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Giving A Shit - Hooks, Attachment, And Involvement In Games.
Inspired by Skyrim but very much not limited to that.

I've been thinking recently about how games get the player involved, attached to their character and the characters they interact with, and what sort of hooks are used to get the player gripped and intruiged.

In my view this is something that games don't do that well, even when they mistakenly think they are - the main problems being developers confusing above-average stories with remotely good stories, and assuming that transparently shallow emotional attachments will actually work.

I think there are 3 main areas that can get the player to give a shit about what they are doing in a game:

1. Setting / theme / setup. Not just the game world but what is going on in the game world. Something that is either convincingly portrayed and/or refreshingly innovative and/or suitably intriguing to get the player wanting to be involved with it.

2. Other characters. Rarely applicable to traditional FPSes although some background characters can be important. In modern, more involved games, having characters that have some depth or interest to them (not via cheesily blatant mysteries) and/or also stand out from the humdrum of the other characters around them and/or ones that the player is directly and intimately involved with.

3. Story. A revealed progression through the game that gets the player intrigued as to what will happen next, that is interesting enough that they actually want to find out. Rarely an issue as all gaming stories are generic shite. But if there is ever the slightest hint of not being entirely mundane and predictable, that can be a good thing.

So considering some games with prominent aspects of these that I've played recently and not so recently:

Half-Life 2 - scores well on 1 with a strong set-up and convincing portrayal, and on 2 with some average but likable characters. Little on 3.

Gothic 3 - scores very well on 1 with a strong game world and a strong theme with an existent Orc invasion. Bugger all on 2 and 3.

Left 4 Dead / 2 - scores on 1 with an obvious but well set up scenario, and on 2 with characters who are....bland but you are totally involved with. No 3.

Bioshock - scores well on 1 and a bit on 3 as well, and a bit on 2 because there is some involvement in the supporting characters.

Dead Space 2 - scores on 2 with the Ellie character who comes across as refreshingly free of bullshit and "emotion on a plate". A bit on 1, 3 is mundane as usual.

Rage - scores on 1 but mostly because the world is so stylishly done. 2 and 3 bollox.

And conversely, considering recent RPGs:

DXHR - scores a bit on 1 but only because the world is stylish and has some theme with augmentations. Scores bugger all on 2 mostly because Jensen has anti-personality. Little on 3 in the post-X-files world.

Skyrim - scores little on 1 as it's a completely standard fantasy world, only dragons being novel, little on 2 at least initially as the characters are generic fantasy as it comes (might improve with one's companion), and little on 3 again as it's so generic (the story being exactly the sort of thing I skim on the back of a fantasy novel and immediately put it back on the shelf rolling my eyes).

So...my conclusions are that some sort of on-going scenario in the game world set-up and some direct involvement with a few characters are working well in gaming....and as for the story it's probably a lost cause...

Discuss (tm Smables 200x)
P.S. 
<@Vondur> oh shit Shamblrrr...
<@Vondur> that's some heavy weight thread
<Shamblrrr> yes
<Shamblrrr> it's not meant to just diss skyrim and if ppl respond to just that i will be cross
<Shamblrrr> it's about...well....gaming overall

So don't okay. Have the Skyrim beef on the Skyrim thread, this is about the overall concepts.

Also I forgot to mention:

Mass Effect 2 - having seen quite a lot of this being played, it seems to score reasonably well on 1 with humanity under some threat that needs to be investigated and stopped, and 2 with the botcoop nature and the squad you pick up and get attached to. 3, dunno. 
Blah 
Yea i see the pattern. For me, main thing in game involvement is setting, then amount of npcs interactions i have to do. Story goes behind it all, because I rarely seen proper story in the game it's mostly gameplay that makes me interested.

So, most confusing part in the modern complex games for me is alot of npcs i have to talk with. Skyrim is that game. They make it worse by not bothering selecting main questline with different color at least. So I'm now on a verge of frustration, trying to remember where the hell is main line among this huge pile of side quests. But! The setting saves the day in Skyrim's case. I like the atmosphere and color palette used. It's proper nordic and brutal. And I don't give a fuck about the story, I just wanna see everything game has to offer in terms of those little instanced caves and mobs and maybe some items.

