Thursday, November 06, 2014

Connecting With Science Fiction Settings

When most people talk about creating a science fiction world, they're mostly concerned with which aliens inhabit it, what kinds of technologies exist, maybe what the visual aesthetic is. But there's another aspect that goes largely overlooked: how to connect the audience to the setting.

This is actually more fundamental than you might think, because there are a lot of ways of doing it. How you approach this will change your character design, your plots, your visuals, your pacing... it will make your universe feel solid and distinct if you think about it ahead of time.

Let's learn by example.

Star Trek

Star Trek is distinct from other big science fiction IPs because it is fundamentally about living in space. Not fighting in space, not adventuring in space, just living there. Sure, as time goes on it becomes more about grimdark explosions with shakycam, but the fundamentals of the universe, laid out by the first few series, are about people living in space.

More specifically, it's about the experiences of people living in space. Large and small.

Because of this, rather than being about huge vistas and epic moments, Star Trek is mostly about small moments. Rather than trying to show the audience something, Star Trek usually settles for showing how the characters react to something.

For example, if the characters are trapped in a cave, the camera doesn't generally set up any long shots of desolate isolation - just a few simple shots to set the scene. The majority of the scene takes place inside the cave, right up against the faces of the crew as they shiver and talk it through.

Similarly, when ships are hit by phasers, there's rarely any shots of the ship being damaged in any significant way. Instead, we see the crew shaking, or some person getting shocked by a bursting console, and we hear the concern in Worf's voice as he reads out a number. When there's a fight, it's not blood and awesome kung fu - it's two dudes randomly staggering around and grabbing each other. However, the fight is always full of close-ups so we can see their panic or anger, and we can always hear their shouting and gasping breath. And, of course, the overly excited music stings.

This is not a weakness, because that restraint actually pays off when Star Trek does want to do something epic. When they do show a ship destroyed, or a violent fight, it has much more impact because it's not normally seen.

If you look at it like this, Star Trek is entirely constructed to let us see the characters experiencing things. The major technologies - warp drive, shields, transporters, holodeck - are all devices which give the characters more chances to go more places and see more things with a minimum of big effect shots or plot explanation. Virtual Moriarty comes alive with literally one line of explanation? OK, sounds fine. Everyone done reacting and experiencing? OK, technobabble the plot to a halt.

Star Trek is also about small experiences in a literal sense. People give recitals, play poker, hang out in the bar, hold hands, exercise, and spend quiet moments together. Not just major characters: minor ones as well. We are made to appreciate this universe because everyone we are introduced to appreciates this universe.

Most of the plot points are also about people experiencing things. Aging and deaging, being trapped alone, being trapped together, facing authorities, meeting alternate versions, getting drunk/stoned, dealing with family, dealing with sickness... Even things like being split in two: "evil Kirk" and "good Kirk" are not literally about a man split in two. They are about a man with two very different approaches to living his life.

Rather than relying on big sights or scary noises, Star Trek is mostly about showing how the cast reacts to what their character is going through. It is character-driven in a literal way: the only thing that matters is the look on the characters' faces.


Cyberpunk is sort of the exact opposite of Star Trek - people live their life in Star Trek, people die like dogs in Cyberpunk.

A lot of genres here share a very similar approach to experiences. Detective noir and samurai films both have the same basic approach.

The idea is that the main character is very "flat". Not necessarily unemotional, but one-note.

It's hard to get invested in such a flat character, so what the director does is show them going through things we know. When Deckard is stuck in the rain, we know how that feels because we've been stuck in the rain. When Deckard gets punched, we know how that feels. When Deckard faces his abusive boss, we know how that feels.

Deckard's flat responses to these events are different from the expected response, so they are, in fact, not flat at all. Instead of thinking "Deckard's a really flat character", we think "Deckard's kind of a badass because he can take all this in stride."

Where cyberpunk stands out from similar genres is that cyberpunk is full of weird shit.

This is where Deckard's flatness works in the opposite direction. The audience is introduced to something new and bizarre - an emotion test, a vat full of eyeballs, an apartment 500 stories above the ground, a flying car. We don't know what to think of these things, because we don't know how they fit into the universe.

Deckard gives a flat response to them, and we think "oh, okay, it's pretty commonplace."

If Deckard saw a vat of eyes and went "HOLY FUCK EYEBALLS YOU SICK FUCK!!!" then we would think of the eyeball man very, very differently.

In Star Trek, we see what the characters feel. We see them reacting to experiences and situations.

But in Cyberpunk, we do the opposite. We are shown the situations and experiences, and asked to extrapolate why the characters are reacting as they are. This is powerful with flat characters, because it allows us to fill in the large gaps that their responses leave.

Star Wars

Star Wars is based on samurai movies. We mentioned before: samurai movies are about flat characters. We are shown things that happen to the samurai characters, and are asked to imagine what the character must be feeling but not showing. That's why most samurai films feature a whole lot of "commonplace" events, such as the samurai buying and eating a snack.

Star Wars characters are not flat, not ciphers. They are very vibrant, although often very stereotypical.

As you might expect, Star Wars shows us almost no ordinary sights. There is no need to show ordinary things happening, because our vibrant characters would react in an ordinary way.

In most samurai films, the samurai buys some food and eats it. We can "calibrate" off of this: the samurai's flatness contrasts with a known event.

We don't need to calibrate Han Solo, so Han is never shown buying some food and eating it. When we show him in a bar, we show him not eating or drinking or playing cards, but negotiating with a deadly bounty hunter.

