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Directed Project 2020 – Entry #5

‘I should have never told you that.’

Imagine a game where A says something like this to B. You may make various assumptions here:

  • Most likely A is not the playable character unless it’s a cutscene. It’s not something that will be a consequence of the player’s conscious choice. (I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game where you can consciously choose to say something then consciously choose to have remorse for it. Unless maybe you replay a game and make that call, knowing all the consequences beforehand.)
  • If A is a non-playable character, then oftentimes it means that the player has ‘unlocked’ some critical information (which is deemed as ‘positive’). They forced a character to reveal information about something.

But if I’m transposing this in a different context, when I’m talking to a friend and they end up saying that to me, I’ll most likely not feel like I ‘unlocked some information that could be useful to progress in my life’. I’ll just feel bad because I somehow forced them to do something they didn’t want to do for various reasons. I will most likely try to know what these reasons are. Same goes if I end up saying that to someone.

Which brings me to something that’s been bothering me – and the more I read about The Last of Us II or other games like GTA V for example… The kind of games that uses violence to supposedly bring depth to its storyline. The graphical violence, while disturbing, is not what’s bugging me. It’s more how non-playable characters are used as tools to make the player feel something.

And this is something I’ve felt a lot in real life with… privileged people (for a lack of a better term, I don’t like the word ‘privilege’). How some of them are using others as ‘springboards’ to feel something (anything, really). They believe it’s empathy, but in fact it’s always about them. They only see what they need to see in someone to feel something about themselves. They are not trying to empathize with the person who’s in front of them. The closest comparison I can make is… They act like vampires, sucking someone’s emotions to make them their own. Maybe we can call it emotional appropriation.

I don’t say I’ve never done the same in my life, on the contrary. ‘Projection’ is a first step toward empathy. But if you stop there, it will become toxic. Because when you’re projecting so much of yourself on someone, you are forced to silence all the other aspects that do not fit your needs.

I can name many movies and books which are at least trying to challenge these power dynamics, but I’m not sure I know any game doing it? Maybe because game design is so player-centric that you have no choice but to treat non-playable characters as tools. Not saying that making clear cuts between ‘protagonists and supporting characters’ (that kind of hierarchy) doesn’t bring the same thing in other narrative media. But at least you can see characters being remorseful in many stories. Somehow in games any sense of remorse often feels ‘fake’ unless there’s death involved…

In the case of my game, there’s no way any trust can emerge from such power dynamics. My real struggle is that most of the tools we’re used to use in games are numbers – quantifying things with ‘thresholds’ to be met or not. We can mitigate this by being overly sophisticated with the types of data we’re tracking and the combinations we can make, but somehow it feels… like trying to draw a circle with squares. I do see how Ink (narrative scripting language developed by Inkle) has a lot of potential because it really emphasizes the combinatory aspect of writing (the language makes it really easy to nest a text into a text and alter it to a point when you can ‘customize’ a lot what the player will read depending on their actions). But is it really enough?

Time to play with Ink/Inky a bit more!

Published in Narrative Design