I’m a horrible person. I knew it the moment I started making Lara Croft die in terrible ways so I could chuckle at that sharp stake through her chest or the wolf biting into her tender neck.
I recognize I have a problem, and I’m able to admit it.
But Tomb Raider has a problem too. And its problem is more fundamental than mine because it caused my problem (at least that’s what helps me sleep at night). Tomb Raider failed to make me identify with Lara Croft because it didn’t understand pain as interactive storytelling technique.
It told me a story the way books tell a story. But video games are not books, and our age-old methods of storytelling don’t work for this medium.
And as lead story writer for a game, this is a topic I can’t afford to ignore. The longevity – the impact – of what I create depends on finding interactive storytelling methods that work.
So I started on a hunt through games with stories that affected me. I asked simple questions of them, like what is the key difference between storytelling for video games and books or movies, and what can I be doing to connect players with the characters they control?
The search led me to a counter-intuitive solution, but it requires we first understand how we identify with characters in games.
Identifying With Characters
The room was littered with brutally burnt bodies, some dangling from hooks in the ceiling, some cowering in the fetal position. I said aloud, “Ellie, do not come in here. Whatever you do, stay away.”
That was my response. It was not Joel’s from Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us. It was mine – wholly, naturally mine.
The moment the words escaped my mouth, I thought, “Oh Naughty Dog, you’re good. You’re damn good.”
Why? Because that right there is the key to understanding character identification in video games. Whether we are players or developers, we must remember that the difference between static storytelling and interactive storytelling lies in taking on the identity of a character.
But video games are not books, and our age-old methods of storytelling don’t work for this medium.
In a written or purely visual medium, we’re an observer. That is all. And like an observer, we come to sympathize with characters the same way we sympathize with close friends – we laugh at things they say or bemoan poor choices they make. But we don’t become them. There is always a degree of separation.
But in video games, there is no separation between the character and us. We are the character. And when we approach games ignoring that, we make certain fundamental mistakes. They all revolve around pain and sympathy.
Numb to the Pain
When characters we care about are injured, we feel bad about it.
But don’t be fooled into applying this to game design. When our controlled character is injured, we couldn’t care less.
You see, game developers sometimes confuse the two. They think, “You’ve played as this person for 10+ hours, so surely you’ll feel sympathy if we make Lara Croft fall on a piece of rebar.”
Nope. I just laugh or think, “Wow… those developers are rather twisted.”
I call this numbing syndrome. It’s rather similar to getting your wisdom teeth removed. Afterwards you might be tempted to slap yourself because there’s no feeling in your mouth. It’s humorous precisely because it doesn’t hurt. You laugh and go on with you life.
So why would it be any different with a character we control in a game? If pain doesn’t come with an actual consequence (such as physical stimuli) then we’re numb to it. Not because we’re heartless, but because we’re human. This isn’t a friend we’re talking about. It’s us. We are supposed to be the one getting that rebar through our stomach. If it doesn’t actually harm us, it only comes off as gratuitous or hilarious.
But if the pain takes some other form? Well, that leads to how we can gain player sympathy.
When I’m playing Bloodborne, there’s one thing I fear: death. That is as it should be, because death is a major pain in the ass.
I even wince when that giant boar plows his girthiness into me. Why? Because I lose something of value. Blood, which equals time. It’s gone, and I have to be careful if I want to get it back.
To gain player sympathy, we must make players feel pain. I’d like to consider this phenomenon by looking at two games, but first a warning. There are going to be spoilers for Uncharted 2 and Bioshock ahead. It’s unavoidable.
Burdening Players: Uncharted 2
Naughty Dog is master of putting you in a character’s shoes. There’s a moment about halfway through Uncharted 2 where a cameraman is shot in the chest. Now you don’t play as the character, and he leaves so little of an impact that his impending death could just be fodder for the fire.
But Naughty Dog wants you to feel for that person, and they do it by burdening you as the player. You – via Drake – are tasked with dragging this guy’s dying carcass through the streets while everything imaginable is set on your heels. And he slows you down. And he makes turning sluggish. And his weight makes shooting laborious. And jumping, well good luck with that.
These are all things you did with ease before, but suddenly – poof! – they’re taken from you.
And when that cameraman meets the inevitable bullet to the brain, it pisses you off. Not because you knew the guy. No, no. You care because it was such a miserable experience trying to keep him alive. He literally became a part of you, side-by-side, his plight your plight. And now all that time – all that effort – has gone to waste. That’s painful, and it affects you differently than if the guy just died before becoming a nuisance.
Burdening players or depriving players of things they took for granted is powerful, and it makes them more likely to identify with the plight the character is actually in rather than the plight the character appears to be in.
Tricking Players: Bioshock
Bioshock elicits sympathy for the protagonist by tricking you, essentially leading you through the entire game with one perception of who you are until the point when you find out otherwise. And then suddenly you feel cheated. You feel like the effort you’ve expended getting to Andrew Ryan’s safe-haven so you can bash his brains in was all a twisted lie to put someone worse in power.
You’ve been duped, and that is terrible. But it’s also effective.
Suddenly you have a newfound sympathy for this silent character. You hate that blasted Atlas and his, “Would you kindly?”s and you’re chomping at the bit to bring that underwater hellhole to its knees.
The one problem: this technique is less effective on return trips. If you see it coming, it certainly makes the foreshadowing stronger, but it also lessens the impact once the plot twist lands. But then, that’s largely unavoidable. We are resilient creatures, and if we know pain is coming we harden our hearts to weather it.
Both these techniques do have one common theme, which leads to our job as game developers.
Make Us Miserable
Are you seeing a trend here? In a podcast, Ken Levine once said, “Insulting, attacking, or upsetting the player is the goal,” and it’s a counter-intuitive truth. If you want players to sympathize with the characters they control, you have to make that character’s pain tangible.
In other words, you have to make us miserable.
Take something away from us, even though we love it – especially because we love it. Make us understand loss in a new way, because that’s how we will come to identify with the people you want us to care about.
And that doesn’t make game developers horrible people. That makes us human.
It’s a reminder that life is short; that the things we hold dear are transitory and cannot last. It is a reminder that we should be grateful for what we have now because there is no guarantee of a tomorrow.
That’s not really so hard, is it?
No, not so hard at all. It’s as simple as death, and just as painful.
But then, pain is sort of the point. And making us miserable as players is actually the greatest service you can do us. So don’t be afraid to take something away from your characters. Just make sure you take it from us as well.
We’ll thank you for it later. Trust me.
Ken Levine interview on storytelling and how the Uncharted series inspired him.
Ken Levine podcast on writing and storytelling in video games.