Friday, May 29, 2009

The Sensationalist: Loyalty and Star Fox

This post is part of "The Sensationalist," a continuing series here at Experience Points in which we examine games' abilities to evoke emotions and sensations in video game players. Please have a look at the series' introduction as well its previous entries. As always, we welcome your thoughts on all the matters we discuss, and look forward to analyzing one of gaming's most powerful, yet intangible, abilities.

If the Star Fox team, were a basketball team, it would be the equivalent to LeBron James backed up by three members of the Washington Generals. Flanked by Falco Lombardi, Peppy Hare, and Slippy Toad, what starts as a four-person assault on a galactic empire often turns into outer space baby sitting. Some my most vivid memories of the game are of when the missions would take a a sharp, exasperating turn so that I could save my hapless wingmen from deaths caused by their own extreme lack of self preservation. This is not to say that I was always altruistic: Who among us can claim not to have blasted Slippy out of the sky in a fit of rage?

And yet, Star Fox 64 is one of the few games I can recall that elicited a sense of loyalty to my virtual teammates.

The task of making secondary video game characters not only memorable, but empathetic is a difficult task. In many games, the characters serve simply as tools with a thin veneer of personality. In genres like real time strategy, individual characters become faceless pawns in a larger war. While one may make friends in the trenches, few characters inspire any kind of lasting connection.

Games that have successfully unpaired loyalty towards their characters have accomplished it through a combination of narrative and gameplay techniques. To trot out a well-worn example, Aeries' death in Final Fantasy VII was jarring both because I had invested my time in developing her skills and because the narrative invested time in developing her as a pivotal character. Her untimely death served to cement my dedication to the rest of the party and harden my thoughts towards Sephiroth.

Similarly, Team Ico's way of crafting empathetic non-playable characters helps engender in me a sense of loyalty . Yorda and Agro are not directly controllable, but their crucial skills along with their narrative impact inspired a sense to protect and do right by them.

In Star Fox, the skills your wingmen bring to the table are occasionally useful. They add a small amount of depth to the still shallow story, but the game can be played basically as well in their absence. They typically bumble along behind you, shooting poorly, periodically interjecting with useless, annoying dialogue, and shrieking for help whenever an enemy has the gall to fire at them. Certainly, the loyalty I feel towards the Star Fox team has little to do with their skillful piloting or intellectual capabilities.

The loyalty I feel for the Star Fox team speaks to broader issues of socialization and group identity. In a situation in which people work closely together against a larger force or insurmountable odds, the twin threads of of affection and contempt form a uniquely strong bond. Put plainly, belonging to a group tends to confer on its members the right to talk shit about said group. Everyone is guilty of complaining about their crazy family or ragging on their hometown's football team. However, outsiders who would make identical critiques have no legitimacy to do so: Regardless of how bad things are, the members of the group share a unique relationship and exert ownership of their clique, which foments pride and group loyalty.

So while I might roll my eyes when Peppy nags me about barrel rolls, I am on some level fond of the senile old hare. I groan when Falco makes yet another snide comment, but I secretly enjoy his "badditude." I might purposely lob a smart bomb at Slippy as punishment for his incompetence, but deep down I find his earnestness endearing.

I might deride, or possibly outright abuse, my team, but I do so as a member of that team. Solidarity is ultimately exemplified when faced with those who would attack the team from the outside. When those Star Wolf jerks have the audacity to fire on my wingmates, my first thought is "OH NO YOU DIDN'T!"

The Star Fox team might be the Bad News Bears of interstellar combat, but they're my team, and you better believe I'm loyal to them.


  1. I think one of the key means Star Fox's designers use to create that special group mentality involves flying in formation. When there's a break in the action and your teammates begin to hover at the edges of your screen, you can't help but feel connected to them. You've just flown through a dangerous asteroid belt, but there everyone is, back together again, with Slippy on the left, Peppy on the right, and Falco in the center.

    Or not -- maybe one of them didn't make it. Seeing that conspicuous hole in the arrangement always tugged at my heart strings a little bit.

    Great post!

  2. I agree, great post which brought the memories of that game (called Lylat Wars here in Australia) flooding back. Such a prominent game in my childhood and now I'm reflecting on some wonderful moments.

    To steer this topic away from the game slightly though, I wonder if this sort of interest and concern (both positive and negative as outlined in your post) can be something that games like Gears of War, Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter and Call of Duty could replicate. Arguably Gears already does, but if so it's not as obvious or successful as it could be. Call of Duty could also do it, particularly the Modern Warfare titles, but I feel that because that series swaps between developers with each installment it is something that won't be explored as much as it could be.

    GRAW on the other hand, I felt anyway, did do a reasonably decent job and I found myself aware of, and concerned with my AI teammates whereabouts and how they were faring in the battle. They got in the way sometimes and that was annoying, but other times they had my back. It's a start and could, potentially, go in some really great directions -- be it narrative, gameplay set-pieces or whatever. It's an interesting thing to think about.

    Anyway, since it's the weekend I think it's time I got the ol' N64 out and played me some Lylat Wars. :D

  3. @mtvernon

    Excellent point: The use of group discipline and rituals is key to fostering unity. Whether it's a team's warm up ritual, a drinking song, or the pledge of allegiance, once something becomes ingrained, it is a powerful force for loyalty.


    Could "realism" cause your attachment to GRAW characters to be stronger than GoW? Some might argue it is easier to identify with folks that seem more human. But then again, there are always counter examples: even robots like Wall-E become empathetic if characterized correctly.

    I'll have to look this up, but wasn't it some sort of copyright dispute that caused the "Lylat Wars" name change? Truly, you leave in a strange and distant land! ;-)

  4. Really interesting post... the only gripe I have is Aeries. Aside from my belief that FFVII is the most overrated game in the history of consoles, killing Aeries didn't cause me to bond with the rest of the party or really even feel much at all... it just pissed me off that the game had decided to kill off one of my characters.

    Of course, those things are certainly due in part to the fact that the truly forgettable 3D in that game prevented the immersion I felt in VI and then again in X. Perhaps Aeries' death would have affected me more if I weren't (even when the game was fresh) smirking at the horrid rendering.