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June 4, 2008

I Wanna Hold Your Hand

I Wanna Hold Your Hand: This month’s Blogs of the Round Table invites you to explore a relationship within a game that you found compelling or memorable.

As Corvus has admirably asserted numerous times, "it’s not the characters themselves that make for compelling stories, but character relationships." I still contend that compelling stories owe at least part of their success to interesting and deep characters themselves, although admittedly I lack the skills to make a coherent argument to this effect. Nevertheless, I do agree that character relationships are the core of any good story, and it's a great topic to focus on for the Round Table since so few games have really embraced this concept.

Relationships certainly do exist in games, but they exist in much the same way that characters themselves typically exist in games: as relatively thin implementations that lack any significant depth or complexity. Part of that, I suspect, is because relationships between players and NPCs are very difficult to craft, for a couple of reasons: first, relationships that involve the player have to take into account the fact that the character is really a hybrid of the protagonist in the story and the player himself, which presents all kinds of difficulties in establishing a particular persona while simultaneously allowing the player's own feelings and decisions to be expressed; and second, creating and implementing meaningful relationships that have real impact on the story and the player requires considerable skill, effort, and time, which often doesn't rank up there on the developer's priority list alongside slick graphics and sound effects. Relationships that go beyond a bit of backstory and a few multiple-choice dialog screens is tough work.

Not to sound like a broken record, but I think the game genre that has one up on the others in this area is interactive fiction. In fact, I think what I said for the last Round Table similarly applies: "Perhaps it is the nature of the medium, perhaps it is a consequence of these games being created largely by writers rather than teams of programmers, designers, and artists. I'm not sure, but I know I have yet to play a graphical game that deals with the nuance of character relationships the same way that some IF games have so far been able to." The italics, of course, added now for relevance.

I recall once again some of the best known recent works of IF, pieces like Galatea, The Baron, and Anchorhead, which just serves to reinforce the fact that these games are so well known and worked so well largely because of the attention the authors paid to crafting the characters and their relationships.

Galatea is essentially a piece about relationships: the player's relationship with Galatea, and her relationship with her creator. It's a good example of a relationship that is expressed through gameplay, as the course of the game is really an exploration of the relationship between player and NPC through conversation. That's essentially one of the real challenges of playing Galatea; trying to establish a particular relationship with the NPC, so that you can learn more about her and her relationship with her creator. It's a clever piece that I would say is one of the strongest examples of a game that puts relationships at the center of its design, and provides a multitude of channels through which you can explore them.

The Baron and Anchorhead are two IF games that use particular relationships between the player character and NPCs as the basis for exceptional, well-crafted stories -- the rescue of a kidnapped daughter in The Baron, and the saving of one's husband from a bizarre family "tradition" in Anchorhead. In both cases, the relationship itself is not explored to considerable depth through interaction, but the game itself serves as a mechanism through which one gains an appreciation of the relationship with the family member. In fact, one might argue -- particularly in Anchorhead -- that the sparse interaction with the protagonist's husband is actually an effective means of providing engagement with that relationship, and serves to create tension during gameplay.

There are also a number of IF games that use the exploration of the relationship between the player and the player character as a central focus of gameplay. Three pieces that come to mind are Emily Short's Glass, Adam Cadre's 9:05, and one of Jason Devlin's "other" games, Legion. In these games, it is not clear at the start of the game who (or what) the protagonist in the game is, and a clear focus of gameplay is to figure that out. It is the kind of relationship that I think could only really be effective in a text environment, and these and other games of this kind make for a fun and different kind of experience.

There are many other works of IF that explore relationships in these ways, which is one of the reasons I find the genre so fascinating and fun. Most of the games mentioned, by the way, can be played online -- I suggest trying a new web-based IF platform called "Parchment", and clicking on the game you want from the list.

But -- as I'm sure you're waiting breathlessly for -- what about Vespers?

Vespers does include relationships as a central focus of the game: the protagonist's (the Abbot's) relationship with each of the remaining brothers is key to the game and the story, and it is the exploration of these relationships through interaction that provides much of the gameplay experience. Just before the start of the game, the Abbot chooses to close the monastery to the local villagers in order to try and keep the Plague away, a decision that was not supported by many of the brothers. When it becomes evident that the decision is a poor one, it puts a strain on the Abbot's relationships with some of the brothers, and this provides some of the tension in the game. There is also the relationship between Matteo and Lucca, which provides a great deal of background for the story, and the player's relationship with the young girl who appears at the monastery is, certainly, the central focus of the game. But you'll have to see that for yourself.

This post is a response to the June ‘08 topic from Blogs of the Round Table. You can see other entries on this subject in the drop down box below, which will update automatically with each new post.

6 comments:

Corvus said...

Parment is awesome, thanks for the link! I'll be sure to check out some of the titles you referenced.

I've done a little playing with Inform 7, with an eye toward expressing relationships between the character and the environment in a new way. If I had more time, I'd like to commit to pursuing a releasable IF project. Probably going to continue my idle poking between other projects, though.

Rubes said...

I've also started playing a bit with Inform 7, as I have an interest in exploring character development and conversations. It's tough, though -- even though it's a language based on natural expressions, it's still a bit difficult to get used to when you're more comfortable with other programming languages.

I wish I had more time to play around with it. If you have the chance, you might also look into IntroComp 2008, an IF competition where you submit only the beginning of a new, never before seen work of IF. It can be as short or as long as you like, so long as it is playable. Cash prizes, too. Deadline is August 1st.

Aaron A. Reed said...

I'm glad to know you're still working on Vespers. Weren't we going to have a race at some point to see who would be done with his massive project first? Like, two years ago? ;)

Blue Lacuna is entirely about relationships with other characters. The relationship with the main character, who can develop into any number of archetypes (enemy, love interest, father, friend) occupies about 160,000 words of prose and Inform 7 code.

(Of course, only a small part of this was evident in the Spring Thing preview release, which nobody played anyway. But the final version will, I hope, set a new bar for NPCs in interactive stories.)

Rubes said...

Hehe...yeah, I remember that. In fact, I don't know if I'm any farther along than I was back when we said that.

I remember mentioning here about Blue Lacuna, and I was really looking forward to trying it. Never did get to it, as I'm sure you know. I definitely need to check it out now, though...

WorldMaker said...

I also played around with Inform 7, but mostly as with my hobby linguist hat because the NLP-like DSL is quite fascinating. I'm not sure that I would enjoy actually writing a game with it.

Rubes said...

I agree, it's a fascinating language, but I would probably prefer to use a more traditional language for creating a game. That said, I think the Inform 7 development environment is a real work of art, and has an incredible number of built-in features and tools to make game development easier.

What I would love to see is a development environment with features like Inform 7 but which allows straight coding in, say, Inform 6.