Thursday, April 21, 2011

Should Game Characters Be You, Or You Them?

Love has recently been enjoying the new Crysis 2 game, which apparently is a really good shooter, despite what some had thought. Although I might write a review on Crysis 2, that isn't what I was going to talk about this time around. Crysis 2 is an overall great game, but it does have one interesting design choice which got me and Love into a discussion. The main character, the protagonist, the one you are playing, is mute. He lacks any kind of personality. It might seem odd, but it's not entirely uncommon and the reasons for choosing it are obvious. To let the player immerse themselves more into the game, the designers allow you to play a tabula rasa without any special traits, so that you can fully identify yourself with him. It is kind of like when designers decide to let the main character suffer from amnesia (such a cliché) to avoid the anchor that a background story might turn out to be to the way you want to play the game. So you find out the character you play is an old convict, a father of 3, a cross-dresser, an alien... anything really. It will influence the way you play the game. But does that necessarily have to be a bad thing? Let's take a closer look at character personalities, when we want them and when we don't.

At first I thought about how characters have evolved throughout the gaming history. They started out rather modest. Remember games like Super Mario Bros, Pacman, Space Invaders? Everything we put so much emphasis into nowadays, were more or less unimportant in the 80's; graphics, character design, storylines all stood back for what was really important, and then also the only thing in which people actually had the technical capacity to make a difference - gameplay. I'm not trying to be all nostalgic and say that games used to be better. Games were the way they were because of limitations, and now that those don't exist anymore we can afford to demand more than just great gameplay from games today (although I will still argue that good gameplay is the most important ingredient to a good game). The games that actually had characters and storylines, like Mario, had those elements work more as tools to allow us get to the game, rather than adding anything of their own, much like a baseball bat or football. The best way to examplify this is the evolution of rpg games. In the first Final Fantasy games you play a very anonymous bunch of people, simply named "White Mage", "Knight" and so on. They're not actually characters yet, they are a tool for you to experience the game. These would however eventually involve into becoming not only tools for you to play with, but tools with which the game designers could tell a story. So we've got a series of events here. First off you had games with basically no stories, and without stories you don't really need characters. When storylines became an important part of a game, designers choose two difference ways of telling it. Either you had games with stories, in which you were the main characters. Or game designers decided to let the players shoulder the mantle of someone else, and tell the story through that character instead. These two schools, or ways of telling a storyline still exist. Either the game designers aim to have you, the player as the main character, or they want you to become an already existing character in the game to experience the story. I'd say the latter is more prevalent, but which way is the best? It depends completely on the game of course.

My first thought was that I personally preferred it when I got to shoulder an already existing character. To me, a good rpg (or any game trying to tell a story) is much like a good book. Have you ever read a book in which the main character is completely anonymous? Those can't be many in any case. We usually don't have any issues putting ourselves into the shoes of an already existing character in literature or movies, so why would that be a problem in games? I know you will probably say that games are more interactive, and yes, that is probably what the game designers are thinking too. So does the interactive part make that much of a difference? In a way, yes.

Let's take a look at another very interactive way to play stories - playing with toys. You can either shoulder the role of Batman, or play with an anonymous plastic figure. Most of us have had no trouble playing with characters that already have very set personalities, in fact I think most of us preferred to be someone cool rather than someone who no one knew anything about (I had dibs on the Venom toy) . The big difference to playing with toys and playing a game is that when playing with toys you decide the story and when playing a game you rarely do. When playing with toys you also get to choose which character you want to play in your story. In games you can affect the story, but you can never change what it is about. Because of that we need to be handed a character that suits the story. For some games, that is just impossible to do, and that is the key here.

Although my first stance was that set characters were better, when I started thinking about WoW I changed my mind. Would I want my character to already have a personality in WoW? No, I want it to be "me" and reflect me completely. I know I'm not alone in getting slightly grumpy whenever a quest text slightly hints at my character doing or saying something that I don't agree with. "Hey, I don't feel sorry for those gnomes at all!". These occasions are extremely rare in WoW, and probably for this very reason. The character we play in WoW is supposed to reflect us, yet in most rpgs I wouldn't want to play "myself". So I asked Love, what is the difference between these two types of games?

The answer is - the goal of the game. When I start playing a game like Final Fantasy, or Mass Effect, or Crysis, I know that I will take part in a couple of hours of a story. The story can have different endings, but in most cases there are only a couple of ways to experience the game. Even games that are considered "sandbox" games, like GTA, have put loads of limitations to how you can experience the game. Whatever person you happen to be, there are only so many ways to play the game. This is not true with a game like World of Warcraft. When you first start it out, there is nothing about the game that forces you to focus on raiding, on instancing, on being a healer, on spending all your time chatting with your friends or herbing or just playing the Auction House. Because WoW has no defined goal for the player, no story that has to be told, we don't want to be handed a tool for telling us something that we're not interested in. If there was an option when you started the game to choose "Playing the Storymode" then I think I'd like a set character that helped me experience the big story that exists in WoW. Imagine if you could really be some hero, instead of just nameless spawn from Elwynn Forest, when fighting through the hordes of evil? But now, since there are thousands of ways to experience WoW, it would be impossible for Blizzard to design a character that fits all those play-styles.

