玩家消费。根据玩家的消费可以划分为从0到5的级别，0是从未为游戏花钱的玩家，5则是鲸鱼玩家。一个典型的例子便是，Social Gold的首席执行官Vikas Gupta在伦敦的Virtual Goods Forum（2010年7月24日）将用户消费行为描述为国王，骑士，公爵，平民以及农民。
创建游戏与玩家间的情感联系的关键元素便是理解他们的文化期待，经历以及需求。文化间的差异总是非常巨大。举个例子来说吧，在巴西，比起《World War 2》和《现代战争》，人们更加喜欢内战和黑帮题材的游戏（游戏邦注：如“贫民窟”），所以以中东或欧洲战争为背景的战争游戏很难在这个国家获得盈利。在亚洲，人们更钟情于偷取其他玩家的道具，认为这是一种可接受的社交互动，但是西方文化却不认可这一点。
几年前，意大利帕尔玛市的神经学家为了理解单个大脑细胞的功能，在猕猴上做实验。他们在其大脑中植入电线，勘测关于抓住食物送到小猴子口中这类功能的细胞活动。2008年，研究人员Marco Iacoboni在《Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect With Others》一书中解释，相关突破性进展形形色色，且疑点重重，但大多数时候，猴子总是连接到电线上，等待下个试验。此时走过来一个测试人员，他伸手抓起一些有趣物品（游戏邦注：比如水果，或是标记“激活释放所有猴子”的大型红色按钮），递给猴子们。
因此，我们首次发现行为中的镜像神经元，它与大脑中的其它神经细胞不同。而且不少研究人员（游戏邦注：包括之前提到的UCLA精神病学与行为科学教授Dr. Marco Iacoboni）相信，它是引发我们同情《行尸走肉》中Lee与Clementine处境的重要因素。
我所见识过最接近以上概念的是“身体印记理论”（Somatic Marker Theory）。它的基本主张如下：
我耗费了大半天时间观察游戏玩家。有些是其他人的观察结果，但还有我自己做的、针对游戏或原型的反应的分离式观察。我看到了不同的情绪在活动——如果他们不明白某种关卡布局，玩家可能会觉得受挫。或者如果玩家的角色永久阵亡（《Realm of the Mad God》），他们可能会感到悲伤。或者，如果他们刚好碰上一个长条方块把四排方块全消了（《俄罗斯方块》），他们可能禁不住兴高采烈。
你历经数个小时创建起来的角色“永垂不朽”，目睹此景会让人痛心疾首。这种永远死亡的系统还没在现代游戏中普及，但每天都有成千上百名玩家“阵亡”在《Realm of the Mad God》这款游戏中。设计者可以从纯机制的角度看待这种体验。玩家投入时间和精力去积累资源和技能。然后很大程度上因为技术失误，玩家中弹，所有时间、一切精力，全都在枪林弹雨中付诸东流。
我的朋友Stephane Bura对游戏系统映射情绪做了非常重要的研究，但还远远不够。我强烈推荐你阅读他的原创文章《Emotion Engineering in Games》。要完全理解这个课题需要花上几年的功夫，但我希望你有一个良好的开端。
在《Realm of the Mad God》中，玩家死了，永不复生——这是对失败的严酷惩罚。与8×8像素的子弹对撞，没有精度，没有现实，也没有精制的剧情，这意味着某些情绪性的东西，这是任何电影或小说都不能捕获的情感。
在《Elder Scrolls IV：Oblivion》这款游戏中，尽管我在初期投入了大量的时间创造了属于自己的游戏角色，但是渐渐的，我便觉得自己丢失了对角色的所有权了。游戏角色所处的环境与我们玩家所处的环境并不一样，它的游戏环境极为令人失望。尽管游戏任务的主角都有一个专门的配音演员，但是其它次要角色却都是由相同的3个演员配音。当游戏中的人物重复对话时，这种情形就有点滑稽了，同时也让整个游戏世界显得极度失真。《Elder Scrolls IV：Oblivion》中呆板的游戏角色，以及不合理的场景设置使这款游戏变得更加怪异。
《Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4》是另外一款以描述角色为主的游戏，但是它却采取了与上述游戏不同的表现手法。我很关注它的人物角色及其不幸遭遇，所以可以忽略其不甚理想的玩法设置。看到这款游戏的人物角色如此具有深度和吸引力，我无法不为之而触动，也承认自己偏爱其中的Chie这个角色。我也没有想到自己会被这款PS2 3D模式的游戏所深深吸引，可以说，它与玩家之间的情感联系实在是太奇妙了。
找到一款具有较强情感联系的游戏实非易事，但也绝非完全不可能。那些无法满足玩家情感需求的游戏多因陈腔滥调的故事情节而失利。最近发行的《Infamous》和《Prototype》等这类游戏并无虏获玩家的吸引力，因为它们不是游戏道德取向有问题，就是缺乏令人印象深刻的主人公。而《Lost Odyssey》和《Persona 4》这两者却真正理解了游戏与玩家间的情感联系，并设计了一种由角色推动故事发展的戏剧性游戏体验。如果即将问世的《Heavy Rain》能够向玩家传达一个完整的故事情节，并呈现一个具有说服力的游戏世界，那么我相信这款游戏将推动视频游戏成为该领域文化变革中的绝对力量。而在那天到来之前，我将继续在《Persona 4》中操纵着我最喜欢的Chie Satonaka。
想象一个统一体，一端站着《An Inconvenient Truth》（一部关于全球变暖的纪录片），另一端站着《俄罗斯方块》。一个是完全文字式的：它只是把创作者的想法传达给观众。另一个是纯粹抽象派的：不带文字信息，但却为玩家了提供了一个玩乐的环境。一个是媒体，另一个是活动。
这种循环还在一定程度上定位了剧情游戏设计之间的极端：传统的故事 vs.系统的游戏结构、线性和控制 vs.开放性和不可预测性、艺术 vs.科学、先天才能 vs.后天努力、客观 vs.主观、直觉 vs.观察。
从书籍《Choose Your Own Adventure》到游戏《质量效应》，封闭这个循环圈的最显著、最有力的方式是，在关键剧情的选项里分支叙述剧情。这样，玩家的行为对剧情发展就有了直接的重要影响。
为冒险游戏《Sam & Max》 或 《Strong Bad》设计迷题的那阵子，我想为玩家重现在工作室里设计游戏的经历。玩冒险游戏时，我们经常谈论“啊—哈”时刻，但设计冒险游戏我们也常常“啊-哈”。
但所谓理想，不是简单的玩家说了算，而是与玩家分享这样一个时刻——我们所做的点点滴滴最终完美契合、玩笑中产生妙语联珠、持续关注得到回报和剧情言之有理（就《Sam & Max》而言，是差不多了）。
在《半条命2：第二章》中，有这么个场景，Freeman 和 Alyx Vance透过双筒望远镜观察到一队跨步者和其他联合军的车辆通过桥。玩家在这些场景中别无选择；所有玩这个游戏的人都会目睹这一幕。但与电影《世界大战》中的一个类似场景相比，玩家角色产生的不同点就清晰可见了。在电影中是不能让观众产生如此强大的存在感和直接感。
在游戏《Ico》中，牵引公主越过障碍是游戏的核心游戏设置。开发者润物细无声般地在玩家头脑中灌输依恋和守护的感情——这又是任何过场动画望尘莫及的。在游戏《传送门》中，Valve公司给Chell的同伴“超重量级二阶魔方”（对Weighted Companion Cube的戏称）安了一颗心，从而完成了类似的小规模游戏设置。
《Shadow of the Colossus》在这个概念上更上一层楼——将玩家置身于更加不明确的场景中。该游戏的基本结构完全是常规式的：玩家打败一连串越来越难搞定的BOSS，然后救出公主。但本作的陈述方式将玩家的标准游戏冒险体验转变为关于失去、悲恸和无奈的学习体验。
但玩家与Big Daddy的关系更显微妙。无论玩家选择拯救还是收服Little Sisters，都必须杀掉各个Big Daddy。这些家伙一路高歌并笨拙而颠狂地在地上走着，他们的存在只是为了守护Little Sisters，并不会伤害玩家。
尽管杀掉Big Daddy并不是完成游戏的必须步骤，许多玩家还是毫不犹豫地这么做了。与Big Daddy的恶斗也成了游戏中最精彩的一个场景。直到游戏的后半部分，玩家目睹了关于选择的错觉这部分关键情节，才不得不思考他在整个游戏过程中的所作所为。玩家看到了Big Daddy的诞生和成长，终于明白同情是一种什么样的感觉。
听到我的回答《Miller’s Crossing》后，人面鱼双目放光，说：“啊，那你是科恩兄弟的粉丝咯！我猜你和你的朋友们成天坐在一起引用《Raising Arizona》的台词聊天吧。”我丢下控制器，惊恐地躲开显示器。
《Seaman》让人记忆犹新的是它独特的概念和以假乱真的创造。但选择Jellyvision作为英语翻译是对原版游戏的最完美的补充，因为该工作室制作《You Don’t Know Jack》系列的非传统的当代内容时在这方面有过经验。
篇目1，Game Design: Five steps to making games which make more money using emotion
Of the tens of thousands of free to play and social video games out there, it is a sad fact that many of them make very little money and some developers & publishers have even seen significant financial losses. One of the main reasons for this is that many games fail to build an emotional connection with their players, with the game design process failing to include a strong focus on emotion. This can drastically reduce player engagement and significantly reduce the number of players willing to spend money on the game, as well as the amounts those willing to pay ultimately spend.
