The Shape of the World: Node.Hack’s Emotional Architecture
Games are among our most evocative communication mechanisms as a species. With graphics, sound, and interactivity, you can get people to almost any emotional state. But games are clever about showing their hand; they don’t look all that sophisticated. A few blinky bits, exploding things – what’s so nuanced about it? Turns out: an awful lot.
Strategy is sometimes defined as the art of finding fit – choosing a set of mutually-reinforcing tactics that come together to bring you to a desired future. In designing Node.Hack, I took on the challenge of envisioning an emotional strategy; I decided that my first choice would be emotional, and that the rest of the game would follow from there.
So – you’ve got a hacking game. How would you want your player to feel? I picked three primary emotional themes and led with them: paranoia, anxiety, and greed. If you think of the player’s hacking enterprise as just one in a long career of digital misdeeds – a real pro hacker – these emotions don’t seem so far off. I placed myself halfway through the game’s progression: I’ve got plenty of money, but the stakes are higher and I’ve just barely escaped this last system. What would the ultimate mental mixture play to out to in words? How would the player’s mind explain their own choice if it were talking to itself?
I know they’re coming to get me, but this is more money than I’ve ever seen in my life. I have to take this chance.
You could say that every game has some elements of this, and you’d be right. But it’s about what the game doesn’t do that represents a faithful dedication to the strategy:
- Slow, not fast tempo (in action, and in music)
- Single-hit kills, no replenishing life meter
- Moments of waiting suspense (movement vs. money)
- Allow “inevitability” moment where the player knows they will die
Put it together and you have a game that’s a little more like chess than a traditional video game. Players that tested the early version felt addicted to the challenge, but not overly frustrated. When they died, they felt it was something they had influence over, rather than a random bullet from out of nowhere.
To me, that’s success in a video game; reward often, and punish only with a lesson in how to do better. True randomness, while a seductive notion for video games, is something better saved for real life – but that’s a discussion for another post, when we get into the dynamic map generation at the heart of Node.Hack. For now, stay sharp and watch out for those AI.