Design 101: Emotional Alignment
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Welcome back to Design 101. Last time we talked about how the same simple Event Structure supports thousands of great games. If you missed out any of the previous articles, you’ll be able to find the archives at the bottom of this piece.
Today we’re going to be talking about Emotional Alignment. This concept is the cornerstone of keeping players engaged in your game. There’s a lot to get into, so let’s get started.
A playtester is wandering along one of your game’s dirt roads through the countryside. Seeing a forest in the distance she decides to walk towards it, only to run smack into an invisible wall at the road’s edge.
“Seriously?” she says, “An invisible wall next to the edge of the road? Thanks for reminding me I’m in a videogame.” This makes you sigh. It’s well known that players hate invisible walls. Maybe now that level designer will listen to your objections.
An hour later the playtester is walking along a narrow bridge over a lake of boiling lava. A stalactite crashes down from the ceiling and she dodge-rolls away. The roll should have sent her tumbling off the bridge, but instead an invisible wall catches her at the bridge’s edge.
This time the player says nothing.
What’s going on? Why is an invisible wall so frustrating in one circumstance and fine in another?
The two scenarios seem similar on the surface. Neither scenario makes sense to have an invisible forcefield blocking player movement, so both should break immersion. As is common in many playtest reports, the player has misdiagnosed the real reason for her frustration.
So why is the lava bridge’s invisible wall so much less bothersome than the one at the side of the country road?
It’s because most players don’t want to plunge into lava.
The country road’s invisible wall does mess with immersion, but that’s a red herring. Its real crime is arbitrarily preventing the player from doing something she wants to do. She saw a forest and wanted to go explore it. The game has thrown up an arbitrary barrier to her desire. This creates a negative player reaction.
In the lava bridge scenario, players want to stay out of the lava. When an invisible wall catches their fall, they don’t have the same negative reaction.
We call this experience Emotional Alignment. When the game is fulfilling a player’s desires, everything is nicely aligned; the player wants to do what the game is providing. When the game won’t let the player pursue something she wants, or the player just doesn’t care about conquering the game’s challenges, something has gone terribly wrong.
To writers this probably sounds rather familiar.
The Player Protagonist
One of the first principles new writers learn is the importance of the protagonist’s desire. If the protagonist doesn’t desire something, then the character has no impulse to move the story forward. The character just gets limply dragged along and the audience’s eyes glaze over. If the protagonist doesn’t care, why should we?
Good stories feature protagonists with a strong desire to achieve their goals. They need this desire to push through all the adversity that a good Event Structure is going to throw at them. Frodo wants to end the one ring's curse enough to march into Mt. Doom. If he didn't the story would end rather quickly.
This is even more important in games. I’ve mentioned in previous articles that if movies, books and plays are forms of storytelling, then games are story living. The player doesn’t live vicariously through a Luke Skywalker on the screen, the player is the protagonist in her own story. If your players aren’t in Emotional Alignment with your game, they might stop playing entirely. At best they’ll be bored or frustrated.
Unfortunately video games have long hammered players into grudging submission. Video games have the luxury of forcing their players onto the only paths the programmers prepared. The players can grumble, but they have to accept it or quit. Consequently, many designers have spent hours on end trying to figure out why their players just aren’t “getting into the game”. In reality, it’s the game that’s pushing them away.
If you want to master Emotional Alignment, video games aren’t the place to look. For the real acid test, we turn to Dungeons and Dragons.
In Tabletop RPGs there are no invisible walls and no conversation wheel with three-to-five planned-out options. If a player wants to punch the king in the middle of a grand speech, he can do it. That could throw off the whole Dungeon Master’s plan for the evening, which is called “derailing” the adventure.
Imagine a scenario where the adventure designer wants to introduce a new villain. The designer has the villain walk into the players’ tavern and announce that he’s kidnapped someone from each of their families. He has a job he wants done, and if they do it he’ll let the captives go. Otherwise, they’ll be murdered.
This would make a compelling start to a movie. It makes a terrible start to a roleplaying game.
