The Care Paradox

Quite some time ago, my friend Andrew had some pointed words about game writing. It’s not entirely off base – often the writing does get handed down like a keepsake – but the problem of integrating writing into game development is a bigger issue that studios have been fighting with for more than a decade. It’s something I like to call the “Care Paradox”, and it goes something like this:

“I can’t be bothered to listen to what you have to say if it means I have to put down the controller.”

Sure, it’s a blunt statement, but think about it. Do I really need to hear Dom’s justification for war? No, I think he made it very clear in using a chainsaw on that on that monster in the hallway!

The Care Paradox, simply put, means that our audience secretly wants to care about the story in our games, but we have to convince them to openly do so. It’s not simply enough to hire a full-time writer for a game; if the story remains at arms length from the game-play, not even the full writing staff of LOST could stop a Halo player from pressing the “skip” button.

Now, there are three critical elements to successfully binding a video-game story to its gameplay, in my estimation:

Keep the Controller “on”

If I told you there was a part in my game where there’s no UI feedback, the analog stick does nothing, I can’t die, and if I press the wrong button the game skips somewhere else, would you call it a bug? (I’m sure QA would!)

Half Life keeps your head (camera) control active at all times. Gears of War lets you walk between some environments. Metal Gear Solid plays the opening credits as an overlay. It may not be as fun as when you’re in full control, but give the player a little bit to chew on and you’ll find his patience to be far harder to wear down.

Don’t be a Gameplay Crutch

Sometimes, cut-scenes can’t be helped. But if you stop the game-play to do things that the player may already be capable of doing, you aren’t telling a story so much as testing the patience of your audience. Final Fantasy XIII is often criticized for being as much movie as game, and it’s hard not to see why when almost every exciting moment in the first half of the game – jumping from airships, fighting off dozens of foes at a time – takes place in a mode where the player has no input.

Conversely, it’s important to be careful not to go too far out of the way. Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes was often criticized for the new motion capture scenes, as Snake was capable of doing acrobatic moves the player could never perform during play.

Pacing! Pacing? Pacing!

The folks at Naughty Dog were hammering this point down early and often at GDC 2010 while discussing Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. You just can’t pay too much attention to pacing. A player will gladly give up control for a little while following an arduous boss battle, but will quickly lose interest if you take it in the middle of an empty field.

Okay, but?

Sounds good, right? Too bad, there’s a twist! The Care Paradox actually has a second side to it. You know that part about convincing the audience? Well, that problem exists on the development side, too, only it’s even harder to argue. It’s a matter of time and money. Unless you’re working for Blizzard, story tech can be a hard sell for a development schedule. Given a choice between the Uncharted 2 “collapsing building” setpiece and a farmed-out cutscene, you would take the setpiece, right?

But what if that cutscene saves a million dollars in the development budget? Or two months of time to focus on polish? For most small studios, it isn’t even a hard decision. The game has to be done, gameplay comes first, and that means that – more often than not – the story gets second billing.

There is opportunity for change. The popularity of Uncharted 2 in particular brings new hope that more games will follow their example. But it’s up to us as designers to fight for these standards and show what already-shipped titles are doing if we hope to improve in the future and give stories a fair shake.

And the sooner we can argue story mechanics are more important than a bolted-on multiplayer mode, the better.

2 Comments

  1. SeenAndNotSeen

    Wow, I used to read this blog waaaaay back in the day (like 2003-2004, I mean way back) and post on it fairly regularly. I checked the URL again on a whim and discovered that you’re still here, even if you hardly ever update. Neat!

    Anyway, I was wondering how extremely cutscene heavy games like Squaresoft-style RPGs factor into this. Do we care more about the characters in, say FFX or FFXIII, which are both linear and have a lot of cutscenes, or does the lack of choice and constant stopping of the action prevent the player from caring?

    This is to say, do we care more about characters we have control over, such as Gordon Freeman or Chelle (from Portal), even if they don’t speak, or do we care more about characters we don’t control who are more developed, but through cutscenes?

  2. Richard Knight

    Yeah, I remember you. 🙂 Work and, well, the significant other drain most of my writing time, but I do try to do serious updates now and then.

    I really think that the Squaresoft-style of cutscene is crippled in today’s game development. I mean, I can hardly sit through FFXIII or Starcraft 2’s scenes, and those are the two pillar examples of the technique!

    Inevitably, Blizzard cuts down on that edge because:

    a. Ratio of real time cutscenes to prerenders is very high.
    b. The real-time scenes are almost entirely player-chosen (talk to x)
    c. There is occasionally a decision to be made.

    There’s room to care about character’s apart from the player character, but it’s just so much harder to pull off. I think I’m more invested in SC2 side characters Tychus and Tosh, strictly because while I may rarely / never play them, I can play their jobs, and (sometimes) make a decision about their fate.

    With FFXIII, the characters have all made up their own mind, and it’s frustrating because you quickly lose that illusion of playing out the character. By stripping away the illusion (and the gameplay), you’re left hunting for cutscenes, which is a shame, because it’s the best battle system the series has ever seen.

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