The biggest flaw in Overlord 2, I find, is that it goes about things assuming that we already care.
Why take over the world? Why keep mistresses in your doom fortress? Why resurrect specific dead imps? Because you care. And you care because we say you care.
This is another thing the game has in common with the Fable series. At GDC 2008 I attended Peter Molyneux’s presentation of Fable 2, and he told a story about how some players would acquire a wife and family, starve them half to death, then stand in front of them eating all the food. He attributed it to the players’ poor moral character. Personally I’d say it’s more to do with players trying to squeeze some kind of value out of the whole business, even if it’s just a weak and momentary schadenfreude.
I feel the designers of this sort of thing are making two errors. Firstly, they assume that a player’s real-life emotions and desires carry over to their in-game avatar, and they don’t. When you enter a game, you enter an unfamiliar world with a new set of rules, and so you adopt a blank personality. Besides the default desire to simply reach the end of the story and have some fun along the way, all of the player’s motivations have to be gradually built up from scratch. And at that stage the carrot motivates a lot better than the stick.
So a romance sidequest works when there is some benefit to gameplay. That’s the carrot. You can marry characters in most of the Harvest Moon games, and your spouse provides you with items or assists you with the farming. Japanese dating sims function on the basis that if you pull the right moves you get rewarded with a picture of your character motorboating some juicy titties.
But in Fable and Overlord, having a wife or mistress has no gameplay benefit, and actually puts you out. That’s stick territory right there. The game instructs you to pay them support and keep them happy with frequent presents and PG-13 blacked-out bunk-ups. Or maybe I could stab them in the throat and fuck the wounds, how about that, game? How about you shove that particular stick up your arse so I can concentrate on gathering my carrots?
The other mistake being made here, and it’s a fairly common one made by games, is that you can’t just tell us that we care about something. Unlike Fable, Overlord 2 doesn’t even give you the luxury of choosing your mistress – the game pretty much just says “Here’s this chick. You love her now.” I’m reminded of the DRAMATIC PLOT TWIST in Dead Space that’s presented as a big personal tragedy, but your character to this point has been a personality-less hulk behind a faceless helmet, and his farcically grief-stricken body language was about as emotive as just flashing up a subtitle saying “YOU ARE VERY SAD NOW.”
Like I said, the player is a blank slate whose cares need to be built up over time. You can’t pull our heartstrings by piling tragedy onto empty characters, especially not ones that irritate our nipples off. (Alone in the Dark, I’m thinking of you.)
I find the easiest way to make me care about a character is, again, make them useful to gameplay. Like Alyx from Half-Life 2, or your horse from Shadow of the Colossus, both of whom I could see myself cuddling up to at night. And I can care about characters who are central to the story, like Farah from Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, who are established over time as relatably human and loveable.
So, if you’re making a game with a story, bear this in mind. And for the record, ‘LOVEABLE’ MEANS MORE THAN JUST CRACKING WISE ALL THE TIME LIKE A SMUG LITTLE BITCH FROM A JOSS WHEDON SHOW AARGH.
Ghostbusters actually got better later when it stopped doing the nudge-wink fan-wank thing and brought in new locations and concepts, like the alternate New York and the spider boss. But then I got to the cemetery level and the action became almost unplayably chaotic. Oh well! Also, on reflection, when I said the characters have been boiled down to smug wanky one-joke shallow dipshits (I’m paraphrasing obviously), I was mainly referring to Venkman. He needs to shut up. Shut up, Venkman.
Don’t expect a full review but Guitar Hero: Greatest Hits has been helping me relive some fond memories of late. Something bothers me, though. Am I just being sexually repressed again, or could “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” by Pat Benatar secretly be a dirty song about cumshots?
Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games and writes the back page column for PC Gamer, who are too important to mention us. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.