In the past 48 hours I’ve received a fair bit of criticism over a post I wrote a couple of weeks ago, titled “RPGs and the fundamental problem of sympathetic characters“. I was linked to, kindly, I might add, by Rock Paper Shotgun’s Sunday Papers article, which wraps up a few links from the previous week in a number of different gaming blogs. I was pretty surprised to wake up on a Monday morning and find my traffic had skyrocketed to about 5,000 views in 24 hours.

Before I explain my position further, as I believe I should, I want to point out a couple of things. Firstly, the first article I wrote was for a Critical Distance “Blogs of the Round Table” community project. The topic of the month was “being other”, and bloggers are encouraged to write around that topic. As I’m currently playing Fallout 3, I decided to write a post about how, having been through the facial creation screen at the beginning of the game, I was frustrated to find that, once again, it ultimately didn’t matter and I was just another silent cipher.

The criticism directed at my post is mostly well-received, except for the few personal attacks. I want to address some of those criticisms. Namely, that I didn’t go into enough detail and as a result, didn’t articulate my point. Had I known I would be writing for the Rock, Paper, Shotgun audience, I would have spent more time and care on my article. At least, that’s what I told myself earlier today, but I also realised that I should be putting the same amount of care into each one of my posts. Laziness is no excuse. Because of that, I’m attempting to spend more time explaining myself in each of my articles to avoid confusion.

There have been a number of points laid at my feet, and it would be impossible to address them all. But I want take head on the most popular complaint about my post. And that is, firstly, that RPG protagonists are usually silent as that is the fundamental nature of the genre, and that quite a lot of gamers enjoy these silent characters as they want to create their own characters rather than having that experience ruined for them by a pre-imagined board of creative directors, who are usually more interested in sales than in anything interesting. Having the silent character empowers the player.

First of all, it’s no surprise to me RPG protagonists are silent. I’ve been playing RPGs for years, and am well familiarised with the genre. And secondly, I completely acknowledge the strength a silent protagonist provides. One of my readers, Ken Liu, encapsulated this quite well:

Attachment and emotional engagement are not necessarily tied to what appears on your screen or what you hear through your speakers. Sometimes, you can get a more fulfilling experience by letting your own imagination fill the gaps.

Quite right. There’s an awesome power in being able to control every thought and action your character makes, not being bogged down by predetermined positions or relationships. Games like these allow you to be who you are, or who you want to be. I don’t mean to take away that power.

This is what I would suggest. In my opinion, and in only my opinion, a character with a pre-determined voice, facial structure and personality is always going to be stronger than the character created by yourself. I freely acknowledge this is up for debate. I know plenty of people who complete pacifist runs of games like Deus Ex, and when I suggest they take a certain course of action while playing, they would say, “no, my character wouldn’t do that”. These players are strong editors, and, to complete the film analogy, they know exactly when to cut and which takes to edit.

But these people also don’t represent the majority of gamers. When most gamers have the freedom to make a character, they’ll create a facial structure, as a typical RPG will prompt you to do, then they’ll enter the world. And they don’t think about what their “character” would do in any particular moment. They just do whatever they think will give them the best outcome, whether that be money, an achievement, progress in the game, or what have you. I’d wager it’s only the minority of gamers that take advantage of that opportunity.

Now, just because a minority of gamers only invests serious time and effort into that RPG doesn’t make the silent protagonist any less powerful. It does, however, prove a point that because of that very choice you’ve given the player, the experience is not only fragmented but is also diluted. The rich and sarcastic quips from Nathan Drake are nowhere to be found, JC Denton’s wasted cereal boxes also gone.

As I’m playing Fallout 3, let’s take that for an example. Imagine the character I’m playing right now. A rugged, hardened survivor of the Vault, handy with lockpicks and small arms. He can talk his way out of trouble, and is able to barter a good deal. He shoots straight and is willing to help out the innocent and the poor. He goes where he needs to, doesn’t bother with anything that wastes his time. Every decision I make is based around the personality that I have projected onto that avatar.

But for a person who takes that immersion less seriously, they might create, say, a character with a comical appearance, rather than something that implies fear or any other type of emotion. They may just pick random responses. One moment, they’re completely kind, and the next, they’re vengeful to a person they’ve never even met. To put this into a little bit more perspective, watching a film of that character would be incredibly frustrating. They’d be putting themselves into needlessly dangerous and ridiculous situations for no reason.

Again, I want to emphasise here that I’m not attacking this system. RPGs have allowed this for years and I hope it never goes away because it allows that power. But because you have these two extremely different experiences from the same game, it by necessity foregoes the type of connection you’d have to a pre-built avatar, such as, once again, Nathan Drake, or whichever character you choose. Now, this is where the main criticism has been laid. The protest is, “but the silent protagonist implies all the power I need, even more so sometimes”. True, and as Ken just said earlier, sometimes giving that character a voice and a nature in an RPG just ruins the experience. But to be sure, even the most die-hard RPG fan will connect to a pre-built character more than they would their own creation, simply because their own characters will not be as well-rounded.

Do we see how that internally created character walks? Do we see him make little glances that imply years of heartache and pain, like those presented by Rob Weithoff in Red Dead Redemption? Do we see him, or her, swat away flies, or make off-the-cuff quips? These little mannerisms are essential to character building, and they simply cannot be created by the player because they’re too busy playing the game rather than creating a pre-built person. They’re a shell.

And once again, as I said in the earlier post, that’s fine, it just means these games will never be able to provide us with any sort of strong characterisation. And that is the reasoning behind my words, when I said they are fundamentally broken. But that doesn’t mean they are fundamentally bad. It’s just my opinion that even the most die-hard RPG fans will connect to pre-built characters more than they will their own, simply because of that relationship. Whether they react to them in a positive or negative way is a different story. But to be sure, there will be a connection there. One that cannot be realised by a silent protagonist. And for that reason, I think whenever we play an RPG led by a silent protagonist, there is always going to be part of us that is held back, even though it’s us making all the choices and imagining the character. It’s a little bit of a paradox, I suppose, but because of that shell that’s presented to us, it just takes us a little extra effort to get involved.

All of this is to say that this creates a barrier to “sympathy”. When I say sympathy, I mean that emotional connection we have with the character when a negative or positive reaction occurs. When I’m playing Uncharted, I cry out when Sully is shot, or become on edge when Nathan is dangling from a train. But when this happens to me in Skyrim or Fallout 3, I care, but I don’t tend to care as much because the character I’ve created exists in my head. Of course, in both cases you can just reload and try again, but there is still a little portion of a reaction there when you see Nathan Drake shot, or dangling from a precarious position. When my character in Fallout dies, or you find out a piece of information about your father, I don’t necessarily feel that same pain.

This may be by design. Fallout 3 is designed to be completely bleak and desolate, and that can filter through into the player’s experience. I totally accept that. And also, the issue of voice acting is an aside. I don’t mean to suggest that we can only connect to players through their voices. As I pointed out, Half Life 2 creates this connection extremely well, and it’s probably the most well-known example of a game that creates a connection to the character despite that silence.

There’s a lot more I could say, like how if you’re not investing enough of yourself into the RPG, then that’s your own fault, and not the game’s, etc. But I hope I’ve explained my position. I’m not expecting anyone to agree with anything that I’ve said here, or for that matter, even respect it. I just wanted to flesh out my opinion more and give a broader perspective. Because as some people said in the RPS post, it’s a little unfair of me to simply post an 800 word piece and then expect people to understand everything I have to say. I made some other comments in that post, but they stand for themselves. I hope this gives a little bit more of a broader perspective.