Identification, Please.

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.

Comments

Elysium wrote:

I am a functioning adult

Liar!

This conversation reminds me of thoughts I had after watching "Total Recall" 20 years ago (I was in college then as opposed to a precocious 12 year old) - assuming the tech existed and you could have memory implants inserted so that you could be someone else, wouldn't the illusion be somewhat destroyed by the fact that you just - hypothetically speaking - "woke up" and you were someone else? To make this REALLY work wouldn't you have to craft the memory/story in such a way that the "alternate" identity was somehow integrated into your real identity? (For what it's worth, I believe that the events of Total Recall were, in fact, an implanted memory but now's not the time and here's not necessarily the place for that conversation.)

I believe game designers think they find themselves in a similar situation, but I personally don't think it's necessary; some of my favorite games are more or less on-rails adventures (Metal Gear Solid, Uncharted) that I appreciate precisely because the characters do things that I don't and can't, and it's natural enough to project a little bit of myself on the character to care about what happens. That's been plenty good enough for me.

I find it difficult to say I want one design choice or another. It depends on the game, and the implementation.

I liked The Longest Journey and Dreamfall, where your character most definitely had a voice. On the other hand, I don't want Gordon Freeman to have a voice. Damn it, I'm Gordon Freeman!

Sean,

Are you not just categorizing two different types of narratives in games?

1. Games that perhaps lack strong narratives and instead focus on personal experience / man vs environment. (Half-life 1, Bioshock, Doom, Quake)

2. Games that focus on good ol' story-telling, bristling with plot twists and turns, characters with motivation, dialog, and the like.
(Mass Effect 2, Deus Ex, Dragon Age, Uncharted or Fallout)

Despite all your railing on the silent protagonist method... would I want a fleshed out identity in a game whose 90% is serving death to your enemies? Would not character actually impede/dilute gameplay and that the lack or even vacuum of identity bring you closer to engaging the fiction?

Perhaps a silent protagonist in a strong plot is folly, but in an experiential game it may be wise.

1. Games that perhaps lack strong narratives and instead focus on personal experience / man vs environment. (Half-life 1, Bioshock, Doom, Quake)

I forgive Doom and Quake in the article because they have no meaningful narrative, but that's not true of either Half-Life or Bioshock. Both are very story driven.

We all know WHY Episode 3 has taken so long. Valve are agonizing over who to cast to voice act Gordon's one line at the end of the episode.

Prozac wrote:

We all know WHY Episode 3 has taken so long. Valve are agonizing over who to cast to voice act Gordon's one line at the end of the episode.

Easy, Steve Buscemi.

Semi-seriously though. Even in the HL2 games, Gordon's silence is winked at occasionally, I suspect that something is going to be done about it in the next episode.

Perhaps what I am trying to get across is that although they (Half-life1, Bioshock, and Dead space now that I think about it) are story driven games, most of the time the antagonistic force you are mainly conflicting with is the environment and its residents, not a cast of villains with complex motivations.

Many of Nintendo's games that feature silent protagonists (Zelda, Metroid come to mind) also have the environment as a main conflicting force.

Though Mass Effect 2, Deus Ex, Dragon Age, Uncharted, etc are most definitely filled with hordes of mindless enemies, there is a much greater emphasis on fleshing out antagonists and interacting with them more often.

Which is why it is of my opinion that a silent protagonist is appropriate when there is a low amount of 'story noise'. I do agree with your point about Half-life2 however.

Hmmmm... I disagree. I think that players not having a voice is an interesting convention, and a good one in the right place. For example, I love that Link, Chrono, and Serge never speak, but if Squall in FF8 stopped talking, it would feel really out of place. I haven't played Half-Life (it's next on my pile of shame, sitting on my desk...), but I generally give developers the benefit of the doubt re: silent protagonists. If they did it, there must be SOME reason... Even if that reason is just to fall in line with video game convention.

