appearances.


Next to each picture is a small list of character traits. Some soldiers may be described as a “Hard Worker” or a “Challenge Lover” or “Meadow Bred.” These traits are not just descriptions but have tangible effects on the battlefield. A “Hard Worker” will occasionally get to take an extra action during a turn. A “Challenge Lover” gets a boost in attack power when charging into the fray and being “Meadow Bred” increases one’s defense while in grassy meadows. Since these advantages and disadvantages are worded as actual behaviors and not just statistics, they help solidify the personality of each character. The player quickly learns what soldier has what trait and how to best use those traits to gain an advantage on the front lines. For example, I’ll always send a “Challenge Lover” or “Hard Worker” to mount an attack because those traits make them well suited for direct combat, and I’ll never use someone who’s “Meadow Bred” while in a city. I’m encouraged to use the character in a way that reinforces their personality, and in doing so, those traits written in the Command Room menu become a self-fulfilling depiction of that personality.


Also next to each picture and below the list of traits are three names of people that this character likes. These aren’t random names; they’re other soldiers and potential squad mates. Trying to follow this web of relationships can be daunting if a player tries to map it out, but what’s important is that these characters all know each other. They all live in the same world and have their own set of friends and enemies. When following this web, there’s a sense that we’re stepping into the middle of a world that exists beyond the player, that the story of Valkyria Chronicles is just one story within a larger world. These characters had lives before the official story began and will continue on after the official story ends.


In addition to all the information given to us in the Command Room when selecting squad members, each character has a short biography, but in the beginning of the game, these bios are woefully short and don’t offer any personal information to flesh out the characters beyond what we already know from the Command Room. However, the more we use a character in battle, the longer their bio becomes. Like any relationship, the more time that we spend with someone the more that we learn about them. By requiring the player to use a character in battle before we can learn any of their back story, the game limits the number of potential characters we might come to care about. While this action seems counter-progressive, it’s inevitable that when dealing with a large group of people some of them will remain strangers, and by limiting the number of relationships we can build, those characters we do come to care about are made to stand out from the rest of the squad. These are the people that we have fought alongside over and over again. We grow attached to them just through this repeated use and that attachment is then bolstered by progressive character development. By the time a character’s bio is filled, we’ve fought enough battles with them and learned enough about them that we have developed a real relationship with them. And as we learn more about their history with each battle, they become less stereotypical and more multi-dimensional, becoming teammates who we genuinely mourn for when they die and all of this is accomplished without a single line of dialogue.


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