It is no accident that top performing free-to-play games, such as World of Tanks and CSR Racing, are reported to generate $11M – $20M per month and $9M per month respectively – they happen to do an amazing job of forming emotional connections with their players!
In this article I am going to set out five steps developers can take in order to build emotion into their free-to-play games, which, if followed correctly, could increase player conversion from 1-3% to the 10%-30% range.
Step 1. Identify the profile of your players (current and/or your target audience)
Determine characteristics of different player types
Richard Bartle identified four different player types as part of research into player behaviour in multiplayer dungeons (MUDs). These player types are widely recognised as an effective way of identifying and addressing player needs, including emotional motivation, when designing games. These player types include Achiever, Killer, Socialite and Explorer.
As a first step read up on these player types and what the emotional drivers are for each type.
Learn about your players and build player profiles
If your game has already been built and you already have some players, you should find out as much information about them as you can. This can help you to build a design profile for your game in relation to the player types. If you find that a majority of your players are Killers, for example, it may be that your current game design is heavily oriented towards that player type and their emotional needs, which could mean that the other player types are being neglected. While this is not necessarily an issue – Killers might just be those players who spend the most – it could well be and it is something worth looking more closely at.
An effective way to build player profiles is to create a survey which can be targeted at your entire player base or as large a subsection of your players as you can manage. To build the survey, prepare questions which focus on identifying players emotional motivators and needs, based on Bartle’s four player types. The aim of the survey will be to determine what player types are present in your player/userbase and what the current mix is. A good website with some example questions can be found here.
If your game is still at the design stage and/or you have not acquired players yet, you have two options. If you already have a community of players in mind (whom you plan to acquire), for example who already play one or more of your other games, should you have them, you could focus a survey on that group. Alternatively you could consider looking at games from the same genre/type that you are creating and try to find out how those games cater for the four different player types.
Determine who your most valuable players are
Once you have the results from your player survey you should build a profile for each player which should include their player type based on their responses to the survey.
An important next step is to determine player life time value (LTV). This should be done for each player and then overall for each player type.
One way to create an LTV value for each player is to:
1. Define some factors which are important to you and represent value for your company. This can vary but factors to consider are:
- Monetization. This could be scored from 0 to 5 based on player spending, where 0 is never spend and 5 would be whales. A good example to illustrate this is the concept (slide 17) of Kings, Knights, Lords, Commoners and Peasants, as described by Vikas Gupta, CEO of Social Gold, when he presented customer spending behavior insights at the Virtual Goods Forum in London, on July 24, 2010.
- Use of Viral Channels. Could be scored from 0 to 4, e.g. Very Infrequent, Occasional, Frequent, Very Frequent, Maximum.
- Community Interaction. Could be scored from 0 to 4, e.g. Never Posts or posts negatively, Post very rarely but positively, Posts occasionaly and positively, Posts frequently and positively, Posts very frequently and positively.
- Loyalty. Categories could be scored 1 to 5 and include: Plays at least once per month (but no other signs of loyalty), plays at least once per month plus also subscribes to newsletter or other games of yours, plays at least once per week plus subcribes to newsletter or other games of yours, plays daily, plays daily plus subscribes to newsletter and plays other games.
2. For each factor, assign a score to each player and calculate their overall LTV score.
3. As well as an overall score, calculate the amount spent by each player since they first started playing your game
4. Now that you have LTV for each player, calculate this for each player type. This will enable you to see which player types represent the highest value and will provide some insights into changes you may need to make to your game to make it more appealing to the player types you want more of
5. As well as understanding player LTV, based on the survey results and any other research you have done into the types of player you want your game to appeal to, you should have some good insights into the emotional needs of the players. These should be documented and used later.
Step 2. Evaluate the cultural fit of your game
A critical part of building emotional connections with players is to have a very clear understanding of their cultural expectations, experiences and needs. There can be a huge difference from one culture to the next. For example, in Brazil, there is far less interest in World War 2 and Modern Warfare and much more focus on civil war and gang warfare (Favellas, for example), so wargames launched in that country might not monetize well if there is over-reliance on a middle-eastern or european war setting. In asia, the concept of stealing items from other players can be seen as great fun and socially acceptable in certain games, but can be perceived very negatively in western cultures.
Here are 5 important dimensions to consider when determining cultural needs:
1. History and attitudes (what has happened in the past which influence people’s attitude today? This could be recent history or much further back)
2. Current hot topics, news and events (and degree to which these are discussed openly, sensitivity, etc). Some topics can be considered sensitive, such as Favellas and gang warfare in Brazil, but is a highly engaging subject for players who enjoy war games, whereas in Mexico this is not a topic that is discussed or seen as “fair game” for representation in games.
3. Pop culture and local brands. For example, city building games which feature local shops and stores, cooking games which feature local chefs and name of food ingredients, racing games which feature car brands that are specific to the player’s country and trends.
4. Lifestyle quality (climate, degree of affluence, spread of wealth, attitudes towards money).
5. Lifestyle choices, hobbies and interests. For example, train spotting and interests in trains as a hobby is very niche in the UK and seen as very untrendy by many, but is very popular in Japan. DIY and home improvement is not as broadly available or affordable in many Latin American countries, which differs hugely from Europe, so this could impact the perception of games focused on this topic. Religious beliefs differ massively and there can be very important considerations, for example avoiding representation of certain types of Animals.
Based on the above, try to identify how well your game design fits according to each aspect, identifying design principles and characteristics which work well and less well culturally. If there are gaps to fill to make your game fit better culturally, brainstorm new game elements or changes.
Step 3. Understand your players emotional needs
There are 3 types of emotion that are important to consider when looking at the emotional needs of players:
1. Positive emotions. This can include feelings of bliss, joy, surprise, curiosity, etc.
2. Negative emotions. Feelings of guilt, shame, anger, fear.
3. Combined emotions. A good example of a combined emotion is Schadenfruede, which combines feelings of guilt with pleasure
I’m not aware of a magic formula for getting the right balance between positive, negative and combined emotions, this will vary depending on the game, but it probably makes sense to avoid purely negative emotions!
How can emotions be applied to your game design?
There are a number of different aspects of game design where emotional design effort should be focused, in order to identify emotional hooks. These are described below. By considering each of these in turn, design principles, guidelines and high-level design elements should be created and/or updated to reflect the desired emotions in the game design.
Content includes all the virtual objects that forms part of the core game mechanic, often collectible, which the player will engage and interact heavily with. Some examples:
- in CSR Racing from Natual Motion, this would include the cars the player drives (which, one could argue, is the strongest emotional element of the game). In this game these items are richly detailed with very strong attention to detail.
