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

THE TOP 10 BEST VIDEO GAME STORIES

It seems odd that on a site analysing video game stories there isn’t a list of some of the best. While I’ve compiled a short list here of what stories gamers should be checking out for narrative bliss, I thought it would be appropriate to take some time and showcase what I believe to be some of the best video game stories ever created.

Please keep in mind – this is not an exhaustive list. The games listed here are what I believe to be some of the best narratives used in gaming, and any other site with a similar list could have 10 totally different games or franchises.

The developers of the games listed here understand how narrative works. Whether they’re putting players into space or sending them back in time, these stories are the pinnacle of gaming narrative and represent what the medium can do if more time and effort is put into writing great, believable stories.

10. Uncharted

There’s no shame in making a video game play like an action film, and Uncharted accomplishes that task extremely well. But the secret to Uncharted’s success isn’t in the strength of its story, but in the believability of its voice acting.

Nolan North encompasses the breadth of Nathan Drake’s character with poise and expertise. In order to take players on a believable journey, you need to give them believable characters as well.

Story is important. But the vessels through which gamers are taken along for the wide are just as crucial, and Uncharted understands that solid voice acting is one of the most important methods of doing this.

9. Metal Gear Solid

There are plenty of valid criticisms gamers could level at Metal Gear Solid, the most prominent of which being the franchises uses cutscenes much too liberally and relies on them instead of using gameplay.

But beyond those arguments lie a complicated story that doesn’t descend into anarchy. The developers of Metal Gear understand that a story needs clear direction and pacing – the gamer always knows what’s going on and what the motivation of the next scene is.

There are similarities to Splinter Cell here, but I think Metal Gear is able to tell a story more clearly and put the player in context in a more believable way. Just as Snake does, the gamer always knows what he or she needs to do – direction is key to a good story.

8. Dead Space

I’ve written about Dead Space elsewhere on the site, and rightly so – it’s one of the few games that understand how to tell narrative in the midst of action without breaking the player’s immersion.

The key to Dead Space’s quality of narrative is the immediate use of subtext. In the first game, when the player first starts out you aren’t told that you’re an engineer, or that you’re heading towards a ship held by a strange alien life-force. instead, you’re shown pictures and videos of your girlfriend, immediately creating an emotional anchor.

The Dead Space franchise is arguably about humanity, and the question of what it really means to be human. As the marker fosters a deadly life force that rips humans apart and turns them into monsters, as Isaac goes powers on he loses his group with reality. The horror in this franchise doesn’t come from what lurks behind the corner – it’s what lurks within your head.

7. BioShock

Just as Dead Space uses subtext to tell a very human story, BioShock uses philosophy to deepen its narrative.

There are plenty of solid narrative techniques in BioShock – a believable premise, well-voiced characters, a unique (and for the time, innovative), morality system and a level design that rewards linear gameplay. But the thread that entwines them all together is the underlying philosphy of Andrew Ryan’s objectivism.

Objectivism is a philosophy that teaches man makes his own way in life. Charity is essentially immoral, and you owed nothing. This is the moralistic prism through which Ryan constructs Rapture, and through which the player approaches the morality system.

Much has been made over the way gamers approach harvesting ADAM for their powers, but it is merely a mechanic used as an extension and representation of the game’s objectivist philosophy – it is one of the perfect examples of a game using its subtext to influence the actual gameplay.

BioShock is arguably a linear game, and the story loses some power because of it, but more developers would do well to pump their games with an underlying philosophy that influences everything from art direction to game mechanics.

6. Silent Hill 2

James Sunderland is not the best protagonist in the history of gaming. Some of his dialogue is odd, the voice acting is at times quite lifeless and a few of his decisions are questionable. But yet, Silent Hill 2 still represents some of the best narrative in the history of gaming.

I could spend an entire series of posts on Silent Hill 2, but for now I’ll just focus on what makes this game work – a character arc. Unlike some action games or adventure titles, the player actually has to play Silent Hill 2 in order to learn more about the protagonist. He is complicated, mysterious and will not give up everything about him in the first few hours of gameplay.

I’ve explained here why having a character arc is so important to a story. Killing zombies, ghosts and monsters is all well and good, but games can be such much more if they simply give their characters an arc.It makes a game so much more memorable, and Silent Hill 2 is remembered because of it.

People change. They adapt to the circumstances around them. And Silent Hill 2 is a perfect example of how a game works when developers adhere to classic storytelling and narrative techniques.

5. Thief

While the premise of Thief may be a little far-fetched, it also represents one of the most under-used techniques in gaming – story-telling through exploration.

If you want to progress through Thief, you have to read logs left behind by the crew. They give you more information on how to proceed and will help you bypass some of the more difficult pieces of gameplay.

But more importantly, they help flesh out the atmosphere of the world. Just as players read logs in Dead Space, or talk to the non-playable characters in Deus Ex, reading in Thief gives you a much better feeling of the scope of the world you’re playing in and you have the added benefit of using a thief trainer and cheat to your heart’s desire.

