Quest Updated: I Thought I Had Amnesia, But…
You wake up in a sterile environment. The music swells to consciousness, and a sense of something floating in the ether above commands you to move. Not like you’d forgotten that. I mean seriously, it’s the same as always isn’t it? It’s not like you haven’t walked before, right. You try walking forwards and backwards a bit because that floating sense of ethereal command tells you that you have to. Even a jump or three. It’s a good thing you remember how to move and obey ethereal commands! Who am I? No clue. Does it matter? Nope. Got tutorials to do, sidequests to finish, baddies to bash. I’ll make up who I am as I go along, right?
This is pretty much the generic intro pattern to most first-person style games, and many others besides. Usual culprits also include RPGs, with a notable classic example as KOTOR. You wake up with some form of amnesia, or else are an unnamed, or pseudonymmed (why yes, I did just make that word up) protagonist.You get instructions on how to move (in case you’ve never played a game before). To tangenate here a bit: can we all, as gamers and game designers, work on a new and more dynamic form of tutorial than the “floaty instruction” method?
Back to the N2. An even more frustrating example, which is also slightly more up to date than KOTOR, is Skyrim. You have been arrested for something. For what? Who cares! Look, dragon! Go follow this guy, or the guy who just earlier was with the people trying to kill you for an unspecified reason. Why? Who cares! Dragon again. Bears! Spiders! Look: another quest. Go do that quest. Stop thinking about the arrest. Stop it!
My particular gripe with this style of introduction is that the character is left entirely vacant. What’s that? Freedom to invent a backstory from your imagination? Why yes, that is the overwhelmingly positive element to this approach. I mean, the story I come up with for my Orcish battlemage is probably more interesting to me than playing some preset story ala Dragon Age Origin’s preset potential backstories based on your character’s race and class. Shut up Karl Marx, I mean class as in Rogue/Mage/Warrior, not proletariat. It is fantastic being able to come up with a story to explain my character’s choice to be Imperial or Stormcloak, to join or not join the thieve’s guild, etc.
Except the game does not respect that.
For example: there are numerous quests where your choice between vaguely respectful of innocent life and psychotic axe-murder is simply non-evident. Granted, many of these involve Daedra and one does not simply say “How ’bout no” to demonic powers. However, I still would have appreciated alternatives in certain contexts that would allow for a broader scope of characterization.
Maybe my problem here is that I want the personalized story navigation of a DnD game. I know that this isn’t quite possible yet. However, I would enjoy seeing more diverse and complex character choices than save him, save him for no reward, kill him, or kill him and take his lunch money.
And this is why I still struggle with overly-openworld games, and often actually enjoy a more authored experience. My favourite games are Bastion and Portal, where both have unnamed and/or silent protagonists (because while Chell is subtly named, it isn’t like that gives her a specific character). Even KOTOR structured your story somewhat, while giving you the ability to shape your motives and actions retrospectively. Similarly, Mass Effect and Dragon Age Origins allowed you to situate a custom character within a set backstory. Having a framework within which to work means that the character and his or her alignment that I have chosen, has an integrity within the game’s plot, and is respected. There aren’t any missions that can’t be concluded because I have chosen a lawful good alignment. Instead of just having to leave the Thieves Guild untouched, or a man imprisoned by a demon because killing him is against my alignment, with the game world progressing as if that’s OK, you are offered choices where your actions conclude each quest.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be pushed into difficult choices by games. In fact, I’m saying just the opposite. Gaming should push the limits of what you will let your character be by offering a complex and realistic set of choices that go beyond simply do or do not. Or else offering choices where the outcome is not loaded with morality by the game, but rather by your own internal thought process – for example the choice between Kaidan and Ashley in ME1. See also the endings of Bastion for an excellent example. Otherwise, what’s the point in having an empty, silent protagonist anyway?