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NicoDante

Diversity - disabled main character?

17 posts in this topic

After devouring all of the Extra Credits videos on Penny Arcade recently (they're brilliant treatises on game design and the game industry, check them out if you haven't seen them already!), one which stuck in my mind was on the topic of Diversity: http://www.penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/diversity

The main types of diversity covered are Race, Gender and Sexuality, but another is ability - are there any games out there with a main character who is disabled in a meaningful or realistic way? I can't think of any off the top of my head...

So I thought about how a game could implement a character with a disability in a mature and meaningful way - it would be very refreshing to play as a character who isn't a typical caucasian-straight-guy-action-here wouldn't it? The character would definitely have more scope for depth than most of the other bland heroes out there if nothing else, and would also be a great way of educating players about the types of challenges faced by people with disabilities.

But how would this work in terms of gameplay? What types of game would be impossible to make with a character who cannot do everything a standard hero can do? What types of disability could be accurately represented in what types of game? Is it possible to be sensitive about this, but still keep the game fun?

This is quite a highbrow topic and is completely hypothetical, but I think it should be possible to do - TV, books and film have created a lot of great stories with main characters with disabilities that we as game designers could learn from - two examples that spring to mind are Tyrion from Game of Thrones (everyone's favourite character from the series), and Miles Vorkosigan from the Vorkosigan series of books by Lois McMaster Bujold (one of my personal favourite literary characters of all time).

If we need a more concrete example to work on, we could take Miles as a starting point - his sci-fi world and the stories within it could make a brilliant game if done correctly. As visions of the future go, it's up there with Mass Effect's. I'll leave it there for now, and see what you all come back with :)
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I can't see this in any popular genre, maybe except a really story focused RPG.

Basically, disabilities disallow certain actions to be performed. Most games are about exploration (required fit body), solving puzzles (required fit body/mind) or fighting (fit body). I would imagine a main hero being disabled in a Myst-like game.

Then again, what would be the purpose of having a disabled person as a main hero? We play games to be in another reality, not be reminded of it. I believe that people with disabilities wouldn't play such games, simply due to the fact that they would be reminded of their own boundaries.

A healthy player in general doesn't like his characters crippled. That is the reason we try to avoid damaging our character, and having broken legs in Fallout or Deus Ex was the greatest disaster.

But you did raise an interesting point. Games tend to try and comform to a wide audience... But not the disabled. And I think it is because of the above -- there would be a too narrow niche that would potentially play the games.
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Ever saw "Crippled Kung-Fu masters"? One guy without arms, and another without legs kicking the shit out of everyone. But that's probably not the mature thing you're looking for ;)

If a player is too slow, it's annoying. If a player can't jump or smack his opponents, it's annoying. You could mount tracks and a .40 machine gun on a wheelchair to make an action game, but I don't think that will work either. With all the respect, players usually like to control someone they look up to. That doesn't mean there aren't options though.


Metroid (Prime) games usually have the player starting "crippled" in some way. Not that Samus is disabled, but she misses all her gear and suit upgrades so you have to recollect them. In case you focus on an action game, you could control a (disabled) human that upgrades himself with bio-engineered stuff. From a man that can only crawl to a strong machine. Something like that.

When doing a more serious horror games, you could play around with blindness or deafness. Not that the game has no visuals or audio (that would be easy to make!), but you could for example collect vaccins to keep your sensings working. If you don't, the view or audio gets blurred.

If you go for a platform game, you could make the character being unable to walk, but very good at climbing and hanging in trees.... Uh... don't know if that really works out, but it's just an idea again.


Whatever you do, make sure the disability doesn't block the player from doing things he's used to, unless it has a very good reason. Or yet even beter, use the handicap in a positive way, giving abilities that normal humans don't have, to compensate.

Rick
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Certain ordinary actions are inherently impossible in games. In [i]Arkham City[/i], batman can't jump, for example. The operative limitation on the player's character's actions is the choices that the game designers made, so in that sense all game characters are disabled. Rather than starting with a wide range of possibile actions (a real person), a game character initially has no ability to do anything and then capabilities are added one at a time, with everything not explicitly added being impossible.

While adding an overt disability of some kind might allow for an interesting play experience, I don't think that it would be fundamentally different than any other design concept. What would make a large difference would be removing or impeding an ability that the player expects to have and will miss. That does not sound fun, and as above something pretty great would have to be added to compensate.
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You could make a game where the guy is blind and he sees only if he touches an object or hears it (or hears sounds bouncing off big objects)

That would be a bit boring though so you got to make him have super-hearing to make it work. But it would be cool if made well, like anything that creates much noise would make you not "see" with your ears very well if at all.

