Little Human Interactions

A wild jungle seen on an island after shipwrecking from above by a castaway warrior woman.

Little Human Interactions

In a lot of games, it can feel like there are more important things to worry about than how sad it is that the kind, lonely old man with good stories on the corner doesn't have anybody to play chess with anymore because his friend moved away. I want to make a case that the old man is important, and that your game should make room for him.

If you walk around in any bookstore, or down the isles of one of the last video rental stores in the world, you find almost nothing but character stories. The idiosyncratic people in those stories and their little interactions make up the bulk of all story telling.

This is true of action or fantasy stories. Drizzt isn't cool because he can kill 20 orcs, he's cool because he did it while running to a gorge, a dead end, because he just believes that his friend, who is also in trouble, and who must assume he is dead, will be there despite all reason, to catch him when he jumps - ie, we care because of their relationship and trust in one another. We care about how he grew up in a society, turned his back on it, and is one of the most hated creatures on "earth," and doesn't belong anywhere - yet, impossibly, finds a place for himself and people who care about him.

This is true of Christmas stories. Die Hard isn't cool because John shoots people, its cool because he doesn't want to be in that situation, and he's so desperately trying to get someone else to step up and save the day, and his lady hates him but he can't let her go, and he just has to resolve himself and do what needs to be done.

This is true of literature. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the best novels I've ever read, and it doesn't have a single sword fight in it (iirc). When Atticus shoots the rabid dog, it is intense because you feel so bad for the dog, and for Atticus, but he has to do it. Its not because of how good his aim was, its because it shows what it means to be a grown-up.

This is true even of the most intense action-focused games out there. Devil May Cry 3 has deep and captivating fighting, but one of the things that makes the game really stick with people is how Lady refuses help, and even risks her life to shoot Dante in the face when he is condescending after saving her life... or how badly Dante wants to kill, understand, surpass, and save Virgil, all at the same time. Virgil himself is an incredible set of boss fights, but the thing that makes them captivating isn't just how learnable the fights are, and how your timing becomes perfect after practice - the most important thing is how stylish and colourful those fights are, how he taunts you, the mystery, how it means something when they hit each other. The flash and clang of head-to-head parries are exciting, but they make you feel something because you are both putting yourself on the line to decide who is right (cheesy, but we love it). The fight isn't just Dante being strong, its the climax of this amazing buildup between rival-brothers with a tragic history. The characters and their relationships are core to the experience.

Most rpgs are almost entirely about doing exciting things, and barely focus at all on the subtle things. That's fine, millions of people are extremely happy with this sort of play, and I am too. It doesn't have to be Naruto, where every villain tells their personal tragedy before the final battle. However, there is an opportunity here that designers should at least be aware of: that little character interactions and relationships are compelling in a timeless and deep way, and that even the most hack-n-slash focused game can benefit from a little more of it.

warrior woman looks into distance at night near a lighthouse by torchlight

About the Author

I'm Nathan. Contract game developer and full stack software developer. E.I.T. Writer. Tabletop RPG designer. Artist. Likes dogs.