February marked the release of the long-awaited Nioh, a game that suffered through many years of development purgatory to offer an authentic experience of an Irish-born Samurai sticking swords into the faces of various humans and demons. The patient and precise combat invites the inevitable Dark Souls comparisons, naturally, but I’m going to abscond from those for the most part. What Nioh makes me think about instead is narrative design. Which I suppose is not much of a stretch, given that I have worked as a narrative designer in the past.
Before you start to moan, I will agree with you; the story is awful. The story is fanservice. The story is Samurai Candy. The story is every name out of the Sengoku Jidai that you’ve sorta-kinda-probably heard of, given minor artistic license, shoved into nonsensical cutscenes without any identification, and given neon animals visible only to the protagonist to sit on their shoulders. The bulk of the scripted interactions play out like so:
INT. TEAROOM - NIGHT WILLIAM (the protagonist), INCORRECTLY NAMED NINJA (who is actually the son of the ninja you think of when you hear his name), and several ARBITRARY SAMURAI (whose names you won't learn until later, if at all) sit crosslegged. Most have neon ghosts hovering by their shoulders, though all but William seem to be oblivious of their presence.ARBITRARY SAMURAI (in Japanese)Who is this bizarre white dude?INCORRECTLY NAMED NINJA (in Japanese)This is William. He is chasing after his kidnapped loli spirit girl.ARBITRARY SAMURAI (in Japanese)We cannot pronounce your name, so you are now Anjin. Deal with it.WILLIAMYou people are all stupid.ARBITRARY SAMURAI (in Japanese)What did you say? Seriously, we can't understand you.INCORRECTLY NAMED NINJA (in Japanese)Ignore this honky. Tell us where demons are so we can force him to slay them. Instead of discussing the demons, the camera follows one or several little ghost animals as they run around. The scene then ends abruptly.FADE TO BLACK
You are then presented with a 2d map of a part of Japan littered with icons to denote things you can interact with. There is a “Starting Point” where you can level up, learn new skills, and try and wrap your head around the seventy different types of item forging the blacksmith can perform. There are also icons denoting available missions; typically there is one major story event and two or three smaller sidequests. And in this way, Nioh presents its content to you in the exact way an iPhone game would.
Do a mental exercise for a moment. Picture this interface on a mobile device. Imagine that, instead of moving a cursor with the stick, you could just swoop a greedy finger in and tap directly on it. Imagine that, instead of pushing shoulder buttons to swap between different missions at the same location, you could just perform a swipe gesture to go between them. Imagine that you could actually locate the twilight missions, when they randomly are available, with just a tap.
When you tap—I mean move the slightly-too-slow cursor onto a mission icon and click it, you get an image of one of those random characters you’ve met before (this time with a name!) accompanied by a blob of text denoting the particulars of the mission. You are also shown the rewards you will receive upon mission completion in the form of XP, money, and loot. Compare this user experience with any mobile game you have ever played; a home base, a map of missions, the whole thing. The only advantage Nioh’s UX has over the iphone is that you are not required to expend a time-locked resource in order to embark upon a mission.
Now, the interface is purely functional and fine and acceptable and whatever. It does what is needed, and the player spends little enough time there that it doesn’t grow offensive. That’s fine. However, this form of UX has a significant effect on the narrative. The motionless images of the character giving the quest is lifeless, and the blob of text floating next them feels unrelated to the story events that led the player to this mission. Compound this with the fact that very few of these characters are properly introduced, and both the missions and the mission-givers start to feel arbitrary. When characters feel arbitrary, the player stops paying attention to them; they simply click through to get to the fun part.
Contrast this with most AAA games you play; the vast majority of them render a world that requires you to physically walk your character to a particular location to begin a mission. How is this different than icons on a map? Immersion. Even if that worldspace is equally as arbitrary as glowing haloes on a 2d map of Japan, it forces the player to experience downtime with their character. It allows for bonding time, to put it bluntly. It allows the player to experience the world along with the avatar they are controlling.
Do another mental exercise. Picture William running around in his pajamas in the training dojo. This asset exists already. He may find these same glowing haloes that denote missions on the 2D map floating here. This asset exists already. People might show up to talk to you and invite you to set off on quests from there. These assets exist already. There could be ema hanging from a shrine at the dojo that contain information on sidequests. These assets exist already, though not in a readily repurposed form. The lighting could physically change to dusk when twilight missions are available. This asset exists already. The only downside to this approach is longer loading times at the end of a mission, but that is an acceptable time to throttle back player engagement.
Whatever form this arbitrary hub might take, the point remains that physically controlling a character, walking up to another character, and pressing an interaction button does much more for immersion than the talking heads found in the 2D iPhone interface. This decision does harm to the characters in this world, in that it does nothing to encourage the player to care.