- In World of Tanks this includes the Tanks the player uses in battle. The tanks are designed very authentically with very strong attention to detail with subject matter which appeals to a very specific niche. There is also a very wide range of tanks to collect, and each tank has very distinctive behaviour, advantages and disadvantages.
- In Animal crossing this includes the furniture and all other collectible items used to decorate your house, as well as the animals that you interact with. The items that can be collected leverage Nintendo’s back catalogue of IP and the existing emotional attachments players have with this content. Items are very intricately detailed, and behave uniquely. For example, stereo music players can have music tapes inserted and the sound quality varies depending on the type of stereo. Animals have their own personalities which help players form bonds with them, as they seem uncannily lifelike and each character seems unique and individual.
- In Cityville it is the vast range of buildings and infrastructure which can be used by players to create unique cities. In Little Big Planet it is the large collection of materials and objects used to build new levels (as well as to play them) with real-world physics properties. The objects in the game look very appealing to the eye and interaction takes place in a realistic way.
- In Final Fantasy 7 it is the various playable characters, their spells, equipment, attributes, skills and personalities. Players become very invested emotionally in the characters due to the amount of time spent developing them and unlocking new skills and abilities, there is constant novelty and surprise as they progress, with new features gradually made available to support character development.
- In Singstar it is the wide range of songs/videos which the player downloads and sings to. The content leverages players existing emotional connections with the music.
Games which have very high player engagement and have high proportion of spenders to non-spenders, tend to have content which is richly detailed, interactive, has great attention to detail and is designed to make the player form personal attachments. This content generates a wide range of positive emotions and one or two negative ones, for example the sense of loss if the item becomes unavailable or is unattainable.
Context is the specific game setting and circumstances, for example a particular time or place. Some examples:
- In CSR racing it is the streets of new york with a gang-based street racing backdrop
- In World of Tanks it is set during the second world war in Germay, Russia and other parts of Europe
- In Final Fantasy 7 it is the steam-punk, depressed, poverty-ridden city of Migdar
- In Pokemon it is the collection or regions including Kanto and Johto, in a modern fantasy world
The context needs to be carefully chosen or adapted to fit the culture, demographics, gender and age of the player.
3. Theme and Story
This refers to the specific genre and the story that ties the game tasks, objectives and goals together. For example in CSR racing the theme is based on racing high performance cars, competing against street-racing gangs from each neighbourhood in order to become the best and richest racer (with the sexiest and fastest cars!)
The theme and story needs to be carefully designed to:
- fit the needs of the player type you want to bring to your game. For example, killers and achievers may be less interested in story, focusing more on beating other players or being the best they can be at the game. Explorers and socializers are more likely to need to compelling story to drive them forward, give them a sense of purpose and provide plenty of hooks for social experiences.
- be culturally relevant
The way that the player interacts with the game can itself have a highly relevant emotional impact. The easier it is for players to express them selves, the more likely it will be that they become emotionally involved. For example, the best-selling videogame of all time, Wii Sports, simplifies interaction such that the player simply mimics the actions as if he/she were playing tennis in the real world. This arguably increased the sense of satisfaction for the player, encouraged them to “play the part”, with wild gesticulation helping create a sense of joy and excitement.
Conversely, by limiting ways in which they player can interact or express themselves in the game world, this can work against the emotional responses that have been designed in to the game. For example in the game Heavy Rain, on one occasion there is a need to move the controller violently left and right in order to brush the protagonists teeth. This is a positive way of overcoming limitations of ordinary controllers, which can struggle to mimic real-world actions, but I felt that the movement required felt excessive and undermined my immersion in the game and subsequently weakened my emotional response to the game (a strong aspect being sadness and remorse).
In CSR Racing, a number of techniques are employed to create a strong sense of control by the player, even though they cannot steer the cars. This is achieved through the player needing to time carefully their screen touches (for example, to rev the engine at the right time to achieve a fast start to the race).
In Smooty Tales, from Kobojo, being able to “wash” the player’s animal character through backwards and forwards motions with the mouse, helps create a strong connection between the player and their animal. The emotional response may not have been as strong if the player simple had to click an icon to do this.
In CtiyVille 2, the use of timers when collecting rent from houses creates a deeper sense of interaction for the player, rather than just clicking the house to receive the rent.
5. Player reward
Rewarding players can take many forms and varies heavily from game to game, but the importance of providing sufficient reward to the player cannot be overstated. Getting the type and amount of reward right, can provide a player with a sense of payback, e.g. that the time and money they have spent in your game was worth it. By getting this wrong, players can become bored easily and disillusioned about your game and a lot of the emotional design elements can be undermined.
The top 5 types of reward that should be considered (in no particular order) are:
1. New content they can interact with (ideally part of the core game mechanic, but can also be supporting content, such as new clothes for game characters, mini games, etc)
2. Achievements, trophies or other means to get recognition for their progress in the game
3. Collections, such as a items that are hard to find and/or take time to acquire
4. Charity-based, e.g. psychological positive feeling from gifting, including contribution to real-world charities (for example, as provided by Playmob)
5. Competition, either against other players or against the game. This can be as simple as positive messages and sounds for levelling up, as well as the strong emotional reward a player gets when they beat someone else. One of the strongest elements of World of Tanks appears to be that there is a strong focus on competiton, but a careful balance is struck between winning and losing so that players rarely feel like they are being humiliated, while they are able to win often enough to feel like they are making progress and that there efforts are rewarded.
Rewards should be designed and balanced to match the needs of the player types. For example, collections are more suited to achievers, and competion more to killer player style.
Step 4. Design and Build New Content with Emotional Hooks
Prioritise effort based on player profile and LTV
If you were able to collect useful information about your players and/or target audience, including player profiles and LTV, this should be used to help guide the design efforts and priorities for designing and building new game content. For example, if Socializer-type players represent the highest value to you, design of emotional hooks into design principles, guidelines and high-level design elements should take priority.
Having identified/updated the game design principles, guidelines and design elements to reflect the emotional hooks identified earlier, the next step is to revise/refine/create the concept design, reflecting the design principles, guidelines and high-level design elements created and/or updated previously. This could be done through brainstorming-led design workshops or other preferred methods.
Detailed design, Build and QA
Once the concept design work has been completed, detailed design work can begin, with game design documents created/updated to reflect the new emotion requirements, and game assets then created and coded according to the design, following standard QA and beta testing practices.
If your game is already built and live, designing and building of new content could be done as part of a 3 or 6 Month content plan, such that changes to your game are introduced gradually in a manageable way.
Step 5. Review and Refine Game Content
Post-release new game content can be designed, built and released into your game as per usual, but consideration should be given to repeating steps 1-4, or at least revalidating what was previously done to ensure your game remains emotionally aligned with the needs of the currrent and active userbase for the game.
I can appreciate that building emotion into games can be a complex and time consuming undertaking, and it can be tempting to avoid focusing on this especially for those games designed to appeal to a casual “non-gaming” audience, where it may not feel appropriate to spend so much time and effort on the emotional aspects.
However, there is compelling evidence that making games which form strong emotional connections with players does lead to more engaging games which have higher player to spender conversion and revenues than games which do not achieve this. As mentioned previously, to of the highest performing free-to-play games, World of Tanks and CSR Racing, are generating millions of dollar per month, with up to 30% of their userbases (at least for World of Tanks) actively spending money on a free to play game!(source:perfectaffinitygames)
篇目2，The Walking Dead, mirror neurons, and empathy
by Jamie Madigan
Psychologist Jamie Madigan examines the neuroscience of one reason why The Walking Dead is so effective at eliciting empathy from players.
Oh man, have you all been playing The Walking Dead from Telltale Games? I have, and with every installment of this episodic game I’m newly impressed by how hard it yanks on my emotions.
Like the comic that spawned it, the game is unapologetically bleak and its appeal comes largely from watching characters getting crammed into really bad situations from which some of them just won’t emerge — unless they do so groaning and hungering for brains. Like many horror stories it’s appealing the way a roller coaster is appealing. The characters are full of despair, heartbreak, anxiety, regret, and desperation.
