The video game industry is at a point of creative growth. Games like Grand Theft Auto 4, Fallout 3 and Farcry 2 have pushed the barriers of what games can achieve as far as creating a living world and the people that inhabit it. But these games are really just the beginning, merely the foundation for the next big thing. It’s only a matter of time before a game is released that brings it all to the table, a game that immerses the player in the world, it’s characters and it’s narrative in an unprecedented way.
There is no right way to reach this lofty goal, and each developer aspires to their own ideal on how this should be achieved. There are numerous hurdles to overcome, some of which will require a dramatic rethink of the core mechanics we take for granted.
We’re in the midst of a video game arms race as developers push forward to realise this vision.
One issue at the forefront of my mind that must be overcome is crafting and reinforcing meaningful relationships between the player and in-game characters.
Grand Theft Auto 4 introduces each character and we follow their interaction with Niko. Some of these relationships last forever, some end at point blank range. My point is, there isn’t a single throwaway character in the game. As for the ones that appear to be, well we’re simply seeing the bookend of their story. It’s obvious Rockstar have gone to effort to really introduce each character as a meaningful addition and allot the player the greatest opportunity to connect, no matter how brief a role the character may play. From a narrative standpoint Rockstar have achieved their goal, but believable characters alone are not enough to create a meaningful connection with the player.
So how do we create a meaningful connection between two people? Well, the best place to start looking for clues is our own world.
In our daily lives, we surround ourselves with the people we care about, because the people we care about add something to our lives. But what exactly do they add? Friendship, company, love? What are these things and how do we define them; how do you translate love into 0s and 1s?
Follow along as I define some things I know about relationships.
- When you meet someone you begin a relationship.
- The more you interact with that person, the greater impact they have on your life.
- When you lose someone you care about, you feel loss.
Now obviously this is an incredible simplification. There are plenty of wildcards – sometimes that girl at the store counter you shared a brief conversation with manages to stick in your mind for days – and it will take a lot more than three assumptions to paint an accurate picture of the mechanics of relationships.
But hey, it’s a start.
Lets look at how we can implement emotion in our game, by attempting to emulate this ruleset in a purely logically way.
- By spending time with an entity, the player builds a relationship.
- A relationship acts as a stat buff/debuf to the player, and as the relationship grows so does the stat effect.
- The influenced stats are determined by the type of relationship (friendship, love etc).
By implementing stat effects, the player is given incentive to create and maintain positive relationships. It is up to the player to decide which relationships to pursue and how far, and the player is also free to direct the relationship (should they remain just friends, or become more intimate?), therefore direct the stat effects tied to the relationship.
Our player is given the motivation and freedom to invest time with the characters of their choice.
If the player puts the time and effort into cultivating a strong relationship and the relationship disintegrates, the player will feel genuine, personal loss as the stat boost disappears.
Looking at the flip side, a character who may become the enemy of the player will reduce the player’s stats in a relevant way, giving the player their own motivation to take care of the problem, rather than require the game designer to script the event or fabricate a motive.
By integrating the mechanic deeper, networks of relationships can be created. For example, my friend is my enemy’s acquaintance. Having this enemy is a bane on my stats, and having this friend is a boost to certain stats. By eliminating the enemy I’ll eliminate the stat debuf, but I’ll also upset my friend – damaging our relationship and reducing the effect of that stat boost.
I’ll take a moment to note that the explicate value of each stat boost should remain vague. The player must be aware of the effect, but it is important that (just like real life) no tangible value can be placed on these ‘emotional’ boosts. When making the decision to act, the player need not know the exact outcome (ie; gain 15 from eliminating the enemy, but lose 10 by upsetting the friend), there must be a grey area and the player must make the decision for themself.
I’m not suggesting that this is the right or only way to motivate the player to interact with the world’s characters, but the added weight of stat boosts does create a strong motive that works within traditional game design theory, is a feature easily understood by players, and giving the designer additional leverage over the player that can be used to increase the significance of narrative events.
The obvious risk is that the opportunity for the player to greatly affect their own stats will overpower other areas of the game design and will place greater focus on the relationship mechanic than initially envisioned.
But in our world, you can’t get by without a little help from your friends – should our protagonists’ have it any different?