As promised, here is a summary of the notes I took at the GDC roundtable on emotion and characters.
Let me know if I missed anything (my laptop battery died toward the very end, and sometimes the conversation was flowing faster than I could type)...
Who was there:
Looked like ~30-40 people, and was a good range of types--writers, developers, artists, creative directors, researchers/academics, students, working on a wide range of game experiences from educational to arcade to AAA titles.
Some general points made about emotion and characters:
- Emotion can't just be a 'bullet point feature', to work well, it needs to be integrated into the core of game play and the overall experience.
- It doesn't necessarily take high realism (most agreed--some lively conversation here).
- It does take consistent and frequent emotional feedback to the player.
- Timing and use of space seem really important to creating emotion--you can see a drama between a circle and a triangle and if they move around in the right ways you'll feel tragedy or love or the like.
- A feeling of responsibilty and consequence seems key, and not often very present in many games.
- It's risky to try to develop new emotional experiences, but risk has benefits (e.g. Miyamoto's keynote). One idea was to design 20-hour games for more casual gamers; another is hoping to infuse arcade games with new emotional dynamics for players.
- Emotions can be very personal to players (e.g. some loved ICO, some found it an annoying and endless escort mission). Is there a way to design multiple experiences and allow players to modulate through play style? to uncover player emotional preferences in some graceful way early on to allow for different experiences?
- Most people's powerful emotional moments with characters revolved around dying. We discussed why that was (tied to consequence and responsibility) and that led to flushing out some examples that didn't fit this mold (see the examples below).
- We talked a bit about what kinds of emotions are in games today. One person said fear, another countered 'fiyero'. Another mentioned the lack of romance in games. Revenge came up, and the feeling of joy at rescuing trapped characters. Seems worth asking further: what sorts of emotions are desirable and possible?
About player characters/avatars:
- creating resonance between the player and this character seems to be a powerful guiding principle here--from moment-to-moment to a high level feeling of moral responsibility... that I end up twitching the controller when something scary or surprising happens to my character; that when my character makes an evil choice (e.g. KoTOR assigning a character to kill another in cold blood) I feel responsible, and like I 'turned to the dark side'. Rather than relying on the backstory and cut scenes to carry the emotional weight.
- helpful to create traces of the player's movement through the game space that help to reveal his/her emotions to others playing (e.g. WoW, one can see a player's hesitation at entering a chaotic situation through the fits and starts of the player character's movements on-screen).
- creating a feeling of consequence and responsibility (as mentioned above) through possible actions for the player is a path to emotion.
- the debate between relatively blank and deep back-story player characters was discussed a bit, without a clear preference in terms of creating emotion. some suggested offering multiple paths (e.g. the KoTOR good/evil split) that were more nuanced and involved, and linked to different modes of play with different emotional tonality.
- as with player character, the most powerful feelings are evoked through using game play to generate emotion. relying on a character, being thwarted by a character...
- NPCs are much less like 'pez dispensers' or 'mister men' (mister happy, mister grumpy, etc) if they have overlapping motivations and actions rather than just one per NPC. this adds emotional complexity and power to player interactions with them.
- controlling the space was mentioned as a way for NPCs to create emotional reactions in players (like being really in your face, or not)
- there was discussion about how much backstory to build in for players--some thought it added depth and emotional potential, others were cautious about overloading with story.
- procedural animation was seen as a tool to create more real feeling and reactive NPCS
- adding 'dirty organic noise' to AI tactics for NPCs was also seen as a powerful way to add emotional richness (randomness can be good sometimes because we interpret it in unexpected and rich ways)
Examples of powerful emotional experiences with game characters:
- Aeris in FF VII and Floyd from Planetfall (mentioned in the lecture). One participant noted though that the Aeris example was frustrating as a player because in game play he could have easily brought her back to life, so it didn't really ring true. This was part of the theme among the group about the importance of melding game play and story well for players.
- Hotel Dusk was mentioned as an example of a game in which you can see your character reacting to others on screen in a way that helps build emotion.
- Sly Cooper: Thievious Raccoonus were mentioned as examples of a game that creates a powerful moment-to-moment experience of connection and consequence between the player and his/her avatar, because of the ways that Sly reacts to noises and elements in the environment.
- Salvatore in GTA 3 was mentioned as an example of a powerful feeling of betrayal on the part of the player, and a nice combination of game play and story to create an emotional impact.
- Gears of War's reload feature--where if you don't press the button right you load slower and the character gets frustrated just like you are, creates a feeling of synergy for the player with the player character.
- Army of Two's AI that travels with you does more than cycle through idle animations, but reacts to what's happening in game play.
- In Beyond Good and Evil, one player mentioned how he felt Jade's loss of will much more powerfully after he 'betrayed' the lighthouse and orphans by not going there through about 6 hours of real game play time. He felt guilty for not having been back there--for getting immersed in the conspiracy.
- KoTOR--several people mentioned how they tried to play through evil and couldn't do it; especially the part where you cold-bloodedly assign a character to kill another. One person said it was the best game play translation of 'turning to the dark side'
- A player mentioned how fun it was to steal other people's stuff in Ultima Online
- Ron Humboldt's experimental game (from EGW at GDC) "the marriage" was mentioned as an interesting attempt to create a very different emotional play experience.
Examples of not so powerful emotional experiences with game characters:
- Silent Hill--how it totally broke your feeling of involvement when the characters didn't respond to scary things.
Next steps as a result of the roundtable:
I plan to...
- Set up a place to post about helpful tools and resources for creating emotional characters
- Set up a place to contribute stories about people's most powerful emotional experience with a character in a game.
- Use the latter to do some follow-up analysis of what's going on 'under the hood' from a psychological point of view based upon the stories people share.
- Will probably do a follow up post on what kinds of emotions people think games should aim for, and why, and ask for feedback about this...
Thanks to everyone who made it and contributed to a great discussion!