In regards to Fallout 3: “There is just so much to do and to go to, a feeling of mystique around every building and area. I loved it. Then the ugly feeling started creeping over me that I had when playing Morrowind and Oblivion. Disillusionment…”Dolgion Chuluunbaatar
Willing suspension of disbelief is a formula that most writers understand and adhere to when crafting their characters and worlds. In a way, it is a story’s integrity and one of its most grounding characteristics. The idea is that when developing a fictional world, it is important to balance the surreal with enough detail and universal truth to keep the participants (in this case, the gamer) grounded in the experience—whatever that may be.
I wish to highlight some important literary elements in games that help developers achieve this. Keep in mind, this is a topic regarding games that utilize narrative agents and have at least the slightest hint of story implementation.
Understanding what keeps players grounded in a game is simple. Players need something to attach to. This can come in many ways; three I would like to focus on is character, place, and conflict.
Character is, by far, one the most important elements of grounding. The player and player character need to have a relationship; the player needs to see a human being behind those pixels in order to relate and attach to him. Even if your character isn’t technically human,(IE. Playing as a Ninja Turtle) there needs to be strong sense of humanity within him or her. The character needs to express emotion, experience pain and pleasure, and also be the center of the conflict.
This kind of character is relatable to and acts as the sociological bridge into the world—potentially even the sensual bridge, depending on what perspective the game is played in. The new Metroid series, for example, explores the world through a helmet interface that reflects Samus’ pretty eyes. This technique casually reminds the player that there is a person behind the mask, humanizing the unstoppable weapon.
Even if the player character of the game is meant to be mute like Legend of Zelda’s Link or the dude from GTA 3, you can still humanize them with enough detail. Some simple tricks are as followed:
Make them flawed. No human being is perfect. Make the characters have unlikeable traits within their personality, appearance, mannerisms, etc… Exploit these flaws to add dramatic elements to the game.
Give them a viola.
This is a saying I learned in school. It means give them something unique. Some habit, some mannerism, some hobby that adds to their character and makes them unique from any other no matter how closely they adopt character archetypes. Two-Face’s scarred coin is the best example I could come up with.
Background is overlooked in many games, but a history is very, very important. It gives the character relativity and helps show that they too are subjects of time. I think James (dad) of Fallout 3 has a very substantial history that enriches his character and a player’s endearment or understanding of him.
Make them expressive
A mute character that is super tolerant of pain and unable to have relationships makes a very dull character. For entertainment sake and to give the player something to attach to, a character needs to be loud. They should contort and respond to pain to the point where the player hurts. They should express emotions especially the darker ones of loss, pain, guilt, depression.
These techniques can also be used to embellish the NPC’s of the world. Although they may not be the center point of conflict or just a bystander in a game, it is equally important to populate a world with people that the player can relate to. NPCs that respond to the player and their environment are more convincing than walking dialogue boxes.
The second literary element is place. I won’t pretend to be an expert on level design and environments. I simply want to touch upon what tactics can be used to create a world that avoids disillusionment no matter how surreal or fantastical it is.
The main objective is to give a player a sense of place. He needs to be oriented and begin to understand his world quickly—to the point where, how it will respond to him becomes predictable. Think of New York City. Would you ever step in front of a taxi? Hell, nah! This isn’t from some experience of being struck by a cab, but simply through an understanding of the city’s very fast pace and every-man-for-him-self mentality.
Detail, detail, and more detail
Nothing makes a place more believable than nitty-gritty detail and I’ve never found a case of too much—maybe in novels—but never in games. I’d like to use StarCraft 2 for this one. Between each mission, the player is allowed to explore the virtual briefing environments. Raynor’s bar is packed with details to explore. I’ll never forget on the bulletin board between lvl 2 and 3 there is a letter of gratitude written by one of the Mar Sara colonists accompanied by a child’s stick figure drawing off to the side and out of focus. It alludes to a much larger world beyond the scope that the player’s been provided with.
And I don’t mean well working physics engines and un-bugged mechanics. I mean maintaining a universal continuity and established order. This may seem counterintuitive in fantasy worlds, but actually this is when these rules are most important to maintain the suspension of disbelief.
Acknowledge that things are irregular in your world and don’t be afraid of delving into pseudoscience for explanations; it helps make the circumstances more believable like the mass effect in Mass Effect enabling faster than light travel and psionics. It tells the player there is a method to the madness they are experiencing, and the world becomes more predictable as they start to accept the science that governs it.
A world becomes alive through dynamic and responsive environments. The environments need to be ever changing to set the scene: weather patterns, cultural responses, physical destruction and growth. The world should respond to stimulus whether plot driven or caused by ludic actions. That’s why shooters with destructible environments get such high acclaim.
Setting the Mood
“It was a dark and stormy night” cliché but to the point. The setting needs to be defined within the player’s first impressions of the world. That’s why dark environments are used in horror survival games and why the new setting for Bioshock Infinite is raising much concern with their big bright open spaces in the skies of Columbia.
A strong sense of place orients a player. If it isn’t stable enough, people will suffer disillusionment. You can’t let the dreamer know that he’s dreaming. You start to shake things up too much and you may break the dream.
The third and final literary element I wish to highlight is conflict. In videogames especially, it is a challenge to see beyond the potential of physical conflict. Man vs Man and Man vs World. After all, most videogames are packed with high intensity action. Sadly though, that takes attention away from a very important form of conflict. Man vs Self.
When dealing with conflict and a character, nothing humanizes him more than to see the impact the drama is having on him personally. Ask yourself, “How does the character contribute to the conflict himself?” I touched briefly upon this under character, but here is a more in-depth look at how to fully draw a player into the conflict of a game.
The conflict needs to be innate. The main character’s flaws and attributes need to be what develops conflict. Progression through conflict should be character driven, not plot driven. A personal quest pulls the players into the character’s world more and helps them sympathize with their virtual avatar. The closer the character, the closer the player is to the conflict and the more enjoyable and emotionally evoking the experience will be.
Never a dull moment
Conflict acts as the glue of the world and the people within it—it’s what keeps people engaged with what’s going on. In a story, everything has conflict even character interactions. A conversation about the weather is boring and superficial; a disagreement about how the player handled or plans to handle something in the game is much more interesting and brings out the reality and consequence of the player’s ludic actions.
Conflict will define what the player’s role in the game will be and validates a player’s participation, grounding him ever deeper into the world.
Developing a story with rich character, place, and conflict will provide a player with an ensnaring gaming experience that he can’t help but get caught up in. It works nicely when considered early on in production and carried out through the whole development process. Getting a player attached to his character pulls him into the world and validates the role he has to play within the conflict (the story) of the game. Together, these three elements create an engaging experience that will generate a response in the enchanted participant. I encourage people to share more examples of when these techniques were used in game development and worked for them.
This article was originally a featured post on Gamasutra.