Do you know this guy?
I sure do! I've seen this guy in more playtests than I can count.
And if I'm being honest, I've BEEN this guy. Maybe you have, too. Maybe we all have.
Let's face it, when people play games, they don't always do what we want them to do. They don't always stay in character, they don't always play along.
Usually, players just do what they want to do.
And that can be a problem when you're trying to tell a story.
Chad, you're the Chosen One. Can't you just - be cool?
Let's take a closer look at this problem, and figure out what is going on.
Where is this problem coming from?
As players, we want a starring role. We're driving the action, after all. We don't want to be bystanders; we want to matter.
This makes total sense. So devs give the player a starring role in the story.
But here's the thing: we don't get into character when they sit down to play a game. We don't stand in front of a mirror and psych ourselves into believing we're Master Chief or Joel or Kratos.
That would be weird.
Instead, we play as ourselves. The game lets us feel what it's like to have the ABILITIES of a space marine or Spartan warrior...but really, it's just us, plus superpowers.
Why do we play this way?
We play as ourselves because, when we play games, we never STOP being ourselves. We can't be passive when we play a game. We can't just let the story wash over us, like we do when we watch a movie or read a book. We're driving the action. In games, the story doesn't move until we do.
So we're always thinking, strategizing, exploring, experimenting....our brains are lit up. We are WORKING.
And if you add in other real-life people, well, forget it. We are DEFINITELY aware of ourselves if we're talking to friends while we're playing.
Against all those distractions, it's just too much to ask us to stop being ourselves and become somebody else.
So why haven't game narratives changed?
Game developers are ACUTELY aware of this problem. We cringe at every playtest when we see this problem come up. We are forever trying to figure out How Do We Get The Player To Play Along.
If every player is unique, and every player plays as themselves, then how can we build a story around them?
Some games solve this problem by creating a sock-puppet avatar...a character with no voice, no personality, and sometimes no face - just a hand. It's easy to project yourself into an empty vessel! The problem there, of course, is that it's hard to create a story about Nobody. It can be done, but it ain't easy.
Other games solve this problem by creating highly-customizable avatars, and branching dialog, and other ways for players to express their individuality. It works - up to a point. But the story is probably still going to be on rails, to some degree. In The Art of Game Design, Jesse Schell explains why:
"Imagine giving the player three narrative choices in the first sequence, three in the next, and so on. And let's say your story is ten choices deep. If each choice leads to a unique event and three new choices, you will need to write 88,573 different outcomes. And if ten choices sound kind of short, and you want to have twenty opportunities for three choices from the beginning to the end of the story, that means you'll need to write 5,230,176,601 outcomes."
And that is not going to happen.
So we create SOME kind of narrative guardrails - and SOME kind of character - and hope the player plays along.
It seems like a problem with no good solution. But there IS a way to increase the odds that your player will actually get into your character, even if they don't totally get IN character.
How to read the player's mind
It's tempting to think that every player is a snowflake, completely unique and unpredictable.
But the reality is, we have an awful lot in common with each other.
Especially when you get into the realm of the three Fs: fight, flight, and the feels.
Our lizard brain - our fight-or-flight response - is the oldest and most powerful part of our brain. It's been evolving over millions of years, and it's optimized like the greatest computer out there. It can kick in at the blink of an eye, and take over our minds. It gives us that surge of adrenaline we need to outrun an attacker, or lift a car off a child. This lizard brain is a problem for a lot of people when they get on a plane. Their logical brains completely understand physics, the idea of lift, and so on...but as soon as the plane hits heavy turbulence, that logic brain goes Offline and the lizard brain takes over and they start to panic.
Lizard brain: it's a force to be reckoned with. Submit to your overlord.
And our limbic brain - where our emotions live - is right behind the lizard brains, in terms of evolution. It's been around nearly as long, and it's nearly as powerful. Our feelings drive our behavior. And feelings can be triggered by design. Think of hugely-popular stories - stories that millions of people have loved. How could MILLIONS of unique snowflakes love the same story? Maybe because it made them feel a certain way.
So if we all share the same brain anatomy, maybe we can use that fact to our advantage.
Maybe the way to design a story that syncs with the player's mind is to start, not with character or premise or plot, but with feelings - specifically, with the way the GAMEPLAY makes the player feel.
Once we have figured out what players are REALLY feeling when they play the game, we can design characters that can feel the same way.
If nothing is grabbing Chad emotionally, change the scene or change the character. Does Chad even WANT to be the Chosen One? Not really! Why not create a character that just wants to act the fool, instead?
Once the player and the avatar are aligned, then suddenly the player DOES feel like he's in the game, driving the action. Because, in a way, he is.
Hope this was helpful. See you next week.
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Susan’s first job as a game writer was for “a slumber party game - for girls!” She’s gone on to work on over 25 projects, including award-winning titles in the BioShock, Far Cry and Tomb Raider franchises. Titles in her portfolio have sold over 30 million copies and generated over $500 million in sales. She is an adjunct professor at UT Austin, where she teaches a course on writing for games. A long time ago, she founded the Game Narrative Summit at GDC. Now, she partners with studios, publishers, and writers to help teams ship great games with great stories. She is dedicated to supporting creatives in the games industry so that they can do their best work.