RG: Exactly. When I started Tabula Rasa, in addition to things like the language, we also set off to build a virtue system very much like Ultima's, but not Ultima's. We really broke it down to its individual circumstance and its individual needs. So some of the tests and factions you might engage have fairly deep and sophisticated levels of interactions, if appropriate, and others are even a very small thread of an issue to showcase.
When I look back across the whole later Ultima series, starting with Ultima IV, each game had, [at] the core of its story, some contemporary issue that I would mutate into a medieval setting and put in the game in a way where honestly I am not sure how many people would recognize it as being inspired by the contemporary social issue that was plaguing the world where I lived at the time. But I knew, and I felt it made for a rich and poignant storyline.
We filled Tabula Rasa with these kinds of story threads. We've taken a wide variety of contemporary issues and built story arcs out of them. One issue is drugs, another major story thread is ecology and another has to do with principals of war and when is a war worth fighting? At what cost is it worth fighting?
For all of these issues, which are really quite contemporary issues, what I've tried to do is represent them without regard to my opinion. ... We show [players] both the good from the choice that they did make, and also what happens to the people who lobby for or live on the other side of that issue. If you don't end up supporting or favoring them, they really will see some loss and we expose that to you.
In the real world, we're often kind of sanitized away from seeing other people's perspectives or the ramifications of our actions. If you do not give to the poor, you generally do not have to watch the poor starve to death. In our game, if you think the poor have been served well enough, and you don't think it's appropriate to pay more taxes or whatever it might be, we will support that decision as is reasonable from certain perspectives, but then we'll also show you ... those downsides too. The goal is not to evangelize about one side or the other of any of these issues; the goal is to make people sit back and notice the ramifications of these decisions and to provoke thought. I'm a big believer in challenging people's assumptions.
TE: Emotion is the buzzword these days. How do you think games can be made to bring about more of an emotional response?
RG: Where and why and how I think [most] games fail has to do with character development. If you look at emotion in a linear narrative, it usually comes first of all from creating characters and situations and places that the player, or the reader has a fondness for or is tied to in some way, and then having a change or catastrophe occur to that person, place or thing. Developing characters that you become invested in is the first step for generating any kind of emotion in my mind. I'm not sure if that is literarily accurate, but that is my personal, perhaps oversimplified take on it.
In a book or a movie you can take the time to dwell on a handful of main characters who not only emerge over and over again in the script, but act precisely as is written. In the case of gaming, you have the additional problem that the person who you might think of as the main character - the reader, or the player in this case - can almost immediately turn 90 degrees, walk away and go somewhere else or hit the space bar and skip past most of their dialogue. So the ways we build personal attachment to characters and places in a game has to be done in a more sophisticated way. I don't think it's an impossible way by any means.