As for Rage, it had proper involvement system, based on nice minimap guidance and fun combat. But main confusing thing there was arseloads of weapons, items, car parts etc. I was always nervous that i have to use something from that but I didn't. It turned that I can beat whole game using only my feking fists (my colleague did exactly that). That's kinda dissapointing. Still, Rage had nice involvement.

As for the other games in general. As I said, involvement lives on fun gameplay first, then I look around on the setting, it might add spice to the fun. Perfect examples for me are Doom, Quake, Rune, Portal, some indie games like Capsized, Rochard, LIMBO to name a few. Those games had simple gameplay, no npcs to interact with and remember what they're trying to tell you and awesome settings.

Modern games immersion suffers from complexity mostly. People have to think a lot before doing certain thing, not doing actual gameplay. In my case, I heard it's good to have a house in Skyrim, and get married (for some additional werdfun). I had no idea what to do, so i consulted interweb and asked there. I didn't play the game during this time, that's major break of immersion. Skyrim suffers from bad interface I think, and that's sad, because if they'd improve interface the game could be much more attractive.

Deus Ex from the other side had at least proper interface, dividing side quests from main ones. And nice arrows on the screen where to go. That helped alot, and didn't allow to break immersion. And i didn't give a fuck at what place in the story I am, or what conspiracy I'm in. I just wanted to sneak and kill and hack. Game did everything not to interrupt it. So I consider DXHR the best immersive game from all these modern three games (Skyrim, Rage).

Bottomline: give player simple system, don't overload with details, make main line clear as much as possible. Let nerds have fun clearing all sidequests. At least all these sidequests might come handy when you replay the game if you want. And of course, give some dark, stygian setting already! 
Yea 
Mass Effect had nice immersion and surprisingly well developed npcs. I even started getting involved into the story (rare fact). But only thing I hated is to return back to my ship and walk around from room to room talking with all those women and getting quests.... that was gameplay killer for me. 
Cheers Von. 
Interesting post.

I think the part about NPCs is interesting. The more NPC you can interact with, the more diluted the interaction can become - not in game complexity terms, but in terms of the player's attention. Smaller group of NPCs - particularly ones you have strong interactions with - can be more memorable and more involving. Large group, less so. But then of course developers want to populate their world with a realistic amount of NPCs - usually lots. So it's a hard balancing act. Comparing recent RPGs, maybe DXHR does it a lot better than Skyrim: in the former there are a few main characters in the first bit (your boss, tech dude, pilot), some story NPCs, and then the world is populated with "Civilian" "Hobo" "Police Officer". In the latter, everyone has a name and story, which is a deeper, richer society, but one that is harder to keep track of and harder to get attached to selected NPCs. 
Ye 
It's hard to keep that balance, but as i said, some interface tweaks, like some icons hanging over important npcs, some quest log color improvements, proper map (how i hate those scattered onecolor icons all over it, overlapped too!!!!) would make skyrim much more friendly.

Even in super casual WoW, which has everything in the interface to help noob player not to get lost, when i enter the area with alot of yellow exclamation marks, this makes me nervous, so alot of npcs to interact at once is not good ;) 
Oh And 
I just reasized that the best way to give story to player is via skippable intermissions. I just remembered all those immersive games had that, even doom and quake! If you were interested in what's going on you could read that text. Indie games also feed story between missions, and that's cool.

But I'm not sure how you going to feed the story in the intermissions in Skyrim world tho ;) Deys Ex managed, btw! 
 
Okay so apart from the fact that you know you're going to end up at the giant dong shaped building at the end, how exactly does Half-Life 2 do poorly on "progression through the game that gets the player intrigued as to what will happen next".

I was very intrigued as to what would happen next. What's the next level going to be, what's going to happen to Alyx or her dad etc. 
 
go play some jrpgs then we`ll talk 
 
STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl pulled me in like no other game in recent years. The story is very ominous and only revealed bit by bit, sure you're ending up at the nuclear plant but the entire stuff like the Brain Scorcher and the Wish Granter and how everyone speaks in hushed tones about these things really freaked me out. The post-communist setting is nice; it's more a survival RPG ("I'm just trying to make it" is what many NPC's standard phrase is) than a mad max type of world.

