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?

Screengrab from Telegraph video
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The Telegraph’s bizarre list of 100 reasons to be happy about Brexit

“Old-fashioned light bulbs”, “crooked cucumbers”, and “new vocabulary”.

As the economy teeters on the verge of oblivion, and the Prime Minister grapples with steering the UK around a black hole of political turmoil, the Telegraph is making the best of a bad situation.

The paper has posted a video labelled “100 reasons to embrace Brexit”. Obviously the precise number is “zero”, but that didn’t stop it filling the blanks with some rather bizarre reasons, floating before the viewer to an inevitable Jerusalem soundtrack:

Cheap tennis balls

At last. Tennis balls are no longer reserved for the gilded eurocrat elite.

Keep paper licences

I can’t trust it unless I can get it wet so it disintegrates, or I can throw it in the bin by mistake, or lose it when I’m clearing out my filing cabinet. It’s only authentic that way.

New hangover cures

What?

Stronger vacuums

An end to the miserable years of desperately trying to hoover up dust by inhaling close to the carpet.

Old-fashioned light bulbs

I like my electricals filled with mercury and coated in lead paint, ideally.

No more EU elections

Because the democratic aspect of the European Union was something we never obsessed over in the run-up to the referendum.

End working time directive

At last, I don’t even have to go to the trouble of opting out of over-working! I will automatically be exploited!

Drop green targets

Most people don’t have time to worry about the future of our planet. Some don’t even know where their next tennis ball will come from.

No more wind farms

Renewable energy sources, infrastructure and investment – what a bore.

Blue passports

I like my personal identification how I like my rinse.

UK passport lane

Oh good, an unadulterated queue of British tourists. Just mind the vomit, beer spillage and flakes of sunburnt skin while you wait.

No fridge red tape

Free the fridge!

Pounds and ounces

Units of measurement are definitely top of voters’ priorities. Way above the economy, health service, and even a smidgen higher than equality of tennis ball access.

Straight bananas

Wait, what kind of bananas do Brexiteers want? Didn’t they want to protect bendy ones? Either way, this is as persistent a myth as the slapstick banana skin trope.

Crooked cucumbers

I don’t understand.

Small kiwi fruits

Fair enough. They were getting a bit above their station, weren’t they.

No EU flags in UK

They are a disgusting colour and design. An eyesore everywhere you look…in the uh zero places that fly them here.

Kent champagne

To celebrate Ukip cleaning up the east coast, right?

No olive oil bans

Finally, we can put our reliable, Mediterranean weather and multiple olive groves to proper use.

No clinical trials red tape

What is there to regulate?

No Turkey EU worries

True, we don’t have to worry. Because there is NO WAY AND NEVER WAS.

No kettle restrictions

Free the kettle! All kitchen appliances’ lives matter!

Less EU X-factor

What is this?

Ditto with BGT

I really don’t get this.

New vocabulary

Mainly racist slurs, right?

Keep our UN seat

Until that in/out UN referendum, of course.

No EU human rights laws

Yeah, got a bit fed up with my human rights tbh.

Herbal remedy boost

At last, a chance to be treated with medicine that doesn’t work.

Others will follow [picture of dominos]

Hooray! The economic collapse of countries surrounding us upon whose trade and labour we rely, one by one!

Better English team

Ah, because we can replace them with more qualified players under an Australian-style points-based system, you mean?

High-powered hairdryers

An end to the miserable years of desperately trying to dry my hair by yawning on it.

She would’ve wanted it [picture of Margaret Thatcher]

Well, I’m convinced.

I'm a mole, innit.