A Gamer’s Perspective: Hey, Triple-A: Your Characters Suck
If you hooked me up to one of those MRI brain scan hoo-hahs and made one of them kaleidoscopes out of my brain while I played any one of the Triple-A releases we’ve had in the last year or so, you’d probably conclude that I was some kind of psychopath. An extremely handsome, mostly functional psychopath, granted, but a psychopath nonetheless. Most of the decisions I make in games these days tend to be quantitive and analytical, outcomes-orientated as opposed to emotionally driven. Sure, the characters whose stories I’m following aren’t actually living, breathing human beings, but often events in their lives allude to relatable events in the real world.
Take, for example, Helgen in Skyrim. If we heard of some peaceful village in the countryside that got decimated by a natural disaster or a town in South Sudan that was burnt to the ground by militants, most of us would be saddened, empathising with the pain of those who were affected. Even though this event was far removed from us, we react emotionally to it.
We don’t exclusively become emotionally invested in reality, either – no true Game of Thrones fan can honestly claim that they wouldn’t sock Joffrey stukkend if they saw him on the street, or that they didn’t cry when *that thing* happened in Season 3. Similarly, we all know you screamed like a thirteen year old who just had Justin Bieber’s sweat fall on her when you heard Season 4 was coming out. I know I did.
Particularly in the last few years, we’ve seen a massive upswell in the number and popularity of open-world survival games. We don’t need to dig too deep to think of examples, either – Minecraft comes to mind, a game that not only put indie on the map, but showed it was possible for non-mainstream games to find themselves on a level with big-name releases in a way never previously thought possible. On a completely opposite end of the spectrum, but still in the genre, we find DayZ. Mods have always been popular, but very rarely popular enough to spur on a standalone release that crashed a website when sales for it went live. Along with the likes of Minecraft and DayZ come a whole host of spin-offs and heavy borrowers, too – Terraria, 7 Days To Die, Starbound, to name but a few. Open-ended survival has made huge waves in the gaming world, creating a whole sub-genre for itself in the process.
It’s not just the popularity of these games we need to look at, though – they inspire levels of rabid dedication that very few mainstream releases can boast about. Sure, we’ve all got the stories about how we spent a week building a floating tree fortress in Minecraft, or didn’t go to sleep for an entire day trying to find the last components we needed for our vehicles in DayZ, but I put it to you that this is due to far more than the superficial immersive nature of the games: I would argue that we become emotionally invested in the characters we play in these games. This is not investment how we usually understand it in reference to character – these avatars have no personality quirks or sob stories to latch on to, but they do have hopes, dreams, aspirations and purpose – all of which we project upon them as we play. Now, we’ve started speaking quite abstractly, but stay with me here: the two things which cause a person to become interested in the development of a character are the direction that character is going in – whether or not their goal is an interesting one – and the conflict which arises out of that character’s pursuit of their goal; the obstacles which stop them achieving it.
When we play an open-world game, we define the goals for our character (assemble a car, build a tree fortress, genocide the Ewoks – whatever your heart fancies), and as such become implicitly invested in the goals of that character. We care about achieving what we care about achieving (it makes sense, I promise), and so are eager to see our character realise their goals. At the same time, in survival games (particularly multiplayer survival, games like DayZ and EVE Online), conflict is an intrinsic part of the gameplay. Everything from resource shortage to other players trying to kill you can prevent your character from achieving his or her goals, and as such we become more interested in seeing our character remain in a state of well-being.
Let’s bring it in before we get even more philosophical and abstract. The essence of what I’m saying here is that, by virtue of the nature of the game (which I just lost), I care more about my character in Minecraft making it back to my homebase with the three diamond I spent five hours trying to find than I do about Jason Brody’s (vague Far Cry 3 spoiler ahead) dead girlfriend or brother or whoever the heck it was.
Some would argue that that’s more of a testament to the deceptive simplicity of creating immersiveness and consumer investment in a survival game than it is an indictment on how well characters are brought across in linear storylines, but that gives far too much credit to how high the ceiling for emotional investment in a character in an open-world game is. Sure, I get frustrated when my character in Minecraft dies, and an adrenaline rush when I manage to escape a bandit encounter in DayZ barely clutching onto life, but that’s about the length and breadth of the sort of emotional rollercoaster I can go on. It’s not particularly deep, nor is it particularly wide, and yet it captivates me far more than the majority of big-name releases we’ve seen recently. Given that games with linear storylines have the capacity to make that rollercoaster higher, wider, deeper and far flashier in general, I’d say it’s definitely an indication that they aren’t at the moment – that’s an indictment in my books.
As with anything in life, there are a myriad of factors contributing to why characterisation in the majority of games is so weak – the pressure of meeting release goals, focus on elements of gameplay as opposed to story, writer’s block, whatever. For our part in this, though, I think we as the gaming community set our expectations for releases too low. Take StarCraft 2 for example. I absolutely loved Wings of Liberty (the game’s first instalment) for it’s multiplayer, and so didn’t mind that the singleplayer was a tad average. Fast forward to the much better campaign mode in Heart of the Swarm, though, and you bet I preferred the game that offered the better package.
When it comes to games, often we get so excited over something – a particularly good plot tie-in, a well-executed gameplay mechanic or even a shiny new graphics engine, that we forget we shouldn’t be purchasing the game just for that one thing: instead of having an average game with really pretty fire animations (here’s looking at you, Far Cry 2), rather have a really pretty game that also engages people with an interesting story and stimulating gameplay mechanics. Uncharted 2, take a bow.
I put it to you that interesting, engaging characters that make for a worthwhile singleplayer experience irrespective or whatever gimmick is used to try and generate sales should begin to be something we expect out of all high-level releases – character shouldn’t be the monopoly of RPGs. FPS’s could only gain from spicing up their massacre of America’s enemies with some insight into the man behind the M4, and for the love of goodness I will give a Bell’s to whoever decides to make a Need for Speed game where your driver actually exists.
Many game developers seem to think that because they’re developing a release for a genre that doesn’t tend to have character as one of its main selling points that they should overlook it entirely. That’s retarded. No, Forza, I actually don’t exclusively care about the location and humidity of the track I’m doing my next career race on. Tell me about the drama and intrigue between the team members, the player character’s desperate struggle to find meaning and identity apart from the life as a racing superstar that his parents bred him for.
Hell, give me anything except for that damn announcer’s voice telling me to start my next session of gameplay.