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WAID2 Design Peek #2: Possession and Narrative Voice

March 29, 2013

One of the biggest questions I had for WAID’s sequel was how I would handle the game’s possession mechanic.  That mechanic was really the whole point behind the first game, and remains so for the second.  I have to revisit it, address any issues that came up, and try to put a new spin on it as I move forward.  Aside from production value, it’s the one area that has the most potential for improvement, because everything else in the game will pivot around it.

Normally in video-games there is a subtle conflict between the narrative voice of the protagonist and the player.  That is to say, who is actually talking or acting — the protagonist of the story, or the person controlling them?  They are often mutually exclusive; the more dialogue that a protagonist is given, the less voice the player feels they have.  This is why so many video game heros are so infamously silent: any dialogue from the protagonist runs the risk of alienating the player and separating him or her from the game.

Case in point.

An extreme example.

This conflict reaches some degree of synthesis in many western RPGs, where the player actively creates their own protagonist and chooses his or her actions and dialogue throughout the game.  It still remains a concern, however, when the restrictions of the overall plot must curtail the player’s freedom to define their own protagonist.

In Why Am I Dead 1&2, you are not a person controlling a character, however.  You are a person controlling a character who is in turn controlling another character.  Therefore there are actually three voices in potential conflict, and in my case none of them should be pushed to the side completely:

  • The player’s voice —  What is the actual player’s goal?  What do they want to do?
  • The ghost’s voice — The dead person’s ghost (ie the real protagonist) is implied to have some remaining autonomy.
  • The possessee’s voice — That the possessee’s motivations are heard is not necessary in ghost folklore, but it is imperative for design.

In the case of the first game I leaned hard onto the side of the possessee’s voice.  It was simpler, and showed off what I felt made the game unique.  The player could choose what lines of dialogue to pursue, and the ghost could possess and move people around, but the actual words and actions that carried the story through were those of the characters who were ‘possessed’.  As a result, some people expressed disappointment or confusion that although the ghost was such a huge part of the story, it didn’t exert any influence on the course of events.  Likewise, some people were unsatisfied that they had to help the ghost, who turned out to have been an unpleasant person when he was alive.

The only difference being I don't even pretend you have this level of freedom.  From popmatters.com

I don’t even pretend you have this level of freedom.  Edited screen from KotOR from popmatters.com

To be clear, I’m very happy with how the format of the original WAID worked out — the possessed characters being able to speak was really powerful, and allowed for over 70 unique dialogues in the game.  Without their voices, it would have been around 10.  You are given the space to explore the characters in much greater detail than if they were overshadowed by the ghost’s voice, and I don’t have any plans of tearing that apart.  What I will be doing, rather, is adding different elements to the game around that base, which either portray the thoughts of the ghost, or allow the ghost and/or the player to influence the way the story goes.

This all means:

  1. There will be two ‘stages’ to possessing someone.  The first is when the ghost does not fully understand a character’s motivations or feeling, and thus cannot completely take control of their body — this results in the same mechanics as the original game, where the possessed character is really the one talking/doing things, and the ghost is just a silent nudging force.  The second stage allows the ghost to fully take over the person, meaning that the ghost itself will be deciding what to say and do.  It must still act within the limitations of its host, however (if you possess an animal, you cannot speak English!).
  2. A more detailed back-story to the dead person.  Of course, in a longer game everyone will have longer back-stories, but the dead person will have a greater share of the story’s overall focus.
  3. Points in the game where you can influence the relationships of the characters and the story itself.  This means more multiple endings!  I’m not going crazy with this, it isn’t going to be a Choose Your Own Adventure game–it will still play out mostly linear.  However, suffice it to say that you will have more control over how everything plays out.

I believe that about covers it.  The implications of these design calls will be explored as development proceeds.  Otherwise, development is going rather smoothly, and I hope to get some art up soon.  Maybe a quick demo video as well.

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