Emotional Limits of Avatar-Based Games

An avatar-based game is analogous to a story written in the first person. Reading a first-person story, the audience knows that regardless of what happens in the story, the narrator must have survived to write the story afterward. This isn't absolutely always the case—the narrator in the novel Allan Quatermain, for instance, dies near the end and another character finishes telling the story—but it does mean that whatever peril the narrator got into earlier in the book, you knew he would get out of it. As a result, first-person stories can't create quite as much concern for the life of the narrator as third-person stories can. A first-person story can have a depress­ing ending, but the narrating character cannot die prematurely.

A similar limitation applies to avatar-based games. Players know that an avatar should survive to the end of the game. Over the years, the avatar's premature death has come to signify the player's failure to meet a challenge rather than being an actual element of the story, so the death of the avatar carries almost no emotional impact. The player simply reloads the game and tries again.

If you really want to affect the player's feelings with the death of a character, your game should kill not the avatar, but one of the avatar's friends. Two famous exam­ples occur in the games Planetfall and Final Fantasy VII. In Planetfall, the player's sidekick, a wisecracking robot, sacrificed himself at a critical moment to allow the player to go on. Players often cite this as the first really emotionally meaningful moment in a computer game. In Final Fantasy VII, the villain kills Aeris Gainsborough, the player's ally. Nothing the player does can prevent this, and play­ers often mention this death, too, as a particularly emotional moment in a game.

Party-based interaction models offer you more freedom to kill off members of the cast than avatar-based ones because the other members of the party remain to carry the story along. Two different television shows serve as good examples. The Fugitive could not have tolerated the death of Dr. Kimble, the hero of the show— equivalent to the avatar in an avatar-based game. On the other hand, the long - running Law and Order series about New York detectives and prosecutors has an ensemble cast with no single hero. Over the many years that it has aired, the entire cast has changed as one character or another has come and gone. The show contin­ues to run because its central premise doesn't depend on any single individual.

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