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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Taking back control... in the workplace

It’s time to reboot dignity and respect at work, says Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC

Jess* lives in a small town in the north-west and is on a zero-hours contract. Some weeks she could work up to 50 hours, but others she works as few as 30. And when she got ill, her company refused to pay her sick pay. Sarah* is 38 and lives in a big city. She is employed through an agency and although she has worked more than 12 weeks for the same employer, she feels like she’ll never get the same status as permanent staff. She told the TUC: “I feel frustrated at the lack of permanent jobs in the market and how little control you have as an agency worker. Everything in my life feels temporary at the moment. My experience of agency working is that you are on the bottom rung. You can’t speak out or you won’t get work.”

Wherever you go in the UK, the story is the same. Too many working people are stuck in jobs that don’t offer enough pay or enough security to build a life on – in short, there’s not enough control. Working for the TUC, I hear these stories every week. Stories of workers who don’t know from one day to the next whether they’ll work that day. Working people in all sorts of jobs who can’t raise problems at work, because on today’s “flexible” contracts: the boss doesn’t need to sack you, he can just take away next week’s hours. Delivery drivers who have found themselves deactivated without warning. Warehouse pickers red-flagged by a gadget that decides they are too slow. And stories from careworkers whose work lives are governed by the ping of an app – but who never get enough time to meet their elderly clients’ needs.

This is the reality of work for too many people now. Isolated from colleagues and at the beck and call of their boss. Without the small measure of security granted by a permanent contract and some basic employment rights. It all leaves hard-working people with precious little dignity or control. The time is ripe for a new deal for working people – and that’s what must be on offer at this election. For a start, as we leave the European Union, every party must guarantee that our rights at work don’t go backwards. Hard-won rights such as holiday pay and protection from pregnancy discrimination came from the EU. We can’t afford to lose these rights after we leave – and we need to know that they can’t be watered down on the quiet by judges or by parliament.

And in the years to come we have to make sure that hard-working Brits won’t miss out on new protections that Dutch, Spanish and German workers get. That’s why the final Brexit deal has to include a level playing field on workers’ rights – making sure they will always be as good as or better than what’s on offer to the rest of the EU. Second, the rules to protect working people haven’t kept up with how working lives have changed. One in ten workers is already in insecure work – and if nothing changes, 290,000 more people will join them by the next general election in 2022. That’s the equivalent of 13 extra Sports Directs, or the entire working population of Sheffield.

These jobs don’t pay enough and they push all the risks on to the workers. Paying rent and bills can be a nightmare when you don’t know how much you’ve got coming in each month. Britain’s 900,000 zero-hours contract workers earn a third less per hour than the average worker. And every worker pushed into false self-employment loses their rights to sick pay and paid holiday. If Britain aspires to become a high-skill, high-productivity economy, the next government must drag the rules about work into the 21st century. Promising a review isn’t enough; every party must make real commitments to crack down on zero-hours contracts and bogus self-employment, and make sure agency workers always get the going rate for the job.

And Britain still needs a pay rise. Rising inflation and slow wage growth means a new living standards crisis is coming. And we’re still in the longest pay squeeze since Victorian times: workers are on average over £1,000 worse off each year in real terms than they were in 2008. Over the coming parliament, the minimum wage needs a serious boost, so that it reaches £10 per hour as soon  as possible. We need to get more people covered by collective bargaining agreements that raise wages and skill levels. And it’s time for the government to stop artificially holding down public servants’ pay. By 2020, midwives and nurses will have seen their real pay fall by over £3,000 – scarcely the right reward for years of dedicated public service.

Of course, the best way to raise wages is to bring great jobs to every corner of the country. In both 2014 and 2015, London’s growth was double that of the average across the rest of the UK. We still lag behind our competitors on the infrastructure we need to help the whole country – such as modern transport links and fast broadband. And our investment in infrastructure is the lowest in the OECD. More than ever we need an industrial strategy that delivers good jobs to the parts of the UK where they’re needed most. Improving the lives of ordinary working people and giving them back control of their rights – that’s what all of the major parties should be prioritising this election.

** Names have been altered to protect people’s anonymity.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC. 

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