In a movie, we can easily understand why the heroes might keep each other from attacking the villain. There are sound and logical reasons to play along with his threat for the moment and hop on the story’s rails.
In a game however, players are going to want to attack this guy. Some might decide not to, but others are going to act on their furious impulses. If you drop this scenario into an RPG session, you better believe a huge portion of players are going to leap into combat. For those groups, the adventure is going to get derailed.
We can imagine how a video game might handle this moment. One common choice is to make the villain mysteriously immune to damage at this point, though you’ll suddenly be able to kill him in a boss fight later down the line. This is the kind of reality-break that is as unrealistic and silly as an invisible wall. I still remember emptying endless rockets into Gunther in Deus Ex, only to watch him shrug it off. Maybe he wasn’t so outdated after all.
Another common choice is to hide the villain in the safety of a cutscene. You’ll suddenly be jerked out of control of your character, the camera angle will often change, and you’ll watch yourself having a conversation with the villain. You might want to attack the villain here, but you’re suddenly not in control anymore. This is as quietly unsettling as an out-of-body experience. While it can be done well, your Emotional Alignment will get undermined if the character starts acting in a way you disagree with.
A great example of this can be found in The Blackwell Legacy, the first installment in the Blackwell adventure game series. This is what creator Dave Gilbert had to say:
“There was a key moment in the first Blackwell game where Rosa needs to speak to a woman named Nishanthi. Nishanthi is in the park, playing her flute in front of a crowd of onlookers. A normal person would just walk up to her and say 'Excuse me' but Rosa is too shy to approach her in front of a crowd. Instead, you have to solve a puzzle in order to draw Nishanthi away from the crowd so Rosa is comfortable enough to talk to her.
As a character study, it worked. It's a natural thing for Rosa to do, and it really hammered home her sense of isolation and cemented her as a social misfit. But for a player involved in an interactive experience? It was frustrating.”
The Blackwell Legacy demonstrates why good video game writing is different from good screenwriting. While Rosa is a well written protagonist for a novel, she suffers in an interactive medium. So what are some good examples of game protagonists?
The Sacred Mary
Bioware has built its reputation on powerful narratives. What are their player protagonists like? Usually they’re idealized characters with rather little depth and no true flaws. Pretty much every good character can end up liking them, falling for them or at the very least treating them as the next coming of St. Awesome. Heck, you’re literally named as the herald of the world’s Christ figure in Dragon Age 3.
Bioware protagonists are close to perfect examples of what the internet likes to call Mary Sues. To quote Wikipedia, “A Mary Sue or, in case of a male character, Gary Stu or Marty Stu is an idealized character, often but not necessarily an author insert and/or wish-fulfillment.“
In non-interactive mediums, a Mary Sue is almost always a hallmark of terrible writing. For video games, at least one company has made it the foundation of their franchises. While the companion characters are often deep, fascinating and flawed, Commander Shepard and the Warden are idealized blank slates that act on our behalf. They just happen to have considerably better zingers.
This isn’t a universal approach to good writing in games but it definitely works. It also does a good job of highlighting the core differences between games and other mediums. You can certainly create deep and flawed protagonists for your games, but you still have to find a way to ensure that the player is firmly locked in Emotional Alignment.
How do you ensure this?
Making it Happen - Motive and Opportunity
For several years I ran D&D camps for kids ages 10-15 at Guardian Games. With ten hyperactive kids around the table, my scenarios had to be impervious to derailing. As I now often say to struggling DMs, derailing a game is like any other crime; you need motive and opportunity.
Let’s return to that scenario with the villain walking into the players’ tavern and boasting about kidnapping their nearest and dearest. The problem here is that players have both a motive and an opportunity to take an action that will derail the game. They want to attack the villain (motive) and he’s right in front of them (opportunity).
It’s very easy to fix this problem. You could have the villain telecommute, able to converse with the players but mockingly out of reach. This is what Valve did for Portal, with GLaDOS kept out of reach until the final confrontation. You could also have the villain send the demand via unimportant henchman, someone that the players can attack without disrupting the villain’s plans. You could also have the message sent via a bleeding side-character the players like, someone the villain tortured and sent limping in to deliver the message.