There are characters you get attached to and care about, like the former members of Strelok's team. Even some of the traders... sometimes even the bog standard loner sleeping on the floor of some ruined shed next to a vodka bottle. The world is horribly familiar; it's all the stuff we gladly ignore in the real world in order to stay sane. In that way, it is realistic without ever resorting to Iraq War antics and squad based warfare. The player is ultimately alone, but you don't go shooting NPCs just because you're alone. You know they are the same kind of poor bastard as you.

Well, it drew me in. 
 
Oh, another thing: In the original Call of Duty there is a scene where you're ferried across a river into Stalingrad, while people shout propaganda at you. On arrival, the guy before you is handed a rifle, you're handed a magazine. Who runs away gets shot. Next thing you know, all the poor bastards get massacred by a couple German MG's.

You don't have time to get attached to anyone there, but it does make you grind your teeth because of what happens to people in general. Injustice and all that.

Marching into your own destroyed parliament at the end of the game with a rifle in your hand was pretty interesting as well. Small bonus content for German players, you could say.

In both cases, it's the strong setting and the implied story mixed with the real WW2 story that you have in the back of your head.

The idea of setting, story and attachment to characters working as "hooks" is probably in the right ballpark. Then again people are different. Lots of people are hooked by sheer eyecandy, gore, comical violence and explosions. 
My POV Is As Out Of Date As My PC And My Mentality 
so I might as well say, first, I have never cared, nor will I EVER care, more about the events in a game, than I cared about events in Myth: The Fallen Lords (and to a lesser extent Myth II: SoulBlighter). Those nerds, some of whom had intellectual badassery I wouldn't have expected (inspirations from lovecraft, celtic myth, norse myth, hinduism, etc) created something that I'd compare to an HBO series like carnivale or deadwood, for its depth, darkness, and historical atmosphere. The name myth was appropriate for a mythical story, in which personnifications of hate, redemption, and above all death, rule the world; the profound soundtrack made it unforgettable.

now that I've gotten that out of the way, I think for action games, the NPC-balancing act is quite difficult. For the sake of story, no one wants to let the player fuck around. This might indicate some incompatibility between games and movies, at least for now.

How many people beat the NPC scientists to death with the crowbar in Half Life? lol.

In Dark Messiah I picked good, but the thing is, it's twice as much good for a game company to have two fully developed paths like that...

I guess we are all waiting for TRUE AI. 
 
Scientists! I'd also kill those. ;-) Unless I can sell garbage to them for lots of money. 
As Far As I Am Concerned 
stories in gaming can fuck off, or at least play distant second fiddle to mood, atmosphere and setting.

That's what pulls me in, not whats going to happen next in what would be a D grade movie plot. 
 
I think the Bioware (+engine) RPGs put a lot of focus on the NPCs and try to make the player establish an emotional connection with them. People usually say the games' stories are quite refined too. They may score on 2, but I consider the games, the ones I played anyway, to be fairly average. Didn't enjoy them nearly as much as other RPGs.

I see the point that Skyrim et al may be 'too broad' in the sense that there's so much to do and so many people to interact with that, on the whole, no deep connection to any NPC or the game world in general can establish. Though I guess one could also argue for the exact opposite.

I haven't progressed very far in the main quest line, so maybe there's a twist coming up or anything out of the ordinary, but even if not, the game draws me in like few others. It's true, the side quests, especially the 'more important' quest lines, don't seem to be connected to the main quest in any way. This was also the case in the other Elder Scrolls games. But then again, you could argue it allows the player to experience a diverse world with different factions, all of which have stories of their own. Of course, the problem is that it can easily make you get lost in sidequests and forget why you're there in the first place.

What also works for me is the sequel factor, as a "hook" if you want. It's nice recognizing the established races and characteristics from the game series as well as reading about it in the books or having it mentioned in conversation. So it feels like being part of a bigger whole.

But, yeah, it's not that I care much for any NPC. Haven't yet used companions, either.

