Psychological Thrillers and Character Studies

Typically, when you think of a game, you think of action. Kicking, punching, stabbing, shooting, exploding… whatever gets the blood pumping. Yes, there are real-time strategy and simulation games (I myself have been a huge fan of The Sims, Sim City [although I was terrible at staying in the black], and the Tycoon games. Oh, and let’s not forget my beloved Harvest Moon). But I think most gamers think of action/adventure RPGs, FPSs, or Arcade fighting games when thinking about video games. Heck, controllers seem designed for them. But lately, more and more developers are looking at gaming as a medium for storytelling, pushing creators into new modes of game play.

For example, Amnesia the Dark Descent fits especially into the psychological thriller aspect of gaming, and while exciting, there is no true fighting. You are hiding from a monster against whom you cannot fight back. The second he has you in his clutches, your game is over. Gone Home, which Justin reviewed a while back, is a character study, I think, but of the player’s sister rather than the player herself. And you might’ve heard of To The Moon, an excellently reputed RPG Maker game. Even players outside of the admittedly niche-market of RPG Maker have played this, and magazines have reviewed it. While I myself have not played it (too deep into creating The Lotus War by the time I was aware of it), I know enough of its Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind-esque storytelling to know that it fits into this post well.

A comic book fan who is interested in interactive stories, this new genre is exciting to me. And really, less of a gamer and more of a writer at heart, it’s a very appealing genre – especially now that I’ve been taken with video game creation. What might its limits be, though?

Without action propelling the story forward and engaging the player, it all goes back to the story. The story needs to be good. And if the plot relies on a twist, that twist needs to be original, believable and engaging. I think the populace as a whole has seen one-too-many M. Night Shamalamadingdong movie twists to be taken in by anything less. The characters need to be relatable and likable and really – flawed, imperfect, real. We should have a real glimpse into the character’s mind or the world we are to explore. And I firmly believe that the character’s choices should matter, unless it’s one of those games where you just keep trying and trying until you get things right.

Our next game aims to be a bit of a puzzle game/character study, and I’ve been thinking (already!) of a sequel to that – although we have a large, epic sci-fi game lined up as the third, if all goes as planned. Justin and I have caught the creating bug, it seems. It’s wonderful, because this is the one mode of creation that really has thus far kept me enthralled.

What do you think of this new direction in video games? Do you like character studies/video novels, or do you prefer shoot-em-ups and swordplay?

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Visual Novels vs. RPGs

As someone who has favored writing for my medium in the last several years, it has been an interesting adjustment to making RPGs – especially since we have limits on the type of “cut scenes” we can produce. I find myself wanting to narrate moments in the game. I want to tell how her eyes looked, or how he felt about them, or why they were feeling that way. Thinking those thoughts. Maybe it’s also a little carry over from all the poorly-translated, ultra-girly otome visual novels I’ve been playing. Or maybe there’s really something to it.

Perhaps one of the differences between a novel and an RPG is that a novel seeks to tell a story that happened to someone (at least in many cases). RPGs hope to tell a story that happened to you. So we don’t want to exactly spell out everything that’s running through the protagonist’s head. Ideally, we’d put your character in a situation – and therefore you in a certain mindset – and you can fill in the thoughts behind the protagonist.

Now, as I keep saying, Ren is a pretty developed character. The goal would be, then, to try and think of the most natural responses a player may have to a situation, and utilize them ourselves.

That, I feel, is one of the short-comings of some visual novels: sometimes, they go in a completely different direction than what the player is thinking. It makes me feel like the protagonist is stupid. And it makes me feel kind of stupid for playing the game. The conclusions the protagonist reach seem to be mere plot devices to advance the story in the direction the author needed, rather than true, natural responses to a situation.

However, a plus side to the visual novel is that since there is one story line and because of the audience understanding of the game play (read: limited freedom), it’s much easier to avoid repeating the same exchanges day in and day out. Many RPGs will have only a certain number of things that each character can talk about. It’s a constraint that, to be really honest, I haven’t found it avoided in any RPG I’ve played. After running out of new conversation options, Carth always ends up just repeating “Can I help you?” Even in Harvest Moon, which is completely relationship driven, the girls or townspeople always end up just saying “It sure is a swell day!” (or whatever HM characters say). However, due to a lack of an open-world, with visual novels, the creators can completely limit the conversations of each scene, and in many cases, this is very effective in driving relationship development.

We can map out an entire conversation for each day, or at least for each area you end up playing, planning it by which areas we will guide you toward chronologically. But in the end, you will run out of conversation options, and Taya will end up just repeating “That sure was nice of you” just like Riku and Yuna and Rinoa and Tifa before her. Still, the open-world format makes the repetition a small cost, don’t you agree?

Have you played any visual novels? How does your experience compare to an RPG? What are some virtues of both that you think could cross over?