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Player observation vs character narration.

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Joined 2021-03-01

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Hello Users,

I recently completed Syberia I and II. I’ll be writing about my experience with them in the near future, but for now I just want to talk about a thought that I had while playing the series.

Anyone who has ever played Syberia knows that it is a very beautiful game, full of wonderful backgrounds and fascinating details. Despite this, the world of Syberia can also seem very cold and empty (just like in real life ;p ) . This is because the protagonist, Kate Walker, rarely has anything to say about anything. The world is lush, yes, but clickable hot spots are limited only to things which are essential for completing a puzzle or moving the plot along. At first, this was very annoying to me. In fact, it created a major dissonance between me and the character I was controlling, which kept me from getting into the game as much as I would have liked. How can someone wander through all of these brilliant places and have nothing to say about them? It’s like when I go on a hike in real life with someone who doesn’t appreciate nature *at all*. Aaaargh!
Then something clicked. I thought ‘Why do I need Kate’s opinions about all of these things? Why can’t I just observe them for myself, and formulate my own ideas about them, and let them stir up in me whatever emotions they will, without having to be influenced or informed by someone else (the game character)?
Once I adopted this mindset, the game became much more enjoyable, and actually much *more* immersive than I think it would have been had I been able to click on everything and listen to Kate’s thoughts on the subject. Because I was unable to rely on someone else to describe every object and inform me of its relevance, I had to get more involved and analyze every detail for myself. It created an experience that felt much more like ‘being there’—the opposite of that original dissonance!

Now, I think that in some games, having a character comment on everything is part of the charm. In Monkey Island, for example, the characters are basically comedians. What a comedian does is present reality in a way that you might never have considered it. The comedian surprises you! Naturally, exploring the world of Monkey Island or Day of the Tentacle or Sam and Max wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable without the character commentary that accompanies every one of the hundreds of objects—useful and useless—that you can click on.

But there are some games, mostly more serious ones, that might actually benefit from having less hot spots and a less vocal protagonist. One that immediately springs to my mind is The Whispered World. Can you think of any others?

What do you think about this? I’m sure to a large degree the above thoughts are a matter of my own personal preferences, and I am curious to hear what yours are.

Farewell, Users!

     

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hi Baron_Blubba, welcome to these forums.
the problem that i love Syberia, and what you are saying isnt wrong at the same time, but we almost exhausted every little aspect of it, with many ppl like you feels it’s emptiness, but i know this wasnt a fluke, this was intended to catch the 1st person style like Riven with 3rd person perspective.

i would hate things like recently at Henery Moose when i tried a thing over another and the character gave me one of those famous respends ‘that wouldnt work” but it turned it was only bc i was far from the object, that what i call bad bad bad narration design. but Syberia is perfect for what it was intended to be.

but dont go away, here come the people to support you Laughing

     
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Hi Advie,

Thanks for the welcome. Don’t worry, I am not going anywhere. Where else could I go to discuss adventure games?

I think you might have misunderstood my post. I, too, love Syberia. My point was that, although I originally was turned off by the lack of hot spots or protagonist commentary, those very things ended up making me like the game even more because they helped me become more immersed in the environments. By having to make my own observations about the world, instead of being able to use the protagonist as a cypher, I gained a much greater sense of ‘being there’.

     

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Baron_Blubba - 02 March 2021 11:49 AM

Hi Advie,

Where else could I go to discuss adventure games?

I think you might have misunderstood my post. I, too, .

i have no idea, but you are doing great.. keep it coming.

i guess i did misunderstand,

     
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Interesting take!

Personally, I quietly lamented the loss of interactive hotspots. I thought the culprit was this focus on streamlining, but maybe it’s not just a loss: why not observe for yourself?

I recently played Riven, where this type of immersion worked really well. You get to be an explorer, with room for your own thoughts and associations. Another reason it worked so well in this particular game is the puzzle design. Rather than running errands, getting directions through dialogue exposition and ticking checkbox objectives, you have to discover everything for yourself. You have to pay attention, not by being bluntly directed but by noticing a pattern, or a connection that might be of interest.

Do you think it’s merit is tied into design? Beyond the examples mentioned before: comedy works best with a comedian character, but how about a thriller, or a drama? Can you relate a game’s internal logic purely through environmental storytelling and direction? Are there good puzzles that require a character’s input, in order to get the player up to speed, or is that always a makeshift solution for shortcomings in puzzle/clue design?

@Advie: bad narration design is such a headache. Especially in the case you mentioned: I remember a lot of parser-based games telling me “you’re not close enough!”, so at least I knew I had the right idea. Do you think good narration can be better no narration, is there a middle ground, or are they two different approaches that work for different games?

     
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Vegetable Party - 02 March 2021 02:17 PM

Interesting take!

Personally, I quietly lamented the loss of interactive hotspots. I thought the culprit was this focus on streamlining, but I’m compelled to reconsider: why not observe for yourself?

I’ve recently played Riven, where this type of immersion worked really well. You get to be an explorer, with room for your own thoughts and associations. Another reason it worked so well in this particular game is the puzzle design. Rather than running errands, getting directions through dialogue exposition and ticking checkbox objectives, you have to discover everything for yourself. You have to pay attention, not by being bluntly directed but by noticing a pattern, or a connection that might be of interest.

Is that true for Syberia? I’m not sure it is. Kate Walker is the adventurer in that game, not the player. In 3rd person games the player gets to share the adventure with the protagonist, so the role of exposition is to give more detailed information to the player to help solve puzzles.

