23 May 2011

D'you know what I mean?

There's a strange but wondrous current flowing through game design over the last five or so years that's slowly but surely changing the face of players' interaction with the medium; I'm not talking about motion-based control but intuitive emotional response.

Okay, so "intuitive emotional response" is a term that I've just made up... but as far as I can tell, that's exactly what these systems are supposed to be about. I'm speaking specifically about the Mass Effect (and Dragon Age 2) wheel and, most recently, L.A. Noire's "trust" system. These mechanics are designed to assign an emotional response from the player to an easy traffic light system of "Yes, maybe and no!". It's the easiest way of getting around the problematic issue of fully voicing games that have a lot of dialogue, providing both choice and depth. The problem with these early systems is one that psychologists and philosophers have wrestled with for many centuries... and it's basically that not everyone sees or interprets the world in the same manner.

Ideally, when people converse, we understand each other perfectly. I mean, we have words and numbers, facial expressions and body language. These are all tools that allow us to more effectively communicate how we feel and what we want. However, these tools are only useful when used in the right context and the right environment. Anyone who's been abroad to a foreign-speaking nation (and even those that have the same language, to a lesser extent) will know just what I mean here. Your "safe and known" context is thrown out the window in a culture that is different from your own. Humour is notoriously hard to translate because people's social constructs work differently between cultures. Gestures, specific words... jobs, gender roles, religion and history all play a part in how we are able to relate to the world of communication along with myriad others and they can't always easily be translated.

Moving back from that complex morass of detail, even to those people within our own culture, we see that communication and understanding of communication is not universal. So it is with this in mind that, although I think that these emerging IER systems are good, I say that I miss the old days of knowing exactly what it is I'm about to say.

There is nothing more frustrating in a game than when it mis-reads what you are trying to do. When you press jump near a wall and kick off of it, doing a back flip instead of reaching up and grabbing a ledge to climb.... it's annoying. So taking something like that, which can more often than not be repeated, and slicing it into an aspect of the game which is "permanent" because, unlike in most normal conversations, there's no take-backs or apologies in the defined conversing of game worlds (yet).... it's just asking for frustration to be aired. Granted, no game system is ever going to be per-... oh wait.... Text conversations were perfect, never mind.

Seriously though. If IER systems ever want to take off, designers need to realise that they need to tell players exactly what their choice will do and not just give them a vague set of rules that they don't appear to follow anyway. Perhaps some way of physically telegraphing your avatar's general mood when going to select the choice (e.g. during selection of conversation choices in Mass Effect) would go some way to avoid frustrating the player when an unexpected or completely disproportionate response is elicited from a seemingly innocuous choice.

The only bright spot in L.A. Noire is that you can go into a lie option and back out of it, without any consequences..... which basically means that you can usually eliminate one of the options based on your avatar's reaction, not on the reaction of the interviewee. However, this feels a lot like gaming the system since you cannot press for more when you pick truth or doubt and it's "that is all there is to say about that!" result. I also found that most of the items/pieces of evidence you use to convince people that they we know they are lying are too narrow. There were some cases in the game thus far where I knew the person was lying but that crucial circumstantial pieces of evidence that you could and would use in the real world for further information were useless. For example, a piece of rope used in many murders and an identical rope found outside of a suspect's house is useless because you cannot use it in your conversation with him.

For all of the technical wizardry that goes into making these games, I feel that perhaps designers are missing out on the psychological component that could make them more transparent and accessible to people who are used to using real-world logic instead of the twisted "you are eaten by a grue" game logic. Going forward, I would like to see games become more forgiving in their conversation systems - especially because the player is increasingly being given less control over what and how they interact in those conversations.

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