If you see something by touching or hearing, it should stay visible and slowly start getting more foggy and having incorrect position, since you can remember what and where it was for a while. Larger objects would stay for pretty much the whole game, but furniture and such might get forgotten in a while.

That would allow for skills and such too, since you can remember stuff for longer, hear more accurately/farther, predict where enemies are going to go and so on.
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I don't think a game where the player zoomed around in a wheelchair would be much different from a game where the player is on a bicycle the whole time, and I can think of several of those.

I'm personally more interested in the science fiction and fantasy side of things, but if you have high tech or magic to throw at disabilities they generally get solved in one way or another. Take the concept of Anne McCaffrey's brain ships, or the non-copyrighted version NIs (natural intelligences). This is a case where you have a working human mind but the body is basically scrap due to disease or accident, so you take either the brain in a jar or a digital recording of the brain and give it a direct interface to a computer so it can control a robot body. Is it even valid to consider oneself disabled if one is a freaking spaceship or transformer? But I could see a fun game about being an NI who has just been removed from your body, now you are in some kind of therapy school to learn how to use your new abilities, and you have very limited hardware and abilities first, you have to accomplish goals to get upgrades to get new abilities to solve new problems to get more upgrades, etc.
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There's lots of game game characters with mild disabilities [i]that don't affect the gameplay[/i], like having one eye, or a speech impediment, etc...

The only example of a disability ([i]or disorder[/i]) of a main character [i]actually affecting gameplay[/i] that comes to mind is in [url="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fahrenheit_(video_game)"]Fahrenheit[/url] : one of the main characters is claustrophobic, which only affects a single puzzle in the game that takes place in a basement. As well as having to solve the puzzle, you've got to play a rhythm game ([i]pressing left/right in time with her breathing[/i]) to keep her calm, otherwise you get sent back to the start of the puzzle.

Also, in Portal, the main character has prosthetic legs, but they're manufactured as an enhancement for non-disabled people, not as a disability aid. So she [i]could[/i] have disabled feet (or not) and the game would be the same.
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[quote name='Zethariel' timestamp='1320131575' post='4879163']
Then again, what would be the purpose of having a disabled person as a main hero? We play games to be in another reality, not be reminded of it.
[/quote]
There's plenty of room for the fantastic deeds done by [url=http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/HandicappedBadass]disabled individuals[/url]. Just the number of guys in fiction running around with guns in their prosthetics alone could give you a testosterone overdose. If for no other reason, disabilities are a good way to explain plot scene incompetence. For example, Guts from the Berserk manga kicks so much ass that he occasionally forgets the fact that one of his arms is a fake (of course with a cannon inside) and he can't actually grip with that hand.
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Wow, lots of good responses here, plenty of food for thought!

[quote]Then again, what would be the purpose of having a disabled person as a main hero? We play games to be in another reality, not be reminded of it.[/quote]
Isn't playing as someone very different from you (such as a disabled person) a way of experiencing another reality?

The NI idea/taking over robot bodies gave me an idea of my own as to how something similar could be done in a real-world setting. You would play as main character who is either paralysed, or completely 'locked-in' (a syndrome I saw in an episode of House) and unable to move or speak at all, except perhaps by moving his or her eyes (by looking around as you would in a first-person game). The opening scene would be you looking at other characters/your family visit you, and being unable to communicate at first, until a seemingly friendly character teaches you how to communicate by moving your eyes, or using a computer interface that reads brain-waves. Then the character (a doctor/nurse?) turns out to be an enemy, working for whoever put you in your locked-in state (in order to keep you silent?) and saying you don't have long until they unplug your life support. Luckily your character has psychic abilities however (as a result of sampling the secret illegal research your enemy is doing?), and can take over the bodies of other patients in your ward, who all have limitations of one type of another that must be overcome in order to thwart the plans of the evil corporation running the private hospital/clinic and get the antidote for the toxin (or psychic block?) that's left you 'locked-in'. Sound interesting?? :)
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Since I'm a fan of RPGs, I think a game about a character who lacks a leg or something would be quite interesting, specially if you use that in good ways in the story.

But if you wanna make a game focused on the crippling itself, I think the idea about the hospital is great! But it would be kinda hard to draw out good gameplay on that or deciding on a ideal artstyle.