So why did Syberia work for many people, when it took away a lot of that information? I’m not sure. Maybe it was the setting, it was a beautiful looking game for its time. The ambience of taking away a lot of talking? The puzzles, many of them mechanical, which replaced a lot of the verbal talk with visuals?

     
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I loved Syberia for the environment, for the music, for the beautiful and strange artifacts, for the shadow of Hans and Anne Voralberg and learning their story bit a bit…

I prefer less hotspots than many, in some games is overwhelming just to read descriptions or getting the message “I don’t need that’ or similar…

     
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Vegetable Party - 02 March 2021 02:17 PM

Interesting take!

Personally, I quietly lamented the loss of interactive hotspots. I thought the culprit was this focus on streamlining, but I’m compelled to reconsider: why not observe for yourself?

I’ve recently played Riven, where this type of immersion worked really well. You get to be an explorer, with room for your own thoughts and associations. Another reason it worked so well in this particular game is the puzzle design. Rather than running errands, getting directions through dialogue exposition and ticking checkbox objectives, you have to discover everything for yourself. You have to pay attention, not by being bluntly directed but by noticing a pattern, or a connection that might be of interest.

Do you think it’s merit is tied into design? Beyond the examples mentioned before: comedy works best with a comedian character, but how about a thriller, or a drama? Can you relate a game’s internal logic purely through environmental storytelling and direction? Are there good puzzles that require a character’s input, in order to get the player up to speed, or is that always a makeshift solution for shortcomings in puzzle/clue design?

@Advie: bad narration design is such a headache. Especially in the case you mentioned: I remember a lot of parser-based games telling me “you’re not close enough!”, so at least I knew I had the right idea. Do you think good narration can be better no narration, is there a middle ground, or are they two different approaches that work for different games?

I think the merit is definitely tied into the design. Not just the type of game being designed, but the quality of the execution. What makes Riven such a success is the way the environment interfaces with the user in such a way that very little is obvious to the player, but the knowledge that you need to progress is presented in such a way that once you find a point to ‘grip’ onto, that first grip, you can start peeling away the layers and get to the heart of the puzzles. Making sure that the player makes the right observations and deductions in the right sequence is very important, otherwise the player can become overwhelmed and hopelessly lost. Basically, the puzzles need to be easy enough to solve, but tough enough to make you feel brilliant for solving them.
The great thing about using observation in games as a puzzle solving mechanic is that observation is much less open to the brute force tactics of dialogue tree navigation and inventory item-on-item or item-on-game-world puzzles. At the same time, observation as a puzzle key doesn’t have, at least for me, the hopeless frustration that can come with certain challenging logic/spacial puzzles in which logic is the only key to the solution (ala a Rubik’s Cube puzzle).
That’s observation as a puzzle technique. As a narrative technique, it is VERY difficult to tell a great story relying exclusively or almost exclusively on player observation. It’s been done, but it’s really tough. That said, I do enjoy it when a game doesn’t tell me EVERYTHING through exposition. Whether I am supposed to be playing as the character AS the character, or playing as some meta guiding force, I appreciate it when I am allowed to learn about the environment or fill in details about the stories and characters using my own mind.

I also love situations where, for example, I might need to find out information related to classical music. I remember that a certain character had a violin hanging on his wall, even though the game never told me anything about it.
I visit the character to ask for advice.
I think this is much more satisfying than if the game makes an unnaturally obvious point of telling me that this character is a musician, or even worse, if the character exists in the game *only* as a musician, put there to help me solve this particular puzzle.

 

     

Player, purveyor, and propagator of smart toys and games for all ages.
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Luhr28 - 02 March 2021 02:40 PM
Vegetable Party - 02 March 2021 02:17 PM

Interesting take!

Personally, I quietly lamented the loss of interactive hotspots. I thought the culprit was this focus on streamlining, but I’m compelled to reconsider: why not observe for yourself?

I’ve recently played Riven, where this type of immersion worked really well. You get to be an explorer, with room for your own thoughts and associations. Another reason it worked so well in this particular game is the puzzle design. Rather than running errands, getting directions through dialogue exposition and ticking checkbox objectives, you have to discover everything for yourself. You have to pay attention, not by being bluntly directed but by noticing a pattern, or a connection that might be of interest.

Is that true for Syberia? I’m not sure it is. Kate Walker is the adventurer in that game, not the player. In 3rd person games the player gets to share the adventure with the protagonist, so the role of exposition is to give more detailed information to the player to help solve puzzles.

So why did Syberia work for many people, when it took away a lot of that information? I’m not sure. Maybe it was the setting, it was a beautiful looking game for its time. The ambience of taking away a lot of talking? The puzzles, many of them mechanical, which replaced a lot of the verbal talk with visuals?

I think it worked in Syberia because they did a good job—not perfect but good—of balancing the cold mechanistic world that Kate travels through and the sparseness of her commentary, with the personal story that unfolds through the little cell phone cut scenes. There is JUST enough personality-giving exposition to make her a sympathetic character, without there being so much that it removes the player’s observational autonomy.

And yeah, I know that Kate as a ‘sympathetic character’ might be a controversial statement, particularly given her treatment of Momo in that one scene, as well as a few other instances of cold fishiness. But her growth is pretty well done for an adventure game character of that era. I really didn’t like her at first, but by the end of the game I was able to relate to her in a lot of ways—particularly the way she drops the value metrics of her modern rat race life in exchange for ones revolving around less material goals.

     

Player, purveyor, and propagator of smart toys and games for all ages.
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