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Closing the Loop: Fostering Communication In Single Player Games
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Closing the Loop: Fostering Communication In Single Player Games


February 1, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next
 

The risk for game developers is overestimating the value of agency, or the over-reliance on empty interactivity as a substitute for genuine experience. An over-used trick in writing adventure game dialogue is to break up expository sequences with a list of "options" for the player to choose, which all go to the same branch.

It's intended to break up the monotony of a sequence by pulling the player back into the interaction, but can actually have the opposite effect when used too often. The player becomes even more aware that his choices have no real effect on the outcome, and the interaction seems even more artificial.

There's also a risk of over-relying on immersion to the point of distraction. The sci-fi horror game Dead Space puts considerable effort into making the user interface seamless, with a game world explanation for every map, heads-up display, or panel the player interacts with.

This actually causes the interface to draw more attention to itself, however, since most players have dealt with separate in-game UIs enough to accept them without explanation.

Considering the game as dialogue between player and developer, it's important for developers to think of agency and immersion as tools for communication instead of just flourishes.

What idea or feeling does the game convey by giving control to the player at this point? Is it a meaningful interaction, or does it simply give the player buttons to mash during an otherwise non-interactive sequence?

Empathy

One of the most effective uses of player agency is to foster a sense of empathy for the player's avatar or other characters in the narrative. The player's forced to consider the consequences of his actions, even if those actions are predetermined by the developer and not subject to a branching narrative. This can convey an idea or a concept more subtly and persuasively than any didactic cutscene, because the player gradually becomes more aware of his role in the narrative.

In the game Ico, a core game mechanic is holding the princess's hand to guide her through obstacles. The developers seamlessly and wordlessly instill in the player a sense of attachment and protectiveness, more effectively than any cutscene would be able. Valve accomplished something similar on a smaller scale with Portal, simply by putting a heart on the Weighted Companion Cube.

Shadow of the Colossus took this concept even further by placing the player into a more morally ambiguous situation. The basic structure of the game is completely conventional: to save a princess, the player has to defeat an increasingly difficult series of bosses. But the presentation of the game shifts the player's experience from a standard adventure to a study on loss, mourning, and inevitability.

Although no text or dialogue makes it explicit, the colossi are transformed from standard video game monsters to majestic, even noble creatures. Player choice isn't involved -- the player has no real choice other than to stop playing the game -- but the game still communicates the idea that all of the player's actions have consequence. Over time, he starts to feel guilty for killing these ultimately peaceful creatures, even while he's aware that he can't stop.

That idea of choice, inevitability, and consequence, was also an important part of BioShock. The game ostensibly put its focus on a series of binary good/evil choices -- save or harvest the Little Sisters -- each with its own dedicated controller button and branching final cutscene.

But the player's relationship with the Big Daddies was much more subtle. Whether the player chose to save or harvest the Little Sisters, he was forced to first kill each Big Daddy. And these characters were lumbering creatures pacing the floors of Rapture, singing whale song, doing no harm to the player but existing only to protect the little girl in their care.

Many players killed them without a second thought; even if they weren't necessary to complete the game, the fights against the Big Daddies were the game's most interesting set pieces. It's only later in the game, after witnessing a pivotal story moment about the illusion of choice, that the player's forced to consider what he's been doing over the course of the game. He sees how the Big Daddies are created and, to drive home the sense of empathy, forced to become one himself.


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