Game design corner: Die in my arms, please

To live in the hearts we leave behind is not to die.

Thomas Campbell

 

SPOILERS FOR: Shadow of the Colossus, Mass Effect 2, Fallout New Vegas, Fallout 3, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

I was asked a very long time ago what happened at the end of my Mass Effect 2 playthrough. I talked long with my friend about the choices we made during the campaign, and then I was reminded of a grim memory. You see, on my suicide mission, a terrible thing happened which I don’t want to remember. My best friend is Garrus, my bro for life is Wrex (I hope he appears in Mass Effect 3) and Mordin is the most funniest NPC in a video-game ever. All of these relationships started from nothing and evolved into something, none of them were dictated, none of them were put upon me a la Dead Rising 2 or Red Dead Redemption. It doesn’t feel silly to be asked to care about a character, and boy does Bioware make you care. You understand during the final suicide mission, to which the whole game has been about, make one little mistake and people die. People you care about just go out in an instant, and I absolutely love the loading screen that says “Hold on to your save data for Mass Effect 3!” because people want to see their friends carry on.

I made a little mistake.

I put Garrus in charge of the secondary team, since I knew his experience on Omega would come in handy. I looked through the teams files on who to send down the tubes to help with the tech stuff (I hadn’t read any guide up until this point) and I chose someone who ultimately died right in my arms.

Jacob.

Now, a lot of people hate Jacob. A lot of them think he’s a generic character to fill in the ‘black guy’ part of the group, and my friend actually pointed out that him dying first was a common horror cliché. I talked with Jacob, along with the rest of the crew, in-between every mission. We talked about his service to Cerberus, his beliefs about the organisation, his relationship with Miranda and along the way we became friends. Not best buddies or the type that smiles and shakes handshakes, but the sort of type who’s friendly and cares about you. We weren’t distant, but I saw him differently than I did with Mordin or Garrus. In fact, Garrus had a straight up advantage on my list because he was in Mass Effect and carrying over my save data meant carrying over my relationship, which is an astoundingly well fit design choice. Bioware really outdo themselves when it comes to progressive relationships, they embed all of this information and character development, making them believable while keeping some great game AI intact.

A non-player character who is incredibly useful and interesting but not annoying is more than enough to make us care for them or at least understand the objectives that’s been asked for us. I want to learn more about characters that I come across and Bioware decided to build Mass Effect 2 all around progressive relationships was one of the best storytelling techniques of this century. Saying Mass Effect 2 has a horrible story is to totally denote what story actually means, and I truly think that the game is more of a lead-up to the finale of the trilogy. It is based entirely around relationships, getting you to care and testing your bonds with the characters in the suicide mission. Mass Effect 3 no doubt will unit squad members from the first and second on to one crew, and then ask for the ultimate sacrifice from you… I hope.

So, Jacob died there. The man who faced his long-lost father and learned the values of family, the man whose allegiance and loyalty and the man who died saving all of galactic civilisation. He was shot, and then died in Shepard’s arms. No, wait, my arms. I did exactly as Shepard did, bowed my head and paid my respects. I didn’t cry, but it was a true punch to the emotional guts; it felt deserved and earned. It took me back to long, long ago when Agro died in Shadow of the Colossus. I bawled like a baby, but then he was my only companion. Jacob was amongst many, and not in my close circle… but it still felt sad. It felt like… how it should feel to see a friend die, any friend, and for that reason Mass Effect 2 is ultimately one of the most important games of this generation. It leads the way in progressive relationships when it comes to video-games, and I cannot wait for the third title to rock my world.

How about we take a look at a game that goes beyond?

This is Boone, from New Vegas.

He’s my bestest friend.

He has issues.

You recruit Boone by helping him sort out some of his emotional debt. Someone in the town sold his wife, this is a very long time ago, to some Caesar’s Legion slavers. He has some other issues, but for now I’m only aware that he spends his time alone on top of a dinosaur shooting raiders down. I search the town low and high, looking for clues and prodding the locals. I come across the owner of the local hotel, ask her about Boone’s wife and there’s something odd. I search her rooms and find a safe, with the bill of Carla’s sale. Bingo. As asked by Boone, I equip a beret and lead her out at night in front of the dino. I watch him pop her head wide open and enjoy the gore-fest.

I show Boone the bill of sale and he says he’s relieved of some burdens, and I ask him to accompany me.

For a while, he’s a real companion. I give him one of the best sniper rifles in the game and let him loose, letting him tear through the Legion (who I now hate for the same reasons) and then I talk it out with the survivors. We’re a  two man army, the prospector and… Boone.

Everytime we rid a Legion camp, I keep poking Boone to see if he has something to say. Sometimes he lets out a few hints of what happened. As we inch closer and closer towards the end of the game, we prod around a few areas and he lets it all out.

When Boone’s wife (Carla) was kidnapped, Boone took it upon himself to search the wastes for his lost love. His wife was also heavily pregnant, and Boone was looking to settle down. He served some time in the NCR before-hand, becoming a hardened soldier and then breaking into a greek tragedy climax when he was asked to savagely kill children and elderly. All of this hardship was to come to a close, he tracked the camp of the Legion slavers and saw his wife right there being sold. There were hundreds of them, there was no hope he could take them all at once.

