Friday, November 27, 2015

For the Love of a Dog

In this article, game designer Sande Chen explores the emotional relationship between players and the stray dogs in The Witcher.

Last year, I heard the incredible story of Arthur, a stray dog who followed an adventure racing team on a grueling 430 mile trek through the Amazon jungle just because one of the team members, Mikael Lindnord, gave him a meatball.  Organizers warned that the team that the endurance race, which included slogging through knee-high mud, was too dangerous for the dog.  Despite best efforts to send him away, Arthur steadfastly followed and the team resorted to pulling the dog out of the mud to help him along.  At the last leg of the journey, the team left Arthur on shore while they set off kayaking, but he jumped into the water.  Heartbroken, Lindnord pulled the dog onto the kayak.  They crossed the finishing line with Arthur. 

The video pretty much sums it up:

This emotional story resonated with people around the world.  Even though the dog may have caused the team delays and additional headaches, Arthur was welcomed as a fifth member of the team.  It reminded me of a situation in The Witcher when a dog can start following the player-character, Geralt.  There is no benefit to keeping the dog safe and yet, players went out of their way to save the dog.  Some even decided to mod the game so that the "nosy dog" won't get killed off in the swamp.

This narrative designed situation created emotional ties and memories.  One player wrote:
"One of the saddest incidents I have ever had in the game was when the "Nosy Dog" got in the way while Geralt was whacking drowners. It went hostile, but didn't attack; Geralt had to kill it, and it wouldn't even defend itself. Only time I ever reloaded this game over a "friendly fire" incident."
Another dog-related quest that caused heartache was in collecting dog tallow.  The stray dogs whine piteously and die horribly.  Some players went out of their way to kill wolves instead of stray dogs, raid pantries for dog tallow, or locate dead dogs to avoid killing stray dogs.  While players may not have a problem with slaying evil human beings, some players viewed the dogs as defenseless innocents who did not deserve to be killed for dog tallow.

It's known that when we put our players in the position of caretakers, be it with a dog or a helpless child, this is a way to tug at the heartstrings.  What's interesting about The Witcher as opposed to other games is that there's no statement either way about allowing the dog to die or not.  If the player feels guilt, sympathy, or love for the dog, the player can act upon that and the player's actions are purely up to the player.  Likewise, with the dogcatcher quest, it's up to the player to decide between killing or not killing stray dogs.  It's great that there were alternate ways provided to complete the quest.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.


Fred Beckhusen said...

Nice post. I beleive it. The emotional attachment to an NPC can be very strong. I think a very strong emotional bond occurs if the NPC shows some attachment to the human. For example, I had an NPC cat with just enough code to follow someone more- or less randomly, and meow. If the person walks out of range, the cat walks back to the bowl. A friend went down a slope and the cat followed, then got stuck going back up the steep slope. It normally would respawn in a few minutes if she had left, which was just not going to happen while she was near a stuck cat. She tried to push it, and go around to a better spot, but cat was stuck.

I got a really frantic phone call, "Please help the poor kitty! It's stuck!".

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