Friday, July 6, 2018

Mechanical Storytelling

I recently wrote an article series with a premise of evaluating video game characters’ personality as it is presented in the game and mapping that personality onto a Meyers-Briggs profile. The purpose of that series was not to map characters onto internet memes, but to explore the ways a game conveys character traits through methods other than cinematic sequences. I believe that using video in games is as strong a disconnect as using text in film. Not to say that text doesn’t work in film, but you don’t go to a theatre to read a book. With this series, I endeavored to take a look at other options.

I mean. It works.

In this article I would like to expand on some of the things I’ve learned while doing this article series, and in the time since. I will start with the root at the Meyers-Briggs structure I chose, and then move beyond that framework as I carry each thought to completion.

The first thing I noticed during my research, was that the four categories were not equal. Perceiving/Judging was always very easy to map, in every game I played. So why was that? These two traits are defined by a person’s desire to make plans and act on those plans, or to simply go with the flow more freely. In video games this basically translates to whether or not a character is making quests for themselves. If a character is following a discrete list of things to accomplish, you can assume their mind to be a place that desires structure. Nearly all games use missions or quests, as well, which explains why it was always so easy to map. Quest markers and quest lists directly reflect whether a character is Perceiving or Judging. Given this, we can now say that a game’s quest log is a direct reflection of one part of the protagonist’s mind. If that’s true, how else could we extrapolate from this simple premise? Perhaps a quest is assigned to us because of a thought from the player character. Maybe the character sees something that reminds them they should go pick up something from the nearby market. Maybe along the way they remember an additional thing they need to pick up, and another quest is added to the first. Rather than thinking of our quest markers as arbitrary guiding hands made by the designer to get the player to go where they are supposed to go, we should think of them as a visual representation of thought. This will allow us to seamlessly align player character intention with player movement.

Expanding on this idea, we could also use quest markers to show a change in a characters’ state. If the character is disoriented, the quest marker could be unstable, moving wildly on its own. If the character has gotten lost, perhaps the marker becomes more vague somehow. If the character knows that they have a specific task that they are supposed to be doing, but that they do not want to do, perhaps the marker stays where it is, very clearly, but is scratched out or in some other way obscured by the character’s own mind telling them not to go there. The options are many, but the lesson is simple:

Quest markers are a tool that can show a character’s thoughts and goals.

This is still kinda awful, but let's save the baby from the bath water, shall we?

On the other end of the spectrum, it was always very difficult to discern a character’s emotional state through gameplay. If I wanted to know whether a character was Thinking/Feeling I would have to look at their reactions within a cutscene or scripted moment, rather than their actions within the gameplay. So why is that? Is there no way to convey emotion or thought during gameplay? Well, there definitely is, but it goes against the easy power fantasy writing we have in games. Bioshock Infinite features a protagonist who goes around wantonly murdering everyone in his path. Why? Why does Booker DeWitt need to kill so many people? Well, the answer is simple: he doesn’t. Based on his goals, and his backstory, he shouldn’t want to kill anyone at all. He’s lived that life and is tired of being that guy, he wants to do something else. He clearly states his weariness, and desire to be reborn, throughout this game. Now, it would make sense if he were to backslide into violence during extreme situations. Perhaps the easy path of the game would involve lots of violence, while the more difficult (and rewarding) path would be non-violent. The player could then choose which route to take, as they go along this journey with Booker. The gameplay could then be designed to force a particular violent/non-violent choice at key moments, telling us which choices Booker DeWitt would definitely make on his own. By creating those key moments as character development moments, the rest of the gameplay becomes the struggle. At any given time, Booker (the player) could give in to his baser instincts, or hold on to his ideals, and so this is reflected in the gameplay. At key moments, choice will be removed from the player as Booker decides with certainty that in X situation he will definitely choose Y. This would make the entire game reflect his mind, and would tell us who Booker DeWitt wants to be, even as he struggles. Making this into a proper character arc would require slowly forcing Booker into more situations that align with his less violent tendencies. In other words, the player starts the game with many options, but is slowly restricted to fewer options over time. This can easily become problematic, but if the story is strong enough the player will accept the design. Handle with care.

This observation also highlights another that I made while doing this research. Gameplay represents choice made by the protagonist. Samus decides which items to bring with her on each mission. Whether it’s discussed, or even acknowledged, does not matter. Action speaks louder than words, and we see Samus start each of her missions without her weaponry that was acquired from the last mission. That tells us something about Samus. Would Booker DeWitt choose the same weapons to begin his missions? Would the Knight from Hollow Knight? No, Probably not. Samus brings only the essentials on each new mission. We may not know the reason, but we see the choice. This may have been a design decision, but it also represents a part of our character’s mind.

So where else do we see this type of choice? How about: if your gameplay is in the style of Metroid, and you wander through until you pick up a weapon that freezes enemies, why does your character pick up that weapon? In the game it’s because the level and gameplay designers put that freeze weapon there for the player to use, but in real life Samus is on an alien planet. She could go down any number of weird side caves. What we see in the final game is a recording of her actions, and a representation of her possible actions. If Samus did not go down that ice weapon cave, that cave would not be in the game. If she MAY have gone down that cave, then that weapon could be presented as optional. If that weapon is essential to beating the game, that means she definitely DID go down this particular cave. This is true whether or not the designer is aware of it. Whether the designer knows they’re representing choices their protagonist made, or if they just think they have a cool gameplay mechanic they want to introduce, it still says the same things about the character. You can adjust your story to match the gameplay, or you can adjust the gameplay to match the story. Ideally they would inform each other, each providing new nuggets to be used by the other as the game develops into its final form.

