Worlds for Players: Books and Recordings in Virtual Worlds

Last week we took a broad look at how we might use the environment to provide players with information through the careful selection and positioning of meaningful objects — the process of set-dressing. This process relies heavily on player interpretation to get information across. It’s inherently vague. This week we’re looking at techniques that we can use to relay specific information clearly while continuing to build player’s relationship with the game world.

Players have a natural sense of curiosity, a drive to explore the world around them. The usual rewards for exploration are gameplay bonuses: weapons, ammunition,  health packs. A more meaningful reward, and one that can help to provide depth to the player’s experience is information. We can litter our world with recordings, ‘created’ by game characters in various formats, from notes to books, to cassette tapes and film reels. The information relayed may be related to the plot, or it may simply be in-universe fiction. If presented skillfully, the information will help to sell the world to your players as a breathing, living place.

The first thing we have to decide on is a format. What sort of object will players interact with in order to get at the recording? We need to ensure that it fits with the world we’ve created. A cassette tape in Skyrim wouldn't work, nor would a hand-written, wax-sealed scroll of parchment work in Mass Effect. You can break this rule if you have a very good reason, but it’s probably best to play it safe.

The next decision is whether the information will be static, locked in place, or whether players can carry it around with them for future use. The latter may seem to be the ideal option. However, it’s one that requires a lot of careful design if we want to create as unbroken of an experience of the world as possible for the player. Skyrim is an example of developers handling portable records extremely well. When the player comes across a book in the world, they can read it immediately, or they can stash it in their inventory for later use. They can take the book out of their bag at any time and look through it. While this inventory management does sit behind a GUI (a necessity when dealing with this much information), there’s an understanding in the player’s mind that they are looking into their backpack and rummaging through their possessions to find what they want. The GUI is minimal and doesn’t intrude on the experience too much. When the player reads the book, it’s presented as a physical object on the screen, with the words convincingly ‘printed’ on the pages. When they want to move to the next page, the page appears to turn. The books feel like genuine artifacts, and the player is engaging with them directly, remaining present in the world.

The alternative that we often encounter relies too heavily on the game’s menu systems. Dishonored features many (extremely well written) books of fiction. As in Skyrim, these can be read immediately when found. The text is presented on-screen as a block of text, in a similar font as the rest of the interface. This GUI-based representation of the book reminds players, in a way more jarring than that of Skyrim, that they’re playing a game. There’s little pretense or attempt to hide it. The game also saves the book for the player to read later, placing it in the ‘notes’ section of the character menu. At this point, the book stops being part of the virtual world that the player is exploring, and becomes this chunk of information that they can only access via menus. The player’s experience is not one of looking through their possessions to find a book, but rather one of engaging with some mystical, eidetic memory - after all, an assassin can’t carry around a bag full of books. Ultimately, the player isn’t engaging with the game world anymore - they are engaging with the GUI. 

Another key consideration for developers, especially when dealing with static recordings, is the positioning of these within game environments. It’s essential for developers to understand how players are likely to be feeling at a particular point in the level. There’s a conflict that I occasionally run into when playing a game, between a desire to engage with a recording and a desire to engage in gameplay. There’s this fear that if I don’t take the time to deal with the recording, I might miss important plot or gameplay hints. But if my adrenaline is high or I’ve already dealt with a lot of information over the past few minutes, I might be needing a puzzle- or fight-break.

This happened during my playthrough of Singularity (2010). The game started, I experienced a cutscene where some sort of explosion crashed my helicopter, my NPC friends died, and I found myself in a very dangerous looking location. The environment was telling me that I should be ready for danger, and the violence of the scene prior had filled me with adrenaline. Almost immediately, however, I found myself in a room full of projectors, each of which could be switched on, each containing a few minute’s worth of information. It felt uncomfortable to have to choose between preparing for a fight and sitting there to watch films. Ultimately, I was being offered too much information too soon and was feeling too on-edge. I decided to move on. The information was presented at a time when I wasn’t ready for it, and there was no option for me to access this information later on. I missed out on the information, not knowing whether or not the information was key to gameplay, or to my experience of the game as a whole. This is a real risk. More comprehensive playtesting with a focus on monitoring player desire would have reduced the possibility of this happening.

Information is a great way to reward players. Whether it’s a quick slideshow as you take an elevator ride into a drowned city, or a dusty erotica novel shoved behind a bookcase in the blacksmith’s shop, these little recordings ‘created’ by your characters will help give your world a touch more life by hinting at culture and knowledge beyond what mere polygons can express. We need to think carefully about how we choose to present this information, and whether or not the player will be receptive to it at the time of presentation. As developers, we can change pretty much everything. It might take a couple of hours to shift a projector to a later part of the level and ensure that its positioning makes logical sense in the context of the game world. But if it helps to ensure that players are choosing to get the right information at the right time, it’s worth it. Let me know in the comments how you like to provide information to your players. Do you use conveniently scattered diary notes, magical telepathic tiles, or do you have some other crazy (but hopefully well designed!) system for doing this?