Thursday, October 27, 2016

How Games Can Elicit Emotional Stakes

In this article, writer Joshua Castleman addresses how game designers can reduce ludonarrative dissonance in linear action games to produce gameplay tied to emotional investment.

I recently read a post written by Sande Chen that discusses how the nature of videogame playing undermines the emotional stakes in linear storytelling. Referring mainly to AAA linear narratives found in 8-12 hour campaigns, she outlined some of the difficult challenges facing game designers and writers to compel the player to feel more emotionally attached to the character in the game than to their own experience as the player. Of course we as players want to achieve victory but designers and writers strive to deliver the emotional impact often found in Hollywood blockbusters.

Sande raised many excellent points that got me thinking about the problem myself. A large part of the issue is the linear railroading of a story, more specifically a game’s inability to allow failure. When a player fails and restarts at their last checkpoint, suddenly there is a disconnect where the protagonist character in the game is fine, as if nothing ever happened, but the player has taken a hit and suffered a setback. In a difficult part of the game, where the player has to try numerous times to get through a zone but story-wise the hero is essentially unscathed, there’s a dissonance between the player’s experience and the character’s experience, not to mention the player is going to care more about his/her own experience as the frustration builds than the player cares about the experience of the character.

One game that I thought worked somewhat was the first Tomb Raider reboot. Some of the death scene animations were so gnarly and gruesome that I wanted to do well and avoid those because I felt so bad seeing Lara writhe in pain as a river impales her on a metal pole! Even though I as the player then started over at the last checkpoint and Lara is safely in one piece, the memory of her violent death was still fresh in my mind.

At this point, it is easy to simply say, “Make a game that allows for failure.” But this presents the age-old problem of making a branching game that can turn a different direction for failure, which is suddenly no longer a linear story and also two to three times more expensive to make. As a writer myself, I understand the strong allure of a linear story that I can control as the creator. It allows for more specific nuance and depth in the story. Maybe the real challenge is finding a way to tell a linear story that can also accept failure in some way without resetting. I’m sure there are some elegant solutions out there, both mechanically and story-wise, that have yet to be discovered.

Another partial solution, or at least a step in the right direction, is creating strong characters. Especially a dynamic villain. I have noticed that a truly despicable villain helps a player invest emotionally in the story. Games like Far Cry 4, Bioshock Infinite, and Borderlands 2 (to name a few) have great antagonists, which helped me empathize with the heroes more. Even if there were times where I was jostled from the character’s POV emotionally, I still shared their emotional drive to defeat the vile bad guy. Fleshing out the villain’s character can present its own challenges. Villain scenes work best when they’re from the POV of the hero so the player shares the experience with the hero character. Be careful to not give the player insight into the villain or conflict that the protagonist does not have, or suddenly there is another disconnect.

A challenge most action games face is desensitization to violence, which can hamper any story based on violence and death. As Sande questioned, how can a player feel any emotional pull during a cut scene of someone’s death when the player just spent hours ending hundreds of other lives? Certainly something to consider when creating a story amidst a sea of blood, but I would again point to the creation of strong characters. Just like in war movies or books where there is death around every corner, it is critical to create those characters that players care about, and give them clear-cut goals they want and challenging conflicts in their way. There are characters that, even if they are soaked in blood, you don’t want them to die. (You Game of Thrones fans know what I’m talking about.)

What no one has tried yet (that I know of) is a complete paradigm shift. The way games are made is still heavily influenced by the history of video games. The player is faced with a challenge and they must overcome it or fail and try again. As the industry matured, designers put more story into the game, fleshing out fully-imagined world and characters, with an eye to Hollywood cinematic cut scenes and structure. But they still shoehorn the story into the same game mentality of trial and error. It’s like if in the middle of a showdown fight scene in a movie, someone stopped it and skipped back to the beginning of the chapter. We’ve all had that experience when someone accidentally sits on the remote. It jars you and the fight scene loses so much of its power and momentum.

Game designers are often focused on creating the ultimate challenge above creating an amazing story. The way most game designers define a good gaming experience is much different than the way a Hollywood director would define a good experience.

But what if they designed a game without the ability to restart at a checkpoint or die at all? What if fight scenes were built in a way that the player could take a beating, maybe lose some gear or status or something but never actually die? I know many gamers are rolling their eyes at the idea because many of us are so programmed that that is how games work. I have a confession: I’m one of those gamers that plays story-centric games on normal difficulty. I sacrifice the challenge aspect to preserve the flow of the story and the oh-so-fragile emotional empathy. Unfortunately, games are not built to reward that style of play, so yes, I run into times feeling where the game is too easy (though sometimes I get crazy and bump the difficulty up for awhile until I feel a miniboss fight coming). The trade-off is worth it to me to engage the story more than the challenge and triumph element.

Games will only ever reach a certain level of emotional investment with the current model. Maybe it just needs a small shift to, say, a story with a hero that reincarnates from set points in his life so that the ‘restarting after death’ plays into the story. The hero can even have little meta-esque quips about having to experience the same crap all over again. Or maybe it it will take a completely new approach, a full dedication to story over challenge.

All I do know is that Sande is correct. There is a strong disconnect between players wanting to beat the final boss for the sake of the protagonist and the story, or for their own mastery of the controls over the cleverness of the programmed obstacle. The points I mentioned in the beginning are ways to help align those two goals better, but they will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to fully overlap as long as game makers continue to think of story as merely a way to get players to move from Challenge A to Challenge B. No, not everyone needs to change. But I wouldn’t mind seeing someone try it out.

Original Article: 

Joshua Castleman is a sci-fi/fantasy writer, voracious reader, and gamer. He is currently working on a D&D-inspired deck-building adventure game with Vigilant Addiction Studios.


Sande Chen said...

I think that even in war movies, there are lulls to the combat. The violence is not as non-stop as in an action game and certainly, there is a different emotion generated when you view the carnage as a movie-goer and when you are creating the carnage in a video game. I just watched Hacksaw Ridge and there are some intense combat scenes, but the biggest tension (and I don't want to spoil the movie) comes in the aftermath of the bloody charge, when there isn't the intense gore.

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