By James Hogan

An article written by Brian Bagnall appeared in Issue #14 of Game Bytes entitled "That Elusive Emotional Element" that I thought presented some excellent points. I've long been of the belief that there's more to a game than spiffy graphics and sound, and Mr. Bagnall explains this well. There are some areas where his views on the subject differ from mine; before we get to that, however, let's start with the basics.

For the purposes of this article, I'm going to describe games using two separate attributes, the first of which is simple playability. Playability is, in itself, a vague term, so I'll explain myself further... the playability of a game, as I see it, has several contributing factors, the most obvious of which is sensory stimulation (read: graphics and sound). Sierra games, for example, generally contain stunning visuals and music. id has released one of the most action-packed, adrenaline-pumping products ever seen in the game market (Doom), and Origin and Looking Glass Productions have also produced games with a very realistic interactive 3-D environment (the Ultima Underworld series). On the other hand, sights and sounds are not the only thing that can make a game a hit. Sid Meier's Civilization is so well-balanced and fun to play, it may very well be responsible for the greatest loss in "GHP" (Gross Human Productivity) among computer users during the years since its release. All of the games mentioned above have been tremendously successful, and their sales have undoubtedly been boosted by their fantastic graphics, sound, and game design.

The second of these attributes I'll use to describe games (the first being playability) is what Mr. Bagnall calls "That Elusive Emotional Element". In other words, a good plot can also go a long way towards making a good game. While the Sierra games DO have great artwork and music, the plot is the most crucial element; without it, we would have little more than a musical slideshow. Origin's Ultima games concentrate heavily on creating an entrancing plot and appropriate mood, which is one of the reasons they are so popular. Or take Star Control II... a product that not only had a fantastic arcade-style combat engine, but was a very good adventure game, as well. Had it been released as _just_ the arcade combat game from Star Control I (packaged with some new ships), it certainly would have been an excellent game, but not nearly as good as the hilarious sci-fi CRPG that was actually produced.

Unfortunately, one of these two game elements is often missed by many gamers, and I'll bet you can guess which one it is. :) A good plot can make a game MORE than something you do just to fill a few hours with mindless entertainment. A good plot can make you feel happy, sad, amazed, angry, or scared... just like any drama you would see on TV or on the big screen. Though today's technological limitations make it harder to use purely visual and auditory effects to make an emotional impact, it's very possible for a game to have a gripping storyline WITHOUT these; only then it's like reading a good novel instead of watching a movie. If you don't think it's possible, perhaps I should mention one of the most loved game companies of all time, one whose "Greatest Hits" collection, released not so long ago, sold farily well: Infocom. Remember Zork? Planetfall? It's a safe bet that the emotional attachment old-time gamers have to those games isn't due to the revolutionary full-motion video and stereo soundtrack. They are solid proof that a game doesn't need great graphics and sound to be successful.

This doesn't mean, however, that designers can just stick any old plot in a game and expect it to be good; other considerations have to be taken into account. I believe that Mr. Bagnall hit the nail on the head again with his analysis of Ultima Underworld. As fun as the game was, it got repetitious, and the plot was lacking and too stereotypical. My favorite quote about computer game design comes from _Ultima: The Avatar Adventures_ , where Richard Garriot (aka Lord British, Creative Director of the Ultima series) sums up the problem with the old "Kill Fozzle" CRPGs:

    "I call it the Standard Role-Playing Game Scenario Number One...
    you're the great hero, who you read in the instructions is
    supposed to go out and kill the big evil bad guy.  When you
    actually get down to the world, you never see the big evil bad
    guy do anything to the peasants, much less you.  You go around
    collecting lots of treasure and magic artifacts, usually taking
    great advantage of all the people you meet along the way, doing
    far more destruction than the bad guy ever did, until you finally
    become powerful enough to get all the magic stuff you need, go to
    the bad guy's castle and kill this person that you've never seen
    before in your life for no particularly good reason except that
    you were told to."

Ironically enough, though, Ultima Underworld I, for which Garriot was the creative director, seemed to fit this formula almost to a T. Our primary quest is to save a princess, but we never DID meet her before we rescued and never got to know her afterwards, either. To free the princess, we needed to defeat a mad wizard, Tyball -- but we never got to know him enough to hate him. Eventually, we had to defeat a demon threatening to invade Britannia -- but we never actually saw him inflict damage on the world around us. We just heard everyone tell us that he should be killed so we went ahead and took their word for it. The big climactic battle with Tyball where Ariel (the princess) was freed was satisfying because we had killed a powerful monster and gotten a lot of experience points, but little more. "That's nice," you're saying, "but didn't you just say that a plot HELPED to make a good game?" Yes, I did; but the point I'm trying to make here is that it needs to be a GOOD plot... something original, with a bit of depth. Ultima Underworld's plot was bad for the same reason Friday the 13th Part VIII's was; not only was it shallow in parts, but we had seen it countless times before. The game was still enjoyable, but not as much as it could have been if it had a strong storyline backing it up.

