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NicoDante

Diversity - disabled main character?

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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 Arkham City, 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 that don't affect the gameplay, like having one eye, or a speech impediment, etc...

The only example of a disability (or disorder) of a main character actually affecting gameplay that comes to mind is in Fahrenheit : 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 (pressing left/right in time with her breathing) 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 could have disabled feet (or not) and the game would be the same.

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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.

There's plenty of room for the fantastic deeds done by disabled individuals. 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!

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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