THE DAY MY HORSE DIED
Many studios are striving to enhance the emotional experiences in their games. They hope to hook players into their storylines and franchises by using sophisticated storytelling methods. Many of these, like the detailed movie-esque conversation system that the Mass Effect franchise uses have achieved significant strides in this area.
But there is always a danger that the resources being spent to invoke emotion might be wasted if players never connect emotionally to the material. Even in long established mediums like books and movies, the emotional connection is sometimes hit or miss -- drama becomes melodrama, what makes one person cry makes another laugh. For games it is even more difficult.
Game are an unusual medium in that they have all the potential of books or movies (text, sounds, visual effects) but they also introduce gameplay, which doesn’t exist elsewhere. The player can disrupt the narrative and the emotional beats may not hit when they should.
But there is one emotion that I think could be exploited more effectively. The few times I've seen it in action it has been powerful, but it has mostly showed up in gameplay accidentally. I think in the right hands it could be used to make a very powerful game.
What emotion am I talking about? Guilt!
See, because a player controls their actions in the virtual world they are also responsible for what they do.
This is, in my opinion, one of the factors that contributes to the success of open-world games like Oblivion and Fallout (these are games where the player can virtually explore a world, choosing their quests based on preference). As the player interacts with the world, they become in some ways, an assistant architect in the creation of that world. And for some players, the attachment that such a relationship forms, can be used, for emotional impact — and with less cost than elaborate, costly, voiced-overed and staged performances.
One of the strongest emotional events that occurred to me (in any game) happened in Oblivion. And it wasn’t the storyline that did it for me. Early on in the game i obtained a horse. That in and of itself was awesome, being able to race across fields and all that but one fateful day I started behaving recklessly. I rushed down a steep hill and then something terrible happened. We went over a hill. By the time we finished tumbling, it was bent and contorted and very much dead.
I just stared at it for several minutes. Now different people would have different reactions — I’m sure many would probably laugh their heads off — but some, like me, would be distressed. If I hadn’t been racing the horse so quickly it would never have died!
But regardless, whether the player is upset or amused by an occurrence like this, such a dramatic event emerging spontaneously from gameplay is a great opportunity for a game designer. Any role-playing game worth its price already has the player making choices and impacting the world. I’d argue that if the impact can be expanded gamer’s emotional connection to the game will increase. This relatively inexpensive mechanism should be used to enhance a player’s connection to the world.
Have open-ended and emergent gameplay, have horses/starships/vehicles, have a stronghold with servants who depend on the player. Make the player responsible but don’t tell them they must take care of their horse, or be a benevolent ruler, or a firm taskmaster. Just let them do what they do and then react realistically to their actions.
Giving the player more gameplay opportunities to affect their world leads them to have a stronger sense of ownership of that world. It becomes a shared creation. One that they hopefully come to care about.