How many times have we saved planets, worlds, universes and all of their inhabitants, or watched them die, when something goes wrong? You’d think, we will get so used to it, we shouldn’t even care and just go through motions with every storyline like that. Yet still there’s a game from time to time which has familiar character personalities and storylines but makes us care about them, live with them, believe in them and love them. A game which understands, that it needs to motivate the player to do all that. Which knows, that it’s not enough to just assume that the player will just start caring on his/her own.
One of the biggest recent examples of a game, which completely confuses these priorities, was Mass Effect 3. A game which managed to both understand how to make you care, and completely miss the point, as if it’s parts were created by different people (which may be the case, actually). This game starts with the meeting of some “important people” in Earth, Reapers attack (a strange AI race, which seemingly wants to destroy all living things in the universe or at least Milky Way galaxy), death of some kid and Shepard (who is the main character) going to save everyone and everything. Already I have questions and problems with this – developers assumed that the player will care about new locations and characters, with whom and which we don’t even get properly acquainted, and which appear for a really short while in the start of the last part of the trilogy. My first reaction to all that was: “Fuck Earth! Let’s gather our forces in some other system, while most Reapers are in the Solar System!”
Now, don’t get me wrong – i care about real world Earth, real world people, countries and all the other real world stuff. This is “my” world – i was born here, i live here, i know it and i care about it. But in the Mass Effect world? I don’t give a shit about your Earth – i wasn’t even there at any point before, there’s not a single character i care about there, who can’t relocate if the Earth or even the entire Solar System get’s destroyed. Hell, i even know that humanity itself is not going to suffer that great, because a lot of humans live away from Earth or Sol. Sure, the destruction of “homeland” is going to be a tragic thing, but it’s less important when you know that the entire galaxy is in danger. And, what’s even more interesting, it seems that developers understand that too as about 80% of the game is about characters and places the player will definitely care about. You can save the Citadel again, the true home for the player, who has saved it before, knows it’s the center of the entire galactic union, and helped it’s people many times before and most characters you care about are there. So the game is about all that for the most part… but then just forgets about it, says that the Earth is important, then just turns Citadel into a lifeless plot device, disregarding everyone on it, and completely missing the point. Oh and yeah – i somehow should care about the only kid shown in the entire trilogy, who has been shown for a few moments and acted like an idiot. No thanks.
Of course, ME3 is far from being the only example. Most recent “cinematic” action games love to show mass destruction of the world famous places, expecting that mere view of that destruction will impress you, but usually they just make you yawn. For example, Modern Warfare 3 decided to drop the Eiffel Tower in one mission, but despite the pretty good audio and visuals it’s hard to care about that happening – you don’t care about the character you control, about that virtual Eiffel Tower of that virtual world of Modern Warfare. And even if i would live in Paris i doubt that moment would make me care much more, because it’s just a visual thing that has no implications for the player. Even if, for example, captain Price was in the Tower at that moment you could expect player show any emotion at the situation – it wouldn’t be just a visual cool thing, but would be something that may influence the fate of one of the most known and loved characters in the game universe. Instead, most “cinematic” shooters just expect you to care about their virtual worlds, because they’re “just like the real one!”
Or the Dishonored starting point of the story? I criticized the emptiness of the player character a lot, but even with such empty vessel, the game could make you care much more about what’s going on with a stronger start. Show Corvo’s life with the empress and her daughter, show how important these characters are to each other, how they care about one another. After this introduction, be it a short one or even not placed at the very beginning of the story, and the murder of the empress and kidnapping of lady Emily would’ve become a personal insult for the player, the personal problem he/she would want to solve. But instead the game just tells you that Corvo cared about empress and he is very upset that she’s dead, it would be enough for the player to care. It’s no surprise that Emily is the character you care more about, because you have a small interaction with her at the start of the game, which establishes her character and her relationship with Corvo quite well in just few minutes. And she becomes a more important character than her mother in player’s eyes. And, while this was probably the intent anyway, it makes the opening murder to seem completely mundane and hard to care about. Which is not a good start for a revenge story.
Obviously, the points i make here only apply to those games, which try to emphasize the story and make it the key element to motivate the player to keep playing. Although, ironically, some games with close to no story and no emphasis on it whatsoever may make you care more than those, where the story is the key, if the player has enough active imagination. And, for example, Knuckles story in Sonic games might come off as a better revenge story, than Dishonored. Mostly because, Knuckles is a memorable character. And if you have a unmemorable character in a unmemorable world it’s hard to care. Even if the unmemorable world is Earth.
P.S. Jim Sterling had a good video on a similar topic, about the importance of happy moments in sad stories, because it’s hard to care about constantly grim and depressed characters and worlds.