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It’s always fun when a bunch of disparate events, conversations (online and off), and random neuron firings coalesce around a particular topic. Of course, that process is always helped by guzzling a bunch of coffee then forcing yourself to sit still by strapping yourself into a plane for 6 hours. The only down side comes from where you decide to sit still, since now I’m recuperating from a nasty cold caught on said plane.

So, one topic of interest of late is emergent player character arcs…

Most games allow very little expression of the player character’s personality. Player-character being the opportune word here – the combination of the existing, predefined main character’s personality, as it is interpreted or acted upon by the player.

Meanwhile… A character goes through an arc if they’ve grown in some capacity, changed, or learned something due to the events that have taken place.

Thankfully, yet sadly (in that it took so long to get to this point), it has become more common for game characters to go through an arc as part of a game’s scripted storyline. Kratos, moreso in God of War 1 than God of War 2, is a good example – in the first game, he deals with how he killed his own family.

It is still somewhat rare for games to allow the player to express their own personality through actions in a game. Even more rare that these actions have some impact on the game itself (going from player expression to player agency). Games like Deus Ex or S.T.A.L.K.E.R. provide many options for a player to solve the problems in front of them but these options are difficult to describe as expressing “personality” (unless being sneaky and blowing the shit out of things really are personality classes… INTP and ESFJ, maybe?).

Rarer still are games that explore the interaction between the player and the role they have taken on. This is partly due to two forms of long standing industry bullshit: one, the kowtowing to existing, scripted media that completely define the extents of a character’s personality, and two, the completely reactionary response – that game characters should be blanks to increase player immersion, by allowing them to completely imprint their own personalities on the character. The only thing I can think of that is more crappily over-simplified is the U.S. political party system, but I digress.

Mass Effect explores player character arcs in a few interesting ways. At the beginning of the game, you choose two backstory elements (from two groups of three – your background: Colonist, Earthborn, or Spacer, and your psychological profile: Ruthless, Sole Survivor, or War Hero). There are specific missions for some of the types, but character dialog (both your options and what NPCs say to you) is affected by all. As a Sole Survivor, I came across one more survivor of the same attack, who was killing the scientists who had let the soldiers die to study the thresher (sand) maws (worms). Dealing with him and the scientists brought a new perspective on my character’s past.

By adding a layer of hidden information between player dialog choices and actual dialog & action, Mass Effect also reinforces an element of role playing that can lead to such arcs. Often it has no consequences, but occasionally there are very large ones. A friend of mine and I had drastically different playthroughs because of how we dealt with this scene. We’re not entirely sure of the exact differences, but by picking more aggressive conversation options (spoiler alert), the situation escalates until a party member kills Wrex without warning. Since Mass Effect allows a fair amount of non-linearity, in his game Wrex died fairly early, whereas he accompanied me through most of my game and I got to learn more about his character and his race.

However the exploration Bioware does into the player-character is still limited – with accordance to their style, it’s very choose-your-own-adventure-y, having clearly defined branch points. So how would you create a player character arc, where the player, in the role of this character, learns something from the events they experience, which emerges from a more complex set of ongoing interactions?

Let’s look at the very simplest system (hardly complex, but it’s a start). Bioshock presents the player with one choice, over and over again. There’s a few variants of how the player can navigate that space – they can always save the little sisters, they can always kill them, they can start killing them and then save them, they can start saving them and then kill them, or they can switch back and forth between both throughout the whole game.

Bioshock only gives the player consequences for their choice if they go the first two routes (all or nothing). The second two paths represent character arcs (killing the little sisters and then coming to the determination that that are redeemable, as you should be for killing them, or saving them only to come to the conclusion that they are an unsaveable product of a corrupt society). This is the simplest possible set of choices one could present the player with, yet there are still possible player character arcs.

(The last path, of swapping back and forth is an interesting case – do you discourage it via story and presentation, via mechanics, or prevent it entirely? We want to encourage the player to tell their own story interwoven with the game’s story, but it’s our responsibility to help them tell a good story at the same time. Unless they are both motivated & skilled in doing so, you can’t safely assume they would.)

The Bioshock example is also an example of a pretty big character arc, which has to span the whole game. Smaller arcs, or smaller realizations, can be just as interesting to construct. In S.T.A.L.K.E.R. you often find bottles of vodka which increase your tolerance temporarily for radiation but naturally distort your vision and such (speaking of, a history of the simulated effects of alcohol in games would be an interesting thing to see).

My character turned to drink when faced with some of the unspeakable horrors of the world around him. What if this had other effects? Maybe you’re forced to pick up all the bottles of vodka you come across as a means of reinforcing your addiction. Maybe you take larger swigs as you continue to drink, or maybe you develop a tolerance for its effects.

Do people treat you differently if you’re drunk? If you increase your alcohol consumption as means of dealing with your problems, maybe some people won’t associate with you. Or other people will only associate with you if you’re a drunk. Maybe you kick the habit and stumble into a group of stalkers around a fire pit. They have something you need, but you have to sit and drink with them first, otherwise they won’t trust you. Do you risk a relapse?

Those are a bunch of random thoughts, the answers depend on what you want the arc to be – learning the evils of alcohol/addiction, or developing coping strategies for stressful situations? Or maybe something about social drinking leading to more serious alcoholism? Anything goes. 

