Monday, February 09, 2009

Troubled Avatars

While reading Ian McEwan's novel Saturday, I was very impressed by a chapter narrating a squash match between the protagonist (a middle-aged neurosurgeon from London) and his friend and colleague. Here's an excerpt:

"Half a dozen times the ball travels up and down the left-hand wall, until Perowne finds the space on his backhand to lift it high into the right-hand corner.They play that wall in hard straight drives, dancing in and out of each other's path, then they're chasing shots all over the court, with the advantage passing between them.
They've had this kind of rally before - desperate, mad, but also hilarious, as if the real contest is to see who will break down laughing first."

From: Saturday, by Ian McEwan.

McEwan does an amazing job describing the psychological state of his character during play: the lack of focus from out-of-court worries, that "flow" feeling after prolonged rallies, the balance between competitiveness and camaraderie, etc..

In my last contribution to the round table, I've suggested ways of designing for the player's, say, lateral thinking (in a desirable way). But why not extend this mental state to the characters - and then to the player?

Let's keep the rackets and think of a videogame of Tennis, for instance. Suppose you're playing with Roger Federer against a CPU-controlled Rafael Nadal. Now, usually the only match-unrelated concerns of between the player and full control of the game are the (real world) player's concerns. Federer's avatar might be more or less capable in game fundaments (serving, backhanding, forehanding, lobbing, etc.), but his psychological state is neutral.

Now let's remember the last Federer Vs. Nadal match, when they were playing for the Australian Open. Judging from Federer's reaction, visibly upset to the point of crying during the prize ceremony, there should be some psychological unbalance going on. Was his mind somewhere else during the match? I don't know, but that's a hypothesis.

So, how could this kind of mental state be reflected in the game (and gameplay)? Overlapping images? Unresponsive control pads? There's a number of options that could be tested.

Sport games might not be the best example of use for that. RPGs, 1st and 3rd persons could benefit from this kind of "troubled avatars" to add depth to the story and gameplay. It could be a way of levelling the character's and player's experiences.

(Note: I remember a football videogame where the controller rumbled, as to indicate mental distress, during penalty shootouts. Was it one of FIFA series?)


Carey said...

An interesting take on that idea was found in the GameCube's Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem from the developer Silicon Knights.

Quite apart from all the messing with the player the game did (telling you at one point late-game that your saves were corrupted; or dropping you into a room full of zombies then popping up a 'please plug controller into controller port 1' message), the sanity of the avatar had extensive effects on the game display. Low sanity led to crazy camera angles, psychotic sound effects, bleeding walls and cockroaches crawling across the inside of the screen.

I still haven't seen anyone take the idea to that extent yet.

Chico Queiroz said...

Hello Carey, thanks for your contribution!

Apparently (well, Wikipedia says), this game was very well received by the critics - it has got a number of awards, but did not sell a lot of copies. Do you think this might have scared publishers away from this kind of feature?

Or maybe this (from Wikipedia):"The game's standout concept, patented by Nintendo,[2] is the "sanity meter", a green bar on screen which is depleted under various conditions, generally when the character is seen by an enemy."

In this case, could developers be afraid of infringing copyrights by designing similar functionalities?

Take care!

Carey said...

The issues of ED's success were more likely related to the fact that it was thematically in direct competition with the Resident Evil series (which I think it superior to in design and gameplay), it was poorly marketed (I hadn't heard of it until I picked it up in a store), and it was a GameCube only title.

Remember too that the GC suffered quite badly from a 'kids console' perception, which Nintendo's marketing approach did little to alleviate.

As for a patented 'sanity bar' - I'm unsure of what that patent would involve exactly (can you patent a 'health' bar? Does EA hold a patent on a 'Hygiene' bar since The Sims?).. regardless, there are plenty of ways to represent the same concept. ED used three bars - Health, 'mana' and Sanity; which corresponded to the triad of powers the game revolved around. It was an elegant execution and integral to the magic system and the gameplay.

As for other games, I haven't come across many but Call Of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth used some visual/psychological elements - though those were mostly injury related, rather than trauma.

One new game which seems to have promise in this regard is Shellshocked 2, which touts psychological effects as having gameplay repercussions - though I know nothing else about it.

Certainly this approach favours the horror genre, but that is possibly because in an emotional analysis sense it is relatively crude and primitive.

I think more likely it's an idea whose time has not come yet, and Eternal Darkness was just ahead of it's time.

With Nintendo now looking at re-release of some GameCube titles repackaged and tweaked for the Wii, perhaps it'll get another go at fame and fortune.

Chico Queiroz said...

You make a good point. It was probably naive from me to find reasons for a commercial flop without considering a broader context than the game itself.

I was intrigued by the "patented concept" as well, but given the regulation on the subject, I believe it could be true. I think that's one of the reasons we don't see many mini-games during loading states.

On a side note, it's funny you mentioned how horror games are the ones exploring, in their ways, emotions in games. It's probably a good example of gameplay x storytelling balance.

Again, thanks for the input!

Carey said...

Interestingly the abstract of the relevant patent reads as:

"A video game and game system incorporating a game character's sanity level that is affected by occurrences in the game such as encountering a game creature or gruesome situation."

The interesting point being that it is a "Video game and game system incorporating"... I'd call prior art here. The Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game predated the application of this patent by many years and had a specific 'Sanity' statistic which existed purely for the exact purposes mentioned later in the patent.

If I looked hard enough I could probably find personal notes predating 2000 which listed 'sanity' effects in a game context. I doubt they'd be provably dated, however.

Bit of a rubbish patent, really... especially since it's a literary idea dating from god-knows-when that they stamped "Nintendo" on then shoved in the closet.. but what else is new in IT?

Chico Queiroz said...

I know, arbitrary patents like that might be strange - but they do exist. Of course, there always should be a way around (a crescent "Insanity" bar instead of a de-crescent "Insanity" bar?).

The tricky part is if they could ever prevent games and genres of evolving. (next post, maybe?)

Take care!

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