Each of these scenarios neatly eliminates the opportunity to derail the game through non-arbitrary means. The villain isn’t magically immune to damage or protected through cut scenes, it doesn’t feel fake or forced. The players maintain Emotional Alignment and the game progresses as intended.
This is where we can see our invisible walls went wrong. In our country road example, the wall isn’t what’s really to blame. The true culprit is the forest. The forest created curiosity in the player, motivating her to explore it. When the game denied her motivation arbitrarily, she was knocked out of Emotional Alignment.
The critically acclaimed title Journey has an almost identical limitation right at the beginning of the game. Let’s see how it was handled.
Laying the Bait
In Journey, you start in the empty desert, surrounded by sand dunes. Despite this open setting, the game is entirely linear. If you attempt to go away from its chosen path, a powerful wind will blow you back.
But why would you? The only features in the desert are in the one direction the game wants you to go. The game could easily have featured a glorious skybox with wonders in all directions, but doing so would only motivate the player to explore places the game wasn’t going to allow them to go. Journey places the only objects of interest directly on its intended path.
Journey could have easily gone to the other extreme, starting with the player being surrounded by featureless sand dunes. In that case the player would likely have wandered around aimlessly for a while and been blown back by the winds until they finally stumbled onto the correct direction.
Journey controls the player’s motivation simply and flawlessly. The game’s opening uses curiosity to bait the intended path. The player and the game are in alignment, with the player motivated to take the actions the game wants them to take. She doesn’t care that she can’t explore the rest of the desert because she doesn’t want to.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with railroads. After all, people hop on rails willingly all the time in real life. That’s because trains take people places they want to go. Why should I jump off the train halfway through, or send it careening into a ditch? I want to get to California for my vacation.
When you’re designing your game, always make sure your players are in Emotional Alignment. This isn’t just important for narrative games. Magic the Gathering’s infamous Odyssey Block expansions were a product of the designers trying to make it the right move for players to discard their cards instead of playing them. This ran directly counter to what the players wanted to do. Most players naturally wanted to play their cards, and the expansion suffered with the majority of its audience as a result.
To keep your players in Emotional Alignment, make sure you focus on the following:
Figure out your players’ pre-existing motivations. Something caused your players to buy your game, and that’s a motivation. Players also happen to be human, and humans have a deep well of understood natural motivations. We’re naturally curious, we enjoy progression and we like clicking on shiny objects. Harnessing pre-existing motivations is a powerful tool, one I made extensive use of in Beyond the Veil.
Create new motivations in the player as needed to lure them down your game’s predetermined paths. You can use curiosity as Journey did, or something more overt like creating a detestable antagonist the player will want to destroy as with Darth Malak in KOTOR. You can also bribe the player with a powerful item or experience points, as many MMOs have done. Mark of the Ninja even makes players obsess over perfect stealth play with it's bonus for never setting off an alarm. You can find many powerful tools for successfully motivating your players in Daniel H. Pink’s: Drive.
Make sure the player never has both motive and opportunity to derail the game. Don’t settle for arbitrary barriers like making enemies invulnerable or putting up invisible walls. Craft scenarios that naturally prevent the player from taking action. You’ll note that in Mass Effect 1, Bioware has its villain telecommute to the council meeting where you accuse him of murder. If he was there in person, players would have been tempted to attack him despite how clearly that would have derailed the plot.
When your players are in Emotional Alignment with your game, everything feels right. They have a protagonist’s drive to pursue your game’s goals and will strive to overcome your obstacles. They don’t mind that their options are limited by the game’s code, because they have no desire to wander into Journey’s empty desert and no expectation of being able to throttle Saren through his hologram.
You don’t have to settle for groaning players. With careful design, they’ll leap onto your rails and enjoy the ride.
See you next time.
Design 101: Archives
Design 101: Archives
1 - Design Goals
6 - Balancing Games
7 - Playtesting