Either way, your gameplay reflects your character’s choices.

Games are a recording of possibilities, not a recording of just the final choice

The most difficult part of the Meyers-Briggs to map was consistently Intuitive/Sensing. This is an expression of a person’s inclination towards using information as it is presented to them, or taking that information and extrapolating based on outside knowledge or intuition.  If Judging/Perceiving is defined as whether or not we are getting quest markers, Intuitive/Sensing is the type of quest our character accepts. A sensing personality will process information directly, they will take a missing princess to mean simply that the princess is missing. An Intuitive person will extrapolate, and may take a missing princess to mean that she must have been taken to another nearby castle. One may choose a quest to search the area, while another may choose to search nearby kingdoms. If we want to convey a personality, we must choose which quests we present to our characters and how they approach those quests.

What I noticed, however, was that this was often taken to an extreme. Rather than simply assigning us a quest and then allowing us to approach it however we like, as is seen in most open world games, linear games often merely give us a corridor to walk. We proceed ‘on rails’ from where we get the quest to where we complete the quest. The space in between should be the perfect place to explore how a character thinks and responds to information, but instead we get cinematic camera angles and conveniently-placed barricades.

So let’s take the missing princess example. Our quest is this: “Find The Missing Princess”. We are then given control of our character and told to complete the mission. How do we do that? If we are a Sensing personality, we will approach the world around us with eyes on concrete details. Perhaps we are a ranger who tracks footsteps, so the gameplay mechanic is to look around the world in Monster Hunter fashion, until we find prints that look suspicious. If we are an Intuitive personality, we will approach the world with an eye on patterns, so we may go about interviewing people to discover some pattern happening in the world, and maybe we hear about a group of bandits who were in town a few days ago, acting weird. Either way, the whole sequence should be set up to allow exploration of the thought. How is your character feeling about all this? Represent that as you explore the space. Let their anxiety or confidence show through the world around them, or the people around them. Make the level so that we see not just one moment, but a handful of moments that all show us not just that our ranger tracks footprints, but how they go about the task. Sure, they’re looking for sensory information by tracking footprints, but how locked are they to that method? Do they also see patterns in where the footprints are located? Do they find one set of prints and follow that trail all the way to the princess, never looking anywhere else?

What quest they accept will tell us part of their personality, and how they approach that quest tells us the rest.

but how does that make you feel...?

For my last observation, we have something I noticed unrelated to the Meyers-Briggs focus of the articles, but very much in line with the mechanical storytelling that I was studying through the lens of Meyers-Briggs. That observation is this: gameplay never gets an arc. In film or books, it’s critical that a character have a story arc. It’s also critical that side characters have story arcs, and that the world around them has an arc as well. If the character is changing and the world is not, the story will feel very flat. In games we have a new element of interaction layered on top of the rest of those things, but that element never seems to change. At least not in a way that reinforces the story.

Think of James Bond. In every Bond movie, the stakes are set and we are introduced to the situation that Bond must face. Then Bond is given a set of tools to use and enters the fray. As the movies progress, he uses up those options until he’s left to confront the ultimate enemy with his wits. James Bond never faces the villain with his suped-up car or his exploding robot watch or whatever, because those films are all about being suave and adaptable. Bond’s arc always must show how he is a capable spy with and without his fancy toys. Bond films are not known for their complexity, and this is about the simplest non-linear arc you can get, so why don’t we see this in games? Gameplay always progresses in a linear fashion, forever moving forward. Players get stronger and more versatile over time. Imagine a Bond movie where he only ever gets more and more powerful as the story goes along. Rather than meeting Q at the start, Q would appear every 15 minutes to hand Bond a new weapon. By the end of the film there would be no tension unless the final fight was with some gigantic monster, which is exactly what most final bosses are in gaming. This works well, but is a bit juvenile. Why not adjust our structure, now that we’ve grown up? Instead of giving us a new weapon every level, why not use the big weapons as a crutch to get us started? While we’re learning the complex mechanics, we have simple mechanics to keep us moving forward. Then as the game progresses, we stop getting ammo for the big crazy gun and instead start getting a lot of bubble gum and tooth picks to MacGuyver our way through the rest. You’ll have to handle this carefully, as it’s important to teach players the skills they’re going to actually use, rather than tutorializing them on guns and then ending with a game all about basket weaving. Still, if story arcs are so important in film, surely we should be trying to use this in games as well.

And of course I’m not saying that these arcs aren’t used at all. Many games will add tension by limiting ammo drops or health packs. But very rarely do we see gameplay develop in any direction but up over the full course of the game.

And that about does it for my observations while doing this series of research. Hopefully reading my thoughts has helped to kick some new ones into your own brain. Feel free to comment below with what you agree/disagree with about my conclusions.

Oh, and if you'd like to read the research articles, you can find them here, here, here, and here.

Until next time!