I don't, however, think it has anything to do with identity... I can identify with characters if they're well-developed, and sometimes that means they speak; sometimes it doesn't. (Though to be fair, usually it does...)

Prozac wrote:

We all know WHY Episode 3 has taken so long. Valve are agonizing over who to cast to voice act Gordon's one line at the end of the episode.

I vote for Marcel Marceau.

I think it depends on the game, really. Take the Legend of Zelda series for example. I don't think many people care for the fact that the only sounds Link makes are grunts and yelps. He doesn't even have his own text. The story that does exist is told through the game play. In fact, in that instance, the silence is quite refreshing. I think the issue comes in with what type of game you're playing. Half-Life is much like an interactive book with a deep story, a book you want to read and become engrossed in. So, it's bothersome to not hear the protagonist say anything. In LoZ, there's a story, but it's not like a book. It's a puzzle, so not having the protagonist say anything seems to work well. I suppose it's the difference between simply going on an adventure and taking part in an adventurous story.

Take Fallout 3 as another example: You get to engage in dialogue and pick from a dialogue tree, but your character is otherwise silent. Well, as far as I'm concerned, it works because I'm going on an adventure, not participating in an adventurous story. Sure, there are tons of scnearios and quests to be had, but when I play Fallout 3, I really feel like its me exploring the vast, desolate lands of Washington, D.C. I'm not controlling another character. The character is just a vessel for my adventure.

Chump wrote:

Perhaps what I am trying to get across is that although they (Half-life1, Bioshock, and Dead space now that I think about it) are story driven games, most of the time the antagonistic force you are mainly conflicting with is the environment and its residents, not a cast of villains with complex motivations.

Many of Nintendo's games that feature silent protagonists (Zelda, Metroid come to mind) also have the environment as a main conflicting force.

Though Mass Effect 2, Deus Ex, Dragon Age, Uncharted, etc are most definitely filled with hordes of mindless enemies, there is a much greater emphasis on fleshing out antagonists and interacting with them more often.

Which is why it is of my opinion that a silent protagonist is appropriate when there is a low amount of 'story noise'. I do agree with your point about Half-life2 however.

Well said. I agree. Some games are meant to have their stories told through verbal narrative while other are meant to have their stories (or sometimes lack thereof) told through the core game play.

A non-voiced main character is usually a bad thing in my experience. HL2 is a perfect example, it was clear that they intended it to be a story driven game but I actually didn't give a toss about freeman simply because his silence and the fact that I had no input into the story made him seem irrelevant. That then spilled over onto the rest of the world, if he didn't care enough to speak to people then it hardly seemed like the world was important. It's as if they didn't want the character to speak but they also didn't want the player to speak and something that had potential really suffered for it. Add all that to a tedious generic shooter and the only reason I finished it was that boredom was a slightly less preferable alternative. At least Bioshock had the decency to have well characterised antagonists so the game had SOME personality.

Dead Space is the worst offender in recent memory though. The game was excellent, the story was well delivered and the surprises actually managed to surprise the first time. The downside is that without a voice, Isaac felt like a machine, he had a name and didn't use it. He was told to go somwhere and do something so he did it without question. He found his crewmate who he thought was probably dead and accepted it without a word. He was in the middle of a flood of necromorphs without so much as an "oh bugger".

He even remained silent during the big revelations in the last act even though the character model had some wonderfully emotive body language. I can understand them not wanting to go down the Darth Vader/Calculon "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO" path and IF he'd had a voice up until then, the silence during such a revelation would have been a brilliantly shocking move (like the near-silent vaccuum sections) but going from silence to silence doesn't do much.

In something like Fallout 3 it doesn't matter since you're selecting your own dialogue so you still drive the story, the only downside is the lack of appeal to the n00b gamer who hasn't grown up playing real RPGs where getting the first line voiced was a luxury

I think it's as much of an oversimplification to say that a voiced protagonist is always preferable as to say the opposite. It's a device that is better suited to certain types of games than to others.

