Generally, the only time two video game characters touch one another is when they’re punching each other in the face. An intimate or gentle touch is a rare moment in gaming. Think about it. How often do you see two characters kiss? How often do you see two characters holding hands? Probably, not very often. Now, how often are these moments in-game and under your control? The chances are probably countable on two hands. A subtle, minute gesture like characters holding hands and what that means for them is hard to convey in a game. It not only requires the player to have an understanding of the characters, their relationship, and the situation they’re in, but it also requires the developers to have a mastery of animation, and character and mechanic design. But these moments are important to take note of, not only for the connection it shows between two characters, but also for the way it makes the player feel for a non-player character.
Ico – The player controls Ico, a young boy with large horns sprouting from his head. Ico is locked in a large, mysterious castle by his superstitious village. Escaping from his cell, he encounters a young girl named Yorda. Ico and Yorda attempt to escape the castle together by solving puzzles and defeating strange shadow monsters. In-game, the player almost always has the option to take hold of Yorda’s hand. While holding Yorda’s hand, the player can move around, clamber over obstacles, and fight off enemies. Mechanically, this gives the player more direct control over her, allowing the player to get her away from enemies or put her in a specific spot, but it also does something to the relationship between the player and Yorda.
No longer is she just a tool for the player that also happens to have a mind of its own. She’s a person. She trusts you to help her. She’s relying on you. Instead of feeling like a burden, she feels like a companion. Like a friend. Holding her hand ties her to the player in a way that simply having her walk around wouldn’t.
The Last of Us – While many fans and reviewers praised The Last of Us‘s story, voice-acting, writing, and AI for creating a bond between the game’s two leads, Joel and Ellie, for me, there was something much subtler and much more effective in the game that created a bond between the characters. Ellie can help you take on bandits, find supplies, and get through otherwise impassable barriers, and all of these moments help instill a feeling of companionship with her. But the game only needed one moment to put me in Joel’s shoes and convince me that Ellie was my responsibility and that I couldn’t let anything happen to her. This moment can happen at any moment for a player depending on where they are and where Ellie is during the game’s stealth encounters, but the first time it occurs is likely to be early on in the game. If the player takes cover in the same place as Ellie, then, instead of pushing her out of cover like most game’s handle this situation, Ellie hunkers down and Joel puts his arm around her. It’s the tiniest animation; it simply puts the two characters near each other but its the trust and affection it shows between Joel and Ellie that makes it stand out.
From a purely mechanic standpoint it just allows the player to occupy the same piece of cover as Ellie, but for the player it does so much more than that. Joel and Ellie are both outcasts and loaners. Through a series of circumstances, they’re forced together, to make a trip across a post-pandemic America. You’re being hunted by bandits, savages with no rules or boundaries, and wild fungus-controlled zombie-like creatures. You’re outnumbered and low on resources. You’re crouched behind a car praying that you’re not spotted as a group of bandits wanders by. And then Ellie moves over to you. She leans against the car, you put your arm around her, and you both wait for the horror to pass. If a moment like that doesn’t make a player feel for a character then I don’t know what will.
Subtlety isn’t exactly gaming’s strong suit. Too often games go for spectacle over emotion. But it’s the little details, like the closeness of two people, that can completely transform the way a player feels about a character. Through something so simple as touch, Ico and The Last of Us create a real bond between a character and the player, a rarity in the world of gaming.