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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Is there such a thing as responsible betting?

Punters are encouraged to bet responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly.

I try not to watch the commercials between matches, or the studio discussions, or anything really, before or after, except for the match itself. And yet there is one person I never manage to escape properly – Ray Winstone. His cracked face, his mesmerising voice, his endlessly repeated spiel follow me across the room as I escape for the lav, the kitchen, the drinks cupboard.

I’m not sure which betting company he is shouting about, there are just so many of them, offering incredible odds and supposedly free bets. In the past six years, since the laws changed, TV betting adverts have increased by 600 per cent, all offering amazingly simple ways to lose money with just one tap on a smartphone.

The one I hate is the ad for BetVictor. The man who has been fronting it, appearing at windows or on roofs, who I assume is Victor, is just so slimy and horrible.

Betting firms are the ultimate football parasites, second in wealth only to kit manufacturers. They have perfected the capitalist’s art of using OPM (Other People’s Money). They’re not directly involved in football – say, in training or managing – yet they make millions off the back of its popularity. Many of the firms are based offshore in Gibraltar.

Football betting is not new. In the Fifties, my job every week at five o’clock was to sit beside my father’s bed, where he lay paralysed with MS, and write down the football results as they were read out on Sports Report. I had not to breathe, make silly remarks or guess the score. By the inflection in the announcer’s voice you could tell if it was an away win.

Earlier in the week I had filled in his Treble Chance on the Littlewoods pools. The “treble” part was because you had three chances: three points if the game you picked was a score draw, two for a goalless draw and one point for a home or away win. You chose eight games and had to reach 24 points, or as near as possible, then you were in the money.

“Not a damn sausage,” my father would say every week, once I’d marked and handed him back his predictions. He never did win a sausage.

Football pools began in the 1920s, the main ones being Littlewoods and Vernons, both based in Liverpool. They gave employment to thousands of bright young women who checked the results and sang in company choirs in their spare time. Each firm spent millions on advertising. In 1935, Littlewoods flew an aeroplane over London with a banner saying: Littlewoods Above All!

Postwar, they blossomed again, taking in £50m a year. The nation stopped at five on a Saturday to hear the scores, whether they were interested in football or not, hoping to get rich. BBC Sports Report began in 1948 with John Webster reading the results. James Alexander Gordon took over in 1974 – a voice soon familiar throughout the land.

These past few decades, football pools have been left behind, old-fashioned, low-tech, replaced by online betting using smartphones. The betting industry has totally rebooted itself. You can bet while the match is still on, trying to predict who will get the next goal, the next corner, the next throw-in. I made the last one up, but in theory you can bet instantly, on anything, at any time.

The soft sell is interesting. With the old football pools, we knew it was a remote flutter, hoping to make some money. Today the ads imply that betting on football somehow enhances the experience, adds to the enjoyment, involves you in the game itself, hence they show lads all together, drinking and laughing and putting on bets.

At the same time, punters are encouraged to do it responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly. Responsibly and respect are now two of the most meaningless words in the football language. People have been gambling, in some form, since the beginning, watching two raindrops drip down inside the cave, lying around in Roman bathhouses playing games. All they’ve done is to change the technology. You have to respect that.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war