In a noisy bar, I’m introduced to a woman who’s a colleague of a friend. We talk for a minute or so, she seems very nice, asks if I want to go outside and smoke. I consider going outside, bumming a cigarette, spluttering, then think this unwise. Instead say “I don’t smoke, but I’d happily go outside and stand next to you”. She then grabs her coat and goes outside.
I consider my comment to have been a bit weird and a social faux pas, so I imagine that her leaving was not an invitation for me to follow. Instead I relate the uninspiring story of what just happened to a friend, who says that her leaving was an invitation for me to follow. I then wonder whether I’ve made a different faux pas by not following her outside. Nothing terrible, but either way I’m now weird enough in her mind that I should probably make no attempt to speak to her again.
These kind of social failures happen to everyone at times, especially during first impressions. Someone missteps, misreads, miscommunicates or mistimes something and then a possible human connection is lost completely.
When designing video games we try to avoid these situations in two ways.
The first is by telegraphing everything to the audience through as many channels as possible. In normal life you rely on listening to someone’s words, as well as their expression, their tone, their body language. If you’re a Mungo then you can read psychology books and books on gestures and expressions to prepare yourself for this. You can also draw upon your acting lessons. But the clues are not always obvious and you’re liable to miss some, especially in a noisy bar after having half a bottle of port and a pint of cider. So in the moment you can make a snap misjudgement.
In games, you don’t just have to rely on your senses to pick up the other character’s cues. The game designers can communicate with you directly. We can stick a massive arrow over that person’s head, and put a tutorial note on your screen saying “follow her”. Or we can give you a pop-up which says “she didn’t like that”. At crucial decision-points these kind of extra-narrative clues appear all the time. They’re SUPER USEFUL.
The second thing we can do is make everything reversible. Players hate losing stuff forever. Go back in time. Revert to checkpoint. Load a save. Just start the exact same conversation again and choose a different option. Easy. Not lost forever. No regrets. You can be the social interaction perfectionist you want to be in the outside world.
And that is why video games are better than reality.