A funny thing happened to me on the way to the apocalypse. I was playing Bethesda's Fallout 4, when I realised Dogmeat, the canine companion you acquire quite early on in the game, wasn't following me. I heard frenzied barking and realising he must have been tangling with the local wildlife, I leapt to his aid. 'I'm coming, Dogmeat!', I yelled internally. At least, I hope was internally, otherwise I may never be able to face the neighbours again. It was at this point that a thought struck me, like a radioactive bolt from the blue. I actually cared more about Dogmeat, a virtual mutt, than my character's son, Shaun - the same son whose kidnapping was supposed to be the impetus for the whole game.
Things didn't improve from thereon in, as I continued to feel no emotional connection to a character I was apparently supposed to care about. Indeed, my only reason for tacking the game's main missions was to gain access to new weaponry, areas and companions. This was not, I suspect, Bethesda's intention. Yet Fallout 4 isn't the only game where I've encountered this phenomenon, nor am I the only person to have noticed it. The opening chapter of The Last of Us features the demise of one of the protagonist's family members, something that's he's understandably upset about. Yet when I was playing it, and got to the aforementioned scene, I didn't feel anything at all. However, I actually ended up caring about Ellie, the character who Joel, the protagonist, has to protect as the game progresses.
The problem arises when a game tells you that you should care about a particular character, yet because no actual relationship exists, you feel nothing but indifference. This was certainly the case for me and I find it takes me right out of the game when this occurs. Destructoid's own Anthony Burch talked about the issue a good five years or so ago. He suggested that the solution to the problem was to have the protagonist meet a character during the course of the game, if you intend the player to bond with the NPC in question. I'm inclined to agree, as all the character's I've cared about in-game have been ones I've met during the course of the game itself. Ellie from The Last of Us, Alyx Vance from Half Life 2, Elizabeth from BioShock, and even Dogmeat himself. And yet, five years later, gamers are still being told what to feel.
So why did this problem ever occur in the first place? My belief is that it stems from the fact that games started off being nearly devoid of story. Even now many games are no more complex than your average Michael Bay film. I'd suggest that many writers come to the medium with the view that, in terms of narrative, games should take their cues from television shows or movies. But in a game, you are the protagonist, and take an active role in the game. A movie, on the other hand, has you in a very passive role, merely viewing the action on screen. Take The Last of Us - Joel is as clearly a defined character as you're likely to get in a video game and yet, when I was playing the game, I was Joel. I mentally inserted myself into the role, and felt it was my responsibility to look after Ellie.
What can games developers do to avoid this disconnect between player and storyline? Simple – foster relationships in–game, by introducing characters during the course of the game itself. Don't expect them to care about characters just because you tell them the character they're playing should. Instead, focus on having meaningful interactions – including dialogue - between the player and the non-player character you want them to get attached to. Just don't try and tell us what to feel.