One of the thorny theoretical game-design quandaries that developers seem to wrestle with in this day and age is whether or not the interactive nature of gaming changes the rules on defining identities. In other words, because the player’s will can be imparted on a flexible world, does that mean that the player also takes ownership of the identity of the hero, and does the author lose license to force personality onto the player?
This is, of course, pseudo-psychological, self indulgent, post-modern, mumbo jumbo and should be avoided as though each word were burning acid from alien blood on the tender flesh of your most sensitive bits. It is a cul-de-sac of circular thinking that more often than not gets well-intentioned developers into trouble and leaves gaping narrative holes and obtuse story elements in its destructive wake.
I consider it audacious and unreasonable to think that video game story telling is so different that suddenly players will be unwilling to empathize with their character unless that character takes on their personality. I appreciate the potential of this new medium, but my experience has been that for now, the more we stick with good old fashioned story telling the better off everyone will be.
When it comes right down to it, I think the problem is that game developers and writers worry far too much about how to make the player identify himself or herself within the character they take on in game. This is a pathway into madness and schlocky conceits that do more damage to my suspension of disbelief than having just avoided the whole problem in the first place.
It seems, for example, exceedingly odd that a man could go through an alien invasion, a dimensional rift, a temporal event and a budding love story without ever saying a word or apparently expressing any kind of emotion beyond stony silence. Yet Half-Life’s Gordon Freeman is the gaming epitome of stubbornly aphasic. I get what they were going after, but honestly, at this point it’s just getting on my nerves.
Would I be any less equipped to identify with Gordon had he a voice to answer people when they ask him a direct freakin’ question? Does Valve imagine that suddenly I will lurch delirious from my computer at the realization that this protagonist and I do not speak with a single voice? Instead they concoct elaborate and tragically obvious narrative structures that always absolve Gordon from having any input save the report of gunfire, and every time it happens I feel myself, in fact, less engaged with the characters.
Obviously, everything else Valve does right in the game overcomes this clumsy execution, but dammit Gordon, just say something already.
BioShock — oh, come on, I’m not actually bringing this game up again, am I? — does a somewhat better job of tackling this thorny issue, but only because the lack of identity is a key element in the game’s larger scope. It is at least willing to stand up and say, “yeah, we did that, and here’s why.”
Still, on my first play-through I bristled at the anonymity and alien-quiet of my character, and even though I feel like the payoff was one of the rare ones worth the price of admission, I have to admit the power of that payoff was in the reveal itself and not any emotional connection I’d built with the character. Jack, the free-will-challenged player character, holds no long term resonance with me, because like Gordon in the end for all the things I know about his situation, I ultimately know virtually nothing about him. He is a husk, a mask I get to wear but one that when I am finished is as easily left flat and empty in the closet as a shirt that never quite fit.
I may be willing to forgive this sin in games like old school Doom or Quake because there were real technical limitations to over-complicating story and really the whole thing was just an excuse to plug ordinance into demons anyway. I never cared who the Space Marine was because he was just a vehicle. Hell, I never even cared about what the ramifications of failure might be. The end of the world? Destruction of the universe? Who cares, there are some hell-spawn over there and they need shootin’. End of story.
That was fine, because the games never asked for anything more. The problem is when games clearly want you to be the vehicle and then as the vehicle care about yourself.
These days everyone is plugging complex and sophisticated worlds into even the most basic shooter. That’s not a bad thing, but if you do that then it seems to me that you have to accept the reality of your narrative. If everyone else in this world you’ve created has a personality, it seems like a damn shame that I’m not given one as well. Just telling me that I should assume their own identity as if it were my own and plug it into their avatar is a cop-out at best and a bungling mistake at worst.
As I play through Mass Effect 2, I am grateful at the depths to which BioWare is willing to develop and explored the player’s character, even if that comes at the expense of sometimes removing the player from having uninterrupted authority. Obviously we are talking about a very different creature here, because there are complex dialogue trees and it would be impossible to imagine this game without a vocal hero, but I know that I will identify with Commander Shepherd long after I’ve stopped clicking that little .exe file.
Apples and oranges, I suppose, but as I look back at games like Deus Ex, Dragon Age, Uncharted or Fallout, a fairly diverse cross-section of the past decade, I find that most stories are enhanced by a well developed hero or anti-hero. It is far better to my mind to be shown a professional crafted story than to be wedged into gimmicks designed to trick me into believing I am actually part of the story.
I'm not. Who I am is not modular, and I can not at will divest myself from the limitation of my own experience and plug it into your world. I am a functioning adult, and no matter how deeply immersed I become, I still know that my character on scree is not me.
Just be yourself is almost always a meaningless platitude, both in real and virtual life. By showing me who my character is, giving him voice and presence in the scenes, you are giving me a far more meaningful connection. Maybe I’m crazy, but I believe that even iconic characters such as Gordon Freeman could have been even more powerful if we had known more about who they are and not just what they do.
Sometimes it's just more fun to be someone else, anyway.