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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 4 of 4
 

Relevance

The notion of making content specifically relevant to individuals in the audience is obviously not unique to video games, but it is something that's often overlooked. So much of game development is devoted to world-building and immersion that developers either neglect to reach out of the game world and address the player directly, or they have no interest in it.

One of my own most memorable experiences while playing a video game, the type of moment that is only possible in interactive entertainment, was while playing Sega's Seaman on the Dreamcast.

After my pet Seaman had reached a certain stage of maturity, he'd started asking me personal questions to get to know me better. For those unfamiliar with the game, it shipped with a microphone attachment and used voice recognition to allow the player to speak to the Seaman. At the beginning of one session, mine casually asked me what my favorite movie was.

I was aware that the voice recognition in the game wasn't completely perfect, but the developers did an excellent job of giving the player a second chance in case the first attempt wasn't recognized.

In response to the question about my favorite movie, I decided I'd first try with my actual favorite, and then in case it wasn't recognized, fall back to the more obvious answer of Star Wars.

I answered "Miller's Crossing." The Seaman's eyes lit up, and he responded, "Ah, so you're a Coen Brothers fan! I bet you and your friends just sit together and quote lines from Raising Arizona all day long." I dropped the controller and cautiously backed away from the screen.

Seaman will be primarily remembered for its bizarre concept and dedication to creating a completely alternate reality. But choosing Jellyvision to do its English language translation was the perfect complement to the original, because of that studio's experience making unconventional and contemporary content with the You Don't Know Jack series.

Choosing such an eerily relevant response broke through the bizarre premise of the game, simultaneously grounding it and also making it shockingly immersive. For a moment, I was no longer using unpredictable technology to talk to a 3D model and a decision tree of responses; I was being studied by a creature who knew me all too well.

When this kind of breaking the fourth wall works, it works astonishingly well. The risk, of course, is sacrificing the universality of the game. A player who had an answer not in the game's database would not have received a response that seemed so directly targeted at him. I also became acutely aware of the presence of the game's writers and translators, communicating with them instead of the character they'd tried to create.

Environmental Details

Game developers have multiple channels of communication available, and not every idea expressed by a game needs to happen in a cutscene. More subtle environmental cues can reinforce the ideas that are coming across through the "main" channel, or simply reinforce the notion of communication with the game's developers.

In Half-Life 2, the player frequently encounters an area with an environmental obstacle instead of a group of enemies to fight. Freeman has to build a ramp to get his speedboat out of a reservoir, or manipulate an elevator to reach a higher level. These have the potential of breaking the player out of the storytelling and putting him back into the mindset of playing a video game. He's no longer a physicist fighting off an alien occupation; he's a guy solving video game puzzles.

But almost all of these areas have a subtle environmental element in the form of a lambda symbol painted somewhere nearby. These bring the fiction back into play -- this isn't simply a puzzle left by the game developers for the player; they're tools left by the resistance to help Freeman past an obstacle.

They also serve as a subtle reminder that a type of communication is taking place between the developer and the player. They remind the player that there is an ideal solution to this obstacle; he hasn't been simply dumped into a completely open game world and left to his own devices. It's not an open-ended simulation, but a carefully constructed experience.

Closing the Loop

This is obviously not an exhaustive list. The intention isn't to define a set of all the possible methods game developers can use to communicate with players, but to encourage a subtle shift in philosophy.

When we think about story-driven games, either making them or playing them, we continue to think of them as combinations of two distinct things: the storytelling techniques of traditional media and the more rigorous, systematic mechanics of game studies. We have the potential for deeper stories and more complex storytelling if we instead look at the story and gameplay as two parts of the same dialogue.

All of us have our favorite moments in video games, the moments when we've experienced something that no other medium can replicate. We all know what games are capable of, even if we can't quite articulate it. It's likely that those moments weren't just the result of an effective cinematic, or thoughtful level design, or a rigorously balanced core game mechanic, but were the result of a feeling of genuine connection between ourselves and the people who created the world for us to play in.


Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

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