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Psych Eval: Booker DeWitt

Games offer us a unique way of exploring a character. We not only see the world from their eyes, but we actually interact with the world through their choices. We use abilities in games that echo the choices the character would make when presented with a certain situation. These sorts of abilities define the characters in our video games more accurately than even the narrative that we are presented via sound or text. When the two don’t align, we automatically look towards the actions of the player character to tell us what kind of person they really are. After all, actions speak louder than words.

Given this, I would like to take a more in-depth look at some of gaming’s heroes

In this article I look at Booker DeWitt, gun-toting protagonist of Bioshock: Infinite. Bioshock Infinite has quickly become the post child for Ludonarrative Dissonance, the idea that a game’s actions and story might not align. In this article I take a look at the actions of the DeWitt in the game with the intention to understand how he does or does not mesh with the gameplay mechanics. At the end I will try to map him onto a Meyers Briggs personality group, and then discuss what this pursuit has taught me.

So let’s get going!

First off let’s look at the primary verb of the game: Shooting. Bioshock: Infinite is a First Person Shooter title. You have an interact button that allows you to collect items from the world, but the majority of interaction is done through your gun. You never put the gun away, except during moments when the player is not in control. You get a variety of guns and magical powers called Vigors, but you use them all effectively the same way. Aim at an enemy, click the button, the enemy dies. The means of that death vary pretty wildly, but the action is always the same at its core. You also have a melee attack, but it basically serves as “shooting” with limited range and no ammo requirement.

Your secondary verb in the game is “looting”. You can search the world for a variety of objects hidden in interesting places. These objects include health and mana (salts), as well as money, ammo, and etc. This looting mechanic incentivizes players to explore the world around them, providing them with the tools needed to proceed through the sometimes-quite-difficult campaign. You can also find optional voice recordings lying around, which explain more detail about the story. All of these  “looting” options serve as breadcrumbs to keep players moving through the campaign.

Because your two main verbs are “Shooting” and “Looting”, Booker’s progression through the game is just a murderous rampage. He shoots and steals at every possible opportunity. In fact, if we look at only mechanical interactions, this is where this game ends. Throughout the game you are treated to a plethora of cutscenes, audio logs, and acting sequences that tell a grand tale of dimensional travel and the fallibility of man. But that story is never touched by the interaction the player is doing. Players may make choices, such as saving one person or another, but the core gameplay is never changed. The story you experience is really Elizabeth’s story, Booker is simply along for the ride. He's still an important character, but his choices are not. As an example of this, there is a moment in the game where you first shift through a tear in the fabric of reality. When you enter that rift, the enemies you’ve killed are alive again, undoing your every action for the last several minutes. You even enter that rift specifically to undo a death. Given that your primary interaction with the game is Shooting, the ability to undo the deaths of enemies effectively negates every action you can take. The ending of the story later doubles down on that. “There is always a lighthouse” is basically the tagline of the game, which encapsulates this nicely.

Since looking at just the gameplay tells us nothing here, let’s look at the cutscenes and scripted sequences to try to reveal the character.

Immediately, this becomes a thousand times easier. Booker DeWitt begins the game as a passenger on a boat being shipped to a lighthouse in order to “deliver the girl and wipe away the debt”. He is presented as a ‘Pinkerton’ which seems to be some sort of mob for hire that does the dirty work of anyone who might need their service. He doesn’t seem overly proud of this job at all, but is resigned to do it anyway because he has gotten himself into this situation and it’s the only way he can see to get himself out. As the game progresses, he becomes more and more uneasy with his choice, eventually changing his mind about delivering Elizabeth, and working to set her free and give her a decent life instead. He works to save a group of downtrodden rebels who are fighting against injustice, he fights to overthrow an oppressive regime who is maintaining strict authoritarian control, and in pretty much every way he becomes your standard anti-hero rogue who decides to do what’s right half way through a mission that would otherwise have led him down a dark path. Honestly, just from the narrative here, his personality pretty quickly and easily charts onto a Meyers Briggs (if you need a refresher on those archetype choices, there’s a brief summary just above the chart here). He has an extensive social network that has gotten him into his job and has absolutely no trouble diving into new social interactions and making new friends/enemies, making him somewhat clearly an Extrovert. When presented with new information, he takes it at face value and judges what he can see as he does. Clearly a Sensing individual. He becomes emotional throughout the game, but he never lets himself get lost to that emotion. He’s always got a plan, he’s always trying to think his way through the next step and figure out a solution, making him clearly a Thinking person. Lastly, he begins the game with a strict plan: Deliver the girl and wipe away the debt. He pursues this goal relentlessly, never varying from his goal until his mind is changed, at which point his goal changes to rescuing Elizabeth, which he pursues equally relentlessly. He is clearly a Judging personality, preferring strict plans.

So, great! He’s an ESTJ! Our work here is done!

Except, that doesn’t exactly line up with the gameplay.

