The Way We Get To Know Video Game Characters Is Weird, But I Love It
Getting to know you, getting to know everything about you
When you think about it, the way we “get to know” characters in video games is a bit weird – sometimes it’s about doing special missions for our potential new friend, or being nice to them in dialog options, but most of the time it comes down to giving them enough goodies until they decide they like us.
I’m not trying to be pedantic here, I really think it’s fascinating that in trying to create an immersive experience for the player we’ve gamified one of the most complicated parts of life: intimacy human. We’ve come up with our own solutions on how best to do this, but it begs the question: how do we turn the endlessly complex and mysterious process of getting close to someone else into concrete game mechanics that fit into other game systems? Well, a lot of games have certainly tried.
Take games like Stardew Valley Where underworld, who simplify this problem by going the “just shower them with presents” route. At first glance, it seems a little strange, as if we were saying that people can be won over just by giving them gifts. Although this is a case for part of the population, most people are more complicated than that. If someone kept pushing fruit baskets at you without ever saying a word, you’d think they were a psychopath.
But certainly, when freebies are the name of the game, freebies have to represent something more than that. I imagine so, you’re giving another character a gift, but it really represents how you’ve been connected to that character and how you feel about them. Games have a shortcut for many other aspects of life, like eating instantly, or making time pass faster, or letting you carry far more items than you could ever reasonably hold, so it makes sense that we We’ve found a way to symbolically show the player that they’re getting to know the characters in the game. At least that’s how I read it.
Stardew even goes a step further by having the townspeople react differently depending on what you give them, because they have favourites, likes and dislikes, so there is another stage of work to know what they might want to receive as a gift. Even so, there’s obviously something missing, because we’re not literally spending that time with the characters and loving them in the same way that our player character is meant to be.
Then there are games like Mass Effect, The Witcher, or any great open-world game, where a big part of the process of learning to know another character is talking to them, as well as doing the side missions that specifically address something that he wants or needs. This approach feels like we’re getting closer to a more realistic way of getting to know someone, because you, you know, actually take the time to show them that you care about their life and their own interests.
There is still something missing though. I know that when I personally play these games, I want to be able to have a more intimate conversation with them, even about something small, rather than whatever issues threaten the universe, or set up a grand gesture to try to win them over.
A more linear approach also has its own advantages and disadvantages. Take The last of us for example, the point of this game is to make you care about this relationship between its two main characters. Instead of the player acting as one of those characters, however, Joel is something of an avatar through which we get to know Ellie. Then there is the fact that none of The last of us‘ gameplay is dedicated to getting to know their relationship better, unless you count the sections where you just walk and talk.
So the trade-off here is that the player has no input into the whole relationship aspect of this journey, but instead we see every little nuanced detail of how they come together in a hyper way -specific to their two characters. Our agency is removed in the sense that we cannot choose what they say or do, but in return we get a heightened and highly curated presentation of a relationship forming before our eyes. It really works for some people (like me), but I know for some it has been a criticism of the game.
Another one of my favorite games that focuses on a relationship is Indie Game 2018 Florence. Its runtime is short at only around half an hour, but it takes that long to have you nurturing the titular character, and her budding romance with musician Krish, in an unconventional way. Florence is one of the few games I’ve played that I would consider interactive poetry – rather than focusing on giving the player in-depth mechanics or dialogue, it tells us its story through a series of symbolic thumbnails.
My personal favorite footage shows the couple’s first dates. We see a panel of them talking, and below it a series of puzzle pieces. The player must complete the puzzle to progress, and is then presented with the visual of the next date, which is accompanied by another puzzle, except this time there are fewer pieces. This continues for a few cycles until the player is presented with a puzzle consisting of only two pieces and a visual showing how the couple have grown closer during their dates.
It’s a very simple mechanic, but it has got to be one of the most effective portrayals of getting to know someone I’ve ever seen in a game. As we’ve seen so far, it has been difficult to pin down the feeling of forming a close bond in an exact one-on-one recreation, which is why FlorenceThe approach of is so elegant. It’s stylized, it’s metaphorical, and on top of that it’s emotionally moving, which does more work for me to care about them than outdated dialogue and a quest for salvage.
There’s no right or wrong way to get the player interested in a game’s fictional characters, but as the interactive medium continues to advance, I’d love to see the different solutions offered. by designers. Hell, we might even get to a point in the next few years where we can effectively implement AI that reacts more realistically, rather than giving predetermined responses to predetermined answers. One thing is for sure, though – I’ll never cease to be thrilled giving an NPC a present and watching a little heart appear above their head.
Story Beat is a weekly column covering everything and nothing related to storytelling in video games.