In my previous post in this series, I discussed how the player’s avatar doesn’t really work as a character in the traditional narrative sense. On this, Tahdg and I are in agreement. The avatar is more akin to a doll or a remote controlled limb through which the player can reach ‘through the screen’ and directly interact with the scene. This ability to interact with the game directly is a distinguishing feature of games, and it is the one which makes it such a powerful medium for engaging with an audience.
(I’ll note at this point that interactivity isn’t unique to games, there have been experiments with interactive art exhibits, plays where the cast members involve themselves with the audience, interactive books and movies (Lone Wolf & 7th Guest etc). But traditional mediums don’t have it at their core quite like gaming does.)
This interactivity also presents a distinct challenge. We’re used to dealing with an audience kept at arm’s length, we’ve got a toolbox full of techniques for building narratives in that scenario, tools that have been fine-tuned through centuries of experimentation. But now the audience is part of the show, and expects to be able to have a say in how things turn out. How do we build narratives around that? How do we control flow, pacing? How do we build emotional connection, create drama, comedy, horror etc?
I want to save some topics for later posts, so for now let’s focus on the creating emotional connection part. Given the previous post, where I argued that building emotional connections around the player tend to fail, how do we achieve this? Well, the answer has probably dawned on most of you, and it’s a fairly simple one :
Don’t build the story around the emotional development of the player. Build it around the development of the non-player characters.
Have the NPCs undergo character development arcs and give the player the ability to interact with and influence these arcs. This puts us almost back in traditional storytelling territory, with a bit of icing on the cake in the form of allowing the player to influence events and see how they turn out. While letting the player have influence reduces the absolute control the writer has on the outcome of the story, people invest more in anything they are personally involved in, so what you lose in fine control and pacing you make up for in personal investment.
You see, we don’t need events to happen to us in order to empathize. In fact that is actually what empathy is, the ability to imagine ourselves in someone else’s shoes and consider how we would feel in their place. We don’t need to be Hamlet to empathize with his story. In fact, an attempt to force us to actually play Hamlet hinders our ability to experience those feelings.
Consider, you see someone crying. You might feel natural empathy for another person in pain or sadness. Now I tell you to try to cry yourself. Go on, be sad, do it. It doesn’t really work, does it? You can’t just switch on that emotion in yourself, in fact trying to do so when you aren’t actually sad feels weird, funny. Actors train themselves to slip into these personas, to try to call up genuine emotion at will, or at least the appearance of it. For most of us though, we feel a bit corny if we try it, artificial. We end up slipping into safer territory, making a bit of a joke about it, exaggerating, getting slapstick. Our self-awareness interferes.
But when we witness it in others and try to understand them, we aren’t aware of their internal state so our minds move to ‘fill in the gaps’ from our own experiences. We may not have ever lost a child, but perhaps we’ve lost a beloved family member. Our minds match it as a ‘closest fit’, recall how it felt at that time and so allow us to relate. We are not fighting our own self-awareness and identity, instead our minds have shifted to attempting to find common ground for understanding, communicating and relating with an external agent.
This ‘filling in the gaps’ is why we can relate not just to our social circle, but to fictional people, whether they are described via words in a book, cartoon figures or live actors. But there must be those gaps to fill in, and for that there needs to be some distance between us and the characters described.
So my point is this : make your emotional development character arcs about other characters but provide hooks for the player to involve themselves in the arc. Let them talk to the character, interact with them, delve into their thoughts and feelings. Let them influence, persuade, berate. And most importantly, let them witness the development, not just of the unfolding character arc that you have laid out as a writer, but of the effects of their own decisions on those arcs.
This is why I think Tahdg is wrong, that lack of agency is the core to deep storytelling. I disagree that the player needs to be helpless in order for drama or tragedy to have impact. If that were true, how would we experience such emotions in our own lives, where we certainly have agency but not absolute control of events? Yes, it is powerful to read a novel about a tragic, doomed character struggling against circumstance only to have it all prove futile in the end. But it is just as powerful, if not more so, for a player to influence a character in a certain direction only to have that path lead them to their doom. The fact that the result is a direct consequence of the player’s choices is that much more poignant.
Remember, ‘player agency’ doesn’t mean that the player always gets to find a happy ending. Consider a simple example, a narrative involving 2 highly sympathetic characters. The player gets to know each and, through skilled storytelling, even comes to like both characters. Then you put these characters into conflict, destructive conflict. Through misunderstanding or circumstance, these two strive against each other and only one can have a positive outcome, the success of one means the ruin of the other. Enter the player’s decisions, their ‘agency’. Through their actions, the player can tip the scales one way or the other. But the player cannot achieve an outcome where both parties are reconciled and everyone lives happily ever after. Whichever option they choose will result in the destruction (physically, emotionally, financially, whatever) of one of the characters they have come to be invested in.
That is incredibly powerful, for me. It wouldn’t work so well if the player was themselves one of the two characters, but by making the player choose between two sympathetic characters you force the player to battle with their own empathy to make a difficult choice.
Now, I won’t deny that there are certain types of stories that just aren’t a good fit for games. But I do think it is possible to tell powerful, moving stories within games. It requires understanding the medium and its unique nature though, and it seems to be something that most traditional writers struggle with. As I see it, there are two main problems that we keep seeing in game storytelling.
The first is in trying to emulate other storytelling mediums. Games that want to be movies, games that want to be books. Thinking we can just take a story from a novel, stuff the player into the role of the protagonist and it will work out great, better than great, it’ll be like being a character in that story! But that doesn’t quite work, as explained above.
The second problem is in sticking to stories where the player ‘wins’ the story in the same way they ‘win’ at the gameplay mechanics. We are, for the most part, stuck on stories that are light entertainment fluff, tales of adventure and power fantasies. Stories where the world is saved, the hero gets the girl and everything is made right in the end. We need to recognize that a sad or tragic ending can be just as satisfying as one where the player ‘wins’. There have been individual games that have gone to these places, but there are the exception. We need to cater for a fuller range of human experience in general.
Part of it is the nature of the medium, we’re making games so we tend to think of the ending point of our stories as being a reward, and rewards as having to be happy/positive/successful. The other side of it is the immaturity of the medium. Gaming is a young hobby and the audience is mostly younger people. That audience is growing older now, as anyone who has gotten older knows your tastes shift over time, become more nuanced. Older people want experiences they can relate to more, teenage fantasies lose their luster. With an aging audience, demand for emotional exploration and depth in games will grow, I have no doubt. There’ll be inertia, it’ll take a while for the industry to really notice that demand, caught up as it is in catering to aggressive young men. But make no mistake, where there is money to be made eventually there will be producers catering to those tastes.