The Human Condition

I’ve come across a lot of research that states how games must evolve in order to grow into true entertainment media (read: art).  In writing my dissertation, I cam across a series of videos about game design.  This one speaks about storytelling in games. Note: All the videos in this series are informative, funny, and all are right on point with their messages.

I wrote last time that games are on the cusp of becoming art.  And I do realize that “art” is subjective to say the least.  Well in order to be considered art, a game must effectively address the human condition.  We need to care about the characters and what happens to them.  This applies not only the main character, or the person I play in the game, but also to the non-playable characters (NPCs).  A good example of this concept can be found (almost) in Mass Effect 2.

As many gamers know, in ME 2, you can either import your character from ME1 or you can create your own hero. Your character, Commander Shepard, can be male or female.  You can also select one of three back stories for your hero. As you play through the game, you choose if your character will align with paragon (good) or renegade (evil) actions.  There are benefits to leaning one way and not straddling the middle.  I find I have become quite attached to Karen Shepard thanks to multiple trips through the two games.

In addition, in ME2 you have to recruit a team for a suicide mission.  However each person you add to your team has issues and so you soon find that need to criss-cross the galaxy on “loyalty missions” so that each teammate will not be distracted when final mission starts.

These missions reveal a lot about each character, and depending on what choices you make, can also lead to that character’s death at the end of the game.  Of course one of the purposes of these missions is to get you to care about each character. For example, your first officer, Miranda Lawson, must rescue her younger sister from her estranged father’s agents.  During the mission, we learn a lot about Miranda’s motivation for kidnapping/rescuing her sister years ago and the relationship she has with her father.  However a single loyalty mission is not quite enough to make me really care about her death, if that should happen.

Rather what needs to happen, and what developer BioWare is usually good at, it getting different NPCs to interact with each other during the mission.  The world of Mass Effect is so large that players spend a great deal of time moving from place to place, sometimes in combat, sometimes in exploration. For each mission, you take two team mates along for companionship and to aid in combat.  There are brief periods where your team mates will speak on different subjects.  These however are great places to have extended conversations about things both great and small. The problem with this is that with the different combinations of teammates available, hundreds of lines of dialogue would have to be recorded for the multiple pairings if the writers wanted players to get to know these people better.  That is a difficult, though not impossible task.  BioWare has shown it is willing to go to extra lengths to inserts as many lines of dialogue as possible.  Game developers need to realize that it is in those stolen moments that real characterization emerges.  While ME 2 makes a good effort, more is needed.  Unlike movies, where the viewer can experience everything, the branching nature of the role-playing genre means that players will never encounter some places and scenes.  That’s okay.  There has to be enough there so that I feel like I can’t wait to get to the game to see what happens to Karen, Miranda, and the others.  Once developers can combine that human condition with high production, good voice talent, a superb script and memorable game play, then we researchers and critics will be in a better position to say, yes, this game is art.

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