So let’s take another look at that, but looking only at mechanical interactions instead of dialogue or cutscene actions. Dewitt is still definitely an Extrovert, he’s never alone for long in the gameplay. He starts with a couple of escorts, tries blending in with the crowds in the city and eventually ends up with a permanent partner in Elizabeth. So that one clearly matches. Mechanically, his decision-making process is kind of a black box. Every decision DeWitt makes is during a cutscene or other story moment. Gameplay-wise he only makes decisions to open tears and doors and such, all of which are prompted by someone else’s decision. There are a number of binary choices he makes regarding moral choices, but since the player is free to choose their approach, this tells us that DeWitt could go either way. In the end, I’ll stick to Sensing simply because he doesn’t do anything mechanically to contradict that. Emotionally, DeWitt’s gameplay actions couldn’t possibly be more clear. The man rampantly murders everyone in his way, he makes every gameplay choice he makes for the sake of continued violence, and his primary interaction with the world is through his gun. His other main interaction is to steal everything, regardless of how it might affect others or his current situation. He is CLEARLY an emotional person, not a thinking person. Lastly, he keeps no log of missions, he simply moves from one objective to the next, responding to stimulus in the moment as it is presented to him. There is no checklist, there is no arrow pointing him to his next goal, he simply moves from place to place hoping to find his way further forward. Very clearly a Perceiving personality.

So…. he’s an ESFP?


Well, we clearly have some dissonance happening here! So what do we do about that? Having these two different defined metrics to point to allows us to realign specific features of our character’s personality as it’s presented through its narrative and gameplay. In this instance, 2 of our personality features are aligned, so we don’t have to change anything about the way those parts are conveyed. Instead, let’s focus on the latter half of our Meyers Briggs.

I’d actually like to start with Judging/Perceiving because it’s the easier of the two to realign. Judging/Perceiving is grossly oversimplified as ‘do you prefer structure or flexibility?’. If I were doing legitimate psychology here, that would never fly, but we’re simply using this as a framework to understand character traits as presented in games, so it works just fine for our needs. Booker DeWitt, in the written narrative, prefers structure. He appears in the game with the goal of finding the girl and he chases that goal until being confronted with the reality of the situation. He starts the game with a box of objects that lead him directly to his goal. When he changes his mind about his plan, he struggles against the plan he had already set in motion to abduct her. At first, he sticks to this plan, which leads Elizabeth to attack him to get away. Only after this sequence do we see him switch gears into improvisation for the sake of Elizabeth. In the gameplay, however, he’s simply being dragged along as other people decide everything for him, always in that improvisation mode. To reconcile these two personalities, I would start by making Booker have a specific checklist of missions. He has his ultimate goal, and then he adds sub goals as he progresses towards that goal. I would also have Booker make specific gameplay decisions. Setting up an escape path by opening particular doors, or clearing enemies from a particular hallway for the same reason, would be a solid way of showing that he is making plans, even while improvising. If we are doing a story about free will and authoritarianism, our protagonist’s arc needs to reflect that. Their actions should be definite, and the story should center around those actions, and the consequences. When all that lighthouse stuff starts happening and we find out his free will doesn’t really exist, it should hit that much harder.

Moving into the Feeling/Thinking area, we have a little more esoteric work to do. How do you show a character as Thinking rather than Feeling in a video game where the player controls their actions? As I’ve illustrated in this series of articles, the possible actions a player can make in a game reflect directly on the type of personality we see in the player character. If we can pick a can out of the trash, that means the player character is the type of person who MIGHT pick a can out of the trash. The in-the-moment decisions made by the player will always vary, but the actions allowed by the game define those possibilities. In order to convey a character who uses logic as their primary decision-making tool, we must limit the possible player actions to logical choices. Instead of Booker DeWitt responding to everything with anger and violence, as he changes his mind about his situation, that should be reflected in his actions. As it no longer makes sense to kill enemies (because they can just be brought right back through rift magic), he should focus on combating them in other ways. Subduing them, or using stealth, would make the later half of the game make much more sense (in point of fact, the Boys of Silence already introduce this combat-avoidance, showing that the game is already set up for this idea). If the Vigors were designed differently, they could easily fill the gap your lacking gun violence leaves. It would also make sense to ramp enemy combat in the later half into being so strong that your weapons simply aren’t as effective, making you fight through puzzle solving more (or giant turrets. Giant turrets is also an option here). It would also be reasonable to lean more heavily on avoiding combat entirely in the later portions. If combat isn’t required, and the enemies are becoming more and more difficult, players may choose other paths instead. All of these options would require additional tutorialization to make them flow smoothly through the game (you’d have to set them up before they became a primary mechanic), and they would have a great impact on how the gameplay flowed into the later half. It would require a significant overhaul, but we’re writing this article in a void where things like budgets don’t matter at all, and narrative is king. As far as the narrative, Booker slowly realizing that he doesn’t want to partake in all the violence would make a great arc for his character, and make the ending that much more tragic. There are other ways of approaching this as well, of course, but so long as the goal is “make Booker’s actions more logical” I think we’ll reach the goal we want, regardless of the approach we take.

So there we have that. I do want to discuss, briefly, that in this case I chose to align the character with the written personality. The personality shown through the gameplay, in Bioshock: Infinite, is notably less defined when compared to the one written into the narrative. The written story in this game relies quite heavily on who Booker DeWitt is, as a person, and so retooling that version of his character would require a far more significant rewrite of the overall story. I think the personality conveyed in the narrative also makes more sense FOR the narrative, and for the themes present in the game. Whereas in a game like Metroid: Other M I would be inclined to rework the protagonist’s written personality to match the gameplay personality, in Bioshock I feel like the inverse is the better choice. Honestly, I imagine that the gameplay was decided for Infinite basically in a void away from the narrative. It’s a sequel to a popular game, so it had to follow the original design with some few differences allowed. Video Games are a new medium, so this sort of thing is not at all unreasonable while planning your story. We don’t have many rules to follow, so it’s impossible to know if what we’re doing is going to work. Fortunately, hindsight is 20/20, and people like myself can come in years later and dissect the game to figure out how it ticks.