However... A game like that, with you being able to switch between people with different problems, as an survival horror would probably be pretty cool.
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[quote name='NicoDante' timestamp='1320192209' post='4879462']
Wow, lots of good responses here, plenty of food for thought!

[quote]Then again, what would be the purpose of having a disabled person as a main hero? We play games to be in another reality, not be reminded of it.[/quote]
Isn't playing as someone very different from you (such as a disabled person) a way of experiencing another reality?

The NI idea/taking over robot bodies gave me an idea of my own as to how something similar could be done in a real-world setting. You would play as main character who is either paralysed, or completely 'locked-in' (a syndrome I saw in an episode of House) and unable to move or speak at all, except perhaps by moving his or her eyes (by looking around as you would in a first-person game). The opening scene would be you looking at other characters/your family visit you, and being unable to communicate at first, until a seemingly friendly character teaches you how to communicate by moving your eyes, or using a computer interface that reads brain-waves. Then the character (a doctor/nurse?) turns out to be an enemy, working for whoever put you in your locked-in state (in order to keep you silent?) and saying you don't have long until they unplug your life support. Luckily your character has psychic abilities however (as a result of sampling the secret illegal research your enemy is doing?), and can take over the bodies of other patients in your ward, who all have limitations of one type of another that must be overcome in order to thwart the plans of the evil corporation running the private hospital/clinic and get the antidote for the toxin (or psychic block?) that's left you 'locked-in'. Sound interesting?? :)
[/quote]


I like that idea...

Though being able to command people would be weird and kind of boring. What about being able to control electronical machines with your bio-magnetic life force field. Like you could escape from the hospital by taking control over the floor-cleaning machine after killing the dude who drives it, and make it pull you outta there.

And after an hour or so youre flying a choppah firing your minigun still laying on the hospital bed that you somehow managed to attach to the choppah?


Yus.
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1. Cheese point:
There are games about people with disabilities already. Gordon Freeman is mute, for example. ;)

2. Do you want a game with people with disabilities to have a game with people with disabilities or do you want to achieve something else?
Many sorts of media and especially games confront the user with his perception of himself and the world around him. Do you want the player to reflect on himself or do you want him to reflect on people with disabilities?

3.1 If you want to the player to reflect on being disabled, you can recreate the emotion to raise awareness of the issue. The important bit is that the disability is actually not the focus of the game because people with disabilities aren't all about their disability. The disability only comes into play when the disabled person attempts to complete a task. Thus the goals should be common, but the game mechanics must reflect the disability.
If you want a game about the disability to walk you can make a common exploration type game with a protagonist in a wheelchair and common exploration-type-goals (points, stars, story), but replace 3 meter tall walls as obstacles with steps and stairs. Difficult jumps from common games are replaced with smaller obstacles that can only be overcome on two wheels. This requires skillfull player action and uses common video game tropes to motivate the player.
If you want a game about a blind person, make a text adventure about a blind protagonist that is confronted with a typical mystery-plot. This motivates the player using typical text adventure tropes but makes him tangentially interact with the protagonist's blindness.

3.2 If you want to make the player reflect on himself the "game about disabilities" is just one of your tools. The important bit here is that you are using the disability to demonstrate the flawedness of the person playing. Thus the goal should be to overcome the disability so the player has to interact with it.
You could e.g. simulate a type of border-line syndrome in a game where personal interaction is required to get people thinking about their personal relationship.
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I think a disabled character could work well in a stat-heavy rpg, especially in a party based one. I can imagine a wheel chair bound character in a game similar to Baldurs Gate for example. Most classes would be unavailable since the strength and dexterity stats are too low, but he might instead get bonuses to wisdom or whatever, perhaps damage reduction and certain spell immunity (a stun/paralyze spell has no effect). There would be pros and cons ofcourse, and town folk might behave differently than they would to non-disabled people.
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No one "likes" disabled people. You might like who they are behind their disability, or how they overcome the disability or how they managed to live to the fullest against all odds. But the disability alone is not what makes a character likable. I have a broken fingernail, do you like me more? Unlikely.

Take a note that Forest Gump is not about a brain crippled person. It is about a brain crippled person who happens to know how to live much better than those who had normal fully functional brain. No one likes him for his crippled brain, we like him for his use of the assets he has.

Also, disability is a negative trait, no one would want to play disabled person. Well, if you say "you are an evil mastermind with superpowers who happen to be on a wheelchair" then it is another story, it is about the superpowers mastermind, not about being crippled. It's the same as being a warrior, a mage, an archer... You can't give a choice "do you want to be a warrior or crippled?" These are two different categories. The crippled can still be a warrior or a mage. And the other side of the story, about who he really is, is what is important.