And the amazing thing is that the game gets me to feel all those emotions too. I’m glad that it comes in monthly installments, because I need the time between episodes to recover. But why is that? By what psychological, neurological, and biological mechanisms do video games like The Walking Dead get us to not only empathize with characters onscreen, but also share their emotions?
For the answer let us start, as we so often do, with tiny Italian monkeys.
Years ago, neuroscientists in the Italian city of Parma were conducting experiments on macaque monkeys in order to understand the functions of individual brain cells. This involved inserting wires into the brain so that the researchers could detect activity in cells related to functions like grasping and bringing food to little monkey mouths. As researcher Marco Iacoboni notes in his 2008 book Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect With Others, stories of a particular breakthrough are varied and apocryphal, but most of them involve a monkey wired up and awaiting his next round of experiments. In walks a researcher, who then reaches out and grasps something of interest to the monkey like a piece of fruit or a big red button marked “ACTIVATE TO FREE ALL MONKEYS.”
Suddenly the researcher noticed that according to the equipment hooked up to the monkey’s brain, neurons were firing that were associated with grasping motions, even though the animal had only SEEN something being grasped. This was odd, because normally brain cells are very specialized and nobody knew of any neurons that would activate both when performing an action or when seeing someone else perform the same action. Yet here the monkey was, blithely firing neurons previously only associated with performing motor actions while just sitting still and watching.
Thus was the first observation of a mirror neuron in action, a brain cell set apart from many of its peers and which are also present in delicious human brains. It turns out that many researchers like the aforementioned Dr. Marco Iacoboni, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at UCLA, believe that mirror neurons are important for our ability to empathize with things we see, like the plight of poor Lee and Clementine in The Walking Dead.
“Mirror neurons are motor cells,” Iacoboni tells me via e-mail. “That is, they send signals to our muscles to move our body, make actions, grab a cup of coffee, smile, and so on. However, they differ from other motor cells because they are also activated by the sight of somebody else’s action.” For example, a mirror neuron for grasp is fired when I grab an Xbox controller, but also when I see my friend grabbing a controller. “By being active even when we do not move at all and simply watch other people moving, they sort of create an inner imitation of the actions of others inside us.”
Curious about exactly how this phenomenon works, Iacoboni and his colleagues conducted a study (Carr, Iacoboni, & Dubeau, 2003) where they used very expensive equipment to monitor the brain activity of subjects who watched images of faces expressing different emotions. As expected, mirror neuron areas activated when people saw the expressions, and so did the limbic system, a portion of the brain known to be related to emotions. In short, upon seeing facial expressions, mirror neurons fired as if the subjects were making those expressions themselves, then triggered activity in the brain’s emotional centers so that subjects could actually feel the emotion being imitated.
Iacoboni notes that this process “puts us immediately in ‘somebody else’s shoes,’ in an effortless, almost automatic way. This is why we get so immersed in the movies we watch and the novels we read.” When we see Lee Everett or any of the other Walking Dead characters grimace in disgust, our mirror neurons for grimacing activate as if we were making that expression ourselves. And because of that inner imitation, we actually do feel the emotion to some degree and thus understand what the other is feeling.
I think this is one of the reasons why The Walking Dead is so good at eliciting emotions: it frequently shows us the faces of the characters and lets us see all the work put into creating easily recognizable and convincing facial expressions. And so it’s not the zombies that elicit dread in us. Instead it’s things like the face that Kenny makes when Lee tells him to make a hard decision about his family.
“We spend a ton of time on the facial animations for the characters in the game,” The Walking Dead’s creative lead Sean Vanaman said when I asked him about this. “After writing the first episode we start to make lists of the type of things characters are going to feel in the story and then start to generate isolated facial animations to convey those moods and emotions. Those are then used throughout the game.”
But it’s not just seeing an expression and imagining ourselves mirroring it. In the 2004 study cited above, Iacoboni and his colleagues also had some subjects physically imitate the expressions they were seeing and the cascade of mental activity increased. This suggests that actively imitating expressions helps us better empathize and understand, and it’s part of a fairly established line of research called the “facial feedback hypothesis.” For example, in one 2005 study researcher Paula Niedenthal had two groups of subjects look at the facial expressions of other people.
One group, however, was made to hold a pencil between their teeth, which severely limited their ability to mimic the expressions they saw. The result was that those clenching the pencils in their mouths were less able to detect emotional changes in the faces they observed because the lack of mimicry short circuited their brain’s ability to replicate facial expressions, feel the emotions themselves, and then recognize it in others.
So, I suppose the moral of all this is that if you really want to get the full effect from The Walking Dead, don’t cover your eyes and peek between your fingers in a way that inhibits your ability to mimic the expressions you see on screen. Your mirror neurons don’t appreciate that when they’re trying to get your to replicate expressions of crippling, existential doom.
篇目3，Shadow Emotions and Primary Emotions
Not all emotions are created equal.
Consider: It is a distinctly different thing to feel sad while reading about a dying mother than to actually feel sad because your mother is dying. The former is a shadowy reflection that we intuitively understand is not immediately threatening. The later is raw, primary and life changing.
I’ve yet to see existing terminology for this phenomena, so at the risk of stepping on existing toes, let’s use the following labels.
Shadow emotions: The emotions we feel when partaking in narratives, art and other safely evocative stimuli
Primary emotions: The emotions we feel when we are in a situation with real perceived consequences.
The closest I’ve seen to this being described elsewhere is something called the Somatic Marker Theory. It postulates:
“When we make decisions, we must assess the incentive value of the choices available to us, using cognitive and emotional processes. When we face complex and conflicting choices, we may be unable to decide using only cognitive processes, which may become overloaded and unable to help us decide. In these cases (and others), somatic markers can help us decide. Somatic markers are associations between reinforcing stimuli that induce an associated physiological affective state.”
Crucially, the theory identify two distinct classes of emotion. The first is the ‘body loop’ which corresponds closely to primary emotions. The second is the ‘as-if body loop’ which corresponds to shadow emotions.
No doubt this is a well studied topic, so if someone educated in the neurosciences is able to provide even more accurate labels or links to additional models I’ll happily amend this essay.
The distinction between these two classes of emotion may seem academic, but I find myself fascinated by a game’s ability to provoke primary emotions in a manner that is difficult if not impossible for more reflective forms of media. As a game designer, I can and have put the player in situation where they experience real loss.
The best a movie or book can manage is evoking a shadow of loss.
Brief thoughts on memory and emotion
A small bit of background is necessary to describe the mechanism of shadow emotions. It starts with the link between memory and emotion.
Memories come loaded with judgments. In some sense, the true function of memory has been polluted by a modern concept of coldly analytic ‘data storage’. Perhaps a better term for ‘memory’ is ‘lesson’. Each memory has deeply integrated emotional tags that informs us of how we might want to react if we call upon that memory in relation to our current stimuli. When you see a dog sitting on the sidewalk, you instinctively compare it to your existing mental models and memories of past dogs.
In that basic act of cognition, you nearly instantly become awash with emotions. Perhaps you feel a sense of comfort and fondness. Or perhaps a wave of anxiety passes through you as you recall the sharp teeth of past encounters gone awry. In a split second, you know exactly how you feel about that dog.
One way of thinking of emotion as an early specialized form of cognition that serves a clear survival function. Quite often you need to make a decision, but you don’t have time to think about. Quick! Act now! At this moment, you are flooded with an emotional signal. It is strong, primitive and highly effective at making you either run, attack, bond, threaten or pause. Emotions tied to memories help us boil vast decades of experience down into an immediate instinctive reaction.
Hair trigger emotions exists because more complex cognition takes time and for certain classes of decision, delays yield failure and failure is costly. If you are attacked by wolf, it likely isn’t prudent to debate the finer details of how you classify canids. Much later, be it seconds or hours, your conscious understanding of the situation kicks in and moderates the emotional response. More often than not, what we think of as consciousness is little more than a post processed justification of our ongoing roller coaster of instinctive emotional reactions.