I believe that by better understanding these sorts of gameplay idiosyncrasies and what they say about the character you are playing, we as game designers will have an easier time presenting our stories as we intend. This article series aims to give us the ammunition we need to accomplish this task. Hopefully you’ll have learned as much from this as I have, but either way thanks for reading.

See you next time!

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Psych Eval - Monster Hunter

Games offer us a unique way of exploring a character. We not only see the world from their eyes, but we actually interact with the world through their choices. We use abilities in games that echo the choices the character would make when presented with a certain situation. These sorts of abilities define the characters in our video games more accurately than even the narrative that we are presented via sound or text. When the two don’t align, we automatically look towards the actions of the player character to tell us what kind of person they really are. After all, actions speak louder than words.

Given this, I would like to take a more in-depth look at some of gaming’s heroes.

Taking a look at the actions of the protagonist from Monster Hunter World we see a clear picture of a person who…. hunts... monsters…..

Alright, that’s it for this article, thanks for reading!!

Ok, but seriously. The protagonist from Monster Hunter World is very intentionally designed to have no personality such that the player can project themself onto said character and mentally assume the role of a warrior so strong that they can topple T-Rexs for fun on any random Tuesday. The reason I want to look at this character anyway is to compare and contrast to the other games that I’ve been examining, and to see how this narrative design differs from those.

What I find most interesting is that there’s a traditional narrative here at all. Capcom planted full cutscenes into this game, and a whole progressing story about the island and the people and monsters who live there. Not only that, but they gave the character a specific role within the story. You aren’t just a nameless warrior among a pile of warriors, as is the case in games like Dark Souls, but rather you are a specific warrior who is the first person to accomplish a number of very specific tasks on this island. You are there for very specific events that can only ever happen once in a lifetime (you know. Despite the fact that they happen on a cycle, every 2 or 3 missions or so...). So let’s take a look at those events, how the player character responds to them, and how the mechanics of the game do and don’t convey a personality. In the end, as with the other articles in this series, I’m going to try to map this character onto a Meyers Briggs personality profile. With any luck, I’ll fail spectacularly! Let’s go!

First off let’s look at player abilities. These are the language through which our character speaks. And oh what a list of abilities we have! I have never played a Monster Hunter before this one, and I spent much of the first 15 hours stumbling over poor tutorialization of roughly 473 million different game mechanics that all work uniquely and independently of each other while also being interwoven in specific ways, for specific combinations. They all basically amount to “way to hunt a thing” but they break down into at least a few basic categories, so let’s just tackle them as genres. You’ve got weapons, of course, the game’s hallmark. You’ve got buffs, things that improve your stats or performance, things that let you survive what you wouldn’t otherwise. You’ve got traps and tricks, things that let you setup a scenario that will hurt or disable the monster you are hunting. You’ve got projectiles, things you throw or shoot at a creature to cause damage or inflict a status effect. Lastly, you’ve got trade items, things you simply sell back to the game for cash. All of these items pretty much describe a character who is resourceful, someone who will live off the land using any means necessary. They also all speak of a person who is single-mindedly focused on combat with beasts, no consideration for cohabitation or understanding. Even the means of capturing a beast for “study” are violent and cruel, either wrapping an enormous creature in vines, or shooting them through with electricity, and both preceding dousing said monster with toxic gas. The game explains this cruelty away as being part of the science of studying the creatures to gain a better understanding of nature, but again and again you are sent out into the world to slaughter and harvest. The protagonist doesn’t seem to mind, their entire life seems to have focused on this exact exchange. The hunter hunts.
I’m not here to convert anyone to vegetarianism, but it IS notable that our main character chooses to act solely with violent intention towards these monsters. There isn’t a single game mechanic that allows us to coexist. And, frankly, there shouldn’t be. This is a game called Monster Hunter, after all. It’s on the tin! It does make my job here, analyzing the character’s personality, a little more difficult, though. In terms of game mechanics, every action our player takes only speaks to them being a ruthless hunter. You rest at camps, you eat food, you track footprints, and over and over again you kill. Mechanical storytelling simply does not exist in this game. As you progress, your character only ever gets stronger. Nothing changes their available list of actions, and their available list of actions is never used to comment on any part of the narrative. I can’t even analyze the hunter’s armor, like I did in Samus’s article, because the armors in this game are just a variety of different stat options that enable different playstyles. At best I can say that the protagonist of MHW is a versatile warrior, willing to adapt to their situation.

So let’s move into looking at the cutscenes to see how the character responds to stimuli. The game opens with your character on a ship, traveling to the new world. On the way a giant monster shows up to set the tone of the game, and the protagonist does some spectacular gymnastics as their ship gets knocked around. We see the protagonist talking to other people in the mess hall, we see them save their partner character from falling overboard, and we generally see lots of posing and posturing. I’d say we can fairly draw the conclusion that our protagonist is very into themself.

