Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Creating the player's Dramatic Need

Today in class we were discussing how to turn a character’s goals into the player’s goals.  This is generally a mark of good character design and integration – it’s not enough to tell the player what the character would want to do.  The player has to feel that the task is important, or they won’t do it.  To my surprise, this was handled quite elegantly in Folklore.

I played the demo of Folklore when it first came out, before I had a PS3 or even knew how to use a Playstation controller.  I was astounded by the beauty of the world and the richness of the narrative, which was based on Celtic mythology.  When I did eventually get a PS3, it was one of the first games I bought, though it was quite difficult to find, having somewhat dropped off the radar in the intervening years.  Then life happened, and I forgot all about it.

My boyfriend and I have made a job, recently, of playing single-player console games together, rather than spending time on separate PCs.  I have to say, I enjoy the time more, and it feels more like we’re making a dent in our ever-growing games-yet-to-be-played pile.  Recently we played Fable 2 together, as I said.  At the moment, at my request, while I continue to work on my chapter plan, he’s playing Folklore.  It’s even more interesting than I’d hoped.

You play the game as either Ellen or Keats, the former being a young girl in search of the spirit of her deceased mother, and the latter being an investigative journalist for an occult magazine who received a strange phone call that led him to the village of Doolin.  They meet up when a woman – who Ellen assumes to be her mother – falls over a cliff.  None of this was new to me from playing the demo.  What was new was the intensity with which Ellen searches for her mother.

The opening cinematic shows her aboard a tiny fishing ship off the coast of Doolin, near a lighthouse.  The sailor in charge of the boat refuses to go any closer in the darkness and storm-tossed tide.  Ellen looks at the letter she received from her mother (“All this time you were alive! Why did you wait so long to tell me?”) and dives over the edge, into the black waves. 

All of this would be little without the voice acting.  Each of the characters has a distinctive lilt to their voices that only says “United Kingdoms” to me, but probably speaks volumes to someone more used to the subtle differences within regions of the UK.  While this adds to the atmosphere, it’s the intensity with which Ellen speaks that makes a difference.  Not knowing how her mother died (Ellen states merely that she “lost” her mother), we can nevertheless see how it’s affected Ellen.  The fact that she would travel so far, risk death in the water offshore, and beg so eloquently a woman she doesn’t even remember speaks volumes about her determination.  Here, then, must be some pretty serious trauma.

Knowing what little extra I gleaned from the demo makes her desperation understandable and her situation pitiable.  It’s nice to see character design carried through with such consistency, and for a character that’s brand new to pull at my heartstrings in such a way that I want to help her find her mother (note: I found myself thinking that, to help, indeed, rather than to play) is something that I find lacking in many games.  Why should I care about events x, y or z?  Why should I do what the tutorial wants me to do, just because it’s the tutorial?  It’s this kind of convincing that I think needs to be more prevalent in games – the kind that takes place based on pathos, and a desire to help.

I think if more games were based on this desire to help, rather than the desire for revenge, or for the joy of killing, or on espionage or stealing, games might be a little more interesting.  I’m not saying I don’t enjoy those things – my character in Fable 2 is tending toward evil, simply because I take everything that isn’t nailed down – but it’s so often about the player and their wants and needs, with the player character as a blank slate, that I much prefer to play a character who has their own wants and needs, separate to my own.  I find it far more immersive than remembering who I am and just pretending I’m in a different world.  How I would behave in that situation is secondary to how a character who has grown up in that world would behave.  Our skillsets and understandings of the world are so completely different that I fail to see how being yourself in that circumstance is even relevant. 

As I’ve said before, tell me who I am, and I’ll take the chance to prove I’m who you think I should be.  Don’t leave me in the dark.  Somehow I doubt even Alan Wake has the ability to save me from that kind of miasma.  

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