“The Passive Protagonist Problem,” try saying that five times quickly!
As many of you know, I’m in the final stages of building System Crash, the cyberpunk, story-heavy collectable card game I’ve been working on for about two years now.
The end of an artistic or creative project can be a tricky time, because it’s difficult to know when to call it “done”. An engineering project is simpler, you’re judging utility, ticking items off of feature lists, testing stability. Qualities that are directly and objectively measurable. With art, you’re dealing with subjectivity and nebulous principles.
Is this painting appealing? Is the conclusion to this book satisfying? Was that movie meaningful? Did that song resonate, emotionally?
The lack of simple tests to indicate whether you’re finished or not means that, as an artist, you’re something like a frontiersman, exploring new territory, looking for a spot to stake your claim and build yourself a cabin. You’re trying to find the most favourable, appealing spot, but where exactly is that? That spot over there is close to fresh water, but this one here by the rocks is sheltered from the wind and rain. And over there, on the hillside, you’d have a glorious view of the sunset.
So where do you finally choose to settle? If the design space is something like a landscape, a “possibility space” of potential designs, where on that possibility space do you build your “house”, your design? And at what point do you stop searching for a better design? When does the search stop being productive, when is the cost of continuing to hunt simply burning valuable resources for little gain? When is further exploration necessary, and when is it just surrendering to the gremlins of scope creep?
Hard decisions. Much of it, you have to go by instinct, and you only hone those instincts through experience.
I did a lot of planning before starting System Crash, and much thinking along the way, but I can tell you, it only got me 50% there. The other 50% you do by feel. By building the game and regularly stopping to evaluate and adjust. Plan, build, test, evaluate, repeat. Does this feature feel right? Does it feel like you imagined it would? No? Then tweak something here, turn a knob there. What about now?
So back to my initial tongue twister.
Something was wrong with my single player campaign. Something wasn’t working. Which is a problem, when you’d been aiming to release your game in a month, two months tops. Something didn’t feel right, and it didn’t feel right in the part of the game I was hoping would be one of my USPs. My Unique Selling Points.
In the same way that it’s important for a story to have a strong hook, it’s important for games to have a strong, clear selling point. Something that clearly identifies why you’d want to play this game. Not that game, not that one over there, THIS game.
System Crash doesn’t have multiplayer, which is, frankly, a lack that gnaws at me. If I could do it over again (oh, how many times I’ve said that), I would not make a CCG if I couldn’t ship it with multiplayer. I feel it’s a core of the expected experience that is missing, and that worries me. I feel like I’m already on the back-foot, marketing wise. If someone likes the game, one of the first questions they’ll likely ask is “can I play it against a friend?” And the answer will have to be “no”. So, that’s points deducted from the appeal of SC, right from the start.
And I don’t have the card variety of other CCGs. Since I started making System Crash, everyone and their grandmother seems to have jumped into making CCGs. Blizzard’s released the beta of Hearthstone, and I’ve played it. It’s really good! And it has 400 cards on launch. I have 90 cards. And that smaller number has constrained my design choices in ways I rail against.
So what do I have to offer? I asked myself, if someone looked me in the eye and asked why I honestly thought they should choose System Crash over another CCG, what would I tell them?
The answer I came up with, after some thought, was – Cyberpunk theme. And interesting, mature storytelling.
There aren’t a lot of cyberpunk card games in general, and not many digital ones. And most CCGs have a cursory story campaign, if any. The focus tends to be on multiplayer and on grinding for cards. So that was an area I could distinguish myself, stand out of the crowd. A CCG for cyberpunks and folk who enjoy good stories.
Which is why this nagging sense that the story wasn’t working was a huge problem.
It wasn’t too hard to identify the issue. It had been rearing its ugly head every time I tried to craft missions for the campaign. The problem is the lack of “voice” for the player’s character, and the lack of a mechanism for the player to interact with the narrative directly.
It’s a general rule in storytelling, whatever the medium, that passive protagonists are boring. A passive protagonist, for people who don’t know, is a character who merely reacts to events that happen around them. The do not take initiative, they do not drive the story, they do not take action except in response to another’s action.
A story is generally created by a mixture of action and reaction. The protagonist has desires and goals, and strives to achieve those goals and fulfil those desires. The writer adds conflict, puts obstacles in their path, obstacles which they first react to, then take action to overcome. This striving, this cycle of action and reaction, builds tension and momentum in the story, pushing the audience toward the climax, where the tension that has built up to (hopefully) a peak is released and the audience (again, hopefully) experiences an emotional pay-off. That’s the basic structure of a story.
But a character who only reacts feels too wimpy, too passive, too boring. The audience doesn’t invest in their striving.
That problem is further compounded in a video game because the audience, the player, is an active participant rather than a passive observer, as they are with movies or books. The ability to interact with the game world makes sequences in which the player cannot interact with that world stand out starkly. This is why cutscenes can be jarring, you find yourself watching the character rather than being the character.
You want your character to punch that guy, you’ve been punching guys together the whole game! Just punch him, Bob! No, no don’t walk away! Nooo, Bob, what are you doing?!?
But even when you, the player, don’t have agency in a scene, it’s still important that the character you’re playing as, the protagonist, is active. The ideal is that both the player and the player’s character should feel like active participants in the narrative, but at the very least the player character should be active. We can accept the fact that we have to watch Kratos do his thing in cutscenes, so long as he is actually doing things. We need to observe him as a vibrant, dynamic character with goals and desires.
In System Crash, I didn’t feel this was always the case. You do get a sense of the player character being active in the introduction text, and in the little mission narrative texts, I think. I did my best to write things which convey mood, character, desire, conflict, personality.
Where you don’t get that sense is in the mechanism of receiving missions and interacting with other characters, which primarily happens via a sort of email system. It’s not even as good as email, because you (and by extension the player character) only receive messages in System Crash. You can’t respond. You can’t ask questions, express anger, excitement or humour. You can’t do anything except mutely comply. There’s no sense of the player character being active in these interactions.
Even if I, the designer, am ultimately forcing the player to accept those missions and complete them to progress, there are still ways to write these interactions in a way that makes the player character seem to be actively engaging with the characters and plot. But to do that, I need a new storytelling mechanism. A way for the player to respond and engage.
So, long story short, I’ve added a dialogue engine, and am rewriting the email conversations to be dialogues. Dialogue trees, FUCK YEAH! 😉