Emotions are necessary but they are not civilized. It is easy to imprint rapid fire lessons that trigger at the worst possible moment. A child who learns to lash out in anger as a way of surviving neighborhood bullies might have difficulty as an adult if he reacts the same way when he perceives a more subtle theme of bullying from his boss. What makes managing emotions so tricky is that such emotional triggering situations unfold before we are even aware they are occurring. Emotions are by definition lessons turned into lightning, unconscious action (or inaction as the case may be).
Narrative as a means of playing emotional scenarios
You cannot easily or consciously stop emotions in full activation; however you can train them ahead of time. One method (of many!) is to test and explore our emotions in the safe mediums of narrative, sound and imagery. The mechanism for triggering a safe emotional response seems to be primarily based off a mixture of empathy and the emotional aspects of memory that we’ve previously covered.
Stimuli: When we see or read a particular evocative narrative or scene.
Memory: We tap into our own related stored memories
Synthesis: We assemble disparate elements into a coherent whole
Empathy: We simulate what we might feel in this particular situation
Conscious understanding: We process the resulting safe emotions from a safe distance.
Now imagine that you read about the dog sitting on the sidewalk. You can confront your anxiety with crystal clear understanding that he cannot hurt you. You activate your empathy and simulate how you might feel if the dog were in fact in front of you. Now you roll the emotion around and savor it, examining it from multiple angles. You instinctively role-play the scenario. Perhaps you become comfortable with the idea that you don’t need to immediately run away from all dogs.
By storing this revised impression, you slightly moderate your future emotional reactions.
In a biological sense, this is a surprisingly inexpensive method of practicing how to moderate our emotions. Instead of placing yourself in potentially mortal danger, you can instead read about what it while sitting in a chair. The training that occurs is not perfect, but I suspect that it helps. There is a wide body of experimental research that shows how emotions are differentiated through a process of psychological response and then the application of a cognitive label. If you can practice labeling a rush of adrenaline as bravery instead of fear, you may be able to successfully alter your emotions in real world situations.
Though by no means proof of this theory, it is suggestive that many popular fictional and artistic works are highly focused on evoking emotion and chains of strong drama. Situations that are risky, expensive or socially compromising regularly find their way into the evocative arts and enable us to practice those scenarios in a safe fashion.
The relatively safe emotions that result from consuming and simulating evocative stimuli are what I’m calling shadow emotions.
A shadow emotion is by no means a ‘fake’ emotion. Your heart rate increases, your palms sweat. The patterns of the past carry echos of real emotions and your body responds accordingly. All the physiological signs of experiencing an emotion are present. However, you know intellectually it is a carefully controlled experiment.
Despite hysterical claims to the contrary, humans appear to have a surprisingly robust understanding of simulation vs. reality. We labels our simulations as such and can usually set them aside at our convenience.
Shadow emotions are by no means completely safe. Anyone that goes through a therapeutic process where they directly recall past trauma can bear witness to the fact that recalling strong emotions is an intense and even frightening experience. Distance matters when role-playing stored emotions and the more closely you simulate the original event, the stronger the response.
All this leads to many of the common techniques found in making powerful drama or art. This list is by no comprehensive, but it is a good sample of the practical tools available to a craftsman interested evoking shadow emotions:
Richly describe salient stimuli
Exaggerate stimuli (Peak Shift Principle)
Layer multiple channels of stimuli
Target commonly shared emotional triggers (Love, Death, Triumph, etc)
Create coherent chains of context and causation to facilitate easy simulation
Personalize the stimuli to better match the emotional history of an individual.
As an artist, a story teller and a game designer, I’ve used all of these and they are far less mysterious than many would presume. When such techniques are well executed, you’ll increase the intensity of the evoked shadow emotion. The word ‘evoke’ is key since our concern is more about using a signal to trigger emotions that already exists. As such I think of these techniques clumped primarily into methods of simplifying processing our evocative signal or methods of increasing strength of that signal.
Shadow emotions absolutely exist in games. In fact, the game industry spends ludicrous sums of money attempting to ensure that high end console titles are as good at evoking shadow emotions as media such as movies or books. During the dark reign of the techno-cultists who preached the ascendancy of visual immersion, realism and games as predominantly narrative medium, a thousand chained craftsmen made heroic attempts to evoke stronger shadow emotions. See such baroque creations as Mortal Combat, God of War or L.A. Noire. This expensive pursuit will continue because humans crave shadow emotions as a path to more effective emotional cognition. Game developers, as paid schmucks making disposable and consumable media, have an economic incentive to fill this need.
The next time you safely experience the emotion of shooting a minority-skinned terrorist in the head and watching the beautifully rendered blood and brains splatter in slow motion, step back and consider the emotional role-playing that you are simulating. It obviously isn’t real, but you do feel something. Perhaps it is even therapeutic. These are shadow emotions in action. I remain unimpressed, but perhaps if we render those skull fragments at a higher resolution, AAA games will one day achieve something deeply meaningful.
Primary emotions in games
In this expensive pursuit of shadow emotions, we may have accidentally sidelined deeper exploration of a phenomena more fundamental to the emotional capabilities of games.
I spend large portions of my day observing game players. Some of this is observation of others, but there is also a peculiar detached observation of my own reactions to a particular game or prototype. Repeatedly, I see sparkles of emotion that seem to have different roots than shadow emotions. A player might become frustrated that they don’t understand a particular level layout. Or they may feel anguish when their character suffers permadeath in Realm of the Mad God. Or they may feel elation at finally getting the long tetrimino necessary to clear four rows in Tetris.
I would make the bold and perhaps unsupportable claim that these responses are not a reference to a past emotional experience. Instead they seem to be derived from much more primitive circuitry. Where do emotions originally come from? Not all are reflections of memories past. There are means of creating emotions from scratch.
Consider the sense of anguish that one feels when the character you’ve built up over many hours of dedicated play dies for all eternity. This system, permadeath, is quite uncommon in many modern games, but thousands of players go through the process everyday in the game Realm of the Mad God. As a designer you can think of this experience in almost purely mechanical terms. A player invests time and energy into accumulating a resources and capabilities inside a defined value structure. Then due mostly to a failure of skill, the player gets hit with a barrage of bullets and that investment is irretrievably lost.
Despite the coldly mechanistic nature of the system, the player feels intense anguish. It is a raw, primordial thing that courses through your veins and makes breathing difficult. There is really nothing playful or distant about this emotion. The magnitude and newness of the loss directly correlates to the intensity of the experience. Most players I know have great difficulty setting aside the first major loss and pretending that it did not matter. Some will even quit the game because the emotional intensity is just too much to bear.
What I find intriguing about this particular emotion reaction is that it pops up in other non-gaming scenarios. Recently I forgot to save a file and in one horrible instant lost hours of labor. The self recrimination and sense of loss is quite similar. In a more extreme example, when the stock market collapsed in the 1920′s the emotional response to abrupt and permanent loss was so great that people took to jumping from buildings. The systemic creation of emotion is a powerful phenomena.
There are variations on the theme that result in a spectrum of different yet equally reproducible emotions. If the player is struck with lag or a control glitch or they feel that some other player helped cause their demise, the emotional reaction is almost always incandescent rage. Small adjustments to the mechanical systems of cause and effect result in distinct emotional responses.
Primary emotions appear to be emotions triggered by interactive situations not evocative stimuli. They tend to involve several telling mechanical factors:
Investment and Loss
Skill and Randomness
As I write this list, I can’t help but realize that these sound like many of the fundamental elements of games. Yes, we can easily talk about games as systems in same breath as emotions. There is no need to scurry back to the well worn tropes of evocative media. As game developers, we really do not need the crutch of shadow emotions to create a meaningful emotional experience for our players. Instead, we can succeed by making “games as games” not “games as some bizarrely crippled copy of another industry.”
I wish I could say more about the exact biological process behind generating primary emotions, but alas it is not my area of expertise. Instead, the best I can do for the moment is to describe the pragmatic process that I use to create desired primary emotions in a population of players. Compare the following process to the one I listed above for shadow emotions. They are rather different.