In real life no one is crippled or disabled. Everyone is some kind of warrior or scientist or someone else. Disability is not a profession, it is a trait. In short, if you want to make a game about disabled people you can't concentrate it on being disabled (unless you plan to make it dark, depressing, sad story about lack of hope).
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[quote name='Acharis' timestamp='1320487843' post='4880736']
No one "likes" disabled people. You might like who they are behind their disability, or how they overcome the disability or how they managed to live to the fullest against all odds. But the disability alone is not what makes a character likable. I have a broken fingernail, do you like me more? Unlikely.

Take a note that Forest Gump is not about a brain crippled person. It is about a brain crippled person who happens to know how to live much better than those who had normal fully functional brain. No one likes him for his crippled brain, we like him for his use of the assets he has.

Also, disability is a negative trait, no one would want to play disabled person. Well, if you say "you are an evil mastermind with superpowers who happen to be on a wheelchair" then it is another story, it is about the superpowers mastermind, not about being crippled. It's the same as being a warrior, a mage, an archer... You can't give a choice "do you want to be a warrior or crippled?" These are two different categories. The crippled can still be a warrior or a mage. And the other side of the story, about who he really is, is what is important.

In real life no one is crippled or disabled. Everyone is some kind of warrior or scientist or someone else. Disability is not a profession, it is a trait. In short, if you want to make a game about disabled people you can't concentrate it on being disabled (unless you plan to make it dark, depressing, sad story about lack of hope).
[/quote]
Not so sure I agree with this. The little genre "hurt/comfort story" is built around the idea that a suffering love interest has a unique appeal, typically to readers who imagine themselves being the one doing the comforting, although sometimes to readers who imagine themselves being comforted. Similarly "knight in shining armor syndrome" or "damsel in distress syndrome" refer to people who have a history of seeking relationships specifically because they want to play the role of rescuer or rescuee (and then possibly looking interest in that relationship if the other person no longer needs rescued or no longer is able to rescue.) But that said, typically a disabled protagonist is someone you'd want to present as a plucky underdog or hero who exudes competence despite challenging circumstances, not a damsel (or male equivalent) in distress.

Additionally, we have stats to back up the fact that in tabletop RPGs which contain insanity-type disabilities some players choose to play a character with one for the unique experience (i.e. fun) and challenge.
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I have never really enjoyed Extra Credits and sometimes feel they do more harm than good. There really something you need to take a pinch of salt with whenever you watch them. But that's off topic really :P.

Back on topic, I always took the hurt/comfort story genre as one that simply moved the "positive" aspect of being disabled (e.g. psychic powers if you're in a wheelchair) and moved them onto another person. The person may be disabled in some way (either physical or mental) but they have someone there to help them overcome it. I think it's true that disability on its own isn't a desirable aspect in games/stories although it is an effective way for a designer to balance out a character and make them somewhat more relatable.

There may indeed be few games that use a disability in gameplay as a negative but there are a lot of cases, as people have pointed out, of characters being disabled. In-fact I would say it is probably the most seen of the "minorities" found in games. The thing is that although they may not often effect gameplay directly they do often affect other elements of the game, such as story, and I wouldn't discount their importance to a game because of that. In that respect it is just as used as in say TV, movies or books.

This sort of topic puzzles me slightly since people seem to be asking "Why is there a game about a disability?" (by disability I mean some serious physical one) where the onus is on the disability itself. This seems to be totally counterintuitive since, as people have already explained excellently, a disability doesn't make the person it is only one part of that person. Games as well as other media mirror that well. I guess making such a game would probably do more harm than good and would be largely down to the designer wanting to be "artsy and serious".

When it comes down to it would you or anyone else, disabled or otherwise, really want to play such a game? Or even design one?

PS: I should probably add (sorry is someone already mentioned it) that disabilities do get lumped with race/sex etc. in this respect, but a disability is inherently negative unlike those other "categories" so arguments used for those can often not be used for this subject.

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I have an idea I've been toying around with in my brain. You know how in most action games there is always the "firepower" and the "Intel". The firepower is usually the player character and the intel is a computer character that feeds the player info. A good example of this is Otacon and Snake from Metal Gear Solid. I was wondering if It could be fun playing the intel guiding the firepower around. You could tap into cameras, floors plans, radio channels, ect... If you don't give the firepower the right intel he may die.

Maybe the intel is usually a firepower character but he has broken his leg or something that makes him need to switch positions.
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