Note: Very minor possible spoiler for The Last of Us.
It’s interesting how The Last of Us seems to be toying with the differences between the player and the character. It’s like there are times when they want to emphasize that hey, you’re not Joel, so don’t be thinking your responses (feeling kind of guilty about Sam even if there was nothing we could have done to save him) are the same as Joel’s (totally denying any responsibility whatsoever).
So are we the player serving as Joel’s unspoken conscience (we-as-him DO feel these things, but hide them because this is hardly the time or place to deal with it), or is the dissonance part of the experience (we’re along for the ride in his experience, but Joel is essentially alien to us)?
It is an interesting take on the whole player character dynamic. Like I said, I’ve only thought of Joel as me once. But then, that’s one more time than I was Lara. Even in RPGs it’s “my” Shepard. Really that’s the main difference with games like bio shock. That had to be first person to make a point.
It’ll be interesting to see, as games rely more and more on pretty cut scenes if there’s more of a disconnect with the PC.
Identifying AS the character is kind of tougher in a game with a strong narrative, which is an interesting kind of conflict if we’re interested in games both for their power to be immersive and for their ability to tell stories.
I mean, if you’re in a fairly straightforward game scenario, like “aliens are attacking the planet and I am a semi-featureless hero who must fight them off,” then the lack of any character development or particular detail about ‘yourself’ as the player makes it easy to BE that character. “I spent all night shooting alien invaders.” You have no information to the contrary, so obviously it’s YOU who does this. You when you happen to be in a position to fight off an alien invasion, of course, but still a you that can have any of the beliefs and characteristics that you do in ordinary life, since none of them are particularly relevant.
Introducing a main character, a story that you have to follow, inevitably raises the possibility that you-the-player will dislike or disagree with you-the-character. Maybe this is the true ‘danger’ of cutscenes: they introduce information that has to be dealt with by you-the-player, whereas the ‘action’ parts of the game retreat more or less to the simple “I AM this character” model: talking about TLOU I would definitely say “I spent all night wandering around abandoned buildings getting attacked by infected,” but would say “Joel couldn’t do anything to stop Henry from shooting Sam.”
The action was me, the character development was not me. So games have to make the main character appealing enough to play a game with, and/or make the action fun enough to put up with the cutscenes.
Hmm. I like that line in the sand.
It also allows for that pesky of things: an unsympathetic character. I hate playing an asshole, because I do not want to BE an asshole. But if you can distance the player from said asshole while character development is happening, then it could work. Because if every main character has to be a strong, likeable, heroic type, that limits things, doesn’t it?
It’s true. We’re hard to please, though, because we tend to complain if the character in a narrative game is too vaguely drawn (“I don’t have any real sense of who this guy is or why he’s doing this”), as well as if we dislike him or her (“this guy is such a jerk, I just don’t even want to be around him”).
I’m trying to think how this relates to our expectations of character in other media. Certainly the same complaints could be made about the main character in, say, a movie or a book (and similarly, these flaws might be overlooked if the rest of the story was interesting enough).
Is it basically the same thing with a game, or do we have a different level of expectation regarding a game character because we expect to “be” that character to some extent in a way we don’t expect to be the character in a movie or a book?
I’m not sure.
It’s usually the latter (I don’t like the character), unless it’s no one, like Skyrim. See Edward or Cole Phelps. I think one of the geniuses of BioWare is that they manage to really give you a character (Shep and Hawke were “customizeable” to some degree, but not as much as people like to think) that you actually want to hang out with. Maybe that illusion of customizability is the secret.
I tend not to like shows/movies where NO ONE is likeable, but I can forgive a main character. I think that’s a part of it: supporting characters have more of a draw in other media. Most people didn’t think Seinfeld was the funniest dude on Seinfeld, that sort of thing. But we haven’t gotten to that point in games. Sure, we have good, interesting side characters, but they can’t take the stage over yet. Mary and Blackbeard and Anne can’t save the game from Edward. Again, bioware comes the closest, but even they haven’t managed to really get an ensemble cast working in the same way as a TV show or play. Maybe it’s not possible.