Define: Create mechanics and models that describe a player-centric system of value. What should the player care about and how do the systems and resources reinforce their interest?
Acclimate the player to value structures by having them interact with it repeatedly via various loops and processes. Pay careful attention to skill and resource acquisition as well as the formation of social bonds since these must be grown.
Trigger: Put the player directly in situations involve a practical loss or gain that triggers the generation of new primary emotions.
You can certain use evocative stimuli within such a process, but it will always be a supporting tool. The emotions are engineered from the players interactions and experience with the system and not by bombarding someone with images, dialog or sound. Player choice matters. Failure matters. Learning and skill matters. The game matters.
My friend Stephane Bura has done important work in mapping game systems onto emotions, but there is far more to be done. I highly recommend you read through his pioneering essay Emotion Engineering in Games. It took several years before it started to sink in, but I’m hoping that you’ll have a head start.
I’ve derived immense practical value from the distinction between primary emotions and shadow emotions. Once you’ve internalized the concept, you can look at a game and ask with great clarity “How is this player emotion being generated?” Once you know the mechanism, you can then take steps to amplify or soften the observed effect. Should you increase the fidelity of visual feedback or merely change a resource variable? If you know neither the type of emotion nor mechanism driving the emotion, you are designing blindly.
It is also important that we start talking about how games generate primary emotions. The feeling of victory in a game of Chess is real. The feeling of anger at a Counter Strike camper is real and visceral. The feeling of belonging when you are asked to join a popular guild will stay with you for the rest of your life. We are not reflecting or empathizing (though this can occur in parallel). Due to the interactive nature of the game and our ability to adopt the value structure of the game, there are consequences that are real enough for our body to muster actual new-to-the-world emotions. This is an amazing and fundamental property of games that is at best weakly represented in more traditional media. Let’s play to our strengths.
Every second you spend blathering on about the damnable Hero’s Journey or the role of traditional evocative narrative is a second you could instead be exploring the vast and uncharted frontier of emotional game design. We make games. And games are great and powerful entities in their own right. What happens if you strip out as much of your reliance on shadow emotions as possible and focus your design efforts on creating primary emotions in your players?
In Realm of the Mad God, the player dies. And he can’t come back. It is a harsh penalty with strong sense of failure. Colliding with a 8×8 pixelated bullet with no fidelity, realism or crafted narrative means something emotionally that no movie or novel will ever capture.
篇目4，Why Games Fail to Emotionally Connect
Adam Standing’s first piece for TGR looks into why games still give him the emotional Connection Failure error, taking a look at the highs and lows, from the West and the East, in his gaming life.
In my youth I spent as much time as possible escaping reality and entering the fantasy worlds of books. Those characters and their worlds were totally engrossing, and I naturally found myself making emotional connections with them that enriched the story. But now that video games have taken over my world, I’ve found my new medium of escape doesn’t produce the same effect.
Why do video games fail to make those connections when they seem to draw the best from both books and movies? I don’t believe it’s because they’re totally incapable of making the link, as I’ve found glimpses and fragments of it happen throughout my gaming life. Ever since the wire-frame magic of Elite did its best to draw me past its vectors and into another world, I’ve wanted and expected video games to develop further, and delve deeper. Yet this advance has rarely shown itself, and for this I lay the blame at the failure of games to get even basic storytelling right.
Let’s take Infamous and Prototype as examples, since both approached storytelling in different ways. Infamous presented binary, good-or-evil choices that over the course of the game affected the protagonist and his superhuman, electrical powers. In contrast, Prototype took a linear approach and followed a defined story arc unaffected by the player’s actions in the game.
The binary choice in Infamous felt very ham-fisted and artificial. Although my character changed visually depending on my choices, it had no effect on the actual story. Also, the game spelt out these choices in the most ridiculous way, giving me such pantomime good-or-evil paths that I felt like I was playing a Sesame Street game. Diluting the narrative in this way ultimately didn’t work, and Infamous would’ve been better served by restricting its story to just one linear thread.
This was Prototype’s method-of-choice, and it felt a stronger game for it. But where it succeeded in narrative, it failed with its characters. The dark, brooding Alex Mercer was immediately unlikable, and he seemed a totally different person in the game compared to within its cut scenes. This fuelled my feeling of disassociation with Prototype, and made it’s world an entirely uncomfortable place to be in.
Both of these games display different styles of Western storytelling, but as PSN hit Flower has shown, you don’t need much more than pure visual imagery to tell an enchanting tale. On the end of the spectrum Braid hid its story behind complex puzzles and deliberately confusing perspectives, toying with players’ understanding of what was actually going on. These more artistic games come much closer to that emotional experience I’m after, although I’ve found their devotion to a particular vision can obscure the experience. For example, I feel that the only person to fully understand and appreciate Braid must be Jonathan Blow – its creator.
Maybe the answer to a deeper experience lies with us, the player. If I used my imagination and filled the heart and souls of characters myself, maybe that that would restore the emotional connection I feel games lack? Looking back into my gaming past produces a few examples of this approach working well. The first game that provided me with a moving experience was Amiga classic Cannon Fodder. As each of the game’s levels loaded, an image was shown of a solitary hill covered in graves – the graves of soldiers I had lost so far. As the new recruits marched towards the edge of the screen, ready to do my bidding, I couldn’t help but feel the weight of their lives upon me. It may sound like bleeding-heart liberal pap, but Cannon Fodder’s imagery made me think about the horrors of war, more so than anything else at the time.Cannon Fodder was one of highest-rated games of its generation, and remains a classic.
But there was no engaging squad chatter or atmospheric graphics to build this emotional connection. Cannon Fodder just used simple, powerful imagery, and basic leveling-up features ripped from role-playing games, and applied them in a practical way. That same attachment to characters seems to have been lost in the meantime.
The closest Western games have come is the free rein approach of some RPGs, yet the ability to change my gender, looks and history as much as I want has such little effect on a game.
In Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion I felt no ownership over my character despite pouring hours into their creation. The world around them never felt like the same one I inhabited as the player, and as rich as the environment was, it always felt disappointingly sterile. This was partly because of the voice acting; although the main quest characters had individual actors, nearly all other non-player characters were voiced by the same three people. It did make for some laughable moment, especially when dialogue lines were repeated incessantly, but it also made the world impossible to believe in. The stilted animation of its characters, and their design firmly slotting into the uncanny valley, made Oblivion feel far more alien than it should’ve been.
It seems that Western games have fundamental issues when it comes to providing deep and meaningful experiences. Only in the past few years have I realized that storytelling in Japanese games is far better at conveying emotion and drama. Being told a story and assuming a character in a particular world doesn’t sound as immersive as filling the details yourself, but it’s in these worlds that the most moving moments have occurred for me.
The world of Lost Odyssey is one such example. For all of its clichéd plot and Japanese RPG tropes, Lost Odyssey struck a deep chord with me, and showed how a mixture of storytelling styles could combine to provoke some raw emotions. And although it shares similarities with the Final Fantasy series, it showed a more mature attitude by tackling subjects like death and loss in an adult way When games attempt this, and focus on character and their progression through a game’s world, I can’t help but be swept away.
It was the development of the main character from aloof and detached to unbridled grief that made the first quarter of the game so dramatic. By revealing his memories piece by piece, I grew more sympathetic towards him as the game progressed. This change from unlikeable to understanding is what gave me that emotional connection to Lost Odyssey. There were times that the game’s infamous memories, told by simple text passages, moved me tears. It might be backwards to use such an ancient form of storytelling in a predominantly visual medium, but if it can elicit such emotions then I cannot fault its inclusion.
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 is another great example of a game putting characters above all else, but in another way. I was quite happy to ignore the defdeicient gameplay to invest in the game’s characters and their plights. With so much depth & attraction poured into Persona 4’s characters, it’s hard not to be moved by them – and alright, I’ll admit it, I have a soft spot for Chie. But the very fact that PS2 3D model can squeeze some amorous emotion out of me is something I find incredible. It shows that emotional ties are possible beyond the Lara Croft fantasies of old.