Here, however, is where I start to disagree with Bagnall's article. Specifically, he claimed that Id's Wolfenstein 3-D was a prime example of a game to take the player on an emotional roller coaster. Supposedly, we should really feel fear from the zombies, pity and sadness for the German Shepherds we shot, mystery from the hidden levels we would discover... I don't know about anyone else, but I, for one, experienced none of these emotions while playing the game. The only emotion really present is excitement -- it is, after all, a damn good action-packed arcade game -- but that's it. As exciting as it is, after 10 levels, we get sick of the same thing over and over (just like the "emotional burn-out" Bagnall described in Ultima Underworld). Sure, there was an occasional touch of humor from the Nazi soldiers' lines and such, but for the most part, there was just excitement. Even good emotions get tiring.

Let's take a look at the other emotions Bagnall feels are present. Sadness for the dogs? Hatred for the soldiers? Fear from the zombies? Not at all. To me, they were little more than bitmaps on a computer screen. Most of them never said a word, and when they did, it was always something along the lines of "Mein Lieben! Speon!", the constant repetition of which made the soldiers like mindless robots rather than hateful Nazis. Fear from the zombies? Hardly, considering how I could probably mow down several thousand with my machine gun before I would be overwhelemed... and even then, assuming I WASN'T magically ressurected from an extra life I had gotten, what happens? The world gets taken over by Nazis, I suppose. So what? In Wolfenstein, the whole world IS the Nazi castle. We never see Earth... as far as the player knows, it's not even there, nor are any of his family or friends, so he has nothing to lose from dying. Sure, we might experience some slight frustration from having to repeat the level, but _fear_ of dying? No. Sadness for killing the dogs? Like the Nazi soldiers, they're just bitmaps on the computer screen. Mystery from the hidden levels? To find them, all I had to do was run along the wall hitting the spacebar until I found another secret door (identical to the five or six others I had already found on the level), and just go down another elevator to another floor. What's more, this "mystery level" was just like all the others. Nothing all that extraordinary about it. I don't know... maybe it's just me, but but the emotional attachment I felt for this game was just a couple steps above Pong. That's not saying that I didn't enjoy playing it, just that I wasn't emotionally involved in it.

What I'm getting at is that in order for a game to contain "That Elusive Emotional Element", it's got to have the same qualities that make a good novel or movie. Originality. Drama. A plot with actual characters (not cardboard mockups) is nice, too. C'mon, would you actually pay to see a "Wolfenstein 3-D" motion picture? Two hours of "Speon!" and gunfire. No plot. I'm sure it would be a special effects extravaganza galore, but with no storyline, it gets boring after about fifteen minutes. Something like the Wing Commander series, on the other hand, is completely different. From the first mission you flew from the Tiger's Claw, everyone you talked to had distinct traits, with their own little idiosyncracies and personality quirks. As time went on, you began to feel an attachment to your Navy shipmates, just as you would to a character in a good book. Who wasn't a bit shocked or saddened when Spirit was killed in Wing Commander II? Granted, the Wing Commander script may not necessarily be Hugo award- -winning material, but it isn't that bad, and a far cry above most other games on the market today.

Star Control II is a fantastic example of a sci-fi comedy with an original plot (and great characters too), plus a good mix of arcade combat thrown in that makes for a wonderful combination. When I first started playing Return to Zork several months ago, it was immediately obvious that the designers put a lot of effort into the storyline and characterization. My friend I were cracking up at the "Valley of the Vultures" sign with the different population counts crossed out... the senile lighthouse keeper "Did you already tell me the password? Omigosh, I don't remember!" even got a chuckle. Then there's the frightened little boy under the bridge -- it's hard not to feel sorry for him as he relates his tale of his escape from the Cliffs of Depression. The game quickly had me itching to see what was next. I honestly WANTED to help that little boy under the bridge. When I had talked to the lighthouse keeper for a while and then started fooling around and stabbed him with my knife, I couldn't help but feel a bit guilty as the helpless old fool gave a dying scream and slumped back in his chair, dead. After all, what had he done to me? :)

I'm not saying that pure arcade or strategy games are bad. Some games are best suited that way, and I still love 'em (Doom is right at the top of my list right now). But people sometimes tire of simple shoot-em-ups or of playing Civilization for weeks on end. It's games that make the player emotionally attached to them that are REALLY involving and engrossing. They have a plot instead of just a "background story", and dynamic characters instead of static bitmaps... that's what will make them live on past the day when everything else on the market has evolved to some sort of total-immersion SVGA virtual reality interface.

Let me attempt to illustrate what I'm saying with one final analogy: think of the most gripping movie you've ever seen. One with drama and suspense. One that had you riveted to the edge of your chair, dying to see what would happen next. One that completely immersed you in another world, and left you yearning for more when it was finally over.

Imagine what could happen if you could enter that movie. Think of what it would it would be like to experience Sarah Connor's terror as a robotic monstrosity hunted her through the city; Jim Kirk's anguish at the death of his lifelong friend; or Luke Skywalker's joy and triumph when he destroyed the Death Star...

Now you've got the idea of what a computer game should be.

This article is Copyright (C) 1994 by James Hogan for Game Bytes magazine. All rights reserved.