Basically, Star Wars does the other half of the cyberpunk equation: it shows us amazing, bizarre things, and lets the characters comment on it. Instead of responding flatly to tell us we should take it in stride, the characters respond energetically to tell us we should be excited and amazed. The variation between the characters and their personalities and preferences allows each to step forward and show us different kinds of things, and make us excited about different things in different ways.

It's often said that Luke is a "window character", which just means he's an incredibly dull idiot that doesn't know anything. That's true: his purpose is to introduce us to the universe by being introduced to the universe himself.

But from our new perspective, all the characters are "window characters". They all try to get us excited about things. Even when C-3PO is just complaining about being lost in the desert, he's actually telling the audience how to care about Tatooine: the desert is dangerous, the sandpeople are dangerous, the jawas might be dangerous, the droids are in danger, this is a very big deal.

And the camera is showing us heat and dust and endless dunes, so we can feel what it's like to be in that desert. It's "look at this amazing thing! Do you know what it is? Well, here's a robot to tell you how amazing it is."

Star Wars shows characters reacting to extraordinary things, but rather than telling us those things are ordinary, they tell us things are amazing. Even when the characters are quite flat, such as the stoic, prickly Princess Leia, she tells us things are amazing by putting her life on the line, or demanding other people take things more seriously.

This is easy to overdo. Jar-jar is an example of a character that did exactly what I'm describing, but adults found him too obnoxious to live. Kids didn't generally mind him as much, and I think the reason is obvious: Jar-Jar reacts like a child. He tries to get the audience excited about things adults are pretty used to, and does so using the most basic kind of emotion possible. He tells us driving fast is scary. He tells us poop is smelly. He tells us that getting lost is not fun. All of these judgments are below the adult audience's level: they already have more advanced responses to these commonplace things.

Anyway, the idea is sound: use vibrant, opinionated characters to tell the audience to get excited instead of bored!


A lot of science fiction IP is either making the transition to games, or is starting as a game. Mass Effect, as an easy example.

When building a game-centric IP, you have a problem in that the characters and the audience aren't nearly as distinct as they are in a movie. In some games, the distinction is pretty clear and remains clear - the avatar you control has a distinct personality and you can live with that.

Buuuuuut... in most modern RPGs and FPS games, we expect the avatar to be malleable.

Whether I decide to play as Saint P. Dungeonhealer or Bloody Monster Monster Sith, I expect the character to react in specific ways because I have decided they should react in specific ways. Even if I'm theoretically playing a real character - for example, Gordon Freeman - it's easy to overwrite their intended personality with one of my choosing.

Most games with this kind of situation have chosen to have an empty lead. The avatar has no personality worth mentioning. Their judgement is so basic and thin that it couldn't possibly interrupt the judgment we've decided they should have.

Unfortunately, this is not a very good way to connect to the universe.

To get around this, most such games have started to add in NPCs that operate close by and give you continuous feedback. You get NPCs like Cortana. She literally exists to talk at the player. She has no gameplay presence. She just comments on things that happen. Her flat personality allows you to take weird things (Ewok gunmen, 10-mile-long bridges, holographic displays) in stride. And when she does get a little serious, it tells you to take this particular weird situation seriously.

So she plays the same role as the main character in the cyberpunk genre. Even though she's not the main character.

You have games with larger rosters, like Mass Effect (or any fantasy RPG). These all use vibrant NPCs to comment on the world - typically during their introductory missions. After that they typically have very little presence, usually just doling out backstory. Despite that limitation, it's clear they play the same role as characters in Star Wars: vibrant responses to amazing things.

I think there's a few more tricks we can use.

I think it's a bad idea to leave the main avatar hollow. I think it should be feasible to let the player choose their personality at the beginning of the game, and use them as either a vibrant or flat character to help the player connect with the world continuously, over the entire course of the game.

One IP that does something like this is the Saints Row games. Although the plot is quite linear and you don't have any particular dialog choices to display personality, you get to choose the avatar's voice. And the voices are all very distinct personalities - they have strong accents and their lines are given different intonation or even changed completely. None of these voice actors blend in: they are all very strong personalities.

While the voice acting definitely makes each playthrough more distinct, Saints Row also allows the player to express themselves with their avatar very deeply. Mostly by dressing them up.

This seems really shallow, but it is actually absolutely critical for one big reason:

The player can always see the avatar. Especially in cut scenes.

Seeing someone dressed up in a suit, as a clown, or in nothing but slime makes the exact same conversation feel very different to the player, because the player is processing it. The player is processing a conversation where someone is dressed as a clown.

The player isn't processing "the dialog as written", or even "the animated scene". They are processing the final result, and that result contains someone dressed as a clown and speaking in a heavy Russian accent. It's not the same event as you intended them to experience, and the way nobody in the scene notices makes it even funnier.

What I'm trying to say is that there may be a way to connect the player to the world by letting them change the world. Or, at least, letting them change their specific experiences within the world.

Rather than trying to figure out how to make the avatar both interesting and nondescript, maybe we should try to figure out if the avatar properly allows the player to adjust the lens they see through. The avatar isn't just a character: their characterization is less important than how they let the player control how they see the world.

If the player has too much control, the world loses cohesion. For example, if the player could dress every NPC up like a clown, then they would lose distinctiveness and the reactions wouldn't be as asymmetrical. It'd be funny for one or two scenes, but lose its bite quickly.

If the player has too little control, you don't get the frission. for example, most games only give you a few pretty basic choices of costume. Even though you can see the avatar in every situation, the difference between "casual uniform" and "tank top" is not enough to make for a new angle on the world.

Well, those are my thoughts this week.

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