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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An unmatched font of knowledge

Edinburgh’s global reputation as a knowledge economy is rooted in the performance and international outlook of its four universities.

As sociologist-turned US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan recognised when asked how to create a world-class city, a strong academic offering is pivotal to any forward-looking, ambitious city. “Build a university,” he said, “and wait 200 years.” He recognised the long-term return such an investment can deliver; how a renowned academic institution can help attract the world. However, in today’s increasingly globalised higher education sector, world-class universities no longer rely on the world coming to come to them – their outlook is increasingly international.

Boasting four world-class universities, Edinburgh not only attracts and retains students from around the world, but also increasingly exports its own distinctively Scottish brand of academic excellence. In fact, 53.9% of the city’s working age population is educated to degree level.

In the most recent QS World University Rankings, the University of Edinburgh was named as the 21st best university in the world, reflecting its reputation for research and teaching. It’s a fact reflected in the latest UK Research Exercise Framework (REF), conducted in 2014, which judged 96% of its academic departments to be producing world-leading research.

Innovation engine

Measured across the UK, annual Gross Value Added (GVA) by University of Edinburgh start-ups contributes more than £164m to the UK economy. In fact, of 262 companies to emerge from the university since the 1960s, 81% remain active today, employing more than 2,700 staff globally. That performance places the University of Edinburgh ahead of institutions such as MIT in terms of the number of start-ups it generates; an innovation hothouse that underlines why one in four graduates remain in Edinburgh and why blue chip brands such as Amazon, IBM and Microsoft all have R&D facilities in the city.

One such spin out making its mark is PureLiFi, founded by Professor Harald Haas to commercialise his groundbreaking research on data transmission using the visible light spectrum. With data transfer speeds 10,000 times faster than radio waves, LiFi not only enables bandwidths of 1 Gigabit/sec but is also far more secure.

Edinburgh’s universities play a pivotal role in the local economy. Through its core operations, knowledge transfer activities and world-class research the University generated £4.9bn in GVA and 44,500 jobs globally, when accounting for international alumni.

With £1.4bn earmarked for estate development over the next 10 years, the University of Edinburgh remains the city’s largest property developer. Its extensive programme of investment includes the soon-to-open Higgs Centre for Innovation. A partnership with the UK Astronomy Technology Centre, the new centre will open next year and will supply business incubation support for potential big data and space technology applications, enabling start-ups to realise the commercial potential of applied research in subjects such as particle physics.

It’s a story of innovation that is mirrored across Edinburgh’s academic landscape. Each university has carved its own areas of academic excellence and research expertise, such as the University of Edinburgh’s renowned School of Informatics, ranked among the world’s elite institutions for Computer Science. 

The future of energy

Research conducted into the economic impact of Heriot-Watt University demonstrated that it generates £278m in annual GVA for the Scottish economy and directly supports more than 6,000 jobs.

Set in 380-acres of picturesque parkland, Heriot-Watt University incorporates the Edinburgh Research Park, the first science park of its kind in the UK and now home to more than 40 companies.

Consistently ranked in the top 25% of UK universities, Heriot-Watt University enjoys an increasingly international reputation underpinned by a strong track record in research. 82% of the institution’s research is considered world-class (REF) – a fact reflected in a record breaking year for the university, attracting £40.6m in research funding in 2015. With an expanding campus in Dubai and last year’s opening of a £35m campus in Malaysia, Heriot-Watt is now among the UK’s top five universities in terms of international presence and numbers of international students.

"In 2015, Heriot-Watt University was ranked 34th overall in the QS ‘Top 50 under 50’ world rankings." 

Its established strengths in industry-related research will be further boosted with the imminent opening of the £20m Lyell Centre. It will become the Scottish headquarters of the British Geological Survey, and research will focus on global issues such as energy supply, environmental impact and climate change. As well as providing laboratory facilities, the new centre will feature a 50,000 litre climate change research aquarium, the UK Natural Environment Research Council Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Oil and Gas, and the Shell Centre for Exploration Geoscience.

International appeal

An increasingly global outlook, supported by a bold international strategy, is helping to drive Edinburgh Napier University’s growth. The university now has more than 4,500 students studying its overseas programmes, through partnerships with institutions in Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Sri Lanka and India.

Edinburgh Napier has been present in Hong Kong for more than 20 years and its impact grows year-on-year. Already the UK’s largest higher education provider in the territory, more than 1,500 students graduated in 2015 alone.

In terms of world-leading research, Edinburgh Napier continues to make its mark, with the REF judging 54% of its research to be either world-class or internationally excellent in 2014. The assessment singled out particular strengths in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences, where it was rated the top UK modern university for research impact. Taking into account research, knowledge exchange, as well as student and staff spending, Edinburgh Napier University generates in excess of £201.9m GVA and supports 2,897 jobs in the city economy.

On the south-east side of Edinburgh, Queen Margaret University is Scotland’s first university to have an on-campus Business Gateway, highlighting the emphasis placed on business creation and innovation.

QMU moved up 49 places overall in the 2014 REF, taking it to 80th place in The Times’ rankings for research excellence in the UK. The Framework scored 58% of Queen Margaret’s research as either world-leading or internationally excellent, especially in relation to Speech and Language Sciences, where the University is ranked 2nd in the UK.

In terms of its international appeal, one in five of Queen Margaret’s students now comes from outside the EU, and it is also expanding its overseas programme offer, which already sees courses delivered in Greece, India, Nepal, Saudi Arabia and Singapore.

With 820 years of collective academic excellence to export to the world, Edinburgh enjoys a truly privileged position in the evolving story of academic globalisation and the commercialisation of world-class research and innovation. If he were still around today, Senator Moynihan would no doubt agree – a world-class city indeed.

For further information www.investinedinburgh.com