Monday, December 15, 2008

A Touchy Subject

Outside of cut scenes, people rarely touch in videogames. The celebratory high-five is a rare sight, even considering the number of high-fives per capita in the gaming community is astronomical. Realistic physical contact is a technical feat and a luxury for developers. In-game physical contact is largely unnecessary, so most protagonists and NPCs move around in a bubble, often right through other character models.

Creating a sense of presence is a serious development challenge. Any assortment of strange body movements can make your avatar seem clunky or frighteningly spry. In a third person platformer like Prince of Persia, capturing player movement is crucial to the experience. Ubisoft went the extra mile to include realistic human interaction. The physical contact in Prince of Persia is not only well animated, but adds narrative depth and spacial dimension to the adventuring couple.

The prince, and the game itself, is very much dependant on Elika. Level progression would be impossible without her help. When you misjudge a jump and plummet, Elika will reach out her hand and pull you onto the last platform you occupied; Ubisoft's replacement for the time rewind mechanic of previous games. Likewise, Elika grabbing your arm and flinging you acts as a double-jump, allowing you to reach distant ledges. Also, She reaches out to you and pulls you onto power plates, some of which allow you to ride Elika like a flying mount.

The rest of the game is also littered with examples of physical contact. Combat often involves Elika running up your spine to attack or tossing her at opponents. She'll rely on the prince when traversing the world. When climbing on vines, Elika will hold onto you, feet dangling. Occasionally, the prince will even ask her not to squeeze so hard. Watching the characters switch places are my favorite 'touching' scenes. When hanging from a ledge, Elika will climb over and behind you. Or when swapping places on a beam, the two will cross arms, hold hands, and spin in place as if they are dancing.

All of these moments of interaction give the prince a presence, a sense of spatial dimension, unavailable to the lone adventurer. Her body reacts to yours, moving with your movement. As she grabs your hand, wraps her arm around your neck, or scampers across your back, Elika is drawing the outlines of your avatar's physical representation. When piloting the prince, I feel in control of an actual person, not the rectangular block of animation. These little touches make all the difference in a game that relies so heavily on the beauty of fluid movement.

Whether or not you consider the prince likable, his physical contact with Elika deepens their relationship in a subtle but effective way. Both characters rely upon the other's helping hand; they are both powerful and vulnerable. The result is a physical and emotional bond between these two characters, a narrative completely embedded within the game's mechanics. As the game progresses, and their relationship grows, the player can interpret there touches with greater significance.

Physical contact has achieved the same ends before in a very similar experience (no, not Army of Two). Ico has the game's titular protagonist escort Yorda through an abandoned castle. The resemblance between Elika and Yorda is so similar, Ubisoft must have been inspired by Ico.

Unlike Elika, Yorda lacks cool powers, opting
instead for pale skin and an unfortunate tendency to be kidnapped by shadow beasts. When Ico leads her away from pursuers, she will stumble and jerk his arm, altering his movement. This physical presence is most notable when quickly turning corners or pulling Yorda free of from a shadow vortex.

Many of the puzzles in Ico are designed in a way that forces you to leave Yorda's side. The detached physical connection heightens the stress and intensity of these scenes. The emotional bond is strengthened by the physical bond and the protective role you take.

Both Ico and Prince of Persia create a bond between two companions without intrusive cut scenes or extensive dialogue (Ico and Yorda don't even speak the same language). The emotional bonds we have with our compatriots are created and strengthened by physical contact, a narrative tool embedded within the games themselves. My relationship with the dog in Fable II was developed in much the same way. Touch is an important aspect of building relationships. Human interaction often depends on haptic communication and I would like to see more games do the same.


  1. Another thing Ico got right about physical contact: if you walk slowly along a wall, Ico will idly run his hand on its surface as he moves past. As I watched this while playing, I found thinking about what various surfaces in the castle might feel like, something I don't normally pay attention to in games.

  2. Mirror's Edge got physical contact right and wrong. Right in its visceral interactions with the environment, wrong in its slippery melee combat.

    I'm interested in what you think of first-person character-to-character contact. In Mirror's Edge and Half-Life 2 you hug people in cutscenes, but it feels vaguely weird, maybe because you don't have any control over it. In the same vein, I found Ico's handholding mechanic far more "touching" (pardon the pun) than Prince of Persia's, simply because you choose when and where to touch your partner.

  3. @ Carbon

    I noticed the same thing playing Ico the other day. Ico does a good job of giving the castle a life of its own.

    @ Aric

    I agree the hug in Mirror's Edge felt a little weird. I think you are right that it's because you have no control over her. After traversing a level with such fluidity, a simple hug suddenly feels like you are momentarily imprisoned. That's not the comforting feeling hugs are supposed to engender.

    The only other example I could think of is the opening scene of Call of Duty 4 where you are dragged by the arms by some thugs before being executed. That was supposed to create an uncomfortable sense of captivity, so no dissonance there. If you think of other examples of fps contact, let me know, I'm curious.

    Also, I agree PoP's touching, because it is am frequent and necessary mechanic, is less endearing than Ico's. Oddly enough, I've played Ico so much that I don't hold Yorda's hand when I don't need to. I just yell at her to keep up while running towards my goal. Effective, albeit insensitive.