When you say nothing at all

What makes you care about a videogame character? Clue: it's not ladles of expository dialogue.

Xcom: Enemy Unknown
Firaxis Games

“No, not Bonus!” I shouted at the television, as a pixelated figure exploded in a shower of alien plasma. Sergeant Luis “Bonus” Rodriguez had just followed three others from my squad in dying in the line of duty. His prone figure was a rebuke to my gung-ho base infiltration strategy.

I have been playing Xcom, an update of a 1990s turn-based strategy game, perhaps more than is healthy the last few weeks. As someone who is most interested in the narrative potential of video games, it’s been an interesting experience: there is very little plot, dialogue or character development. And yet I love it. Perhaps that’s why I love it.

Xcom has a mode called “Ironman” which saves automatically after every turn. That means that if one of your soldiers gets killed in combat, it’s permanent. No sneaky reloading. It instantly makes you care more, as does the fact that a levelled-up colonel is a valuable resource, far better than a rookie. But the thing I keep coming back to is the brilliance of using nicknames: the game randomly assigns one to a soldier once he or she reaches a certain rank (I’m currently playing with Snake Eyes, Doc, Hex, Shotsy, Rhino and Collateral). This small signifier of personality is totally meaningless, the result of an algorithm, and yet it makes them feel much more “alive” – and makes their fates feel like something I should care about.

Friends who are playing the game agree: one was so tense about losing another Fast Lane or Rogue that he took to restyling all his squad with the same face and voice, and naming them simply “Soldier X”. Another went the other way and named them after colleagues. I’m not sure what that says about him.

The tiny pinprick of personality injected into the Xcom soldiers provides a useful lesson for game manufacturers, who have traditionally excelled at creating beautiful worlds and fluid, intuitive gameplay – then forcing you to play as, and interact with, dreary, repetitive blankeyed automatons. The emotion most usually provoked by game characters is irritation.

Xcomavoids one of the most common pitfalls in character creation – saying too much. This is a particular problem with NPCs (non-playable characters). In the Fable series, any illusion of reality was ruined by walking into yet another village filled with the same three faces saying the same dozen or so lines. In Skyrim, I had to offset the advantages of having a strapping young woman called Mjoll the Lioness helping me out in battle with the immense annoyance of her constantly droning on about her younger days as a buccaneer, using one of four sentences she’d been programmed to say.

It’s even worse when you have to talk to someone as part of a quest in an adventure game: too often, you are choosing from one of three clearly defined options (usually: be charming, be threatening, be neutral), but still have to wait through a droid slowly voicing the dialogue tree. Insult is added to injury when the subtitles are turned on, as you can see in a picosecond which to choose, but still have to suffer some boring anecdote about how well their whittling business is going before you’re allowed to select it.

The dialogue can be actively alienating, too. There’s a moment in Call of Juarez that Graham Linehan skewered in Gameswipe: your protagonist walks into a lowly hut and growls at the prim lady of the house, cowering beneath her bonnet: “Don’t move, bitch”. “You think, I don’t want to play you,” he said. “You’re an idiot.” (Linehan also points out the magnificent moustache sported by Captain Price in Modern Warfare makes you care about him – and he’s got a nickname, Bravo Six.)

Given the technical and storytelling limitations on games at the moment, I think that most developers would be best going for a title full of strong, silent types, giving the characters personality through deft touches rather than ladles of expositionary dialogue. Look at Ico, a ten-year-old PlayStation 2 game, where you were a young boy guiding a young girl from a castle. Normally, “escort missions” make me want to weep with frustration: you’re supposed to safeguard an NPC through winding corridors full of baddies, while they display an unerring ability to wander headfirst into the nearest hail of bullets. But Ico made the escort mission the focus of the gameplay: you couldn’t move on unless you held the girl Yorda’s hand. There was minimal dialogue, in a fictional language, and because Yorda was silently helpless, you began to care about her.

Sometimes, then, the best characters are the least wordy. At the end of Fable 2, you face a choice: either sacrifice the dog that has accompanied you all game, or hundreds of thousands of people. I chose the dog, which had trotted at my heels and nipped at so many enemies, and really missed it, whereas the presence or absence of hordes of identikit NPCs would have barely registered. And that dog didn’t even have a nickname.

Xcom. Courtesy Flickr/JBLivin

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Greece: a warning for Britain?

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The economics of outrage: Why you haven't seen the end of Katie Hopkins

Her distasteful tweet may have cost her a job at LBC, but this isn't the last we've seen of Britain's biggest troll. 

Another atrocity, other surge of grief and fear, and there like clockwork was the UK’s biggest troll. Hours after the explosion at the Manchester Arena that killed 22 mostly young and female concert goers, Katie Hopkins weighed in with a very on-brand tweet calling for a “final solution” to the complex issue of terrorism.

She quickly deleted it, replacing the offending phrase with the words “true solution”, but did not tone down the essentially fascist message. Few thought it had been an innocent mistake on the part of someone unaware of the historical connotations of those two words.  And no matter how many urged their fellow web users not to give Hopkins the attention she craved, it still sparked angry tweets, condemnatory news articles and even reports to the police.

Hopkins has lost her presenting job at LBC radio, but she is yet to lose her column at Mail Online, and it’s quite likely she won’t.

Mail Online and its print counterpart The Daily Mail have regularly shown they are prepared to go down the deliberately divisive path Hopkins was signposting. But even if the site's managing editor Martin Clarke was secretly a liberal sandal-wearer, there are also very good economic reasons for Mail Online to stick with her. The extreme and outrageous is great at gaining attention, and attention is what makes money for Mail Online.

It is ironic that Hopkins’s career was initially helped by TV’s attempts to provide balance. Producers could rely on her to provide a counterweight to even the most committed and rational bleeding-heart liberal.

As Patrick Smith, a former media specialist who is currently a senior reporter at BuzzFeed News points out: “It’s very difficult for producers who are legally bound to be balanced, they will sometimes literally have lawyers in the room.”

“That in a way is why some people who are skirting very close or beyond the bounds of taste and decency get on air.”

But while TV may have made Hopkins, it is online where her extreme views perform best.  As digital publishers have learned, the best way to get the shares, clicks and page views that make them money is to provoke an emotional response. And there are few things as good at provoking an emotional response as extreme and outrageous political views.

And in many ways it doesn’t matter whether that response is negative or positive. Those who complain about what Hopkins says are also the ones who draw attention to it – many will read what she writes in order to know exactly why they should hate her.

Of course using outrageous views as a sales tactic is not confined to the web – The Daily Mail prints columns by Sarah Vine for a reason - but the risks of pushing the boundaries of taste and decency are greater in a linear, analogue world. Cancelling a newspaper subscription or changing radio station is a simpler and often longer-lasting act than pledging to never click on a tempting link on Twitter or Facebook. LBC may have had far more to lose from sticking with Hopkins than Mail Online does, and much less to gain. Someone prepared to say what Hopkins says will not be out of work for long. 

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