Thief may not be the most believable story, but it’s certainly convincing.

4. Half Life

One of the most loved gaming franchises of all time, the Half Life series also represents a step-forward in story-telling for interactive entertainment.

The story itself is compelling enough – scientists rip open the space time continuaem, allow violent aliens to run rampant and put the entire earth into jeapordy after a separate alien force invades Earth and puts the entire population into slavery.

But the most compelling story-telling technique in Half Life isn’t the original premise, or the struggling remnants of humanity represented by City 17 inhabitants, Alyx Vance and her family, but in the method of in-game action.

The action doesn’t stop here – not once. Cutscenes are done away with in favour of continuous in-game action. As a result, the use of first-person perspective is given so much more depth. The gamer actually feels as if they are in the story – they’re a part of the resistance – and not just another grunt in a sea of armies.

Perhaps this is part of the reason why gamers feel such a connection with Gordon Freeman. NPCs talk to you directly and use Gordon’s name, connecting you with the character.

It’s a technique that Half Life didn’t invent, but definitely improved, and inspired countless other games to do the same. It was surely a critical step forward in gaming narrative that will influence other developers for years to come.

3. Assassin’s Creed

I’ve said this previously, but Assassin’s Creed isn’t about floating over roof tops and stabbing unsuspecting guards from above – it’s about power, politics, greed and envy.

The power of this franchise’s story comes from its use of history. Desmond finds himself drawn into the oldest conspiracy known to mankind. It encompasses the birth of humans, and seemingly every person that has come to power ever since – presidents, czars, wars and treaties are all part of this deception.

The use of the Subject 16 puzzles are the key here. In each one, the player is given another glimpse into just how far this conspiracy runs – famous scientists and world leaders are shown to be part of a centuries-old conspiracy designed to control humanity and keep them into submission.

Assassin’s Creed is a fun ride. But it’s even more entertaining if the player does a little work, and figures out just how far the rabbit hole goes.

2. Portal

Portal doesn’t have a deep narrative, but Valve’s quality of story-telling is shown in what it doesn’t tell the player.

The game rewards the player for discovering the narrative not through spoken exposition, but through exploring the level design. As the game goes on, the test subject can wander in secret areas and find writings scribbled on the walls suggesting that GlaDOS isn’t all that she seems – in fact, this “test” is a deadly place to be.

Portal also understands character. GlaDOS transforms from a friendly robot voice into a deadly force of subtle destruction with a penchant for black humour – and her dialogue shows this off:

We are pleased that you made it through the final challenge where we pretended we were going to murder you. We are very very happy for your success.

We are throwing a party in honor of your tremendous success. Place the device on the ground, then lie on your stomach with your arms at your sides.

Combined with a a solid understanding of pacing and a bold confidence in linear story-telling, Valve knows that giving the player too much information will ruin the fun of discovering the world they’ve built for them. Instead, it knows that gamers should be treated as if they actually have a little bit of intelligence when it comes to story and character.

1. Deus Ex

A global conspiracy, dozens of fleshed out characters and one of the biggest and most believable words in gaming history- Deus Ex represents a pinnacle in video game story-telling.

The gameplay may be clunky, the AI completely deficient and the graphics horribly outdated, but developers would do well to take some lessons from this gaming gem.

The actual conspiracy isn’t what makes Deus Ex so great – it’s the way it unfolds. You’re given a hint of what’s happening at the beginning of the game, but you slowly reveal more as the game goes on. When the player begins at Liberty Island, you know nothing and you’re dropped into the action without much knowledge of the world at all.

Instead, just as Portal allows players to learn more by level exploration, Deus Ex only reveals the story through speaking with other characters. Through the vast amount of conversation options available to the player, he or she will learn more about the plot as they go and talk to these other NPCs.

It’s the perfect way to combine storytelling and gameplay. You want to keep the player interested in the world but you also want to tell a convincing story. This is a very natural way of allowing the two to interconect – and the same applies for reading text logs and datacubes.

Deus Ex is a game dripping in atmosphere. From the level design, to the clothing, music and dialogue, the player believes they are in the middle of a dystopian future. This isn’t a replacement for narrative, but it helps the player believe.

Deus Ex was also one of the first games to allow you to choose your own path as you continue. This is where the ultimate strength of the narrative lies – although the gamer is allowed to choose his or her own path, the narrative never weakens. Each strand is as strong as the others – the fact gamers are still playing it through over a decade later and finding new narrative options is a testament to Deus Ex’s narrative depth.

This game requires several posts of its own. It is what happens when a strong narrative is combined with rich characters, dialogue and a dedication to allowing players to forge their own path.

This game punishes you. You can go and kill some characters, but the others will reprimand you for it and the story will be changed. There is nothing more you can do. It is the perfect representation of decisions that occur in real life – and this is a practice more developers should be emulating.