Continuing with the cutscenes, our hero enters the city and begins to set themselves up with a life. They get an apartment with a group of other people, they begin making friends with other members of their group, and generally just go off and make themselves a bit of a socialite. Until it comes time to hunt, then they wander out on their own and do missions by themself. On a number of occasions you are forced to complete an objective solo, only allowing other people to join you as an admission of defeat as you launch an SOS flair to call for help. Mechanically, this isn’t a punishment at all, but calling it an SOS flair makes it clear that this is intended as a cry for help rather than simply a person who wants to hunt with friends. This continues throughout the game, you socialize when you’re at home, partying at several points in the game, but going off on adventures on your own every chance you can get. The game makes no particular points on whether you do or don’t like the company of other people, letting that be a mechanical choice made by the player.

Throughout all the cutscenes we see the protagonist reacting to things. They make very few choices of their own, simply reacting to threats with their standard violence. If anything is conveyed about their personality here, it’s that they are extremely passive. Everyone else makes every decision for them, your partner usually initiates every conversation on your behalf, and the protagonist pretty much just does whatever they’re told to do at every chance. Several leaders appear throughout the game, Admirals and other such authority figures, and each of them gives you good-natured orders that you follow without even the slightest hesitation. You’re given a discrete list of objectives and tasks, but that is explained as being a posting made by other people, usually your partner, so even your task list tells us nothing. Presumably the character has to be the one checking those items off, but that really only tells us that they’re willing to work with someone else’s organizational structure if handed it. Which, ya know, makes sense with the whole idea that the protagonist doesn’t make any decision for themself. To be honest, if I were to draw any conclusions based on the actions of the protagonist here, I’d say that they have some unresolved issues that keeps them from being able to make a decision. That doesn’t exactly map to the Meyers-Briggs chart, but I think that’s about the most significant psychological result of examining this game.

So let’s fill in that Meyers Briggs....?

Introvert or Extrovert is the first choice. We’ve got a character who doesn’t seem to make decisions for themself, but who runs off to tackle opponents alone at every opportunity. You start off the game lodging with a group of others, but upgrade into a private room at your first chance. You then fill that room with various pets and a servant palico. If I had to call it one way or another, I’d say the protagonist here is an introvert simply because the only choice they seem to make in the game is to hunt monsters alone whenever possible.

Sensing or Intuition is the second, and…… I don’t even know where to begin. This one’s been difficult to discern on narrative-heavy titles, MHW just doesn’t show us a single shred of evidence about how our player character makes a decision. I could MAYBE lean towards sensing because the player tends to react to what they see, and we never see them extrapolating from limited data, but that’s a stretch even for me.

Thinking or Feeling? I mean. We could maybe say Feeling because of the reactionary nature of the character, but we could easily say Thinking because of the advanced planning that the character does in order to set up a hunt. This is another where there’s just nothing here that tells us which way the character leans.

Perceiving or Judging is probably our easiest choice here, given that the protagonist follows a discrete list of objectives. However, since that list is made by other people this isn’t really a conclusive decision here either.

So yeah. This didn't work!

In the end, Capcom has done a fantastic job of telling us absolutely nothing about the character we play in Monster Hunter World. This works for the game due to it being an almost MMO style of game, where the player character is a generic member of an army of hunters. Though the narrative in this game clearly centers around a specific person, the game designers have chosen to make that person whoever the player wants them to be. We could discuss the merits of a discrete narrative with a vague protagonist, and whether that’s a worthy combination for video game narratives, but that’s an entirely different conversation.

So we’re not drawing any significant conclusions, right? I came in here knowing this wouldn’t work, right? Then why bother wasting all of our time by writing this? Well my purpose with this series of articles has been to understand the types of actions a game will allow, and what those actions tell us about the player character without the need for exposition. Whether or not a character maps to Meyers-Briggs isn’t important, what’s important is that we understand the type of decisions game characters are making, and how that might differ from the choices our player would make in those same circumstances. Samus shoots at every door she wants to walk through, and that tells us something about her. The Knight in Hollow Knight uses the same nail throughout the game, and that tells us something about them. Monster Hunter World’s protagonist very specifically does not make choices that tell us anything about who they are, and that is useful for the game designers to exploit. Knowing what actions do and don’t say about our characters will allow us to make games that convey narrative without ever needing to say a word or show a prerendered image. It will also allow us to align our player characters with our players, increasing the emotional weight of the gameplay. With this article series, I’m hoping to come to better understand how all of these things might work.

And for now, that’s all I’ve got. See you next time!

Friday, February 16, 2018

Psych Eval - Hollow Knight

Games offer us a unique way of exploring a character. We not only see the world from their eyes, but we actually interact with the world through their choices. We use abilities in games that echo the choices the character would make when presented with a certain situation. These sorts of abilities define the characters in our video games more accurately than even the narrative that we are presented via sound or text. When the two don’t align, we automatically look towards the actions of the player character to tell us what kind of person they really are. After all, actions speak louder than words.

Given this, I would like to take a more in-depth look at some of gaming’s heroes.

This time, I am diving into the personality of The Knight, insect hero of Hollow Knight. I’m going to take a look at the actions they take in order to build a complete picture of their personality profile. I’m choosing to frame this personality profile in a way that is specific enough to give us an idea of who The Knight is, but also vague enough that we can build a full profile with minimal information. The framework I have chosen is the Meyers-Briggs personality profile. I will attempt to sort The Knight into one of the sixteen possible personalities defined by Meyers-Briggs.

So let’s begin.