I also think it’s length. We can suffer through a two hour movie before we really hate the main character. It’s harder to get through 20 plus hours without those flaws starting to grate.
I complained a lot about the vagueness of Connor, the main character in AC3. I didn’t dislike him, it was just like “why the hell are you doing these things? What are these people to you that you’re so fixedly on their side?”
Interesting thought that the illusion of customizability may be the secret (or a secret–there are so many ways to make a game that obviously we wouldn’t argue that’s the only one that’s worth pursuing)…maybe we like to be able to have just that certain level of input into a highly scripted narrative. To walk that line between “no plot, just wander around” and “this is how the story goes, so keep quiet and go there with it.”
Also a good point that the time requirement means it’s harder to tolerate a truly unlikable character in a game than in a movie. I guess a closer comparison would be a long-running TV show, or a big thick novel. Would you be willing to dedicate that kind of time to a show or book when you really disliked the main character?
Possibly, but again, you would have to like other things about it. The writing, the secondary characters, the awesome action sequences, or whatever. And as you say, with games it’s rarer to come across secondary characters that can really carry the story, so most of the time the fallback is the action sequences. Which is what you spend most of your time on in most games, so I guess it works out.
Even if I totally despised Joel as a character, I could probably put up with his cutscenes and muttered dialogue if I really loved the sneaking and shivving and Molotov cocktails, right? Which probably contributes to the sketchy character development in many games: you really only NEED the outline (and many people don’t want more than that, because they want to get back to the action), so why bother to really put in the effort on characterization that most people won’t care about?
Tis true, there are many secrets. But it really is a small level of input. I mean, people like to prattle on about “their” Shepard, but, once you get past the cosmetic differences that don’t matter a whit, then really it’s little more than “who did you screw?” Other than that, things are going to go pretty much how they go, with some minor differences. I think some of the outrage over the ending was that bioware pulled the illusion of choice so well that people really thought “their” Shep really was that unique, when s/he really wasn’t. But it did make a difference, that thought that Shep was “yours.”
There was this old show called Rescue Me that everyone said was really good. I gave it five episodes and said screw it. So no, I wasn’t going to invest the time, even if it was good. Better things to do.
“Why bother to put in the effort of characterization when most people won’t care”: That is a problem. There’s really two camps of people: The people like us who want story and character and feel wave after wave of baddies gets old, and the “I want my games to be games” lunkheads who think that if you aren’t shooting what’s the point? Hopefully, either we win out, or devs stop trying to cram both into every damn game.
Oh come on, is there any choice more important to expressing who you really ARE as a character than who you screw? This is a critical decision! All the rest of those choices are window dressing, and rightly so! Ha.
By the end of Breaking Bad I could hardly stand anyone on the show, but I couldn’t stop watching because the writing and acting was so damn good. That was an unusual case, though. And I seriously don’t know if I could play a game AS a Walter White-type character: I think the distance allowed by the TV format was the only thing that made it bearable.
The antihero may work better in other media–or maybe not, considering how well the GTA franchise does. Maybe it just doesn’t work that well for ME in games.
Although I can accept some rather dubious rationalizations for why I can do some pretty terrible things as the ‘hero.’ Hello, Assassin’s Creed…killing hundreds and hundreds of random city guards who never did anything to me except try to prevent me from murdering other people or running on rooftops?
They’re guards, though, you know…guards are the lowest possible form of human life. On their days off they keep in shape by kicking puppies. They deserve the worst the world has to offer.
The minute I hit send I knew you were going to say that about “who you screw”. You’re getting predictable in your forties.
I gave up on Breaking Bad for similar reasons. That and it was unbearably depressing. But I will not cave on TLOU!
Maybe my perceived yet illusory ability to change the events in the game, and not the TV show, is part of that. Irrationally, I think “hey, I can affect this” even though I can’t with a game. Maybe that keeps me going. Because man is it depressing.