It’s no coincidence that the most recent games to make that emotional link are J-RPGs. Their willingness to devote time and effort into developing characters is what makes them so powerful to me. It’s just a shame that they still lock into recycling the same generic story, and using it more as a canvas for characters than creating an interesting world.
Finding games that emotionally connect seems a difficult task. Not impossible, but their failure to reach those heights comes from following a well-worn path of clichés and stereotypes. Recent releases like Infamousand Prototype stand guilty of this like so many others, whether it be through pantomime moral choices or failure to create deep characters. But Lost Odysseyand Persona 4 show glimpses of that elusive emotional connection, doing so by telling unique character-driven stories, packed with believable, dramatic moments. If the upcoming Heavy Rain can deliver on its promise of a mature story and a convincing world, then maybe it can start the cultural revolution I believe video games are capable of. Until then, I’ll be back in Persona 4, fuelling my Chie Satonaka obsession.
篇目5，Closing the Loop: Fostering Communication In Single Player Games
by Chuck Jordan
Game writer and designer Chuck Jordan (Telltale’s Sam & Max, Strongbad) visits ways in which games interact with the player narratively and offers a new way of looking at player interaction with story in our medium.]
As game developers continue to define how video games can be used for storytelling, the predominant challenge is the tension between story — the developer’s predetermined narrative — and gameplay — the player’s interaction with the game. A slightly different way of framing the problem is not as the tension between story and gameplay, but as the tension between video games as a medium and video games as an activity.
An Inconvenient Tetromino
Imagine a continuum with An Inconvenient Truth at one extreme and Tetris at the other. One is completely literal: it exists solely to convey an explicit message from the creator to the audience. The other is completely abstract: it has no message, but exists solely to provide an environment in which the audience can play. One is media; the other is activity.
Any video game — or for that matter, any film, book, television program, album, dance performance, any creative work — can be placed somewhere along that continuum, based on a single criterion: “What, if anything, is this work trying to communicate?”
As thought experiments go, this one is admittedly pretty facile, but it’s useful for a few reasons:
First, it places no value judgment on either extreme. Discussions about video game content (as opposed to video game mechanics) are often filled with loaded terms like fun and meaning.
These can often derail the discussion into unproductive tangents as people defend ideas that were never under attack: “Games don’t have to mean anything!” “Gameplay is meaning!” “Focusing on ‘fun’ above all else is infantilizing the medium!”
It also avoids the tendency to dismiss abstract, “casual” games as more shallow than storytelling games; or, conversely, to claim that purity of abstract gameplay is of the utmost importance, and that anyone who wants to make a more linear, storytelling game should instead be making movies.
Second, it avoids making a distinction between story and gameplay. Focusing on the overall message — instead of story as set dressing for a game, or shallow gameplay that’s bolstered by an interesting story — means treating both components as parts of a common whole.
Most of all, it acknowledges the significance of communication in game design, not just presentation. If a video game developer chooses to tell a story with her game, then she’s placed her project towards the “media” end of the continuum. She has to think about what ideas the game is trying to communicate.
There tends to be a knee-jerk revulsion to any classification of games as media, or the discussion of games as being primarily story-driven. The objection is that doing so somehow violates the purity and value of game design for its own sake.
But using video games as a storytelling medium doesn’t trivialize game design, any more than using films to tell stories trivializes the arts of cinematography or film editing. Any artist choosing a medium has a responsibility to determine what’s unique about that medium, and how to use the medium to its fullest potential.
The unique aspect of video games as a medium is, of course, their interactivity. They provide ongoing, immediate, systematic, rules-based, bidirectional communication between the creator and the audience. This is also known as “gameplay.”
When we think about the process of narrative game design in this way, the typical distinction between story and gameplay seems even more out of place. It makes little sense to draw a line separating “thinking” from “doing,” or “developer’s narrative” versus “player’s narrative.” That would imply the creator and audience are speaking entirely different languages, engaged in completely separate activities that only occasionally intersect at cutscenes.
But cutscenes and scripted events aren’t the narrative. The entire game is the narrative, and the story is told via the one thing that makes the medium unique: gameplay. The objective of the game is to get to the end of the story, and the rules of the game are the constraints on the player’s character(s). Cutscenes and scripted events introduce or clarify the rules: this character is an obstacle, this path is no longer accessible, this crystal shard of darkest magick is now an objective.
It’s not a dramatic redefinition, but a subtle shift in philosophy. It’s not the case that the developer’s engaged in telling a story while the player’s engaged in an activity; it’s the case that they’re both collaborating in the process of telling a story.
And the language of the storytelling isn’t what we’ve borrowed from traditional media — dialogue, cinematography, set design, etc. — but the language of gameplay, that bidirectional communication between developer and player.
The developer presents a new rule or new scenario, the player provides some input, and the game responds. That cycle of input and feedback is the most fundamental element of video game communication, it’s what makes interactive entertainment unique among storytelling media, and it’s how video game stories provide all their meaning to the player.
It’s also positioned halfway between the extremes of storytelling game design: traditional narrative vs. systematic game mechanics, linearity and control vs. open-endedness and unpredictability, art vs. science, innate talent vs. rigorous study, subjectivity vs. objectivity, intuition vs. observation.
So it’s useful simply to look at individual moments when a video game resonates with the player on a level that’s only possible in the medium of interactive entertainment. How do games transcend the mode of two independent monologues, the developer’s voice and the player’s voice? How does a game close the loop of communication from player to developer and then back to the player?
The most obvious and immediately compelling way to close the loop, from Choose Your Own Adventure books all the way to Mass Effect, is to provide a branching narrative based on the player’s choices at key story moments. The player’s actions have an immediate, significant effect on the course of the story.
The most obvious disadvantage to branching narratives is a purely practical one: they’re expensive and time consuming. Even a simple, binary good/evil choice can double the number of key scenes that need to be produced, and more subtle options will increase development time even more. As budgets get larger, it becomes more difficult to justify spending money on content that, by design, a large part of the audience will never see.
For as long as people have been making video games, there’s been the idea that the problems of branching narratives are simply limitations of the current technology.
The industry’s holy grail — or more accurately, perpetual motion engine — has been the realization of a storytelling engine that can take a finite amount of content and intelligently and satisfyingly generate an infinite number of available choices for the player.
But if we’re looking at video games as communication between developers and players, is a storytelling engine really the inevitable and most desirable end goal? The player would be receiving immediate feedback for any choice he happens to make, but would he still be engaged in a conversation with the developer?
While designing puzzles for adventure games for Sam & Max or Strong Bad episodes, my goal was to reproduce for the player the experience of planning the game in the writers’ room. We often talk about “a-ha” moments when playing adventure games, but there are just as many that come up while designing them.
The process of designing a story-based adventure game is similar to the process of playing one — the story progresses to a certain point, and everyone in the room tries to come up with the funniest, most interesting, or most satisfying way to advance to the next story moment.
That’s not necessarily the best or most logical way to advance, but the one that makes everyone in the room say, “Yes! That’s perfect!” Giving the player the option to come up with any solution he can think of isn’t necessarily the goal. In fact, there’ve been several times that a player suggested a solution on the forums or during a playtest that was much more interesting or logical than the one we’d included in the game.
But the ideal wasn’t simply to empower the player, but to share a moment with the player — the exact moment when all the pieces finally fit together, the joke hits the best punch line, the attention to continuity pays off, and the story makes sense (or in the case of Sam & Max, close enough).
As developers continue to pursue the goal of building holodecks, open-ended environments that put players in complete control of the story, they need to make sure that the sense of communication isn’t lost. Otherwise, they’re not empowering the player, but simply locking him inside an echo chamber where he’s only speaking to himself.
Player agency is even more fundamental to video games than the concept of player choice. Even when the player’s actions don’t directly result in changing the course of the story, the experience of driving the narrative forward can make the story resonate in a way that traditional media can’t duplicate.