For any other game, however, the character is an important piece of the puzzle to tell the story and add to the overall experience (or at least I think so). Even though Crysis 2 is an overall good game, playing a nano-suit shell, void of any personality is actually a flaw of the game. Not to mention all the awkward situations that rise when people talk to you and your character doesn't answer or situations that could've been solved in a simple way if your character had just talked. There are problems with designing a ready character for the player - if you fail in making the character insteresting, the game will take a major blow too. I've quit reading many mangas just because I couldn't stand the main character, even though everything else is just fine (I usually manage to get through movies and books because they're a lot shorter). Naruto is one example. But I still think in games it's rather difficult to create a character so annoying that people would've preferred a voice-less robot. Well, I can think of one good example - Tidus in FF10. Overall I don't think that people have to agree with the character they play in everything, since the character is part of a storyline. You're not supposed to "be him", he's not supposed to represent you. He's supposed to be a part of your game experience, just as much as any other character, you just happen to see everything from this persons eyes. A well designed character can add tons to a good storyline. Just look at Cloud.
All pictures from Wikipeda.


  1. This is an interesting topic, one that I've often considered as it relates to my WoW experiences. For my main (Rades), I consider him an extension of myself. "Rades" wasn't saddened by that quest, *I* was. "Rades" wasn't excited to explore Azeroth by flight, I was! I find, personally, that having one character represent yourself gives you a nice, 100% honest experience about whatever happens in the game, without having to worry about your character's backstory, what they're like, etc.

    That being said, I do have actual stories for my other character! They are all quasi-people, with thoughts and mindsets, etc. Only my main is actually me.

    WoW has been the only game I've taken this approach, I realize. A game like a Final Fantasy is a little different, I think - so many things happen *to* the characters that shape and flavor them, while in WoW, very little happens directly to your character specifically (which, being an MMO, makes sense). I guess you are a blank slate in WoW, while in a traditional single-player RPG, your personality and traits are almost always predetermined to some degree.

  2. It's worth considering the "role playing" part of RPG. It's fun to play a role. To pretend to be someone else. That's what RPGs are about.

    I don't think of that person as me. But I think of what it would be like to live as that person. There is an immense level of immersion one gets just by moving around the avatar and by pressing the "attack" or "gather" buttons.

    I agree about voices in shooters. In the opposite direction, let me date myself and mention Ultima 9. Among the many awful things about that game, it has voice acting for the main character. As you'd predict, it's really jarring. I wish they'd kept him mute.

  3. In regard to a silent character, I think this can be a useful tool for story-telling. Think of Gordon Freeman of Half Life. He never talks. Never even seems to make any gestures. In a way he's empty. Normally this character would then be filled by the player, with us giving him personality, often our own. Except instead he is filled up by the NPCs, with them building him up from a nerd with a crowbar to their own Second Coming of Jesus. Of course this doesn't explicitly tell us much about the character, but it does tell us a bit about the world and the mindset of people in it.

  4. I'd wanted to comment but my thoughts on the subject doesn't seem to want to form into something that I can write down in a coherent matter. I get sidetracked to easily and what I tried to write argued against you for points you've already made. A few specific points though.

    I've read somewhere that part of what made Half-life great is the fact that Gordon Freeman was as empty as he was. That that it was described as something new. That previously there was always more of the character, perhaps not in the game, but in the sidelines.

    The line between empty versus ready made character is slowly being thinned out. Se Dragon Age Origins versus Dragon Age 2. They also embody another point I'd like to make. That often, regardless of how open or how free we are to make our own characters, our own personalities, the game still has set goals needed to be met, if you want to play the game. Also consider the Fable series in this regard. Though. Now that I think about it. There really isn't anything stopping you from retiring early in those (Fable) games, though there is noting else for you to do then adventuring, because such are the rules of those games.

    Ah, I can go on about more and other stuffs related and unrelated to this so lest just cut it short before it goes out of hand.

  5. I thought about Half-Life too, and it's really one of the best examples that having a mute character doesn't have to be a bad choice. But I think that it's a lot more difficult to make a character interesting through the interaction of other game characters, than by the character itself. Just shows what excellent story tellers Valve really are - they manage to make Gordon come to life without him actually having to do anything, but mostly through the way other people interact with him.