Thoughts on Storytelling – Creating an Emotional Connection.

07 Nov
November 7, 2011

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.

7 replies
  1. Woe says:

    Nice post, but I disagree on some major points:

    “make your emotional development character arcs about other characters but provide hooks for the player to involve themselves in the arc “

    Obsidian tried that, and now their moving away from it (co-coincidently back to where they started, though from a very different direction). The problem with the philosophy is that the player is no longer a character, they’re a plot device. The PC runs from one plot to another like some daft Mary Sue, winning every fight, resolving other peoples problems with a word.

    The PC themselves has to develop in some way, otherwise it’s less a roleplaying game and more like an action-adventure.

    “The first [problem] is in trying to emulate other storytelling mediums.”

    Nothing wrong with that, The Witcher did it quite well. While it’s true that some techniques are specialised towards a medium, like camera work to movies and word balloons to comics, the beauty of the video game is it’s flexibility and ability to adapt techniques. Camera work and word balloons in the same game, for example.

    Storytelling tricks transition similarly, indeed I believe they transcend any single medium. I think the real problem is that they are not being used properly. You can’t skip ahead to the big crisis without laying down the build up and exploring the struggle. Can’t have the build up without the foundations. Can’t have the foundations without the incident that kicks off the whole story. Games seem to forget this.

    “The second problem is in sticking to stories where the player ‘wins’ the story in the same way they ‘win’ at the gameplay mechanics.”

    I partially agree on this. But how do you separate a game from the mechanics without diluting the “game” part? Maybe it’s the mechanics that are at fault? Some developments suggest alternatives:

    I’ve seen games that make you choose between the story and the mechanics, Geneforge being the clearest example (eating the magic macguffin will make you more powerful, but restricts your options at unpredictable times).

    And I’ve seen games where the stats and mechanics are character focused, mimicking your personal development (no big mainstream examples, worryingly, but indie projects like Visions and Voices and Choice of Games do this. To an extent so does Torment, simply by respecting what are usually DnD dumpstats).

    I’ll stop here before I clutter your comments section with arguments about the difference between empathy and sympathy, but I will add that I find your actor example kinda ironic. Roleplaying is a form of play acting, so an RPG should only be improved by giving players a chance to act.

  2. Evan Greenwood says:

    I can’t tell if I’m reading too far into what you’re saying Gareth, or simply misunderstanding (so correct me if I misrepresent you please)…

    But I am going to disagree with Woe’s comment. Not because Woe is wrong. But because Gareth wasn’t talking about great storytelling in a broad sense… Gareth was talking about a specific kind of storytelling, or at least posing a specific set of values to define great storytelling. So Woe arguing for a slightly different set of values is besides the point.

    What I gather from your article Gareth is that… Well, actually I don’t have the right words for it. Being an arbiter between who gets to live and who gets to die isn’t a necessarily a decision that fills a player with intense emotions (though it could be)… but it is a really difficult decision, it’s a powerful and affecting and agonizing experience when done right. But not quite the same thing as the same thing in a tear-jerking movie. I wouldn’t actually say it’s a matter of emotional connection though. I would say that in a movie it would be a matter of emotional connection… but I would say that this same situation in a game would be powerful for different reasons.

    What I’m going to say is that I think Gareth wants a sense of agency in the story first and foremost… but here is where I think I disagree: a great sense of agency, one of total control may result in the player feeling all powerful and aloof. The player has to risk something to really care, the player has to be in some way unable to control events. The player has to be in some way helpless…

    Take for example Gareth’s own example… That hypothetical choosing of who get’s to live. A very very similar situation occurs RIGHT at the start of Fable 3… and it is a grueling decision despite being at the start… the grueling part is that the player HAS to kill someone. It is in fact a great feeling of helplessness that the player experiences… and it’s incredibly powerful (or at least I felt that way at the time).

    Although I have not read What-Games-Are’s article… I may be talking about a different kind of helplessness… On the other had there is this weird cognitive thing that people do when playing games: while actively playing they don’t read games as a collection of signs with meaning… it’s only when they’re paused do feelings like empathy kick in… (I know I’m playing Devil’s advocate, but one could make an argument for agency conflicting with emotional involvement based on that)

    But, that said, I think I broadly agree with what you’re saying in your article Gareth. I think the tendency to make every story a “win”, like in gameplay, is a particularly choice insight. I also really like the idea that older gamers are going to require different and more nuanced stories in their games (which places a glimmer of hope on the horizon).

    I think I agree with you Gareth with what makes stories in games resonate with players. I know I have experienced this resonance in a few games, but I’m not sure that I have the language to describe the mechanisms.

    Thanks for the thoughts. I look forward to your next article (maybe I’ll be a bit more coherent on the subject by then)

    Evan Greenwood

  3. Martin says:

    I’m not sure I entirely agree with the base concept, as I understand it. Unfortunately the only supporting evidence I have is my own shaky anecdotal experiences, but still…

    I remember being quite angry when ‘my brother’ was killed in Deus Ex (and guilty, since if you manage that particular scene better he doesn’t die…). I remember feeling the burning sense of vengeance while running Max Payne through his rather surreal scenarios… as well as the usual frustration with a vengeance-based plot. They’re never vengeful enough 😛

    And so on. The point is, I’ve never really had a problem with empathising with an established player-controlled character. I’ve understood and taken as my own their motivations, and I’ve felt joy and anger and fear at their predicament.

    I do agree that it is a lot easier to make the player empathise with an NPC’s events… and that is, I also agree, because we’re used to empathising with someone else, as opposed to somehow empathising with ourselves in the third person, from a distance.

    It’s a dissociation that has to be managed. As best as I can judge my own mindstate, I feel that I actually switch states, looking through the eyes of the character during plot and character development points (must as I would in a movie or book) and then switching to what I suppose is puzzle-solving mode as I interact with the game mechanics, be it shooting mobs or trying to figure out how to open this bloody door/box/etc.

    I don’t agree that this dissociation is impossible, or even difficult. I do agree that it needs to be managed, and perhaps is a little trickier than managing a compelling NPC… but player-as-character immersion is I feel a powerful technique that shouldn’t be discarded.

    Of course, the game design is a major factor here. In the modern RPG character design philosophy, with the significant popularity of heavy character customisation, as well as the push towards open/sandbox worlds (Dragon Age, Elder Scrolls, etc), pre-creating a compelling character is probably close to impossible. Sneaking in the occasional hint of character development, though (You’re dragonborn, you’re the heir to the throne, you come from a secret clan of space ninjas) can be quite acceptable, and in fact almost needed to account for the player character’s unusual skills.

    A much more themepark game, however, gives us much more scope to drag the player into a character’s mindset. I suspect a mistake that a lot of game writers have here is the failure to hook the player in through an empathic meeting point… which is sad, since it’s one of the primary techniques an author, for example, needs to learn.

    Don’t start the player off as a starving street dweller. Nobody playing the game is starving or homeless. Don’t start the player off as a prince/ss, either. Royalty is likely to be a very small part of your demographic, unless you have a very odd distribution plan.

    Make the character an ordinary joe. There’s a reason why so many fantasy novels start with some regular schmo, and then dump destiny upon him through some divine mechanima. That initial identification point is vital… but once it’s established, things can get as weird as required.

    It doesn’t _have_ to be a status identification, though. There are other tropes to call upon. Taking as example the ‘player starts as a prince’ idea… one could give the player opportunity to be nice to the peasants, who are suitably astonished and grateful, and you just _know_ the player is thinking “Yeah, all nobles are rich bastids, if I were a noble I’d be such a nice guy…” and boom, you’ve got him hooked.
    Then all you have to do is threaten Willow or Kaylee… *ahmen* I mean endanger a suitably endearing peasant, and suddenly the player and the character are sharing emotions, but it’s because you’ve invested the player into the character, not because of the NPCs.

    I’m rambling a lot here. The TL;DR summary… I believe you can effectively create investment in the emotions and motivations of a player-controlled character. The ease is related to the game design, but there are a range of tropes to draw from, and really the psychological mechanics are identical to those employed by the other entertainment media.

  4. Woe says:

    I agree with Martin. That’s some good ranting.

    So we’ve discussed using ye olde tried-and-true techniques. Why has no one mentioned the techiniques that are unique to video games? I’m talking about examples like DA2’s PC personality system, Alpha Protocol and Fahrenheit’s (or Indigo Project’s) timed dialogue, Blade Runner’s randomised plot points, Mass Effects interrupts. Hell, even the simple dilemma, like save one ally and kill another. Where do they stand in this rich tableau?

    • Evan says:

      It doesn’t matter what the interactions are that you use to advance the story if the player doesn’t invest emotionally into it.

      I mean personality systems are great. I love innovation when it comes to these things. A good set of interactions that give me a greater feeling of control makes a game fun and engaging. But if you hadn’t noticed the article was about “Creating an emotional connection”.

      I think there’s still a wealth of information to be plumbed regarding emotional connections in video games. There is very little written about this because most video game authors are game designers by trade, not writers.

      Talking about “randomised plot points” which lead to better engagement and replayability or quick-time events in dialogue systems that encourage players to pay attention and allow for dramatic semi-player-initiated events to occur is well trodden ground.

      Game mechanics is relatively easy stuff. I really though Gareth was onto something with emotion connection, it’s something so many games fail at. I’d like for him to take it further and look deeper, and cite more examples.

      Terming video game story writing “ye olde techniques” is just bizarre. I mean, do you really feel that the stories in contemporary video games are so good that no innovation other than better interfaces can be applied to them?