First off we have to take a look at the defining features of this character. First thing to note is that I’m writing this with gender neutral pronouns because I honestly don’t believe that a gender is ever assigned to this character. There is an implication of masculinity, because there is an implication of following in the footsteps of the king, but that is the closest the game comes to directly addressing the subject. Largely this is irrelevant, but I choose to highlight this because it points out something very important about this character: We are told next to nothing by the narrative about who we are playing. This is also the reason I wanted to write this article, because I honestly don’t even know if there will be enough meat here for me to work with.

So to continue, let’s take a look at The Knight’s appearance. This can be boiled down to pretty much just a mask and a cape. The Knight has only these two elements of clothing, and then a sword for combat. That sword is actually a nail, but the difference is pretty nonexistent, so whatever.

The Knight’s primary interaction with the world is through the sword. The Knight wanders around with basic movement and jumping abilities, and a sword to act outwardly on the world around them. As the game progresses, you unlock a series of magical attacks, movement abilities, and nail upgrades. The focus of the game design is on mobility and intelligent use of your sword, rather than on wielding fancy magical attacks. The Knight seems to be ok with only a sword by their side, and the characters The Knight meets out in the world emphasize the classic swordsman mentality you often see in cliched japanese action movies, further reinforcing the idea of relying only on your sword.

With that said, it’s notable that The Knight DOES pick up a series of charms, and a small handful of spells, all of which create a set of combat abilities outside of simple sword work. You learn a spell for attacking at range in each direction, and you can equip things that deal area of effect damage to nearby enemies. What’s notable here, however, is that The Knight only learns things that are useful at relatively short ranges. The spells that they learn are not usable frequently enough to do anything but augment sword combat, and the charms that deal alternative types of damage don’t go very far outside of The Knight’s reach with the nail. All this tells me that The Knight chooses to focus on things that allow them to keep close to their opponents. They like to get their hands dirty, as it were. If not, clearly their focus would lean more on the ranged spells that are definitely present in the game’s world.

Something else to note is the love The Knight has for THEIR nail. In many games, you would expect to find new weapons as you progress throughout the game. The Knight here does not choose this. Their own nail is the focus of the game, and as you progress, you have that one weapon upgraded with a variety of new features and finer craftsmanship at the hands of a blacksmith. Never is that nail removed from your hands, you have no ability that throws it or sets it down for any reason. You are VERY attached to your blade.

Among the charms, there are also a number of interesting abilities that tell us about The Knight. For instance, the fact that The Knight does not inherently remember where they are, and relies on a compass to tell them that. Most games give you this information as a default, but Hollow Knight does not. Obviously, this is a gameplay consideration. The designers wanted the game to require players to build a solid mental model of their world, giving up an ability slot if they wanted the easy way out. However, intentional or not, this does tell us something about our character. They are not the type to remember where they are without a little assistance. Similarly, they are not the type to think of defense. None of The Knight’s abilities are defensive in nature. The Knight evades and attacks, but never just defends themselves, except through use of a charm found while out in the world. There are a number of these charms available, so The Knight doesn’t have any qualms about acknowledging their somewhat overly-aggressive nature, but that they aren’t a default skill tells us something.

The last ability of note is the Dream Nail, which allows The Knight to see into the minds of others. They use this ability to free the souls of fallen warriors, and to better understand the ancient king who once ruled here. This is primarily a source of information gathering, but can also be used to cleanse the soul of another being, as is seen during the “true ending” which requires that players use this ability at a specific moment.

I think that just about covers The Knight’s abilities. Let’s look at their actions now. The goal in Hollow Knight is to restore the world. When you begin, Dirtmouth is basically a ghost town. As you progress, you gather more and more people together. As you explore, in fact, you continuously meet new characters all over the world. Most of the time your goal is to save them, or help them in some way. The Knight’s every action seems to be one of altruism, trying to cleanse the land by any means.

That said, we do also have to acknowledge the body count The Knight leaves in their wake. Definitely a “Live by the sword” type of person, The Knight continually seeks out combat. Each aggressive creature in the world is an enemy to be conquered. The Knight usually allows an enemy to make the first aggressive move, as can be seen at the appearance of most bosses, but on a number of occasions The Knight will be the one to attack first, sometimes without any consideration for their opponent. One primary example of this is the Failed Champion battle, which takes place inside the dreams of a fallen warrior. Out in the real world, that warrior is being mourned by family, which The Knight has the ability to mercilessly slaughter despite their complete lack of aggression.
We also have to acknowledge the spells The Knight learns, and the ways that they acquire these. In several instances, The Knight allows themselves to be tainted by dark magic, literally becoming a shadow of vengeful anger at one point in the game. The Knight has a nail that allows them to forcibly invade the minds of other people. This is not the act of a kind person, but seems to be an action done out of necessity in order to heal the world. The Knight wantonly reads the thoughts of just about everyone around them, but only dives into the minds of those who are particularly cruel. At no point are you given the ability to weaken a villager to the point of being able to dive into their dreams, instead reserving that ability only for bosses and the dead. In all cases, the dream nail is used to cleanse, despite its invasive nature. The Knight is ok with wielding such an unseemly weapon, but only allows themselves to use it when necessary. The Knight is more ok with killing an innocent, than with invading their mind. Presumably because The Knight’s goal is to cleanse the world, which requires death but not dishonor. This is also reinforced by their spell acquisitions, which all involve taking darkness into themself in order to bring light to the world around through violent action.

