The Family Thing: Why Killing My Wife / Husband / Child / Dog Doesn’t Motivate Me

We’ve seen it over and over again: Our wife dies in our arms, or our brother is brutally gunned down, or our mother is eaten by monsters. This tragedy provides the impetus for our journey into adventure–an adventure that could last years or, more likely, 20-80 hours (depending on our completionist tendencies). It’s a tragedy that will remain burned in our minds for every one of those hours until we finally confront those responsible.

Or, more likely, not.

The notion of killing someone close to the protagonist to kick off a story is an old one. In traditional media, most of the time it’s not really meant to be a motivation that’s of particular interest to the audience: we’re not expected to be too distraught over Hercules’s children, or the Punisher’s family. Instead, we’re meant to accept the motivation as valid and move on–it’s just enough to give the protagonist an excuse to do what he (with occasional exceptions, it’s usually he) does while we enjoy the resulting twists, turns, and carnage. The inner pain driving the protagonist isn’t the subject of the story–what matters is what he does with that pain, and the consequences that ensue.

It’s not the most intellectual or humane way of telling a story, but you know what? Sometimes it works.

It doesn’t work in a video game. We’ve talked before about the importance of converging player and player character motivations, but to recap: The closer the player’s motivations are to the player character’s, the more engaged you can expect the player to be in the narrative. Wanting the same thing (beat the boss!) is good, but wanting the same thing for the same reason (beat the boss because he’s so, so irritating!) is better. When the player’s motivations are unlike those of the protagonist, you lose one of the unique strengths of the medium and–assuming you want a compelling story at all–you burden yourself with the need to craft a dual-track narrative that functions to motivate the player and player character separately. (A topic potentially worth tackling some day in a separate article.)

You can’t motivate a player by killing someone she’s never met before, or who she’s seen only in the briefest of cutscenes. That much should be obvious. As a consequence, if the player character is supposed to be distraught by the loss of someone dear early on, you can almost guarantee the player won’t be. Your story won’t fail on a technical level (in the sense that all characters can still act reasonably based on their internal motivations), but you’re raising a barrier to the player’s actual interest and involvement in the narrative.

This peril can arise in less contrived scenarios, as well–any situation in which a player character’s motivations are driven by something the player hasn’t experienced is a risk.

Let’s move from theory to something more concrete, and examine some different scenarios for a theoretical action-adventure game we’ll call Drug Murderer: Yes, Thou Shalt Totally Murder.

Scenario One: The player character, Karla, is a loyal member of the Red Panda gang. Within the opening half-hour of gameplay, a fellow Red Panda betrays her and kills her best friend, sending her on a one-woman rampage to defeat the gang that was once her surrogate family.

With a full half-hour in which to get to know the Best Friend, the player might actually care when he dies. But the player isn’t going to care with anywhere near as much fervor as Karla–and most likely, the player’s anger will drop off very quickly without reinforcement. At best, this can serve as an inciting incident to a larger plot in which new motivations can be introduced. At worst, it’ll be entirely ineffective.

And that’s assuming that we get a solid half-hour demonstrating that a) Karla and the Best Friend have a believable relationship, and b) the Best Friend is an appealing enough character that the player will actually like him. Fail to devote enough time and effort to either of those tasks and failure is a foregone conclusion.

Scenario Two: As Scenario One, but the game’s development team has decided that Scenario One’s perfunctory motivation isn’t going to work. Still, that opening sequence has already been designed, the cinematics have been motion captured, and so forth–the dead Best Friend stays.

As a corrective, once Karla’s rampage begins, she now quickly discovers that the Red Pandas have acquired a nuclear weapon and intend to detonate it downtown in return for payment from a terrorist group. Karla’s motivation now shifts from a simple quest for vengeance to a desire to save the city.

This is a nebulous, impersonal motivation, but it gives something for the player to experience and latch onto. Handled with delicate care (and with effort put in to make the player invested in the city), it might work; at the very least, it gets us past a severe Karla / player divide, where Karla focuses only on the Best Friend and the player has nothing driving him other than “finish the game.” A hand off in which a non-functional motive is exchanged for an adequate one is better than not making the swap at all.

Scenario Three: As Scenario One, but instead of trying to hurry past the initial motivation and replace it with something else (as in Scenario Two), the development team decides instead to make the death of Best Friend a turning point for the entire game.

The story is realigned so that for the first third of playing time, Karla and Best Friend are partners inside the Red Pandas. The death of Best Friend doesn’t happen until well after the point where the player is sold on the character and the relationship–once the player has bonded with Best Friend, killing him off has the same effect on the player and on Karla. This approach is simple and potentially very effective.

Scenario Four: After much debate, the development team has decided to get rid of the Best Friend motivation altogether and try to find something less dependent on a particular moment and character. Now Karla is an enigmatic figure with a hatred for the Red Panda gang and a depressed and detached affect. Over the course of the game, the player discovers the root of Karla’s present state–she was once a DEA agent who was held hostage by Pandas, locked away in isolation for years. Now she’s sworn vengeance on the group.

This really isn’t appropriate for most games. By intentionally obscuring Karla’s motives, the player is actively prevented from empathizing with Karla even as he works to accomplish her goals. The player is being asked to put himself in Karla’s shoes, to strive (through gameplay) to do what she’s trying to do, without understanding why.

Scenario Five: In this scenario, Karla’s past is the same as in Scenario Four, but her time as a hostage is shown in a non-interactive introductory sequence. This is an improvement–at least the player can understand what’s going on–but it’s not as effective as it could be.

Scenario Six: Instead of the non-interactive introductory sequence from Scenario Two, the player actually plays through short segments from Karla’s time as a hostage. These would need to be intense to be effective, but the job of this game is to convey a taste of the feeling of isolation and helplessness (as opposed to building a complex relationship, as would be required for the Best Friend scenarios). It’s still a challenging narrative and a tough protagonist to work with, but the approach becomes more viable this way.

Alternatively–or in addition–the player could spend time with the depressive Karla post-hostage-scenario but before she begins her murderous rampage (e.g., dragging herself through her day job at the DEA, talking to therapists, etc.) While it’s rarely as effective as creating emotion and motivation through direct experience, players can respond to a “character tutorial”–learning what sort of character they’re playing, how she reacts and how she thinks, and establishing the limits of behavior and agency–in the same way they respond to a tutorial that teaches game systems.

As with a mechanical tutorial, a character tutorial should come early and shouldn’t challenge or confuse the player. It should ease me into the character I’m playing, clearly delineate her motivations, and allow me to gradually buy into her personality, laying out the baseline from which I’ll work going forward and helping me adopt the character’s mindset.

There’s no single right answer among these scenarios. They all have strengths and they all have weaknesses. For most types of games, some will clearly be more appropriate than others, but there are always exceptions to wrestle with.

Nonetheless, it’s imperative that game writers are able to see these strengths and weaknesses instead of relying on the tricks of non-interactive media. Because if a writer (of all people!) isn’t aware of the peculiarities of interactive narrative and able to steer a game’s development appropriately, who else will?