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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Where Labour has no chance, hold your nose and vote Lib Dem

May's gamble, MacKenzie's obsession and Wisden obituaries - Peter Wilby's First Thoughts.

In 2007 Gordon Brown allowed rumours to circulate that he would call an early general election for the spring of 2008. When he failed to do so, he was considered a coward and a ditherer and never recovered. Theresa May has tried a different strategy. After firmly denying that she would call an early election and killing off speculation about one, she suddenly announced an election after all. Will this work better for her than the opposite worked for Brown?

The Prime Minister risks being seen as a liar and an opportunist. Her demand for “unity” at Westminster is alarming, because it suggests that there is no role for opposition parties on the most important issue of the day. If Labour and the Lib Dems are smart enough to co-operate sufficiently to rally the country against what looks like an attempt to instal an authoritarian, right-wing Tory regime, May, even if she wins the election, could find herself weakened, not strengthened. I never thought I would write this but, in constituencies where Labour has no chance, its supporters should hold their noses and vote Lib Dem.

Taken for granted

I wonder if May, before she took her decision, looked at the precedents of prime ministers who called unnecessary elections when they already had comfortable parliamentary majorities. In 1974, after three and a half years in office, Edward Heath, with a Tory majority of 30, called a “Who runs Britain?” election during a prolonged dispute with the miners. He lost. In 1923, Stanley Baldwin, a new Tory leader sitting on a majority of 75 obtained by his predecessor just a year earlier, called an election because he wished to introduce tariffs, an issue strikingly similar to the one raised by Brexit. He also lost. The lesson, I think (and hope), is that prime ministers take the electorate for granted at their peril.

China’s long game

Commentators compare the crisis ­involving North Korea and the US with the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. It doesn’t feel that way to me. For several days that year, nuclear war seemed, to my 17-year-old mind, all but inevitable. I went to the cinema one afternoon and felt surprise when I emerged three hours later to find the world – or, at least, the city of Leicester – going about its business as normal. Two nuclear powers were in direct confrontation. The US threatened to invade communist Cuba to remove Soviet missiles and blockaded the island to prevent deliveries of more weapons. Soviet ships sailed towards the US navy. It wasn’t easy to imagine a compromise, or who would broker one. Nobody doubted that the two sides’ weapons would work. The Soviet Union had carried out nearly 200 nuclear tests. North Korea has claimed just five.

For all the talk of intercontinental missiles, North Korea at present isn’t a credible threat to anybody except possibly its neighbours, and certainly not to the US or Britain. It is in no sense a geopolitical or economic rival to the US. Donald Trump, who, like everybody else, finds the Middle East infernally complicated, is looking for an easy, short-term victory. The Chinese will probably arrange one for him. With 3,500 years of civilisation behind them, they are accustomed to playing the long game.

Mussel pains

Whenever I read Kelvin MacKenzie’s columns in the Sun, I find him complaining about the size of mussels served by the Loch Fyne chain, a subject on which he happens to be right, though one wonders why he doesn’t just order something else. Otherwise, he writes badly and unfunnily, often aiming abuse at vulnerable people such as benefit claimants. It’s a new departure, however, to insult someone because they were on the receiving end of what MacKenzie calls “a nasty right-hander”, apparently unprovoked, in a Liverpool nightclub. He called the victim, the Everton and England footballer Ross Barkley, who has a Nigerian grandfather, “one of our dimmest footballers” and likened him to “a gorilla at the zoo”.
The paper has suspended MacKenzie, a former Sun editor, and Merseyside Police is investigating him for racism, though he claims he didn’t know of Barkley’s ancestry.

Several commentators express amazement that Sun editors allowed such tripe to be published. It was not, I think, a mistake. Britain has no equivalent of America’s successful alt-right Breitbart website, disruptively flinging insults at all and sundry and testing the boundaries of what it calls “political correctness”, because our alt right is already established in the Sun, Express and Mail. To defend their position, those papers will continue to be as nasty as it takes.

Over and out

Easter is the time to read the cricket annual Wisden and, as usual, I turn first to the obituaries. Unlike newspaper obituaries, they record failures as well as successes – those who managed just a few undistinguished performances in first-class cricket and, most poignantly, some who promised much but died early. We learn of a 22-year-old Indian who, during demonstrations against the alleged molestation of a schoolgirl, was shot dead by police and whose grieving mother (invoking the name of one of India’s greatest batsmen) cried, “Bring my Gavaskar back!” In England, two young men drowned, having played one first-class match each, and a 22-year-old Sussex fast bowler, described as “roguish” and “enormously popular”, fell off a roof while celebrating New Year with friends in Scotland. In South Africa, a young batsman was among five municipal employees killed when their truck crashed; the local mayor fled the funeral as his workmates “chanted menacingly” about unpaid wages.

Among the better-known deaths is that of Martin Crowe, probably New Zealand’s best batsman. In a Test match, he once got out on 299 and reckoned the near-miss contributed to the cancer that killed him at 53. “It tore at me like a vulture pecking dead flesh,” he said. Cricket can do that kind of thing to you. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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