Gothic 1 was somewhat different, I think, in that the world was smaller and thus more focussed. I kind of got to like the main NPCs and enjoyed meeting them again in G2. However, they felt somewhat diluted and shallow in G3. Quest-wise, I think the small scale allowed for a more strongly-knitted plot. At least most of the sidequests seemed to have relevance - you do them for a greater goal rather than independent entertainment.
Of course, it could be that fanboyism is playing its part in this assessment.

As for stories, dunno. There's definitely room for improvement, but then again I don't mind the typical "random dude becomes badass and saves the world" plots that most of these games have as long as it's fun and immersive in one way or another. There's probably only so much you can do without going against people's expectations or making it difficult to follow the classic game theme. 
Also 
Mandatory "lol, Shambler had a crush on Alyx" comment. 
ZQF. 
I think I should have been clearer about that, I meant progression through the game story. From what I recall HL2 was going to be pretty damn predictable about working up to some boss-ish fight in the tower + obligatory betrayal/twist + some mystery with GMan. I think it scores well on the general game (not story) progression because the scenarios are well done and part of a strong overall theme.

Meh, Alyx. Yeah she was hot, but I had more of a crush on Ellie.....still holding it together after losing an eye, and driving a giant mining drill bosslike. 
GB. 
Yes Stalker sounds like one where the game world has a strong hook. 
The More "real" Characters Are ... 
... the less you care about them.

The ones that don't speak much, don't look overly photo realistic are the ones that people like.

I'm sure only 20% - 30% will agree with this statement, but when you get attached to a character in a book it is your imagination filling in the blanks.

I personally believe overly realistic graphics and such in games reduces the immersion into the game. Likewise, it reduces empathy for the characters.

Ever notice how in a successful tv series the characters you may or not grown to be interested in there is a level of unknown.

Take away the unknown and you take away that piece of interest in the character. 
It's Time To Feature 
The more features you have the less time the team has to polish them. So games that have 100s of NPCs have 100s of examples of how badly managed the time was, or how much pressure was applied to have 100's of NPCs rather than 10 good ones.

Game story is good when your actions and what you see in front of you (as opposed to a cinematic) tell it. It's an interactive medium and should remain as such. Story and theme should blend into each other.

How many people beat the NPC scientists to death with the crowbar in Half Life? lol.

Who didn't do that? I was convinced that if I murdered enough the 100th, or 1000th would drop some super weapon. 
 
Perhaps the difference between stalkers and scientists is that the latter are somehow responsible for the whole mess you're in, so you're less inhibited to slaughter them all.

A neutral stalker is too much like yourself, at least for me. One of the first NPCs you see is injured and begs you for a medkit. I mean, what kind of heartless bastard would headshot him instead, then take his ration? That'd be pretty mean. 
But Also 
The reason for doing it is the exact reason why many people play games - escapism.

Brutally slaughtering the weak is something so abhorrent that the only area to confront such concepts is in play.

That'd be the highbrow approach. It's kind of hard to describe it so when it goes to ragdoll splatterfest extremes.

But I guarantee most gamers have done such at least once - it's part of our id.

No, not the software company. 
Was Missing A Smiley, Above 
As to my original point about scientist slaughter - the game taught me that killing things was always either good (they're xen monsters) or nuetral (they're scientist cannon fodder).

What should have happened is some sort of negative consequence for killing scientists, hope full something that enforced the story in the game. 
 
 
hm, i don't ever remember killing the scientists in hl...

about the russian campaign in CoD, i actually didn't remember which game that was in, but that first scene on the boat with the rifle/magazine and the dude yelling propaganda has stuck with me ever since. the whole campaign has this aura of complete desolation and desperation that really draws you in and made that campaign feel way more heroic than the english or american ones.
all the ruined buildings + snow everywhere almost gives it a post-ap stalker feel.

so yeah, 'feel' or environment of the game for me is usually the biggest factor in whether i'll like a game or not. 
CoD Stalingrad Boat Scene 
It's from the movie Enemy at the Gates, by the way. 
The First Map I Ever Released 
was available on the SKC club at planethalflife.com

I liked killing scientists. 
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