      • Woe says:

        Maybe we interpret “emotional connection” differently? I think that any feeling you get out of a game (except boredom) means that you’ve made an emotional connection. “Control”, “fun” and “engagement” are all forms of emotion. In that context, I figured what Gareth was groping towards was to create more nuanced and layered emotions by providing consequential choices and chances to express opinion in-game. (Gareth: Sorry, if I’m off, please correct.)

        But the interactions can be used to inspire the emotional investment, colouring and enhancing it. It’s not just the mechanics, it’s the integration of mechanics with story telling. I’ll argue that Interface can be defined as “everything presented to the player”, so I’ll also say that stories boil down to simple things and it is the telling of them which makes them great. Hence why this discussion on technique.

        By “ye olde techniques” I meant storytelling techniques used by other, older mediums, like books and movies. I said before that I think many of them can be used anywhere. Take Gareth’s “who lives, who dies” example, it’s a simple dilemma, a technique coined by Aristotle while discussing tragic theatre. Now the video game can enhance the conflict by putting the pressure on the player, so it’s not a sympathetic conflict but a personal one (sorta, interestingly it also means that you can’t progress until it’s resolved).

        Dilemma does have a danger of distancing the player from the game, since one way to resolve conflict is to suppress emotion and choose according to merits (best mechanical advantage, in game terms). There was one dilemma that really worked for me in Dragon Age 2, with Merrill’s sidequest. Merrill is a very sympathetic character, she’s cute, funny and full of idiosyncrasies. The dilema does influence the mechanics, but in so slight a way that I ignored it. The dilemma is either do what’s best for Merrill or do what she wants you to do. It was awesome, had to think about it and do my happy dance, took ages to decide.

        Sorry, I’m getting off topic. Last thing: I tottaly agree that Gareth should write more on this. 🙂

        • Evan says:

          You’re right. I think I am arguing over semantics. Sorry.

          Perhaps “emotional connection” is too fuzzy a term here. I think it could mean “the game as an emotional experience” or “sympathy or hatred for an in-game fictional entity or event” (which was how I understood it).

          Gareth seemed to be railing against Tadgh’s article which concluded “traditional storytelling is not suitable for games, what you need to do is build a world that allows stories to emerge”. (Paraphrased)

          While I agree that that is an awesome approach. My favorite approach in fact. The most interesting approach by far. I think Bioshock games prove it is not the only approach. Bioshock of course do the thing that Gareth suggested, building party members that the player learns to sympathize with. Also like you said.

          My disinterest in hearing about the mechanics of storytelling in games is related to my profession. I develop small games. Adding in a personality system or interrupts in speech are things that multiply the workload of developing games exponentially. Anything related to “non-linearity and player agency over outcomes are the ways to make better stories in games” is effectively out of my reach and would have to be used very sparingly.

          I kind of feel the Tadgh article is great in theory. But it’s not practical advice. I can use a concept like: build an emotional connection with a NPC character to create a dilemma later on. But I can’t build a personality engine that allows for all kinds of wonderful non-linear dialogue and event outcomes. It’s just too much content.

          I do think games are getting there. The biggest AAA games are gradually becoming less linear. Like the Bioware games. Like Skyrim. But even they are limited by resources.

          That said there are definitely lots of little world-based stories to be told (some of which may even be achievable by someone of my means). But world-based stories are so much bigger to develop with any amount of content (like dialogue or unique character animations or voiced acting) I would be limited to incredibly small-worlds.

          If there are ways to create affecting linear stories then those are far more feasible as a non-AAA developer. Martin brought up Max Payne which I thought had a brilliant story. Max Payne himself was a separate character to the player, not just a doll, at least during the cutscenes. Somehow they managed to make the player and Max’s emotions so aligned that the player felt entirely emotionally engaged. And Max Payne was completely linear and the story was told mostly through cutscenes (except for those heartbreaking early levels).

          But then why do so many stories being told in games fail so horribly? To some extent I don’t think it’s a mechanical failure, or even a structural failure. I think it’s mostly because the stories are just plain awfully written. Hammy dialogue. Unlikeable characters. Unconvincing choices. Plot holes etc. I think it is very rare when the game designers and the story writers are building the same game. More often than not games have a story-by-commitee feel to them. They would be bad regardless of the medium, but they are made worse by the fact that the player is not emotionally engaged with the lead character (as the lead character is effectively a doll).

          Max Payne seems to contradict Gareth’s argument, that the central character can’t be the focus of the story, though I have the feeling Gareth was specifically talking about RPG’s and stories in which player choices determine the narrative outcomes.

          I’d be interested to hear Gareth’s thoughts. I want more on this discussion!

          P.S. Sorry Woe about the rants. Bad form on my part.


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