The Knight endlessly sacrifices themself in order to improve life for those around. The various endings you see show The Knight sacrificing their own well-being in a variety of ways in hopes that the world might be cleansed. This works to varying degrees throughout the different endings, but the theme is always the same. The Knight sacrifices, and the world benefits.

By the same token, all of the side quests The Knight takes on are those that have The Knight catering to the wishes of others. From collecting the favorite items of various characters, to helping to support a businessman and his wife, to reuniting a confused old man with his long-lost home. Each quest you undertake is done for the emotional benefit of those around you, usually resulting in a reward in the form of charms or “geo”, the game’s currency. However, a number of the quests have no direct benefit to yourself, only helping to better the lives of those out in the world. For instance, the aforementioned old man who’s home you find with no direct benefit to yourself. Once again, The Knight proves to be an altruistic hero.

Alright, so let’s break that down into the Meyers Briggs framework and see what we get.

For those unfamiliar, Meyers-Briggs is a binary system of four unique points, all combining into a combination of 16 possible personality profiles. Every person is said to fall into categories as follows: Introvert or Extrovert, Intuitive or Sensing, Thinking or Feeling, Perceiving or Judging. I’ll go into more detail as we nail these down, and we’ll proceed from left to right, starting with Introvert or Extrovert.

Introverts are those who give away their emotional energy around other people. Extroverts gain emotional energy from others. Introverts, as a result, tend to like to spend much of their time alone, while an extrovert will tend to seek out company. The Knight works alone, but travels the world for the benefit of those around them. The entire goal in Hollow Knight is to gather the remaining people back into town and to protect them. The Knight wants to rebuild a community that has been destroyed. Extrovert might be the natural assumption, based on that, but an Introvert might also do these same things, simply not spending time in large groups once the community has been restored. However, since we’re judging this only by action, I will call The Knight an Extrovert.

Intuitive people are those who extrapolate from known data. Sensing people are those who take data at its face value. An intuitive person will take information and make logical assumptions based on knowledge gained elsewhere, while a sensing person will wait for new information to be presented before making any assumptions. The Knight here is relatively clearly defined. The Knight’s mission is to seal away the corruption, and they do so by taking the darkness into themself. Over and over again, throughout the game, we are presented with other characters who are questioning whether The Knight can truly achieve their goal, whether they are walking the right path. The Knight does not know if their actions will result in healing the corruption, but they make a solid assumption and take action. As such, The Knight is definitively an Intuitive personality.

Thinking personalities are those that are driven primarily by logic and reason. Feeling personalities are those who allow their emotions to guide them. A thinking person will act based mainly on stiff logic, while a feeling person will bend to the whims of their intuition more easily. The Knight travels the land, using a dream nail to invade and destroy the minds of ancient warriors who are trapped in the places of their deaths. A number of the bosses are similarly confined in various ways. In each case, The Knight ruthlessly slaughters everyone and everything that is in the way of their goal. The Knight is systematic and heartless to the needs of the world around them. The Failed Champion example I mentioned above is a great one here, because The Knight may slaughter the siblings of the Champion and doing so affects nothing else in the game. From beginning to end of the entire game, there is not a single emotional reaction from The Knight to any of the stimulus around them. They may be altruistic, but they have hardened their heart to the atrocities around them, and as such are acting purely based on logic. The Knight, to me, is very clearly a Thinking personality.

Perceiving people like to react to the world around them as it is presented to them. Judging people like to make plans and place things into organized boxes for simpler digestion. In video games this is most clearly represented by the presence of specific quests. Judging personalities will create goals with specific plans on how to reach those goals, while a Perceiving personality will explore a space more naturally without a set goal hierarchy. The Knight definitively marks each quest location they are trying to reach on their map, and approaches their goal with a loose plan throughout. However, you don’t have discrete quests that you check off a list as you progress. The greater evidence here is a little more abstract. From the beginning of the game, The Knight has a strong sense of purpose. Every action seems to be in line with a plan. Several characters you meet comment on your plan, and your goals, as if the entire progression is a known entity. It seems that everything you do is done for a reason so well defined that even other people know all the steps. And The Knight never waivers from this path. There are no great side quests or plot twists that happen, your goal remains the same from start to finish. You are determined to see this through no matter how bad things may get. As a result of that, I have to say that The Knight must be a Judging personality.

And so there we have it. The Knight, protagonist of Hollow Knight, is an ENTJ.

This makes a lot of sense for this character, as ENTJ is “The natural leader” personality type. They are good at acting on plans, they care about the people around them, and are naturally comfortable in very public positions. ENTJ is a very “Kingly” sort of personality, which reinforces the implication of following in the king’s footsteps that I mentioned earlier in the article.

I would also like to clarify that all of this is very clearly up for debate. My goal in this article series is to spell out my steps and to get people to understand what their gameplay says about their protagonist’s personality, regardless of their intention with their storytelling. If you disagree that The Knight is an ENTJ, feel free to comment below and explain why, I’d love to hear your thoughts! My goal is simply to break down the actions of this character such that a dialogue CAN happen, and I’m happy to pursue such a discussion at any length.

That’s all for Hollow Knight, folks! I’ve previously written a similar article to this one, but focusing on Samus Aran, protagonist of the Metroid series of games. Feel free to read that article here:

And thanks again for reading!