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Game Design Deep Dive: Rethinking adventure games to create empathy

December 22, 2016 | By Chris Kerr

December 22, 2016 | By Chris Kerr
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More: Console/PC, Design, Video, Deep Dive



Deep Dive is an ongoing Gamasutra series with the goal of shedding light on specific design, art, or technical features within a video game, in order to show how seemingly simple, fundamental design decisions aren't really that simple at all.

Check out earlier installments, including  using a real human skull for the audio of Inside, and the challenge of creating a VR FPS in Space Pirate Trainer

Who: William Barr, director of Billy Goat Entertainment Ltd and writer of Her Majesty’s SPIFFING

I run an obscure Northern Irish video game studio, and I take no offense in the fact that you’ve ever heard of us. This was intentional, obviously. Our cunning PR plan was always to keep a low profile these past six years to ensure maximum impact when our new space themed comedy graphic adventure game, Her Majesty’s SPIFFING, lands on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Steam and Humble Store this month.

In all seriousness, we sport a rather familiar indie back story, living in abject poverty, scraping together what little we could to get by while working on our debut game -- par for the course when it comes to indie game development. We did also do a spot of commercial animation work, producing adverts for Irish television back when we were finding our feet. Mercifully though, I’m confident you won’t have heard of them either

What: A point and click sans point and click

You remember adventure games, right? That chap who invented Kickstarter, Timothy Schafer, used to make them. Then publishers stopped funding them because games became more action-y, more shoot-y, more 3D-y… basically more fun. 

I’m being facetious of course, but the fall of the triple-A adventure game is something that is well documented. Once a genre that sat aloft Electronic Boutique’s best seller shelves, it has since gone underground:  a bit niche and a bit indie. 

Traditional adventure games are still being made, of course, but not with the budgets seen during the genre’s heyday (the elephant in the room being Telltale, however traditional point and click fans would argue that they are a different type of game all together). 

That and, after 20 odd years, the mechanics are still typically the same. This makes sense for games that are intentionally throwbacks, channeling fan’s nostalgia. However, we wanted to make something a little different. We set out to create an adventure game that had the soul of a mid-1990s LucasArts title but looked and felt a bit more contemporary. Basically, we ended up making a point and click, just without the pointing and clicking.

Why: Empathy

In Her Majesty’s SPIFFING you jump into the space boots of Captain Frank Lee English, the quintessential British gentleman. He drinks tea, apologizes a lot and is filled with good humored self-loathing. 

Now, there are a few different schools of thought when it comes to controlling player characters (or avatars) in video games. Some argue that this main character should be nothing more than a vessel for the player to interact within this virtual world. The developer cannot design a personality for the game’s protagonist as you want the player to feel that they are personally the arbiter of this world.

This approach is great for certain games, however if you go down this particular design route there are limitations to what you can do. For example, you cannot show the main character on screen, it must be done in first person. If the player sees this character running around that doesn’t look like them, the illusion is broken. 

Examples of hilarious games that have done this well are things like Portal (yes, I know every so often you can see Chell but she is, at the end of the day, a shell!) or The Stanley Parable. Early in the concept stages of SPIFFING this type of perspective was considered however, for this approach to work, the supporting cast would have to become the stars of our story (like GLaDOS, Wheatley or the Narrator). English was too big a character, too rife for satire, that we couldn’t make this approach work. We also felt this was straying too far from the game’s point and click roots.

We still wanted the player to have a closer connection to English than you would see in a typical point and click adventure. Playing these games now I always feel that there is this disconnect between you and the protagonist. It’s the same feeling you get when playing strategy or management type games.

In The Sims you’re essentially arranging a schedule for these little people, making suggestions for what they ought to be doing. They get along with it in their own time even sometimes rejecting the commands of their omnipresent master. You instruct your Sim to go there and do this, then wait until they carry out your bidding. This is the same feeling I get when playing The Curse of Monkey Island, I always feel I’m suggesting Guybrush grab that ‘life saving vine’ to escape drowning in quicksand as opposed to physically participating myself.

This was the rational behind us giving direct control of our protagonist to the player, to alleviate this sense of disconnect. Outside of the inventory puzzles, dialogue trees and collecting everything that isn’t nailed down Her Majesty’s SPIFFING feels like a conventional third person action adventure game. When compared to traditional point and click games this makes mundane gameplay tasks, like walking from one end of the room to another, more involved and interesting as the player is directly controlling the protagonist’s actions. With little effort, the game is immediately more responsive and more immersive.

Keeping Captain English onscreen as opposed to having the game displayed from his POV allowed us to design a character that the player (hopefully!) finds personable and endearing, someone who’s company they wanted to remain in for the duration of our game.

That and removing traditional point and click interaction to something more involved ensures there is (literally) a closer bond between player and protagonist. We want players to feel like they’re sharing English’s adventure, we want them to empathize with our lead character. Simply changing the way the game controlled allowed this bond to form much quicker. 

Characters influencing gameplay

I should point out this disconnect (in traditional point and clicks) enabled developers to write dialogue where the protagonist spoke directly to the player. This would break the fourth wall and often provided some of these game’s funniest moments. The writing in our game is very self-aware yet we avoid explicitly addressing the player. Instead English will occasionally talk to himself, with a message that is very much aimed toward the player. This works tonally with English’s personality, an example of the insecurity and self-doubt instilled into every British youngster growing up.

In fact, English’s personality is designed to influence the way people play our game. It is an old school adventure game at heart so we want people to attempt to do things that are quite obviously ridiculous. We’ve recorded a lot of jokes for attempting to talk to inanimate objects or use household cleaning products on casual acquaintances that we’d like the player to hear! So English is a bit of a bumbling idiot, though a loveable idiot. The fact that he would try to do these left of field things would make sense, so the player, more often than not, dutifully attempts them.

What we’re doing isn’t anything new of course, to use a huge popular example Rockstar understood this when they were developing their characters in GTA V, players instinctively play their game differently depending on which character they assume control of. Trevor facilitates playing in a style that has become popular culture’s chief depiction of GTA (partaking in depravity and senseless violence), whereas playing as Michael or Franklin causes (most) players to temper their bloodlust to a degree.

As an aside, we found that other staples of adventure games, such as the “verb coin”, allowing the player to choose what action they wanted to perform on a particular object, translated very easily to a single face button on a gamepad, while still giving the player as much control as they would have had using a mouse cursor. 

TL;DR

In summary, I don’t think our game loses any of the charm of a traditional point and click by using more contemporary inputs and this seemingly simple decision (to give direct control of the character over to the player) greatly increases the bond between player and protagonist. This ultimately leads to the player having greater empathy for the lead character and results in a more satisfying story. 

Don’t believe me? Feel free to part with your cold, hard cash and buy Her Majesty’s SPIFFING on PS4, Xbox One and Steam this month and see for yourself. Do you see what I did there?



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