The only way for us to really know the player has learned anything is if they’ve changed their actions. So you start with a continued action or set of actions by the player, and over time you can change either its direct effects, or the value of those effects by changing the context they can be used in. If their actions change to another set, you can measure progress in the arc and advance to the next set of direct effects or context changes, representing what they player has learned/should be learning. Direct effects don’t just have to be mechanical, they can relate to the story in terms of how characters interact with you, or even be purely presentation/visual in nature. Changing the context doesn’t change the what effects the actions have, but makes the exact same effects more or less useful by changing the situation.

My apologies for that last woefully abstract paragraph. I blame the DayQuil.

One of the problems with the larger arcs is that players want to see all the variants – they don’t feel ownership of those arcs. Lacking that feeling means the arc doesn’t provide any meaningful closure for them, so for that closure they look to all the endings as a whole – whether resorting to previous saves, viewing endings at a friend’s house, or YouTube. In order for larger arcs to be meaningful, you’d have to combat the player’s need for completion by giving them more satisfaction and a feeling of ownership over their own playthrough/arc(s).

Of course a feeling of ownership doesn’t simply equate to the complete freedom to do anything, anytime. If only it were that easy. 

Oh, and Happy New Year!

7 Responses to Emergent player character arcs

  • Nick says:

    Happy New Year :)

    When I started to play Mass Effect I was a bit taken aback by how much of a division there was between the combat portion of the game and the dialog portion. No doubt this is in part due to the fact that I never played KoToR or Jade Empire, but it became clear that while these two systems interacted, they were still two different systems. You could make a text adventure based on Mass Effect’s dialog system, and you could develop an action game based on its combat system (maybe not a great one, but it would still be possible).

    What you’re saying about S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (Jesus, these acronym titles are a pain!) also leads me to believe that these smaller sort of character traits could be worked into a game as a mechanic rather than as a more complex separate system, like you said.

    The reputation system in WoW is a very simple example — and still relies on a progress bar — but it shows that something of this nature is possible, where it is implemented as a mechanic but also has story ties.

    Mass Effect has its own sort of reputation meter, but the point of the WoW reputation system is that you can have multiple reputations that affect each other. If a game managed to construct a world where your actions constantly served to tip the balance in a conflict or how a faction thinks of you, even the most mundane of tasks could become interesting because of the characters you would impact and the long term ramifications of your actions. You need more ammo so you want to invade an enemy camp. You might get more ammo, but now the faction you invaded will be spreading rumours that you’re a thief and a bandit — but maybe that’s a good thing because you want to join a group of pirates who need to know you have what it takes to be one of them.

    As for multiple endings, I’m not sure it’s a huge problem, but it’s certainly a messy one that could be executed better. I mean, this also leads to players sort of gorking the system from the outset by only doing good things even if they don’t want to just to see the good ending, but I’m not sure it’s something players don’t enjoy exploring.

    By the way, although I have stopped playing it for now, I had a very good time with S.T.A.L.K.E.R. I didn’t really expect it to, but they did a lot of very neat stuff, and created a lot of microcosms with their quests. For instance I vividly remember the first assault you go on with the other Stalkers against the bandits. During the fight I had to execute a downed enemy (before one of his buddies blew my head off while I was standing in the open), but I actually felt a tinge of regret and paused to think about what I was about to do. I don’t think I’ve ever, ever done that before in a game. Perhaps a system that kept track of how you treated enemies and to what lengths you went to in order to save your allies would make all fights have that kind of effect. Or maybe it would just encourage stat grinding once it was measured, who knows.

  • Dustin says:

    Great insight as usual.

    Regarding the comment about needing to see all variants. I totally sympathize this. Maybe it’s just my personality, but I find that I need to know EVERYTHING that could have happened in a particular game. I get a sort of anxiety if I don’t get to find out what happened if, as JC Denton, I hadn’t shot the evil robotic Anna Navarre during the interrogation on the plane (one of my favourite moments in a game ever, by the way). I still never know, but when I detect I’ve made a serious plot-changing decision, I always wonder what the colour of the other hill is…

  • Borut says:

    Thanks Dustin. :)

    Yeah multiple endings just sort of exist in this catch-22 – Everybody always watches as many as they can, so most games don’t bother. Even the ones that do, tend to do it half-assed, because everybody’s gonna watch ’em all anyway.

    To really make a player satisfied for the one ending of multiple they’ve gotten is harder (or requires much different thinking), so it just isn’t done as well as it could be. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with just one ending, but certainly things you can only accomplish design-wise with multiples.

    Yeah, Nick, the many/multiple reputation system you describe is definitely a good way to go start introducing the change/agency required for an arc. Although, as you also point out, you don’t want it to turn into stat-grinding.

    I think the way to go about that is to try and make the changes that come as result less about incremental, numeric improvements, and more about changing concrete events in the world – maybe that’s just visually presented to the player for simplicity’s sake as a bar of some sort, but your actions drive specific consequences like factions not allowing you in, or they’ll go so far as to help you in combat, etc. The more specific and discrete the change is the less grindy it feels (ie now 5 guys from that faction will help me in combat, now 6, 7, etc.).

  • red fox says:

    I dont think people who working on big projects have time for experiment.Thats why projects like CoD4 ore Frontlines,The Agency remids many other games and they have another teams for dangerous FOCUS POCUS.Generating ideas in 24 month cycle,is painful.Dont spent 7 years to create original AI,just take somebody allready made and tested,add 20% of your creativity,and ship it.

  • Borut says:

    I’m not entirely sure what FOCUS POCUS is, but it’s entirely possible to innovate in whatever time you have allotted. It’s just hard. There’s a difference.