Today I'm sticking my foot into the murky waters that is Corvus' Blogs of the Round Table. The April topic is Your Friendship Is A Game To Me, and invites bloggers to explore the topic of friendships within games. I'd like to take this excuse to talk about a topic very dear to the hearts of a great many gamers of my acquaintance, and that's the electronic friends that we'd all rather not have.
In the wide world of characters that the advent of electronic gaming has exposed us to, there's been a great many examples of virtual friends implemented really well. Paladin from Wing Commander, Iolo from Ultima, pretty much the entire cast of characters from Animal Crossing. But in amongst those gems of empathy and familiarity, there have been a bunch of not so successful attempts.
You know them - the characters that turn up out of the blue and instantly expect to be your life-long pal. They've got annoying, high-pitched voices. They offer you hints about game mechanics you've already mastered, or give you completely useless advice when you're genuinely stumped. They move too slowly, they can't hold their own in combat for three seconds without dieing, and they walk into walls and get stuck in doorways. They get you involved in frustrating sidequests, they live way out in the middle of nowhere, they endlessly insist on exposing you to long boring monologues, and as a final insult they expect you to actually care when they die.
I've added a picture of the Big Brother of all electronic non-friends to the top corner of the post. Intended to be an intelligent and character-filled help interface, intuitively working out what problems you were having and suggesting solutions, Clippy instead instantly became the intelligent and character-filled face of a Microsoft that clearly existed only to do Satan's bidding on Earth.
Where do game designers go so wrong? Is it so hard to create a genuinely friendly character? Why do so many virtual friends end up as little more than another obstacle between you and fun?
I think the answer lies in what a lot of designers expect a friendship to contain.
Think about your real life friendships. Do you really expect your friends to constantly advise you how to perform simple tasks without being asked? No. Sure, friends can be a lot of help, but if you want that help, you'll ask for it.
When you're hanging out with your friends, do you constantly worry that your friends will be beaten to death by thugs / goblins / fighter craft if you leave them alone for three seconds? No. You have a fairly reasonable expectation that you can not see your friends for weeks at a time, and find them pretty much in the same state of health as you left them when you come back.
If you're walking somewhere with a friend, does that consist of a long, silent trip, wherein you have to constantly keep an eye on them to make sure they don't get stuck on a tree and cause your current quest to bug out? No; you have a reasonable expectation that your friend can avoid simple obstacles, and in the event of getting separated from you can find a way to catch up with you at a later stage. Also, while you may have to slow down a little to find a comfortable pace, you expect that there may be the occasional bite of conversation to lighten the journey.
And finally, do you see your friends as glorified toolboxes, that are really only a collection of databases, inventories, and fighting abilities crammed behind an animated face? Is that the purpose of spending time with friends? No. Friendship is about shared experiences and shared perspectives. Any experience shared with a friend should be qualitatively and exponentially different to the experience undertaken alone. In any given situation, a friend should point out aspects of the situation you may have overlooked, should be able to comment qualitatively on what they feel about the situation, and should be willing to remark in some way on your actions and achievements (or lack of them).
In playing, as far as in-game friends go, the player should be constantly thinking, "I wonder what my (in-game) friends would have to say about THIS!" or "I wonder what my (in-game) friend would do here!" And that's precisely where the games that have done it well have gone right.
When you're losing the war against the Kilrathi, you can count on Paladin to tell you that he's worried, maybe a little something about his past that the current situation has made him think of, and possibly a few words of hope - all free of strings, no obligations imposed, and notably different from what he says when you're winning the war.
In Animal Crossing, the various inhabitants of your town will remark on anything - your house, your appearance, other residents, your shared interests, and even what time of day it is. You feeel like they're actually paying attention to your shared environment. You can notice something cool (like that today is an in-game holiday), and expect to be able to have a meaningful conversation about it with someone nearby.
When you bump into Iolo in Ultima 7 or Ultima 9, he remembers you. He remembers your previous adventures (when almost no-one else does), he knows where you come from and what your first priorities on arriving in Britannia are likely to be (see Lord Britain, get equipped, fight evil). Here the trick is not so much that Iolo is particularly close to you, but that he's so much closer than any of the other extremely well-realised characters in the land. In a milieu of characters constantly giving you quests, he's willing to just stop and chat about old times.
Just think - when was the last time Clippy ever stopped and reminisced about how things used to be so much better under DOS?