That was a predictable joke, but on reflection I will argue that I could have been serious, because when you think about it, whom to romance IS a key character decision, and one of the only decisions in-game that kind of replicates a significant real-life decision.
I mean, you can’t choose where to live, in any significant sense (even if you buy a house, like in Skyrim, you don’t actually do anything important there).
You can’t choose what to do with your life, in any significant sense: you can pick background details and the general approach you want to take to get things done (sneaky, tankish, etc.), but you have to get the same things done regardless. You can choose how to approach being Shepard, but you can’t choose NOT to be Shepard, to drop out of the whole thing and go grow wine grapes on some uninhabited planet. (And for the very good reason that this would be a boring game, but work with me here…)
You can’t choose whether or not to keep in touch with your family of origin (if you even have one in-game…I liked that Shepard’s mother is mentioned occasionally, but we certainly never had the option to hang out with her).
You can’t choose whether or not to pursue higher education.
You can choose what to wear (sometimes) and what weapons to use (sometimes), and these become stand-ins for how you as the player define yourself as the character, because you have little else to go on when it comes to personalization (my Lara Croft is someone who loves her shotgun!). Fundamentally, though, these choices don’t actually say very much about a character as a person.
I mean, in real life maybe I refuse to use anything but my favorite kind of pen, maybe I’m really into my Mac products, and yeah, brand loyalty is a shorthand for personality in real life too (other people might pigeonhole me based on my iProducts), but if you asked me or anyone who actually knows me, we would surely consider to be this kind of a personal quirk or minor character trait, not a fundamental detail about who I am.
I am not defined by my pens and my iPhone, and someone who defines me that way obviously doesn’t know much about me, and so defining a game character by their clothing and gear choices is similarly a sign of not knowing that much about the character, and thus not BEING the character in a meaningful way. Being able to make these types of simple choices arguably depersonalizes the character as much as it personalizes him or her (to the extent that the choices are seen as personal ones…clothing would be a much more ‘personal’ decision than weapon choice, which is often purely tactical–possibly a reason why so few games allow you to change clothing?).
Anyway, to return to my point, all kinds of things that in real life would likely be huge, significant decisions (should I join the military? should I dedicate myself to fighting darkspawn? should I settle for being attacked by randits everywhere I go? should I escort this girl across the country to the Fireflies?) are taken care of for you by the set-up of the game. Real choices about what you as a character want to do are completely out of your hands. The CHARACTER chooses something, and off you go.
On the other hand, who you want to flirt with, romance, sleep with, develop a relationship with, is an extremely personal decision, if left to the player, and does say something about the character, so letting you decide who–if anyone–you want to pursue a romantic relationship with is letting you actually MAKE one of those choices that would likely be a big-deal choice in real life.
Even though in practical game-effect terms it’s a choice on the same level as what gun to carry, it has the suggestion of saying something more significant about who that character is. Letting you choose who to romance DOES actually let you make a decision about the character on a personal level. Saying “My Shepard stayed true to Thane while he was dying” does actually say something about Shepard as a person, more than “My Shepard was a Vanguard and was always hurling grenades everywhere.”
Personal decision, as opposed to tactical decision. Romance is character!
Or, if it’s Skyrim, romance is putting on an amulet of Mara and having your relationship with your spouse remain exactly the same after the wedding. They can’t all be BioWare.
Excellent bloggage. Though the real lesson is that if you want Feminina to really be erudite, make her write a really long email defensively trying to point out that her previous comment was not based on predictability coming from being in her forties.
All the same, good points.
I will continue to find ways to make you (very articulately) defensive, and we’ll win pulitzers.
*****cough**** forties ****cough****
Then I’ll just explain that you’re too young to understand the kind of mature insight that comes to one in the 5th decade of life.
Kids these days!–I’ll say.
What, sorry, I was listening to Beiber?
Don’t you punk kids realize the only music worth listening to is Glenn Miller?!
Note: Things quickly deteriorated from here.