Wednesday, March 16, 2011

New Kill Screen Article: A Sackboy Says No Words

Awesome art thanks to Josh Holinaty
The second article I have written for Kill Screen Magazine's website is up now. It looks at LittleBigPlanet and how communication because an intrinsic activity between characters, as opposed to a solely extrinsic activity between players. Please check it out and let me know what you think!

Just like last time, many thanks to Ryan Kuo for the awesome editing job. Without his suggestions, I wouldn't be half as happy with this post as I am.


Kenny Young said...

Hey Brendan,

Good stuff! :)

Communication is absolutely at the heart of the decision not to give Sackboy a “voice of his own”, but the primary motivation for this was actually the relationship between the player and their sack person rather than the relationship between players or sack people as you have encountered and described it. It's obviously all intertwined, but I thought I'd give you an insight in to the thinking behind all this...

Going right back to the original announcement presentation at GDC 2007 (which was a couple of months before I joined Media Molecule), the “acting” with Sackboy was already in place. Alex was doing most of the talking, but Mark was clowning around and gesticulating with his Sackboy much in the way you describe. There's a key moment where Mark talks through his Sackboy – “He's my friend” he says as he disturbingly rubs the orange he's standing next to – and in that brief moment Mark and his avatar melded in to one and the same entity. That was really powerful, and it stuck in my head.

It was clear that if Sackboy was to have a voice, it was to be that of his player/owner. And if that was the case then we couldn't very well make Sackboy vocalise at every given opportunity in the game and we sure as hell couldn't have him talk. That would have prevented the player from inhabiting their sack person, not to mention be really annoying.

But a character who doesn't say anything is really hard to bring to life. You only have to watch a trailer for LBP or LBP2 made by a 3rd party (i.e. not Mm) to hear sackfolk covered with chipmonk voices. Which is both interesting and deeply upsetting. I mean, how do you not break one of the pillars of the LBP IP whilst also making an engaging trailer? Gah! One of the LBP1 UK TV adverts got it right when they had a father describe the level his kids were playing, and the sound of the children squealing with delight crossed over to scoring the sackfolk on screen.

There are apparent exceptions in-game whereby if Sackboy gets gassed, 'tries again', drowns or resurfaces you can hear him do some manner of breath vocalisation. Those are both necessary, to try and “sell” these moments, as well as being some of the few places where a vocalisation could even work. These are the only moments we know for sure that what is happening to Sackboy aligns with the player's perception of what is happening to their character. If we'd covered or “scored” Sackboy with vocalisations in other assumed contexts, all this would have done is highlight the discontinuity between what the player thought was happening to their character and the fact that Sackboy has no awareness of this whatsoever. This would have become especially apparent in those community levels which try and hide Sackboy altogether! So, annoyance would not just have come from the repetition of the same samples over and over again (in a game which some people play for years) but from this contextual blindness. It's interesting then that the Sackbots in LBP2, who do have vocalisations (created by Jonatan Crafoord – yes, the Sackbots are Swedish), could only be convincingly brought to life using sound objects which are implemented to reflect the context the Sackbots find themselves in in a particular location of a level.


Brendan Keogh said...

[Here is the rest of Kenny's comment that Blogger seems to not be letting him post:]

But I guess what's particularly interesting is that even though people can communicate via headsets in LBP (and even via their PlayStation Eyes, which a lot of people don't realise are broadcasting everything they say – hilarity ensues), and give their Sack person a voice (complete with lip synch), many people choose not to and solely rely on the ability to communicate physically with their Sackfolk. I think that's simply player choice. However, perhaps the default state of Sackboy as a mute encourages people to embrace this and continue to convey the character as such. I wonder, do you and Helen play together in the same room or online? Those are really quite different experiences – I wager that no Sack person is truly silent if you are playing within earshot of each other! In this situation it is interesting to note which vocal communications are happening in the real world and which are being channelled through your character (as in my analysis of Mark's behaviour at that GDC announcement presentation). I mean, even if you're just laughing or shouting “WILL YOU PLEASE STOP SLAPPING ME”, where do you draw the line between you and your sack person?

It's interesting that you view Sackboy's silent participation in cutscenes as a formalisation of the character's muteness. The lack of voice is certainly intentional, but it is necessary in order to maintain a semblance of participation from the player. If we could have come up with a way for all of the cutscenes in LBP2 to be interactive we would have. We certainly started out with the intention that at least some of them would be, though they fell by the wayside because that's really hard to do, especially if you also have to create accessible tools which empower the community to do the same. Clearly, it's awkward to loose control of your character and have them do things autonomously. But having your character speak would have just made this compromise all the more apparent and totally killed the experience. One simple idea, which was certainly discussed a lot but I don't recall ever seeing it in the game during development, was that the player could still act with their character whilst in a cutscene even if they couldn't move their legs – I think this would have been awesome and help to diminish players' awareness of the vice we'd put them in in order to get the cutscenes to work. Another, more problematic, idea was that we'd let the players respond to questions via acting (i.e. shaking or nodding their heads), but that's opening a can of worms; our story was strictly linear. The player's own voice never entered in to the equation, but it's interesting to think that if and when participation from players via voice becomes robust enough to not be annoying it will usher in a whole other level of immersion and involvement for interactive media.

Anyways. I think Sackboy's expressiveness is the key to all of this. By giving the player so much flexibility to control and communicate with/through their character I couldn't possibly then force a voice upon them in ignorance of this, but I could empower the person in control to decide whether they wanted their Sack person to speak or not. I guess that's the ultimate customisation – don't choose it from a list, make it your very own.



Brendan Keogh said...

Hey Kenny,

Thanks for such an insightful and interesting response to my piece! It is always interesting to hear what the people who made the game think about these things... and absolutely terrifying to think that they are reading my rambling articles about their games!

In a first draft of this article, my story was different. It was one where my brother and I play online but neither of us had headsets so communicating via gestures wasn't really a choice. When Helen and I play we are sitting in the same room and certainly we do talk to each other. However, what I find fascinating is that we never only speak to each other. Even if one of us does say "go over there", it is still Sackboy that points, not us, the players.

Which ties into something that I find fascinating, and something you alluded to in your remarks: the overlap and convergence of player and character. For me, this isn't when the character becomes more like the player, but when the player and the character as distinct-yet-overlapping entities get this awesome, cooperative relationship going where you can't imagine separating one from the other.

Which I think is why I have such a connection to Sackboy and his gestures. I bring what I want to say to the relationship, and he brings the way to say it within the game. So both player and character are contributing to the relationship.

So yes, that 'drawing the line' between player and character (or perhaps more accurately, not drawing it) is something that really fascinates me--in fact I am writing a thesis about it this year! So it is really interesting to hear how that is dealt with in the actual development cycle.

Thanks again for such a great comment!


Brendan Keogh said...

(PS. At this year's GDC, did you happen to go to Matthias Worch's talk on 'The Identity Bubble'? It was an excellent discussion of player/character identity. He has the slides up on his website: