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Analysis: Altered States - Moral Choices and Character Design
Analysis: Altered States - Moral Choices and Character Design
September 22, 2010 | By Jeffrey Matulef

September 22, 2010 | By Jeffrey Matulef
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[In this Gamasutra analysis piece, Jeffrey Matulef analyzes how moral choice can alter character design, and how this process works in Warren Spector's upcoming Disney Epic Mickey.]

In discussing his upcoming game, Disney Epic Mickey, Warren Spector has mentioned three variations of Mickey that would be available based on player choice: the hero, standing triumphantly with his chest out and chin up; the wastelander, with a bright-eyed smile and cautious pose; and, finally, the scrapper, with a sinister grin and hunched-over back.

In a controversial move the scrapper was, well, scrapped. Rumor has it this was because the scrapper model didn't do well in focus testing, with the more foreboding Mickey offending certain sensibilities. But I've learned better than to trust rumors.

When the most recent version of Epic Mickey was shown at the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle recently, the hero model had been tossed aside as well.

This change offers a stark contrast not only to what we were told Epic Mickey would be, but to other games with moral choice like Fable and inFamous, where your appearance changes based on these choices. If "play style matters," as Spector promised back at E3, then why did he go this route?

Fortunately I had the opportunity to ask him why he changed the adaptable character model system. Here's his illuminating response:
"In any game about choice and consequence, you have to have some way of communicating to the player that their choices are making a difference. And there are a couple ways you can do that traditionally."

"You can have a meter that says 'I am good/I am evil,' [or] you can change the way the character looks in some obvious dramatic way -- those are the two most typical ways. And both of those actually do have this interesting side effect of getting players to play a meta-game as opposed to the actual game. It's about moving the meter, not about playing a role. It's about achieving an outside-of-the-game goal and not being who you want to be, doing what you want to do."

"So last year one of the game directors at Junction Point came to me and said, 'I have an idea. Instead of changing the way Mickey looks -- changing a label on Mickey -- why don't we use these things I created called guardians?' I looked at that and went, 'Oh my god! This is so much better than what I came up with. Of course we're going to do it!'"

"The onscreen guardians are intriguing, they're not intrusive, they clearly communicate to the player how things are changing based on your behavior, and in my mind they're a new character we can add to the Disney universe that we can explore in more detail, god willing, if we get to do more games set in the wasteland. In every way I could think of it was a better answer.
I couldn't agree with him more.

In Fable 2, I didn't want my character to look ugly, so I played as a good person my first time through. I wound up using a lot of magic, though, so my hero ended up criss-crossed with glowing blue veins.

My second time through Fable 2, I played as a sadistic little minx (one fond of luring men into bed before haplessly slaughtering them). Her vile actions transformed her into a zombie-like creature. She was still kind of pretty, in a Kerrigan-from-Starcraft kind of way, so I wanted to at least keep the cute, decomposing goth-girl look going. Trying not to repeat the same mistakes as before, I opted to focus less on magic and more on long-range attacks.

Unfortunately this had the side effect of making me taller (how does that work?). At first it wasn't so bad -- while hunting trolls in caverns I'd hardly noticed. But when I rode into town a head taller than everyone, I started to get self conscious about my giant stature. In the end, it seemed like pretty much anything I did made me uglier, which made me not want to do things at all.

Maybe I'm just vain, but it bothered me that my appearance was tied to my actions. Why do evil people have to be uglier? There are plenty of good-looking-yet-terrible people out there after all.

Removing the connection between your avatar's morality and looks alleviates that ulterior motive from your moral choices. Equally important, it doesn't suggest a way for you to act. The three Mickeys, in particular, would have functioned as a transparent morality scale, making it obvious where you fall on the popular/powerful divide (Spector was quick to point out that Mickey can't be evil. But he can solve problems in less altruistic ways. "Do I want to be the family-and-friends guy? Or do I want to be individually powerful and save the world, which also benefits my family and friends? So what kind of hero am I?").

Without the physical avatar change, it's easier to maintain the kind of character you want, rather than following the mouse by his tail. The guardian system Spector went with - where green or blue fairy-like creatures called "turps" or "tints" (for thinner and paint respectively) follow you around granting powers specific to your play style - might prove to still be too transparent a meter, but it's a step in the right direction. The guardians are less intrusive than they could be, since they exist as separate entities that you can always change. Ultimately, divorcing character design from play style encourages a greater degree of agency with fewer distractions.

Which isn't to say choices that alter character design are inherently bad. Given my vanity regarding Fable 2 characters, I think it would have been infinitely more fascinating if being good made you uglier while being evil left you pretty. If done in a tasteful way, this kind of choice could be truly compelling.

For example, somebody could be trapped in a burning building. If you let them die, you maintain your good looks. If you save them, you suffer permanent burns over much of your body. You could even have certain romantic subplots that could no longer be pursued after such horrible scarring. This is the kind of situation where tying the characters form to their function could serve to enhance the experience, rather than detract from it.

Character customization and moral choice can work in tandem to create extremely difficult dilemmas. More often than not, though, they only serve to hinder player choice with meta-games, as Spector calls them.

The beady-eyed poker face on Disney's rodent mascot is wonderful at conveying anything from the noblest of intentions to curious mischief. Spector is fond of saying that "gamers are paralyzed by choice." And Mickey? Well, he's paralyzed too, so you'd best make up your mind and lend the mouse a hand.

[Jeffrey Matulef is a freelance writer for G4TV.com, blogs about games at JumpingMoustache.com and is a regular on the Big Red Potion podcast. You can contact him at jmatulef at gmail dot com.]


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