The horrors of Legion enslavement bear a mark upon me, around half-way through the game I had to go to Caesar’s tent and talk out about the Platinum chip and other details. Along the way, I saw Legion slaves with massive of weight on their backs. Talks of rape every night and other hardship.

Boone took it upon himself to not let his wife slip into a coma of nightmares, to lose her humanity and destroyed. All he had was a sniper rifle.

Yes.

He’s a husk of what he once was, and the Legion took it all away. We decide to head up to Bitter Springs, to let him finally reconcile with a piece of his past. He massacred children and the elderly, all ‘soldier’s orders’.

This is why New Vegas is powerful. Arcade Gannon, another companion, is a homosexual. It’s just who he is, it’s not overplayed or underplayed, it’s just a part of who he is. Craig Boone is a soldier, a macho-man… or so we’re told. In reality he’s a psychologically tormented man – the ultimate in greek tragedy. He’s a husk.

I complete Boone’s quest, and then I decide to do something. New Vegas goes that one step beyond Mass Effect 2‘s interaction and let’s you do utterly anything with anyone. I tell Boone to go to the Lucky 38, and follow him as he wanders through the wastes. He’s fully contempt with his past, and now he’s ready to go into another world. I granted him his wish.

I am saddened, but I feel much more happier for him. He’s with his wife now.

There’s a note on his corpse.

Carla,

If you’re reading this, then you know. Sorry. Wanted to make it back home to you.

The pension won’t be much but it should help you and the baby get by. Want you to remarry when you meet the right person. Don’t want you to have to be on your own.

Not sure the right way to say how I feel about you. Think you know already, though. Always seemed like you knew what I meant, maybe better than I did. Wish I was there with you now.

There are things I couldn’t tell you. Tried. Whatever you learn over time about my service in the NCR, hope you can forgive me.

Lastly, know you were against it, but if it’s a girl, want her to be named after her mother. Know it’s playing dirty to win the argument this way, but too bad. It’s worth it.

Craig

I’m nearly crying, I’m on the edge, I let the controller drop to the floor. I feel like George from Of Mice and Men, I feel so… heavy. Like, never before has a video-game let me have the choice to let someone be rid of all their anguish and pain. I care so so much about Boone. I remember taking down Legion camps, I remember doing his side-quest, I remember learning about his history… and now I am sure of what I must do. I must complete Boone’s hypothetical will. I journey to Caesar’s tent, I wear Boone’s beret and I look Caesar in the eye.

Outside lay the guards, all of them. And here stands Caesar.

I pull out my revolver.

One for Boone.

One for Carla.

One for the child.

One for me.

Perhaps this is the greatest achievement of mankind, or at least video-games. The ultimate in emotional engagement, taking the player’s will and making it real. Having a progressive relationship, without any history, evolve over time and develop with layers and layers of character development. Then taking that relationship to new heights and tests, resulting in death. Die in my arms, please. This feeling of just watching your best friend die is heart-wrenching, but performing it by their will is even more powerful. It was entirely non-linear, and my own choice, and that is the beauty of video-games. This is my point, when dealing with relationships then all games should empathize with the player. He won’t care for his ‘Dad’ in Fallout 3, so give him someone to talk to and relate to for thirty hours. Give him the means to do as he wishes; make Boone vulnerable, make the player let him go at any time and do as he or she wishes.

Snape kills Dumbledore. We like Dumbledore, we’re asked to care for Dumbledore and we do care because he’s nice to Harry. We’re not Harry, We’re us. We are men and women. Film is so one sided in that it is linear, it is bound and printed, but a game can offer up unlimited possibilities. I shot Boone in the head out of my own choice, I saw him as a husk of what he once was, and I granted him peace.

It’s an entirely emergent part of New Vegas that’s only being supported by the designers. I want to see people die in my arms, I want to cry at a video-game again. I would absolutely love if Mass Effect 3‘s choices revolved more about who survived, I would absolutely love another Far Cry 2 (which also does a New Vegas to some extent).

It may even be more powerful in Mass Effect 3 as I have a history with these characters. We’ve been through thick and thin for hundreds of hours… it reminds me of a certain character of a certain television show.

This is the true power of video-games, death and life in our hands. The power to euthanize, the power to grant life; the power of friendship. Boone’s fate was subjective, I know everyone I have talked to have not performed the same actions as I did. Some people saw him deal with his past history to the extent that he completely forgot, that he was no longer tormented and felt comfortable with a new friend. I saw hints and little subtleties to his true condition, and chose to finally rid him of his nightmares that he called ‘dreams’.

This is what I am talking about.

Progressive relationships over pre-determined ones will always be more powerful, and adding that non-linear design to how you deal with them always is more powerful. You can facilitate the whole ‘caring’ thing through character development, and a quest I have to do; but ultimately do not ask me to push a button and choose between the ‘good’ and ‘evil’ choices. Facilitate meaningful experiences, as they will be more meaningful.

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