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  • 10 Trends in Game Design

    [11.18.08]
    - David McClure


  •  4. Companion Characters
    Companion characters have come a long way in games over the past few years. The continual restarts when they blundered out of cover or under vehicles are becoming a thing of the past with the new breed of allies. Modern first-person games often use friendly characters as a way to express emotion to the player, as in the case of Alyx Vance in Half-Life 2, or to give them someone to empathize with and give the game character, as is the case in Call of Duty 4.

    Whole games are now designed around the presence of companion characters, for example Kane & Lynch: Dead Men and Army of Two. In fact, these companions often become equally important to the tone of the game as the lead player character is. Indeed, with companion characters like Sheva in Resident Evil 5 able to save the player from trouble and death, the companion has improved massively when compared to older iterations, for example, Ashley in Resident Evil 4.

    The use of companion characters in games is also interesting in the context of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, as they create a richer experience by allowing for access to the social needs in the game, whereas a lot of older games are almost solely occupied with physiological and safety needs. (See Reference 10.)

    Examples: Half-Life 2, Kane & Lynch: Dead Men, Call of Duty 4, Resident Evil 5,
    Army of Two, Far Cry 2


    5. Difficult Decisions
    Should you make a decision that will benefit you immediately, even if it negatively effects someone innocent, as in BioShock? Should you take revenge on someone who caused the death of your friends by killing him painlessly, or leave him to suffer more in the long run, as in Grand Theft Auto IV? Is it really wrong to kill or steal from someone who sells guns and who therefore allow for further violent acts, if there is no punishment to you for doing so, as is possible in Fallout 3?

    Another trend that has become popular and influential in video games is to make the player choose between two undesirable options. The fact that games can cause players to question their actions in relation to both near universal and personal morals is a big step forward in terms of interactivity and immersion. It also encourages players to take a step back from linearity, and it aids in the construction of more mature story lines.

    A bad decision in a modern game can commonly cause a domino effect and often ends in someone’s death, so if the player wants to cause the least harm possible she has to think a lot harder before carrying out her actions, as opposed to the Manichean basis for decision making in older games. This use of moral gray areas, forcing the player to choose between two imperfect solutions, is much more relative and gives a much greater depth to the choices made within the game. Indeed, perhaps this interest in making the player weigh certain values and experiencing the end result of those decisions will even lead to persuasive elements becoming part of mainstream game design, an example being BioShock’s railing against selfish individualism. (See Reference 11.)

    Examples: BioShock, Grand Theft Auto IV, Fallout 3

    6. Mini-Games for Actions
    One welcomed trend that has been slowly entering games is using mini-games to decide whether a player's attempts at an action are successful. In Fallout 3, for example, the player tries to pick a lock by controlling the rotation of a hairpin and a screwdriver, both of which must be used carefully and correctly to open the lock without snapping the hairpin.

    Mini-games can heighten the player’s engagement level, are a lot more enjoyable than merely pressing a button and, if implemented sensibly, make a lot of sense to the story or game world.

    However, although mini-games tend to be entertaining, they can seem a little strange if the system implemented does not gel with the player's understanding of how things work in real life. For example, in BioShock, the plumbing used to control the security systems doesn’t quite make sense. (See Reference 12.)

    Examples: BioShock, Fallout 3

    7. Retro Sci-Fi Dystopias
    Science fiction in games used to tend toward far future space-scapes and distant planets, but recently this has changed. Games like BioShock, Fallout 3, and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. take place in retro-futuristic landscapes. These games pay homage to outdated ideas about the future, a design concept that plays on the collective memory and reminds us of ideas from the past that did not come to fruition.


    This juxtaposition of past and future, of often utopian (but mythological) Golden Age and unrelenting griminess, evokes an element of melancholy that is missing from many other titles. (See Reference 13.)

    Examples: BioShock, Fallout 3, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Destroy All Humans, Stubbs The Zombie

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