The current trend in game making, at least if you look at triple-A games, expensive, top end and made for the ubiquitous audience of straight male gamers and their ilk, is geared towards saving the world. Maybe making it a better place. If we stretch it a bit, it might be about creating a family in the remnants of a lost world. But even that requires an initial effort in ridding the world from zombies, ghosts, hyena men or whatever other threat the game designer can come up with.
I want to thank my excellent co-workers Hugo, Alisa, Bjorn, Daniel, Philip and Marcus for an excellent conversation around the game Crusader Kings 2, which seems to be all about everyday life and intrigues at court. It gave me a topic and some interesting thoughts. It also gave me an insight into the mind of a co-worker, which is always interesting.
The point I’m trying to make, somewhat badly, is that the heroes of triple-A titles often lead an episodic, spectacular life while we, the players, hang out with them. There is not much room for everyday life, chores, a family, going about your day. All this is often considered beneath the heroes in the yarns we tell.
Still, some of the most memorable moments in the game Mass Effect 3 happen in between the episodic violence. Conversations in the galley of the ship. Huervos rancheros. Preparing for a party on the Citadel. Eating lunch with a friend.
Those moments in between is what creates the bonds between player and NPC, a relationship built on more than “I got your back.” Explaining morals to an A.I.. Explaining LOVE to an A.I.. These moments are essential for building relationships, and yet so few games have them. Everyday life makes the improbable lives of heroes seem possible. Injecting a bit of ordinariness makes the extraordinary easier to accept and to buy into. “Look, that’s Shepard, hero of the Battle of the Citadel having Lunch with Kaidan Alenko.” It grounds us. It makes us more real.
Everything doesn’t always have to be super extra extraordinary to be interesting. It can be about a sunrise in Newland Desert. Fishing in Booty Bay. Gaming in the Arcade on the Citadel. To live only in fits and starts like James Bond or Sherlock Holmes might be fine for a little while, but could you imagine James Bond doing the laundry or Sherlock Holmes cooking a meal? Can you relate to them, understand them and sympathise with them? I can’t. But I can imagine Kaidan Alenko doing the laundry. I can imagine him cooking for me (Shepard), in fact he already did. I can imagine him being real. (I already do, but for other NSFW reasons).
In triple-A games, our heroes are most often balloons. They float above us, and they might have a tether here or there, but they’re not even remotely “real.” Being real is a quality that brings a lot of, well, quality to a game. Being real makes us want to relate. If we relate we get an emotional response. Emotional responses makes the games better.
So what to do? Well, Shadow of Mordor has a pretty good way of addressing the facelessness of the Orcs. The game names them. Psychology 101. If something has a name it becomes an individual and not one of the faceless masses.
Have the characters notice one another. A simple hello makes you feel seen. This is often not a problem in games, considering that the world revolves around the hero on the other hand, having the whole world centered on the hero creates a bubble around them.
If the world is supposed to be alive, the world has to continue outside the confines of the hero’s bubble. A world that is alive is a world where NPCS have lives that the player knows nothing about. A co-worker of mine, Alisa, brought up the example of Tali and Garrus falling in love and fooling around, and the player not knowing until Shepard walked in on them making out. The same goes for the engineers on board the Normandy, Kenneth Donnelly and Gabriela Daniels. Shepard can walk in on them embracing well. Chief Engineer Adams talks to Doctor Chakwas about her experiences with the collectors and Chakwas breaks down, something she’d never do in the presence of Shepard. All these details create what another co-worker of mine, Hugo, called “fake simulations”. We’re not yet at the point where a triple-A game can sustain a whole world outside the world of the hero, but we’re getting there. In the mean time, we can use tricks to create a world that feels alive around us or we can fall head first into what Marcus called the Medieval soap opera, Crusader Kings 2, where these things are already happening, albeit at a graphics level that is quite basic.
I believe that good games are based on relationships both in and around the games. That’s why I keep playing, at least. As Hawke, Shepard and the Inquisitor l am seen, even if it is through non-player characters. They see me. They say hello.