I think the silent protagonist thing worked particularly well in Bioshock because it was an entirely first-person game in which, story-driven as it was, dialogue was NOT the primary vehicle for the delivery of that story. Likewise, while Fallout 3 may technically have had a third-person mode, it looked and played like ass so nobody ever used it, and if I'm choosing from dialogue trees I'd much rather NOT have my choices read aloud to me for reasons other commenters have already explained at length, so it worked fine in that game, too.

In Dragon Age, on the other hand, we had an entirely third-person game, with absolute LOADS of dialogue which was almost entirely voiced, and a party filled with interesting, three-dimensional characters. And juxtaposed against this was my player character, whose look I had painstakingly customized, who stared with his slack-jawed unchanging expression at whatever was happening and said NOTHING. Regardless of the MANY other things that game did remarkably well, nothing could have taken me out of the experience more than being tasked with driving this mute, retarded man-child around the game. Pac-Man had more personality than this.

I think it's as much of an oversimplification to say that a voiced protagonist is always preferable as to say the opposite. It's a device that is better suited to certain types of games than to others.

That's not really the point I was driving at. After all, I happily concede that a game like Doom has no place for a vocal hero. But, when you are creating a world in which a complex story is taking place through in game narrative delivery, the silent protagonist stands out almost every time.

SallyNasty wrote:

KOTAKU!

A great reminder of how awesomely mature the GWJ community is.

wordsmythe wrote:
SallyNasty wrote:

KOTAKU!

A great reminder of how awesomely mature the GWJ community is.

I was just linking it because I thought it was cool that the article made front page on Kotaku.

SallyNasty wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:
SallyNasty wrote:

KOTAKU!

A great reminder of how awesomely mature the GWJ community is.

I was just linking it because I thought it was cool that the article made front page on Kotaku.

I thought that was cool too! Furthermore, I can't tell if wordy is being sarcastic or not.

I'm going to assume he's talking about some PS3 thing, so I don't have to pay attention.

Clemenstation wrote:
SallyNasty wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:
SallyNasty wrote:

KOTAKU!

A great reminder of how awesomely mature the GWJ community is.

I was just linking it because I thought it was cool that the article made front page on Kotaku.

I thought that was cool too! Furthermore, I can't tell if wordy is being sarcastic or not.

I'm going to assume he's talking about some PS3 thing, so I don't have to pay attention. ;)

It certainly is cool, and I'm by no means knocking Kotaku as a whole (they have some great stuff there every once and a while), but I accidentally found myself reading some of the comments section and--it's just not the level of civilized discourse I'm accustomed to.

Clemenstation wrote:
SallyNasty wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:
SallyNasty wrote:

KOTAKU!

A great reminder of how awesomely mature the GWJ community is.

I was just linking it because I thought it was cool that the article made front page on Kotaku.

I thought that was cool too! Furthermore, I can't tell if wordy is being sarcastic or not.

I'm going to assume he's talking about some PS3 thing, so I don't have to pay attention. ;)

I couldn't tell either:)

I really like Kotaku's editorial, but yah - the comment section is basically 4chan with spell check.

mooosicle wrote:

As much as I enjoyed many oldschool excellent RPGs, I empathized with The Nameless One from Planescape Torment the most, even though I still much enjoyed elements of other games

The game revolved around trying to find out more about yourself, and even though you never learn the true name, I still had a sense of gratification in the end, when you talk to the original one, and your character restores a sense of his identity

I always felt Planescape was just a bit better than any of those other oldschool RPGs, in terms of characters. The action was nowhere as frenzied as many of the classic D&D titles, but the superb writing just made me care about the plot, and the world

I'm with mooosicle on this one. Although ME2 (and a few other games are great, my favourite still has to be The Nameless One. When I found out about some of the crazy incarnation's murders, I actually felt guilty.

