An NPC Makes You Grow to Become a Better Person

Game Case Study: Ico

One of the most interesting games to date that employs this Player Toward NPC Chemistry Technique is Ico. (Please note: I'll be discussing Ico in great detail here. If you haven't played the game and don't want to learn the ending, please skip this section.)

Ico is set in a strange land, in a large and foreboding castle. There you must protect a young woman from all sorts of dangers and a terrible fate that awaits her, while trying to lead her to freedom. The look of the game is luscious and the animation is wonderful, but it's a puzzle game with some redundant gameplay. Thus, players often decide not to pursue the game to its finale.

Those who do finish it, however, are treated to some of the most emotional experiences any game has delivered to date. The end's emotional power is due to the artful application of a number of Emotioneering techniques. Some of the techniques that contribute to the emotion are:

  1. The girl's Rooting Interest, which stems from:

    • Her being in danger.

    • Her undeserved misfortune.

    • The fact that you constantly take responsibility for her safety and freedom.

    • There's an aesthetic quality about her as well.

  2. Plot Deepening Techniques (see Chapter 2.17), including:

    • A story that doubles back on itself in an interesting way. In fact, the plot folds back on itself near the end in numerous ways that are both inventive and moving.

    • The ending is a little open-ended but not so much that it frustrates us. Much is explained, but still some crucial pieces are left for us to fill in with our imaginations.

    • We're swept into a world where mystical forces are made palpable. (The Lord of the Rings films do this as well.)

  3. Plot Interesting Techniques (see Chapter 2.16) in the form of some incredible plot twists near the end that are completely unpredicted on one hand, yet also resolve many mysteries.

  4. Player Toward NPC Chemistry Techniques, which are the most important factors in creating the emotion we experience and which are the subject of this chapter. Some examples are:

    • The girl admires you and in fact slowly falls in love with you.

    • As you constantly take responsibility for her, you experience yourself growing and becoming a bigger and better person.

      Normally, taking responsibility for another NPC, especially one who can't hold her own weight in a battle, might annoy the player, because it forces the player to slow down. But because of the girl's strong Rooting Interest, that isn't the case here.

The last 45 minutes of gameplay uses Technique Stacking to the max.

Let's return to our story about Falconer and the conspiracy to instigate riots in order to justify the declaration of martial law. You had just fought with McCully, and retrieved the information as to the location of the compound in which the conspirators are using as a base of operations and in which their plans are kept.

Now there's a further twist: Falconer's 10-year-old daughter is being held prisoner in the compound. It's his former bosses' way of making sure Falconer doesn't betray them. If he does, she'll be killed. He's terrified this will happen. He shows you her picture. She looks beautiful, innocent, and playful.

You have to get into that compound, rescue Falconer's daughter, and find the plans to trigger that state of emergency. Armed with this evidence, you can then provide concrete proof to your superiors and stave off this disaster or so you think, until you discover that they too are part of the conspiracy. And the clock is ticking….

If you choose to save Falconer's daughter and not just go for the plans, you'll be facing a much greater risk.

And there are other consequences if you go on this mission. You might get tried for treason, just like Falconer. You will, at the least:

  • Be stripped of your rank.

  • Be fired from the police force.

  • Be portrayed as anti-American in the eyes of the public and broadly reviled.

  • End the game with nothing no weapons, no title, and no prestige.

All this is made quite clear to you. And it's not just that all these losses will come in a closing cinematic you'll have to finish out the game in that state of privation and disrepute.

To effectively pull this off in the game, we might want to set up two alternative endings. If you're the player and you don't want to infiltrate the compound, there would be some big boss fight to serve as the game's finale.

But if you decide to risk it all, the question is, will this just be another mission, or will the experience have any emotional impact on you?

If you've really come to like, respect, and care about Falconer, and thus care about his daughter…

And if you really like the rank, weapons, and respect you get in your current job but which will all be sacrificed if you take this mission…

Then this won't be a mere mission. The decision should be difficult to make. But if you make it, you'll feel noble and heroic.

Emotion could be further heightened in the following way: Once you fight your way into the compound, you break into the heavily guarded room where the girl is being held. You're entering the room triggers a scripted sequence that makes it seem as if you arrived just as if she was about to be killed by a guard with a long knife.

However, you get creamed. First of all, in that room is a sub-boss who beat you earlier in the game and left you barely alive. Because of his rain of bullets, and because of extremely heavy gunfire from another man in the room, you're forced to retreat or get killed. The game leaves you no other option.

Your retreating triggers another scripted sequence: A few seconds after you back out of the room, you hear the girl's terrified scream, as if she had just been cut (which indeed she has).

You'll definitely be weary, and maybe even a bit afraid of going into the room a second time, for fear of dying. After all, earlier in the game you learned that your nemesis in that room is actually a better fighter than you are. Additionally, you almost got killed a minute ago.

These factors, coupled with the fact that saving the girl is optional, would make the choice to go back into that room truly a heroic one, because you know the mission to save the girl is not necessary only collecting the data is. You can walk away from this dangerous situation, and if you choose to fight (and save the girl who's screaming in pain), you're likely to be very emotionally rooted in the situation.


