Power Through Responsibility
While working on a storyline for a video game that wants you to care, really care, about the characters, Harvey puzzles over how best to craft letters aimed for the heart.
"What we want in general from a videogame story is not interactive narrative at all, but a sophisticated illusion that gives us pleasure without responsibility . . ."
from Trigger Happy: The Inner Life of Videogames by Steven Poole
Be honest. You don't care. Not really. All those characters that looked to you to guard their safety in one hazardous environment after another: they were all expendable. The times PacMan wilted into nothing because you didn't spot the ghosts closing in. The times Vice City's Tommy Vercetti couldn't quite evade the pursuing FBI because you didn't find a getaway vehicle in time. All the times the Prince of Persia plunged to his death because you could quite get the jump right. And you didn't shed a single tear of sorrow, not for any of them.
Sure, you might have wrenched your clothes in frustration or cried out with desperation, but that's self-interest, not the same thing as actually caring for the character in question. As both the journalist Steven Poole and the academic Jesper Juul have independently observed, a key component of more conventional narrative forms like the novel and cinema is the very aspect of irreversibility: in other words you weep over the death of Ali McGraw's character in the film Love Story, precisely because you know she isn't going to spring back to life and end the film tripping through fields of corn with Ryan O'Neal.
The vast majority of video games are not the same as films or novels or theatre plays; at least not in this regard. If the main character the avatar ends up dead then don't worry, hit restart and play again. So if you don't care each time Sonic or Max Payne or Mario do end up dead, then don't worry, it's not surprising. In the video game world nothing is forever.
Which, from the viewpoint of the people that make games, renders the question of enabling player empathy very tricky, indeed. Why care about a character who, Lazarus-like, can be resurrected moments after some unfortunate demise? Like London buses, you know there'll be another one along in a moment.
How to make people care about video game characters is something that's been exercising my thoughts a lot of late. I've spent the last few weeks putting the finishing touches to the script elements of an online game I've been working on. Not only do I have the blistered fingers to prove it, but I also have the indentations from a brow that's been overly furrowed trying to solve the question of character empathy.
The project I've been working on is called the NOKs Collecting Battles game. I guess the best way of describing it is as a kind of cross between Pokemon and the X-Men. The player not only gets to fight battles (and there are some mean fights), but they also get to collect a widely varied assortment of characters to their computer's desktop. Not only that, but the player can then communicate with these characters, by typing in questions and responses to prompts from the character in question.
The game's premise is that these characters have escaped from an alternate dimension and broken into our own reality. In the process they've brought with them a ferocious war between the Mindians and the Bodians, two titanic armies joined in seemingly perpetual struggle to control the Multiverse (that's like the universe, only bigger. Keep up at the back). In the forthcoming version of the game, the Mindians and Bodians are both searching for the so-called Ultimate Weapon, an energy force that can take the shape of any organic or inorganic form. Both Mindians and Bodians believe that possessing the Ultimate Weapon will guarantee them success in the ongoing war. Suffice to say that the player, of course, will perform a pivotal role in the outcome of said war.
The characters themselves are an eclectic bunch. The Bodians' Commander is a statuesque blonde woman called Nicole de Simone, who combines her role as leader of the Bodian army on Earth with a career as transdimensional pop singer. Among her troops are a group of lovable-looking babies whose cutesy appearances belie an appetite for fighting in the game's highly addictive combat zone, otherwise known as the Noklear War.
Their Mindian adversaries are equally varied: the game features a group of fey-looking alien types who together comprise the 'Holy Family', a Mafia-like collection of religious zealots who orchestrate the Mindian forces. These forces include the Troll Squad, a collection of gawky-looking and downright abusive fiends whose fidelity to the Mindian cause is questionable, to say the least.
The Mindians and Bodians are joined by various interlopers who haven't joined up to either Mindian and Bodian cause: or at least won't admit to it. These include the NokMan, a part-cybernetic rocket-charged Adonis who firmly resents the arrival of fellow NOKs into Earth's reality on the logical basis that they'll be bad for his Unique Selling Point as Greenwich Village's resident superhero. And Lewis Carroll's canny Alice gets another trip to video game land, along with assorted other Wonderland characters. Throw in some footballers, talking tanks, policemen and DJs, and you have a postmodern melange of characters familiar from the last 40 years or so of video game history, together at last.
The game itself is a comprehensive revamp of a title previously released in Israel by Atari. It's been developed by an outfit called NOKs Technologies, which are now based in New York. The CEO is a man called Lior Messinger who, in the age of email, MSN Messenger and Skype, I've only had the pleasure of meeting the once, during a fleeting visit to NYC. Lior is that unusual mix of incredibly talented professional and terrifically nice guy, which has made our transatlantic conversations all the more fun. His team of designers, programmers, and composers are a similarly gifted bunch of individuals.
My initial task was to construct an overarching storyline that could connect together all these disparate characters. An ongoing war into which the Earth is unwillingly thrust seemed a logical solution, and one attuned to real world events. At the same time it was important for the success of the game to engender genuine emotions from the player towards these often bizarre characters.
NOKs Technologies' solution to engendering a feeling of empathy with its numerous video game characters is an imaginative reinvention of a much older idea. Artificial intelligence practitioners and researchers are familiar with Eliza, a computer-based 'virtual psychologist' that gives the impression of intelligence without really being intelligent. Via a text-based interface, Eliza asks her 'patient' a series of questions familiar from Jungian analysis, and shapes the responses you give in such a way to make it appear like she's really listening. Of course she isn't listening, really she's just picking up on keywords contained in her lexicon and that you makes feel like you're being heard.
Characters in the NOKs Collecting Battles game operate on similar lines. They'll ask you questions, and if you give answers they recognise, they'll supply a response that ought to make sense as part of an ongoing conversation. When the characters don't recognise your response, they'll provide a padding answer, before extending the conversation in an appropriate direction.
Over the last few years the video game industry has become justifiably fixated with issues of characterisation. David Freeman's book Creating Emotion in Games: The Art and Craft of Emotioneering (published by New Riders) explores practical ways of investing video game characters with sufficient depth that the player will feel suitably engaged with the game in question. Interestingly, Freeman doesn't downplay the role of plot, but understands that plot is an essential component for adequately explaining the motivations of characters, thus deepening our belief as players in their credibility. Video game storytelling maybe a relatively new form of employment for writers, but many of the universal truths of narrative die hard.
But as Warren Spector, former CEO of the mighty developer Ion Storm has observed, video game plotlines have got about as experimental as they're going to get. The nature of video game production and video game consumption renders games with myriad branching narratives whereby the player can choose from umpteen different paths financially uneconomical, technically unfeasible, and even aesthetically undesirable. Why bother developing huge chunks of memory-munching cut sequences a player may never see, because she or he chose to pursue another branch of the story?
Progression of the plot in the NOKs Collecting Battles game is akin to that of a jigsaw puzzle. Each character in the game has various pieces of information to impart: it's up to the player who they choose to believe or disbelieve. The player just needs to remember that the future of humanity rests on their shoulders, that's all.
And this is the crucial aspect. Contrary to Steven Poole's argument in his seminal book Trigger Happy, I would argue that the key to characterisation in video games is precisely connected to awarding the player some degree of responsibility in the video game environment. You only really care what happens in the game if your actions have some opposite and equal reaction.
It's only then that you'll shed a tear.
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Colin Harvey will be discussing his work on the NOKs Collecting Battles game at the Mindplay conference at London Metropolitan University, UK on 20 January 2006.