CapnDorry wrote:

Take Fallout 3 as another example: You get to engage in dialogue and pick from a dialogue tree, but your character is otherwise silent. Well, as far as I'm concerned, it works because I'm going on an adventure, not participating in an adventurous story. Sure, there are tons of scnearios and quests to be had, but when I play Fallout 3, I really feel like its me exploring the vast, desolate lands of Washington, D.C. I'm not controlling another character. The character is just a vessel for my adventure.

I very much agree with this, and this is largely why I think it worked in Fallout 3 and (to some extent) failed in Oblivion. The world of Fallout 3 is so well realized and so desolate; even though the game clearly has a story, at its core it's about exploring a nearly deserted landscape in which you're supposed to feel lost and alone. Having a strong main character speaking for you would, I think, somewhat break the illusion.

I feel differently about Dragon Age; it's a very linear, very plot driven game and I think it's a shame that the protagonist wasn't voiced (ala Shepherd).

Chump wrote:

Perhaps what I am trying to get across is that although they (Half-life1, Bioshock, and Dead space now that I think about it) are story driven games, most of the time the antagonistic force you are mainly conflicting with is the environment and its residents, not a cast of villains with complex motivations.

Many of Nintendo's games that feature silent protagonists (Zelda, Metroid come to mind) also have the environment as a main conflicting force.

Though Mass Effect 2, Deus Ex, Dragon Age, Uncharted, etc are most definitely filled with hordes of mindless enemies, there is a much greater emphasis on fleshing out antagonists and interacting with them more often.

Which is why it is of my opinion that a silent protagonist is appropriate when there is a low amount of 'story noise'. I do agree with your point about Half-life2 however.

This point mirrors my thinking to a great extent. Thinking about Prey I realised that the fact that Tommy had a voice annoyed me so much was that he used it all the damn time. "Oh look at that crazy thing!" He says. "That's so crazy! Wow! Crazy!" Yes, Tommy I know. I know because I am the one looking at it!
Metroid Prime would be a totally different (and far more annoying) experience if Samus piped up at every opportunity to deliver a monologue about how fascinating the indigenous fauna is.
If a game is based in an environment where the protagonist is largely alone I prefer them to remain silent even when "speaking" to someone as I have spent a great deal of the game developing an internal monologue. I would then find the sudden addition of an unprompted response somewhat jarring. That is why Gordon needs to remain silent in Episode 3, assuming it ever comes out. I've spent so long being Gordon's internal voice that at this point adding a "real" voice to Gordon would blow my suspension of disbelief out of the water.

This is something that's bugged me since I played Chrono Trigger. The idea that the silent protagonist is whoever you envision him to be is incredibly lazy. At that point, why even play the game? If I have to daydream the dialogue of my character, I may as well daydream the whole game.

The (technically) silent main character for Dragon Age: Origins was a real sticking point for me, especially with Mass Effect showcasing how good you can make an "a la carte" lead character who still has a voice. Much of DA:O felt like you were being talked at rather than talked to, since the only time your character interjected was when someone felt that now was an appropriate time for a dialogue tree. I became more interested in my party members relationship with each other rather than their relationship with me. I kept particular pairs - Morganna and Alistair, Ohgren and Wynne - together for that purpose. Time at camp was about learning their backstory, not developing a bond between characters. For this reason, I'm excited to see how Dragon Age 2 works out. I feel genuinely interested in playing Hawke's story, unlike my own Cousland knight-in-shining-armour.

In Dragon Age in particular I think the problem was less your character's lack of voice acting and more his/her lack of a changing facial expression. In Chrono Trigger or Ocarina of Time, Crono and Link may not have had any dialogue, but they reacted to their circumstances like human beings and so they still had personality. In Dragon Age, no matter whether what was happening was exciting or frightening or tragic or funny or whatever, you character just stares at it with the same creepy blank-eyed expression.