The game element that can break this whole situation, though, is quick-save. In most PC games, the player can hit F5 (or some other designated key) any time he wants to save his game. This means that the player can hit F5, run in, and if he dies, reload instantly and try again, and during the face-off with the nemesis character, every time he successfully gets another shot off at him, he can hit F5 again. This is called a quick-save crawl, where the player never has any immediate threat to his person because he always has the get-out-of-jail-free card at his disposal. It's something that has the potential to sap a lot of the emotional intensity out of any situation.

Most console games, on the other hand, let you save only at check points or at specific points in the level (such as the couches in Ico). Because of this saving strategy, these games have the potential to offer a much more exciting experience to the player. If our example game is a console game, your decision to save the girl is significant, because if you die, you'll go back to the last check point and have to fight your way through again. This means there are real consequences to your actions. In a quick-save game, though, there are no consequences.

Most PC developers, however, feel that replaying an entire section of a game, just to finally make it back to the point when you died, is too frustrating. And the player's frustration increases the further back the player is thrown into the game after dying. (I think we've all had that experience.) Therefore, the argument goes that quick-saving gives you the freedom to experience the game in the way you want to and ultimately makes a stronger experience.

It's a hotly debated topic, and a worthy one to discuss, as it can impact the emotional experiences a player does or doesn't have in the game.

I believe the answer might depend on the situation. When designing, ask yourself if a quick-save option will eliminate the emotion of the experience. If so, perhaps it's best not to make that option available. On the other hand, if the scene has no emotion at all, there might be a much better argument made for a quick-save option.

To me, the compromise for this case study game lies in tuning the game so that the player can't quick-save, but also doesn't get thrown an aggravating distance back into the game when he dies.

What are you going to do? You need to charge back in, but this time the game allows you to be victorious, if you're very skilled with your weapons although you wouldn't know that victory is possible when you blast your way in, because the previous time you were in the room you would have been killed if you tried to rescue the girl.

In this hypothetical game, I've introduced the idea of self-sacrifice for a higher causes (or causes) to force the player to become a better person. The causes were:

  • Stopping the conspiracy

  • Protecting and ultimately freeing Falconer from false charges

  • Rescuing his daughter

It should be noted that stopping the conspiracy is the least emotional of these causes. This can be fixed, however, if earlier in the game, you have gotten to know and really like a person or people who will be hurt or killed if the conspiracy goes forward. Liking this person or these people would come from their having Rooting Interest, as well as the use of NPC Toward Player Chemistry Techniques.

If you're the player, let's look at the sacrifices you'll make if you decide to rescue Falconer's daughter. You will:

  • Go into this final mission knowing that, even if you survive, you will have to give up your job, reputation, and weapons, and be hated by the public.

  • Possibly get arrested and charged with treason if you succeed.

  • Be making a choice much more likely to get you killed, if you rescue the girl instead of just going for the evidence.

In life, almost any taking of responsibility for anything or anyone requires some kind of sacrifice. Here, the sacrifices have been multiplied and heightened. If you, the player, care about Falconer, and you risk or accept these sacrifices, you'll feel like a better person at the end, just as players who finished Ico did.

The game shouldn't end after this mission. The player should be forced to live with the consequences of his or her choice.

So, let's say you save the girl. You're not tried for treason, but all the other horrible consequences you were warned of do unfold. You're fired, your weapons are taken from you, and the public scorns you as being anti-American.

Now comes the final boss fight against the man in charge of the entire conspiracy. And you have to go into it with just one lousy gun.

So the consequences you suffer aren't just revealed in a final cinematic, but are woven into the gameplay itself.

The fight begins inside a security installation and you're vastly outgunned. It's all you can do to hide and dodge bullets to stay alive, because your opponent is like an enraged, walking weapons depot on steroids. At best, perhaps you get off an occasional shot that forces him to retreat a little.

But if he retreats just enough, this allows you to finally make it to a weapons cache, where you can grab all the firepower you want. Now that you're loaded for bear, the real fight begins.

Why give you so many weapons at this point? First, you've already made the sacrifice and experienced the consequences, so that plot twist has been milked. Most importantly, we don't want to deprive you of a great boss fight at the end.

By the way, if you were designing this game, there are two ways you could end it. The first is that the evidence you retrieve about the conspiracy hits the press. Belatedly, after first being accused of treason, you're redeemed in the eyes of the public, all the conspirators are brought down, and you get your old job back.

Or, you could end it in a much darker way. You've foiled the conspiracy and killed the man at its head. All the others who were involved retreat into the woodwork. But the public never knows what occurred and of all the good you did. Instead, although you're not tried for treason, you are nonetheless painted as a traitor in the eyes of the citizenry.

There are a few people, though, who know what a hero you are. And that's Falconer, his daughter, and a handful of others who are overwhelmed by your bravery and integrity.

Which ending is preferable? Arguments could be made for either one. It's a matter of taste and artistic judgment. Which ending would you choose?

Summary of This Example

By getting the player to care about Falconer and the mission of rescuing his daughter, the player has to put himself or herself at risk to ever greater degrees. And there are extreme negative consequences, even for success. However, the player will be admired by those he or she has come to care about.

The player will, as in Ico, feel like he or she has become a better person.

Creating Emotion in Games. The Craft and Art of Emotioneering
Creating Emotion in Games: The Craft and Art of Emotioneering
ISBN: 1592730078
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2003
Pages: 394

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