Apr. 3rd, 2017

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There’s a human desire which is very emotionally powerful, and which I’m a little surprised to realize that very few video games seem to have tapped into. (That I know of? Please let me know about any counter-examples!)

The desire is for a specific way of helping others and seeing the consequences of that help. It’s when you help someone acquire a new skill or ability, see them absorb that new skill so that it becomes a part of them, and then start using it to do things under their own power, no longer dependent on you.

It’s when you stop giving the proverbial man fishes and teach him to fish instead, and then you come back later to find out that he’s now the head of a local fishing guild that he founded, and is now using the fish that he catches every day to support his family and kids.

It’s when you suggest someone a hobby she might like, and she later lets you know that she gave it a try, loved it, and has now reached an advanced level in it and has contributed several things to the further development of the hobby.

It’s when you teach your kid to draw simple pictures when they are four, support them throughout as they grow older, and then watch them become a famous and accomplished artist whose understanding of art is way more sophisticated than anything you’d ever hope you could reach.

There are lots of games that involve helping others, or managing something; but usually their focus is on making your actions significant, rather than empowering others.

In a typical CRPG, you might rescue someone from kidnappers, kill a swarm of monsters that were terrorizing a village, or retrieve a lost artifact to a scholar who wants to study it. All of these do benefit someone else, but what you’ve essentially done is to temporarily lend your power to them. You haven’t shown them how to rescue others, teach the villagers to defend themselves so that they won’t need the services of wandering adventurers in the future, or taught the scholar your own skills in a way that lets them build on those skills in their work.

In a typical management simulation, the city (or whatever it is that you are managing) does grow more prosperous and people get to live good lives thanks to you, but it’s only because you are doing a good job at being God. None of the city’s inhabitants is going to learn from the way you planned the city and then surpass you in setting up a city of their own.

Though there are elements in both genres that get kind of close. When a CRPG’s ending includes a sequence telling you what happened to the characters and places you influenced afterwards, it’s tapping to this desire. (Probably not coincidentally, the original Fallouts doing this was one of the things that I always found the most memorable and awesome about them.) When a management sim lets you imagine that because you’ve eliminated traffic congestion, the inhabitants of the city get to live less stressful lives and set up better business of their own, it’s kind of tapping into this desire.

Still, these feel more like incidental elements in the genres than they are design goals. You are only told about your long-term impact on the different communities when they game is already over; and for the most part the management sim leaves it up to you to imagine how exactly your actions are influencing the lives of your people on a more personal level.

There have also been some isolated examples of individual games getting close. The Princess Maker series probably draws a lot of its appeal from this impulse: you get to raise a daughter, teach her different skills, and then at the end, see what her life turned out to be like. But again, it’s only at the very end that you get to see what your daughter did once you were no longer around: the whole game before that is controlling her whole schedule yourself, choosing all of your actions for her.

And I heard of some series of educational games where the gimmick is that by solving math challenges, you are actually teaching your pet to be better at math and get to see how it does by itself. But – I suspect, not having actually played the games – that this rather models the bad old idea of a highly teacher pouring down knowledge into the head of a lowly student whose job is just to receive it. Your pet isn’t incorporating your lessons to its own existing knowledge and use it to further its own values; it’s just succeeding at exactly the tasks you taught it to succeed at, and no more.

What could a game look like if it actually had as an explicit design goal to focus on the fulfillment of this desire?

In a CRPG, you could go around the world beating challenges and learning new skills and abilities as usual. But rather than just accumulating skills for yourself, a major part of the game might be to then teach those skills to NPCs, and coming back after some time to see that they’ve done awesome stuff with their new skills. (Maybe that man who needed to be taught to fish was an NPC somewhere, and after you taught him to fish you could come back later and see him having accomplished all the stuff I described earlier.) Maybe some of the skills that you could acquire would have little direct benefit to you personally, but confer powerful benefits to the NPCs you taught them to. Maybe you could even develop an entirely new skill – say, be the first one to discover the principles of magic – and then see the understanding of that spread around the world like a wildfire after you’d set it loose. Mage guilds would start popping out everywhere and give back to you, as the million people who were researching magic could make progress a lot faster than you could alone, and you’d then get access to powerful new abilities that they taught back to you.

Or you could make a management sim where you were running a family business. The success of your business would depend on the skills that your character had, but alone you could only learn a small portion of the available skills. Another part of the game would be getting married and having kids. At first, as in real life, the kids would be a huge sink of time and resources as you’d need to spend a lot of time looking after them, but as you taught them some of your own skills they would eventually learn to develop those skills on their own. You would control their actions less and less, and they would increasingly make their own decisions of what they wanted to do – decisions that were influenced by your earlier interaction with them.

If you had done things well and developed a positive relationship with them, they could eventually join you in running your business and make it develop into entirely new directions with the broader skillset you now had available. Or, if you’d forced them help you when they were younger, they might just grow to resent you and your whole business and run away as soon as they got the chance. Giving the player the option to short-sightedly get some early additional help instead of taking a kinder and wiser route seems like it would also make it feel more rewarding when the player did make the sacrifice of taking the longer route, and then saw it eventually pay off.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

July 2017

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