6 min read

Building the Emotional Bridge

Don't tell people how they should feel...

"Games shouldn't have to tell you how to feel through the protagonist's words. The goal of any kind of media or storytelling is for the observer to draw their own conclusion. If the goal of a game is to immerse a player, any dissonance between their own feelings and their avatars' creates a lapse in their emotional investment."  - Cripsy Gamer

In expanding on a post originally made on the Narrative Designers Forums, too often, I'll play a game where the narrative of the game implies an emotional connection between me, the protagonist, and another NPC. These games rely on known structural tropes in story structure that are wellknown regardless of entertainment format.  This is by no means a sign of laziness or poor writing, necessarily, but merely falling back on situations that players and those that experience the game can immediately understand because of their familiarity with traditional media.  Games are much a different animal.  In the case of games, the standard tropes for introducing NPCs in which the player is supposed to care about tend to hurt, not help, build the emotional bonds.

In your typical narrative-driven media, such as books or movies, characters that the protagonist is supposed to care about (love, hate, etc) can be given pages or time to explore the relationship.  This allows the viewers to see the extent of these emotional bonds, experience through the author the depth of these bonds by situational dialog or internal monologues or entire scenes dedicated to establishing the emotional bond between the protagonist and this other character.  One doesn't have to go far to see how these sorts of connections are made in traditional media, such as the classic romantic drama "Casablanca".  The flashback in Paris with Rick and Illsa in the classic "Casablanca" establishes not only their history as lovers, but also the heartbreak over their separation.  It places his hostility in context, and it allows the viewers to fully understand Rick's emotional state when Illsa comes back into his life and needs his help.  Or to understand the forbidden love of "Romeo and Juliet", and to understand just how topsey turvey their love is, watching the conflict of the first act of the play.  The conflict between Montagues and Capulets is established as a blood feud, the hatred expounded upon by Benvolio and Tybalt.  The conflict is established, making the audience experience love between the two star-crossed lovers and hope, in vain, that their love will endure.

Games, as we well know, differ from more traditional media by offering interactivity.  Interactivity breaks down the definition of the consumer of the story from a simple viewer to an active participant. In this, game stories do a disservice to the participant by forcing a contextual emotional narrative because the consumer of the story no longer is separated by the Fourth Wall.  Strongly defined, well-rounded protagonists in other media is a blessing, in games, they can potentially be a curse if this definition is explicit and made without the input of the player  Game Designer like to flex their knowledge of traditional creative writing and present their well-rounded, emotionally engaging character.  These designers implicitly expect the players, their audience,  to immediately connect with the protagonists emotional viewpoint, whether that is internal or external.  

The easiest example, and is by no means a criticism of the game as a whole, is the relationship between Faith and her twin sister Kate in the game Mirror's Edge.  The relationship is established by several bits of dialog, and the narrative then implies a strong relationship between the characters.  In this case, Faith - has no knowledge of her sister prior to that line of dialog.  Because the player IS Faith, reinforced even more so because the player views the world through the first person,  this is emotional connection fails entirely because the player has been introduced to Kate innocously and without any time for the player to build an emotional relationship with that NPC.  This seems to be a failing of the development process, in this case, as it seems like Rhianna Pratchet was brought onto the project later to bring a narrative context to the game that DICE had created, forcing her to use these classic tropes.

On the other side of things, we have games such as Half Life 2.  While writing for a silent protagonist can be tricky, as admitted by Marc Laidlaw, the structure for building an emotional connection with Alyx Vance is laid out in such a way that the player AND Gordon have no preconcieved notions of who Alyx is when they are first introduced to her.  The Gordon/Alyx dynamic is outstanding, and not just because Alyx is such a well-written, well-rounded characte, but because the player has the luxury of time to see and experience first hand the relationship between Alyx and Gordon be built.  The player must be given the time to invest in the change and conflict that the protagonist is experiencing. That is why it is easy to invest in the experiences of, say, Alyx Vance. You are with her as she experiences her emotions, allowing for an easy investment. The same can be said about the NPCs you encounter in games like Mass Effect, and Mass Effect 2. While the NPCs have an emotional center to begin with, you are introduced to them at the same time as your avatar, thereby establishing an emotional and rational baseline for the relationship with them despite the fact that your character has a strong emotional center as well, determined by the player.

Creating strong emotional bonds between player and NPCs is a difficult but attainable goal in a game.  it goes without saying that having a writer focused on the game from the very beginning goes a long way to ensuring that the proper groundwork is laid in the world design and characterization to allow for true, compelling emotion to occur.  Further, don't expect the player to follow along an implied emotional path without cause - simply stating an emotional position for the protagonist creates, at best, a tenuous connection.  Giving the player the time to build an emotional connection and to blaze their own emotional path.  When that happens, the emotional connection will be there, and the results will be extraordinary...



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