Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Instancing Emotion

Last week, I considered this quote from Ian Schreiber's summary of SIEGE:

Instead of saying "I'm going to create a game that causes a particular emotional response in the player," start the other way around: find existing game moments that produce your desired emotions, then extrapolate to figure out what mechanics can cause those emotions.

Likely you were unsatisfied by the hand-waving (I was), so I wanted to look at more concrete examples this week. First, an instance of a game that executes on the above principle to great success.

Left 4 Dead creates one of, if not the, best sensations of cooperation and interdependence. And that experience grows up organically as the game develops. Mike Booth gave a talk at GDC '09 discussing the how Left 4 Dead was built for co-op from the ground up (it's summarized here, among other places).

The core of Left 4 Dead isn't about points and kill/death ratios, like nearly all other multiplayer FPSs. As Booth said during his GDC talk, "The game is not really about killing zombies, it’s about your teammates."

By focusing on specific emotional experiences, Valve was able to determine quickly through playtesting what components of the game were evoking those emotions and which weren't. It was unclear from the talk whether the initial designs included the special Infected, but it was clear that their roles and abilities evolved through prototyping. The Hunter utterly disables "lone wolf" players that stray too far from their teammates. Smokers can do this as well, but the Hunter's quick pounce makes them especially well suited for this role. The Smoker pulls characters out of formation and breaks defensive positions, not only disabling one defender but requiring (at least) one other Survivor's attention to rescue them.

The Boomer is especially interesting because it places all the Survivors in jeopardy if any one of them are too jumpy on the trigger. If someone shoots the Boomer too soon, either they only coat themselves and require the other Suvivors to keep them safe, or they've covered everyone in bile and placed the whole team at risk.

Even being incapacitated from normal damage doesn't immediately kill a Survivor. Teammates are able to rescue them (and because of the above dynamics, they would be foolish not to), but the fallen can still provide covering fire from the ground. The relationship isn't one way, with the fallen player waiting idle for someone else to pick them up. They can still contribute. again, pushing interdependence and camaraderie.

The sharing of pills, the application of medical kits to other characters (which could have just as easily been just giving the medical kits, but it wouldn't have felt as helpful/supportive), the NPC context-aware barks that provide simulacra of the players' collaboration (hopefully, anyway) through their avatars; all of these things may be minor by themselves, but all of them produce greater feelings of cooperation than functionally equivalent alternatives. And nearly all of them emerged through iteration and continuous feedback.

Most importantly, they did this without creating any explicit rules forbidding "uncooperative behaviour." At no point are players forced to flip four switches at the same time, or be instantly teleported closer together if they're too far apart. Constraints don't change behaviour, merely prevent it. Valve realizes this and nearly every aspect of Left 4 Dead provides an incentive to work together, and in doing so creates some of the most poignant moments of interdependence and cooperation I've ever experienced in a digital game.

Last time, I mentioned I'd also discuss an example of where this doesn't work. But thinking about it more, I realized there are lots of examples and most of them are plainly obvious. I'll mention one, but be brief.

At least at the beginning of Grand Theft Auto 4, protagonist Niko Bellic expresses hesitation and concern that the life of violence he thought he had left behind might prove to be inescapable after all. But from the first moment the player has a gun or a car, they can murder literally hundreds of random, innocent people. The game tells us Niko might feel some remorse, at least at first, for the things he has to do, but the gameplay provides no support for this. Worse, it facilitates and even encourages the exact opposite emotions from the ones the player is supposed to feel when empathizing with Niko.

It's easy (and I'd argue very common) for the player of GTA 4 to be going one way, the story going the other and never shall the twain meet. For most people, the sandbox experience and action movie moments are the core GTA experience. I'm not sure how well this is supported by going on dates in between bouts of vehicular homicide.

While playing Left 4 Dead, you know you must depend on your friends. But more importantly, you want to. Everything about the experience says, "Live together or die alone." And that experience was only possible through Valve determining the set of emotions they wanted to evoke and iterating again and again, cutting those things that didn't support the emotional goals and buttressing those that did. That focus and dedication to a single set of objectives is difficult, but admirable and vital to crafting a truly emotive experience.

(As an aside, if you're going to be playing Left 4 Dead 2 on Steam and aren't a complete misanthrope, I'd love to play with fewer deranged/incompetent Internet strangers. My Steam profile is here. I'll watch your back and promise I won't leave you behind when rescue comes ... probably.)

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Blogger S. said...

I identify with the GTA problem. I loved the story, and I loved the gameplay, and I would be hard pressed to look a person in the eye and tell them that I didn't enjoy my experience playing through the game as a whole. But I difficulty reconciling Niko's character (which I loved) with the sociopathic free-roaming in which he so readily engages.

In mumbling defense of the Rockstar folks, I might argue that the actual plot missions of the game managed to stay more or less reflective of the intended narrative arc (troubled and volatile ex-criminal is roped back into a life of ruthless... you know... stuff). That being the case, it could be said that while it's possible for the player to start gunning people down, running over strangers, etc., these actions are not necessarily expected of said player. It then becomes an argument of role-playing. The player CHOOSES to inspire all this havoc (or conversely, to obey traffic laws). It's sort of like Sim City 2000. Am I SUPPOSED to invite hurricanes to devastate my shoreline? No. Might I anyway? Yeah. Maybe.

The counter-argument to that is plain, I realize. GTA IV is no KOTOR, Fable, Deus Ex, Mass Effect, etc. There seems to be no plot-driven ramification to dicking around. We're in agreement. It's a problem, and it nagged me while I played the game through. I'm just playing Devil's Advocate.

October 27, 2009 at 10:31 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@S Yeah, I appreciate that. And that has definitely been the experience some people have had.

It still feels like a "don't look at the man behind the curtain" thing though. The story is GTA4 is cogent, as long as you play in a very certain way (a way that's more or less the exact opposite what most people want out of GTA4). But should the player deviate, the game will continue on, unaware.

The problem really stems from the player only have semi-agency over Niko's actions. During gameplay, Niko is whomever they want him to be. During the cutscenes, Niko is a very specific character that Rockstar has created. There isn't necessarily any harmony between those two characters. The more traditional RPGs you mention have player characters that start more or less tabula rasa, and the reason for that is it helps diminish that kind of disharmony.

October 29, 2009 at 9:12 AM  
Blogger S. said...

Oh, absolutely. We agree. I'm just saying it's possible.

October 29, 2009 at 9:28 AM  

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