The Half-Life series has been built on the concept of player agency from the first moment of the tram ride through Black Mesa. Absolutely nothing happens that isn’t directly witnessed by Gordon Freeman, and without his assistance, power cables across the world remain unplugged and big red launch buttons remain unpushed.
Ostensibly, the goal is complete immersion. But the player is never completely immersed in the story or role-playing as Gordon Freeman, mostly because the character is something of a cipher. Still, the player is immersed in the storytelling. He becomes more intimately familiar with the details of the environment and the spatial relationships between key locations. He’s more conscious of the passage of time and the tension that results from time pressure.
In Half-Life 2 Episode 2, there’s a scene in which Freeman and Alyx Vance watch through binoculars as a convoy of striders and other Combine vehicles cross a bridge.
There’s no player choice involved; everyone playing the game will witness this scene. But when compared to a similar scene in the recent War of the Worlds remake, the difference that comes from player agency becomes clear. There’s a greater sense of presence and immediacy that doesn’t come across in a film.
The risk for game developers is overestimating the value of agency, or the over-reliance on empty interactivity as a substitute for genuine experience. An over-used trick in writing adventure game dialogue is to break up expository sequences with a list of “options” for the player to choose, which all go to the same branch.
It’s intended to break up the monotony of a sequence by pulling the player back into the interaction, but can actually have the opposite effect when used too often.
The player becomes even more aware that his choices have no real effect on the outcome, and the interaction seems even more artificial.
There’s also a risk of over-relying on immersion to the point of distraction. The sci-fi horror game Dead Space puts considerable effort into making the user interface seamless, with a game world explanation for every map, heads-up display, or panel the player interacts with.
This actually causes the interface to draw more attention to itself, however, since most players have dealt with separate in-game UIs enough to accept them without explanation.
Considering the game as dialogue between player and developer, it’s important for developers to think of agency and immersion as tools for communication instead of just flourishes.
What idea or feeling does the game convey by giving control to the player at this point? Is it a meaningful interaction, or does it simply give the player buttons to mash during an otherwise non-interactive sequence?
One of the most effective uses of player agency is to foster a sense of empathy for the player’s avatar or other characters in the narrative. The player’s forced to consider the consequences of his actions, even if those actions are predetermined by the developer and not subject to a branching narrative. This can convey an idea or a concept more subtly and persuasively than any didactic cutscene, because the player gradually becomes more aware of his role in the narrative.
In the game Ico, a core game mechanic is holding the princess’s hand to guide her through obstacles. The developers seamlessly and wordlessly instill in the player a sense of attachment and protectiveness, more effectively than any cutscene would be able. Valve accomplished something similar on a smaller scale with Portal, simply by putting a heart on the Weighted Companion Cube.
Shadow of the Colossus took this concept even further by placing the player into a more morally ambiguous situation. The basic structure of the game is completely conventional: to save a princess, the player has to defeat an increasingly difficult series of bosses. But the presentation of the game shifts the player’s experience from a standard adventure to a study on loss, mourning, and inevitability.
Although no text or dialogue makes it explicit, the colossi are transformed from standard video game monsters to majestic, even noble creatures. Player choice isn’t involved — the player has no real choice other than to stop playing the game — but the game still communicates the idea that all of the player’s actions have consequence. Over time, he starts to feel guilty for killing these ultimately peaceful creatures, even while he’s aware that he can’t stop.
That idea of choice, inevitability, and consequence, was also an important part of BioShock. The game ostensibly put its focus on a series of binary good/evil choices — save or harvest the Little Sisters — each with its own dedicated controller button and branching final cutscene.
But the player’s relationship with the Big Daddies was much more subtle. Whether the player chose to save or harvest the Little Sisters, he was forced to first kill each Big Daddy. And these characters were lumbering creatures pacing the floors of Rapture, singing whale song, doing no harm to the player but existing only to protect the little girl in their care.
Many players killed them without a second thought; even if they weren’t necessary to complete the game, the fights against the Big Daddies were the game’s most interesting set pieces. It’s only later in the game, after witnessing a pivotal story moment about the illusion of choice, that the player’s forced to consider what he’s been doing over the course of the game. He sees how the Big Daddies are created and, to drive home the sense of empathy, forced to become one himself.
The notion of making content specifically relevant to individuals in the audience is obviously not unique to video games, but it is something that’s often overlooked.
So much of game development is devoted to world-building and immersion that developers either neglect to reach out of the game world and address the player directly, or they have no interest in it.
One of my own most memorable experiences while playing a video game, the type of moment that is only possible in interactive entertainment, was while playing Sega’s Seaman on the Dreamcast.
After my pet Seaman had reached a certain stage of maturity, he’d started asking me personal questions to get to know me better. For those unfamiliar with the game, it shipped with a microphone attachment and used voice recognition to allow the player to speak to the Seaman. At the beginning of one session, mine casually asked me what my favorite movie was.
I was aware that the voice recognition in the game wasn’t completely perfect, but the developers did an excellent job of giving the player a second chance in case the first attempt wasn’t recognized.
In response to the question about my favorite movie, I decided I’d first try with my actual favorite, and then in case it wasn’t recognized, fall back to the more obvious answer of Star Wars.
I answered “Miller’s Crossing.” The Seaman’s eyes lit up, and he responded, “Ah, so you’re a Coen Brothers fan! I bet you and your friends just sit together and quote lines from Raising Arizona all day long.” I dropped the controller and cautiously backed away from the screen.
Seaman will be primarily remembered for its bizarre concept and dedication to creating a completely alternate reality. But choosing Jellyvision to do its English language translation was the perfect complement to the original, because of that studio’s experience making unconventional and contemporary content with the You Don’t Know Jack series.
Choosing such an eerily relevant response broke through the bizarre premise of the game, simultaneously grounding it and also making it shockingly immersive. For a moment, I was no longer using unpredictable technology to talk to a 3D model and a decision tree of responses; I was being studied by a creature who knew me all too well.
When this kind of breaking the fourth wall works, it works astonishingly well. The risk, of course, is sacrificing the universality of the game. A player who had an answer not in the game’s database would not have received a response that seemed so directly targeted at him. I also became acutely aware of the presence of the game’s writers and translators, communicating with them instead of the character they’d tried to create.
Game developers have multiple channels of communication available, and not every idea expressed by a game needs to happen in a cutscene. More subtle environmental cues can reinforce the ideas that are coming across through the “main” channel, or simply reinforce the notion of communication with the game’s developers.
In Half-Life 2, the player frequently encounters an area with an environmental obstacle instead of a group of enemies to fight. Freeman has to build a ramp to get his speedboat out of a reservoir, or manipulate an elevator to reach a higher level. These have the potential of breaking the player out of the storytelling and putting him back into the mindset of playing a video game. He’s no longer a physicist fighting off an alien occupation; he’s a guy solving video game puzzles.
But almost all of these areas have a subtle environmental element in the form of a lambda symbol painted somewhere nearby. These bring the fiction back into play — this isn’t simply a puzzle left by the game developers for the player; they’re tools left by the resistance to help Freeman past an obstacle.
They also serve as a subtle reminder that a type of communication is taking place between the developer and the player. They remind the player that there is an ideal solution to this obstacle; he hasn’t been simply dumped into a completely open game world and left to his own devices. It’s not an open-ended simulation, but a carefully constructed experience.
Closing the Loop
This is obviously not an exhaustive list. The intention isn’t to define a set of all the possible methods game developers can use to communicate with players, but to encourage a subtle shift in philosophy.
When we think about story-driven games, either making them or playing them, we continue to think of them as combinations of two distinct things: the storytelling techniques of traditional media and the more rigorous, systematic mechanics of game studies. We have the potential for deeper stories and more complex storytelling if we instead look at the story and gameplay as two parts of the same dialogue.
All of us have our favorite moments in video games, the moments when we’ve experienced something that no other medium can replicate. We all know what games are capable of, even if we can’t quite articulate it. It’s likely that those moments weren’t just the result of an effective cinematic, or thoughtful level design, or a rigorously balanced core game mechanic, but were the result of a feeling of genuine connection between ourselves and the people who created the world for us to play in.