Making players uncomfortable is a good way to engage them in a game's story; but the desire to create that discomfort can inform how game developers construct missions and stages within their game.
In a talk at the Game Developers Conference this morning, Ubisoft Quebec level design director Hugo Giard and narrative design director Jill Murray discussed how using difficult narrative subjects can inform game mission design and strengthen player immersion. Giard and Murray, who have both worked on a handful of Assassin's Creed titles, spoke about Freedom Cry, the now-standalone DLC for Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag focused on the main title's supporting character, Adewale.
"Fun doesn't become the question anymore," Murray explained, noting Freedom Cry requires players to free slaves. "Something like fun would be irrelevant to other media like this, say, 12 Years a Slave."
Freedom Cry banks on players participating for reasons other than fun, such as playing for a sense or empathy or justice. This is because strong emotions can be more motivating than positive emotions, the designers said.
"Sometimes the most complicated relationships between people and their world can be better explored through gameplay than a cinematic or a piece of gameplay dialogue," Murray said.
Mechanics in Freedom Cry were tweaked to fit Adewale's story, offering up a different way to play than Black Flag's main character, swashbuckling pirate Edward Kenway. Adewale's missteps — being caught by guards for example — won't result in a mission failure and the chance to start over, but rather a mission failure and repercussions for the slaves within the game.
"We need to apply as much human empathy as we can and read between the lines."
Murray said this mechanic made players care more; people they were trying to help in the game were being hurt, resulting in a strong emotional reaction. This also motivated players to change their in-game behavior from running-and-gunning through missions to focusing more on stealth.
Murray also said she she didn't worry that using slavery and its societal repercussions in a game would be risky, but rather she would worry if more games weren't exploring modern problems like it. She wasn't worried that subject matter wouldn't "work" for a game. Using a sensitive topic is also a good way to get an entire team focused on one goal, honing their attention and making it easier to motivate everyone to make "a really good game," she explained.
"We shouldn't judge or appropriate," Giard said of adapting stories on sensitive topics, especially historical ones. Murray noted that the entire team — and not just one member — should thoroughly research the topic they are working with. The team also reached out to people who are part of a real-world community that may feel they are represented by the game.
"We need to apply as much human empathy as we can and read between the lines," Murray said.