Have you looked at NeoCab’s emotional grid idea? This interview discusses what they arrived at as a way of handling and representing emotion in the game.
How are the emotions of Lina and her passengers communicated to the player? Dialogue? Interface?
Vincent Perea: The thing we didn’t want to do is make a game where you have a health meter or “sad meter”. With emotional well-being it’s a bit more complicated than that and we didn’t want to do it the disservice of having it be a meter.
PE: So, the core sci-fi conceit (and also a primary UI element) in our game is the Feelgrid—a consumer biometric device people wear in one form or another as jewelry (bracelets, necklaces, earrings, skin patches etc.) which reads your up-to-the-nanosecond emotional response and, in most cases, mirrors it back out as a color gradient… like a FitBit for feelings. In the world of Neo Cab, Lina relies on her Feelgrid and many of her [passengers] wear them, too.
Every time Lina’s “affect” (the physiological base that all emotions are built on— essentially, the way you feel inside your body when you’re anxious, chill, depressed, aroused, overjoyed, etc) changes, players see her Feelgrid buzz, flare up and change color. This color is something we invented on top of the “circumplex model of emotions” which scientists use to measure these things. We just map every part of the emotional space to a color, to make it easy to read: It helps that human language already maps emotions to colors! Feeling blue, seeing red, a sunny personality, etc. We’ve playtested this a lot and are stoked that people immediately get this system— and then our character’s facial expressions are driven by the same underlying variables, so that reinforces the vibe further.
We invented all this because we found two main problems with previous attempts to make emotions truly matter to gameplay: either the systems were too simple to feel true to the nuances of human emotion, or they were too complex be legible in the game’s interface. In the first case, you risk having one-dimensional characters who shift mechanistically from trigger to trigger. On the other, you have an inscrutable, almost manic-depressive character whose emotions shift in ways you can’t understand or predict. We feel like the Feelgrid is a sweet spot—it’s complex enough to map to a broad range of human emotion, with all of the subtle gray areas between, eg, “tired” and “depressed” or “anxious” and “angry”—but it’s simple enough that players can see the whole system at a glance—no hidden variables or compound stats.
PR: We also branched the dialogue choices based on what color she is in the Feelgrid. So you’ll learn too that if you are in this red angry state and someone says something obnoxious to you, you’ll see a choice to just shrug it off but if you’re too far in the red or too agitated that choice will be disabled. When you click it, you’ll see that it’s because you’re too far in the red.