Making an 85-year-old professor of ethics kick a disabled child in the face

After writing about narrative in video games recently I’ve decided that I want to come back to the genre and look at character. I think it’s still on my mind partly because I reached saturation point over Christmas from the deluge of television and internet advertising for big-budget blockbuster games like Super Pope Fighter II and War War Kill War 3 and Vernon Kay’s Rwandan Genocide Simulator. Sigh…part of me misses the more innocent days of Everyone’s A Wally and Auf Wiedersehen Monty.

Anyway. As far as I can tell there are three types of character in video games – the “realised protagonist”, the “blank protagonist” and the non-player character (or NPC).

To deal with the first two, there are only two conventions that govern the protagonist in a video game: either he (and let’s face it, it’s usually a he) is a fully rounded character with a history and a personality – a realised protagonist – or he is an everyman-style tabula rasa: a blank protagonist. Realised protagonists include Tommy Vercetti from Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and John Marston from Red Dead Redemption; blank protagonists include the majority of early game characters, as well as the nameless protagonist from the still-brilliant Limbo, Master Chief from Halo, and arguably also Gordon Freeman from Half Life (he has a name but that’s about it).

Of course, by having control over the protagonist the player projects at least some of his or her personality onto him, which means that even the fully realised characters are, to an extent, avatars of the player; game developers could design a game with an 85-year-old professor of ethics and part-time volunteer aid worker as the protagonist, but if the player directs him to kick a disabled child in the face then that’s what he’ll do.

For the most part game characters add a veneer of personality to an otherwise impersonal experience. After all, as I mentioned before, the primary purpose of playing a game is the gameplay – not the story, or the characters. There are a few notable exceptions, however.

Role-playing games (RPGs), for example, place a heavy emphasis on character, although this mostly manifests itself in terms of gameplay – tweaking appearance, skills, etc – rather than as something that drives narrative. One exception to this rule is the excellent Planescape: Torment, in which the player controls the Nameless One, a being who is reincarnated whenever he dies but cannot remember his own past; the game represents a slow, progressive discovery of his memories, personality and former lives, with each new revelation of the past serving as a narrative hook for the player. For me it is expertly done, and one of the only games that I have played primarily with the desire to find out what happens (or rather, happened) next.

Modern games often allow choices of gameplay (Fallout 3, for example, has a very clear moral code, and players that act morally will experience a slightly different game than those who act immorally…although I must say that I quickly discovered that the “good karma” effects accrued during formal missions massively outweigh the “bad karma” effects accrued by minor infractions during sandbox gameplay and as such although my character was considered by the game to be more moral than Jesus himself he spent the entire game stealing anything that wasn’t nailed down), and this enables players to exercise a degree of freedom over the character of the protagonist, though only within the parameters of the game’s system of choice.

Even without these kinds of formalised choices, however, players have a degree of freedom in how they play most games, and this can be used to lend a sense of character to an otherwise blank protagonist: run in with guns blazing, or hang back and approach with caution? Head-on assault, or stealth?

Characterisation is key to a work of fiction. We, the readers, warm to characters with whom we can identify, whether those characters are heroes or anti-heroes. A character who exists only to progress a plot – and there are plenty out there – is bland and uninteresting. A fictional character who is not fully realised is of limited interest. In video games, however, this is generally not the case. The core of the experience is gameplay, and in controlling the protagonist the player projects himself onto that character, so any shortcomings in the realisation of the character are overcome simply by dint of the player’s participation in the game; the player is the character. Or rather, the player fills in the gaps in the character.

As such, video games can get away with investing far less time and effort into creating fully-rounded, sympathetic protagonists, and I think they often do…which is something of a shame. If I’m going to put several hours into completing a game then I’d much rather do so as a character that seems human (Red Dead Redemption’s John Marston, Uncharted’s Nathan Drake) than as just another anonymous gun-toting marine.

Games don’t perform the same function as novels, it’s true, but I think that there’s an awful lot that games can learn from them about immersion and empathy.


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