In response to the piece I wrote about Tomb Raider, many commenters on Gamasutra responded that they have experienced emotional connection to their avatar in a game. My post was perhaps overly blunt when I said:
The issue is simply this: the emotional connection between player and character that many game makers believe exists does not. There is no such thing as a player character.
Perhaps how it should have been phrased was:
The issue is simply this: the emotional connection between player and character that many game makers believe exists does not. It is different. There is no such thing as a player character, but rather the player maker.
In childhood, most of us own dolls and we invest a great deal of time in them. Even as we grow up, we often hold onto one or two teddy bears or favored G.I. Joes, and for adults there is a considerable industry in action figures and figurines.
In fact, we develop emotional connections with objects all the time. It's normal, even healthy, to do so. We connect with cars, computer brands, favored cups for coffee, buildings, clothes, and so on. We name things, sometimes even talk to them (remember Wilson from Cast Away?) Sometimes we identify with special items for social reasons, such as treasuring a pair of Manolo Blahniks. Other times it's because of personal significance, like your dead grandfather's pocket watch. Perhaps it is because the object represents an investment of creativity, time or identity.
Taken in combination with projection and expression, object connection is (I believe) the correct way to understand what "player characters" really are. It's also why I call them dolls -- meaning a treasured possession.
The emotional connection to a Shepard or a Link comes from the way that they become us, we manipulate them, we dress them, and grow them, and we invest identity in them. We customize them, make them our own, and interface with a whole world through them. And we grow fond of them. Yet we are always aware they are not actually alive, and we are not them. We are their makers; their parents, in a sense.
Emotional connection becomes even more complicated when story is involved.
There are two Niko Bellics. There is the Niko of the cutscene, the war-weary criminal who feels that he must obtain revenge for a past wrong, help his cousin Roman and get involved in the happenings of Liberty City. This Niko is taciturn, wise beyond his years, and wry about the world around him.
The other Niko is the little psychopath doll that I control, the one I described above. The one who is my conduit to Liberty City and whom I attire as I choose. There are also two Laras, two Marios, two Shepards, two Drakes, and two Clouds.
There are times when they are characters and others when they are dolls, and the disconnect between the two can be quite odd. When a game reveals that the character version of my doll is not who I thought he was, for example, that can either be very clever or totally inappropriate.
When the game over-characterizes my doll (perhaps with ambient audio) to make him or her unlikable, or unlike the self-expression that I project into it, then that can feel strange. Sometimes in a good way, but often not. (Which is where my post on Tomb Raider came from.)
The duality of character and doll is perhaps most starkly illustrated by Heavy Rain. There are two Ethans. Character-Ethan is the grieving father having already lost one son, now tasked to find the other. His marriage is broken down, his life is a mess, everything he says or does is affected by a deep and painful sadness.
Doll-Ethan, on the other hand, is an android. He (you) wanders around his own house opening drawers to find out what's in them and talking to people (such as his wife) to find out who they are. He plays swings with his children, but it's a dislocated experience because he has no idea of his relationship to them. He talks to his remaining son in a playground like a machine, polling him with questions for answers. He even walks like an android, perfectly straight and turning clockwise or counter-clockwise on a dime.
Game makers like David Cage believe that the interplay between dramatic scenes and control strengthens the connection, in a kind of movies-plus-doing model, but my contention is that this is not so. Though lavish, Heavy Rain is modally no different to Jet Set Willy, and the same creative constant of self applies. Interposing duality mostly weakens the parental connection with the self-expressed doll and relegates it to play-time/story-time. "It's okay," says the game. "You just press buttons when you're told. I'll handle the emotional part."
And so you get interminable cut scenes which just don't seem to matter to the literal game. That's why (no matter how well written) a cinematic-story led approach to games always feels oddly cold. It's also why storysense works.
The storysense way
"Storysense" is an approach to narrative which relies on the creation of an interesting world, a discoverable set of threads and bits of story, a minimalist approach to goal direction, but dispenses with dramatic plot and character development. It treats story as a backing track to the play of the game, and so the player can participate or not as he likes. There is no time given over to extrinsically rewarding the player for being in-character, and the only rewards are literal -- just as the game is. There is no elaborate characterization, no attempt to insert unnecessary meaning, and no emoting at the player to try and make him or her feel.
Storysense is at the heart of successful pen and paper roleplaying games, where a good game master understands how to change up if the game is getting boring. Storysense is at the heart of virtual promenades like Dear Esther, where the relatively simple addition of a disconnected monologue elevates the experience of wandering around a desolate island without needing to pay exact attention to its sequence. The objective of storysense is to enhance the sensation of a world in motion. All expression and judgement is left to the player.
So there is only one Gordon Freeman, only one Executor from StarCraft, and only one "you" in Journey (although there are cutscenes, your nameless adventurer simply watches them). They are all just you.
In Half-Life you can lark about while conversations go on around you, or you can pay attention. It's up to you. In StarCraft you can get with the spirit of the mission briefings and elements in the world like the alongside dialogue of the units, or just play it as a sport. Again, it's up to you. In Journey you can participate with a fellow traveller generously, run through the game by yourself, or go about collecting every little power-up you can find. It's your business. In Deus Ex, you can stop and read every book or email and listen to every conversation -- or be an oblivious psychopath. It's your call.
The mistake is to then try and turn that into a movie. Half-Life 2, for example, traps the player in rooms with over-long conversations with key characters that go past the point of dull. StarCraft II employs many meant-to-be-stirring cutscenes and dialogue sections in between missions which add little to the experience other than time. Red Dead Redemption is plenty of fun, but then there are some scenes where it's all about characters reflecting on the hard life of the Old West, and they're all a bit random, really.
Though cutscenes can be informative or visually arresting when used well, using them for character drama is almost never interesting for very long, regardless of the quality of writing (The one significant exception to this is if the scenes are hilarious). Again, it's because of the modality of playing games. That's tough to hear for designers who want games to be like movies, but it's just the reality: create a big saga game with lots of emoting and storytelling, and most players will not bother to finish it.
Here's another tagline that annoys some people, but is true:
In 40 years of making games, there has never been a good "told" story, but thousands of great "sensed" stories.
I believe that the evidence shows that there will never be a great told story in games, because they modally do not work. Ultimately, they are paradoxical. They only ever produce the need to either tolerate the game because you like the story, or vice versa. Either way we will always see actual storytelling arts like books or films streak very far ahead of games because telling stories is what they are all about, modally speaking. No amount of production budget or technology is ever Ever, EVER, EVER going to change that.
Rather than being dramatic, games demand to be something else: thaumatic. Storysense works because it treats your doll as a doll, as an interface or conduit into the world. It works because it allows the players to fully self-express. It works because it keeps the goals literal. Accepting that involves a big sacrifice: It means giving up on formal storytelling, and reducing it to the role of setting objectives.
The short cutscene that says "go here, do this" and nothing more is one example. The quest which is one line on a message board that you accept is another. The inherent goal that arises from the pressures of the game, such as a boss moment. The urge to run away from a scary noise down a dark corridor. The experience of playing a small GBA soccer game and going into that world to feel success. From the smallest to the largest games, this is the approach that works because it is game-native.
Great storysense requires a great doll and a great world, great opportunities for self-expression, and clear literal tasks. Then the game can earn legitimacy to create poignant moments. The moment in Journey when you are walking up the side of the bleak snowy mountain is one example: It's a journey you have made with your robed doll; you see it slowing down and the shrinking of its ribbon. You see the ice, foresee the end, and that thaumatic feeling grows: You are there. You feel cold. It is perhaps the end.
How much worse would it have been if it had transitioned into cutscene mode and started talking at you?