Role-playing games and the fundamental problem of sympathetic characters

I recently picked up Fallout 3 in the Steam Christmas sale after ignoring it for over three years. I don’t have any particular aversion to complicated role playing games, but to be sure they take a considerably larger effort than a 10-hour narrative.

They require a different headspace altogether. That doesn’t bother me, but I have tried to avoid them in the past – because despite all the talk regarding how these games provide us with a rich tapestry of character, I find them to be the most bleak and disconnected narrative experiences a game can provide.

Consider the beginning of Fallout 3. After being shown a picture of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, you actually experience xcom has changed birth. A small light slowly grows to encapsulate the screen, and suddenly, you’ve arrived.

The scene is quite startling. You look up at your father, voiced by Liam Neeson, who coos and praises how good looking you are. It’s a nice moment, watching the new father become wrapped up in the miracle of life. Just as a real infant is in its first moments of life, you’re completely helpless.

That is, until you’re prompted to choose your gender, and how you’re going to look when “you’re all grown up”. This isn’t such a big deal, every RPG does this. But something about Fallout 3 strikes me as wanting to be different from the pack.

I could have chosen any RPG here. Demon’s Souls, Dragon Age, Skyrim, anything that uses a face and character creator. But clearly, Fallout 3 creates a specific attempt to connect you to your character more than any other game of its type by actually having you experience your birth, childhood and adolescence.

By all accounts you should connect to this character the most, after having experienced literally everything they have as well. But you don’t. Walking through Fallout 3’s wasteland, I’m more struck by the sense of loneliness and despair than I am any type of grief when I’m killed by a fellow raider.

Why? What is it that whenever my character is killed or damaged, I have absolutely no concern for his wellbeing?

It’s because the character building aspects of role-playing games are fundamentally broken and prevent  sympathy from the player.

Consider what I’ve done with the character so far. I’ve created a façade for him, which is nothing more than an appearance. The fundamental nature of the role playing game is that you create a personality through your reactions to other NPCs, but even then, sympathy is hard to come by.

The character here is nothing but an avatar. When I respond to the Megaton sheriff asking me whether I can diffuse the bomb in the middle of tomb, I’m not responding whether my character can do it. No, instead, I’m wondering whether I, Patrick Stafford, can do it.

I explored this in my piece for Hyper Magazine last September about whether the decisions we make in games reflect something about our personality. Research I cited in that story suggests the decisions we make in RPGs are in fact a reflection of what we might do in that sort of situation, or are at least representative of how we feel about the decision at hand.

(There’s also a piece on the Psychology of Games blog here that explores this in a little further detail. I’d post my Hyper piece, but unfortunately, it’s in print!)

Part of the problem here is that I never see my character’s face. Whereas in games such as Mass Effect each conversation plays out by having a fully-voiced protagonist interact with NPCs based on dialogue decisions you’ve picked out, here, there is no audio.

You click a response based on what you want to say. Sure, you might argue that it’s your character who is making the response, and that you’re completing a “good” run or a “bad” run, but there is absolutely nothing about the character that dictates this. It’s purely the player’s decision to follow a certain path.

Perhaps we don’t play RPGs for rich characterisation. That’s fine. It’s been that way for years. But it can be done. Notwithstanding Mass Effect’s shortcomings, it places the player inside the middle of the action but without the abandonment Fallout 3 uses to create immersion.

Instead, we see your own face, reflect on the tone in your voice and become more of a puppet master than an avatar for your decisions. You’re here controlling the action in every conversation, but you’re not necessarily a part of it.

Or consider Deus Ex: Human Revolution and its own conversation battles. From the first person perspective, Jensen talks down criminals and head honchos using a variety of narrative options, fully voiced, making you feel more of a part of the action.

Both of these games provided me with fewer choices than Fallout 3 and yet I felt more attached to these characters than my own little vault dweller.

The lack of audio responses in games such as Fallout 3, Dragon Age and older RPGs such as Baldur’s Gate may be part of the avatar experience, but they also are a critical roadblock in the attempt to make characters more sympathetic.

Could it be the use of first-person perspective? Perhaps. But as I just pointed out, Deus Ex uses the same perspective for its conversation battles and yet you still feel a part of the action. It’s more likely to do with the fact that in Fallout 3, you never see your own face.

Yes, of course, there are moments where you catch a glimpse while in third-person. But for the majority of the action, the default-view is having you look through the characters’ eyes.

Even Dragon Age showed your character creepily standing by silently during text-driven conversations. Here, you’re not so much a part of the action as you are the direct conduit, and as a result, the use of facial-design features are pretty much nothing more than a distraction.

Is that a problem? Probably not. But we ought to acknowledge the limits of the genre and work around them in other ways.

The other end of the spectrum would suggest present characters in an Uncharted-like scripted format, but it’s not even necessary to change at all. When I say the use of these character building tools are fundamentally broken, they are, but only in the sense that they are broken when wasted. Maybe the only thing we need to add a little bit of sympathy is a face in a mirror.

For all the talk we do about how these games provide us with the opportunity to create any type of character we want, we ought to acknowledge more often how this system falls short of its potential, creates some of the least interesting characters and as a result, presents a fundamental barrier to inhabiting a digital body.

Note: This blog post was prompted by Critical Distance’s “Blogs of the Round Table” project on the subject of “being other”. You should go here and read the rest of the entries, they’re all great. 

Second note: After being posted on Rock, Paper, Shotgun, this post has received a fair bit of attention. I’ve written a reply here

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