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I'm in the process of drafting a story for a single player game where the player controls their own made character.

I'm planning for the game to have an emotional narrative but I cannot wrap my head around how to execute it story-wise when dealing with a player-made character.

As an example, in games where the player controls a pre-made character such as in The Witcher series, Geralt already has a predefined personality which means the writers know beforehand how he might react to certain things happening. It's not so simple when the character is a blank slate.

I could try to gamify it by allowing the player to select their personality or build their "personality" around the choices they make while playing the game. This, however, has some problems. Primarily is that it has the tendency to increase the game's scope beyond what I want. Secondly is that this is not guaranteed to work as intended because if the player enjoys killing people but feel deeply affected when they see a certain village burn down, showing the character in a cutscene with a smile on their face (basing on the player's previous actions) will create a disconnect with how the player was actually feeling at the moment.

So instead of going out of scope for the game's system, I want to see if I can tackle this from a writing perspective.

Which leads ultimately to my question. How can I present an emotional narrative when essentially the main character is a blank slate?

An approach I've thought of is having the emotional moments happen between other characters and the player is just there to witness it either as a bystander or as a 3rd party who is only marginally related. That way the player's character is not so entwined with what was happening and does not need up close representation. While this may work, I also do want some emotional moments happening involving the player character as well but I just can't figure out how to execute it.

Thanks for reading my wall of text!

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  • What sort of game is it? Would it work to present the player some options to care about (pets, people), and then have some narrative around that. e.g. Maybe the player is walking through town, sees a sad cat in a box and can then choose to either ignore it, or adopt the cat. If the player adopts the cat, then they probably care about what happens to the cat. So we can make them sad by having the cat run away (or be catnapped), and make them happy be having them find the cat again. etc.
    – user54131
    Oct 13, 2022 at 15:31
  • @towr an action-adventure game. It would have an overarching story with story beats that the player sort of follows along. The cat example is good for a side story type of thing but probably not for the whole game Oct 13, 2022 at 16:21
  • Am I right in understanding that you want to create emotional moments without any player agency but also without defining the character yourself? I'm not sure it's possible (or desirable) to have a genuinely blank slate character throughout the game and still have emotion. If I can't either create my own personality, or put myself in another personality's shoes (as I would with a pre-defined character like Geralt) then I'd probably play something like Lego where I just hit things and don't think about it. Oct 14, 2022 at 6:55
  • @Mousentrude I am more wanting to figure out story-telling presentation techniques that will move the player's character out of the way while still allowing the player to be affected emotionally by the story. For instance, with my burning village example, instead of focusing on the main character's emotional facial reaction, only their back is shown so it's up to the player to infer how they will feel at that moment. However, this is just one technique and I'm looking for more. Oct 14, 2022 at 9:10

3 Answers 3

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I think there may be an elephant in the room, so I'll posit that there is, and will reveal it: Is there evidence that it's even possible to do what you want to do? Have you experienced a game that succeeds in allowing the player to "personalise" their in-game representation?

Personally I have had the experience of taking on a character's emotion--anger in particular--with one of my first games, when Ratchet was betrayed by Captain Quark. My contempt for Quark grew and grew and by the end I really wanted to pulverise him!

Now, I was stoked to this height of emotion by witnessing the selfishness and duplicity of this antagonist, and also the hardships Ratchet had to contend with because of him.

The antagonist also got me in the most "real" way as a gamer: his actions caused me to fail to get items and power I repeatedly thought was on the verge of obtaining--so yes, I was genuinely pissed with Captain Quark. His actors slowed me and blocked my way.

So I suppose that even without having any input into the protagonist's attributes, I could share in his frustrations and ambitions by having obstacles thrown at me and my progress hindered by the game via an antagonistic character. Perhaps whatever the dynamic underlying these reactions could be put to use to elicit other emotions?

This is my two cents on the subject. You seem to have a good mind for creating insight; maybe you can find a way to adapt this device to your purpose.

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Some examples that come to mind:

*The Ace Combat series (04 being a notable one in focus): Typically there are two cutscenes between each level. The first usually follows up on the actions of the concluding mission while the second will be a mission briefing for the next mission. Notably, the first cut scene is often told from the POV of a civilian or other person on the ground who is not involved in the conflict but has a tangential relationship. While the PC's character is advanced by his notoriety for pulling off daring missions and the stakes are set up in the briefings/debriefings (Ace Combat has a penchant for throwing missions that require you to fly ridiculously close to the ground, or through structures that are just wide enough for you to enter and exit but will cause a crash if you go off course.). However, the nature of the war is explored in the other cut scenes and told through the perspective of characters that aren't part of the airforce the PC belongs too. For example, in 04, you play as Mobius1, but the story told in the cut scenes is framed as a letter written to you by a war orphan who was living in an occupied city during much of the war and just happened to work at a bar where your rival (Yellow13) and his squadron frequent. These cut scenes show that Yellow13 was not the scary monster that his in game actions would have you believe (Killing Yellow Squadron is scripted, so any encounter with them prior to their death makes them invincible) and that Yellow13 was a surrogate father to the boy despite being responsibile for his parent's deaths and that Yellow13 considered Mobius1 to be a worthy opponent and was following your career long before you. In fact, the action that makes 13 come after you specifically is revealed to be that 13 prides himself not on his kills in combat, but on the fact that he has never lost a wing man... until you kill your first Yellow (scripted to always be Yellow4, 13's wingwoman and love interest).

Pokemon series: The emotional drive of the Pokemon game is the partnership between yourself and you Pokemon team that develops on the journey. This is typical of Mon series of games as a whole where you are working with your partner(s) and grow over time with them.

MMORPGs: The emotional storyline is experienced as you level up and can start to take on more higher stakes missions. RPGs in general, will also have a "choice" system that will result in different responses based on player selection during cut scene actions and morality may not be binary.

Edit: The single player storylines for Red Dead Redemption and RDR2 are considered some of the strongest parts of the game play.

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Make the player a ghost.

  • You could show them in cutscenes as a blur or outline.
  • It provides an in-game reason why the player's agency is limited.
  • You could have them follow the main character of the story around, thereby giving them a character to invest in and care about, without dictating the emotions of the player themselves.
  • There could be some interesting mechanical opportunities around how the player interacts with things, e.g. can/how do they pick things up? can/how do they walk through walls? can/how do they interact with people? Putting some thought into that could increase immersiveness and counteract the fact that they are limited in the choices they make.

Whatever solution you choose, I think that if you are not offering the player either agency through choices or a defined character to associate with, and you still expect them to have emotional reactions, your storytelling and characterisation of the other characters will need to be incredible, otherwise the player will have nothing to care about.

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  • This proposal wouldn't work for 99% of games without completely changing the basic premise.
    – Philipp
    Feb 3, 2023 at 9:58

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