The video games I love most, I love for their stories. I studied Literature in university and I have worked at two different movie theaters. I’ve been an arts and entertainment journalist/critic for five years now and counting. I’ve previewed and reviewed novels, short story collections, poetry, albums, films, concerts, ballets, graphic novels, plays, concerts, one multimedia piece that was a combination of the last three and, of course, video games. Stories are very, very important; and not just to me, although my interest in them has made me particularly attached to them. Stories are the diary entries of a culture. Stories express what a culture is afraid of, what it aspires to be, what it’s terrified to acknowledge that it is, stories inform us what we choose to ignore, what we fantasize and so on. They change what people think and they change as people start thinking different things. They change how people think whether or not they want them to. Stories are important.
There isn’t such a thing as a game (or any piece of art) that doesn’t tell a story in some form. Mario isn’t just the story of a plumber seeking a princess; using the language of the platformer–the bright, warm colours, the peppy music that is paced to match the optimal running speed of the avatar, the simple controls, the childlike accessibility of the opening levels–can all be read as meaning something. The story of League of Legends is not just the story of champions entering an arena, there’s another story at play. The story of the character Katarina’s Christmas skin pole-dancing, for instance, can tell us a lot more than the weekly write ups that Riot leaves for the five or six people interested in her lore, just as much as Riot’s decision to remove Katarina’s striptease (Baribeau, Tami. “League of Legends to remove poledancing skin from Xmas Katerina skin.” The Border House. Dec 7 2012.).
The story does not even have to align with the author’s intention. For example: in Twilight, the love interest, Edward Cullen gets angry with protagonist Bella Swan for continuing a friendship with the character Jacob. Edward gets angry with his girlfriend and does not consent to her spending time with him. A critic is every bit justified to suggest that’s abuse. When a man takes control of a woman’s social life, it isn’t just petty and childish, it’s restricting her freedom. Author Stephanie Mayer may not have intended that to be abuse, and some readers may not read it as abuse–some readers find that kind of engagement romantic, certainly there’s a story behind that as well–but the text provides evidence with which a critic may build a case.
The case I made in my most recent article is that when a player picks up a game, they often expect to see themselves in the protagonist (“In the Third Person: Against Player Authority.” PopMatters. Jan 22 2013.). The entire game world is focused on the protagonist’s actions and everything the player does changes the whole world. This is a very “me-first” approach. The attitude of this player can be assumed to be “I’m the most important thing in this world: everything I do matters and anything anybody else does is just a reaction to what I do.”
Most of the time, only a shallow world around a single person. I’ll go as far as admitting that the protagonist of any story must be compelling and interesting. There must be a reason why we want to subject ourselves to their lives, and relating to them is often an effective way of doing that. But it is not the only way. Not every character should be some idealized version of the self prancing around a world that waits with baited breath for the protagonist to make every decision.
One of the things that worked best about Mass Effect 3 was that it handcuffed Shepard (Spoilers ahead). Mass Effect and its sequel carried on and on about how significant Shepard was, how important she was to the cause, and the galaxy of trillions was dooming itself by not paying attention to how friggin’ awesome she was. Mass Effect 3 rolled around and crushed all that. It turns out that there really wasn’t anything that the galaxy could have done; even at their best, the reapers carved through the most advanced organic fleets in the galaxy with relative ease. Only by relying on the cumulative efforts of countless cycles of life can there be a vague sense that things might be okay, without ever confirming whether or not there was any lasting hope for the galaxy at all. But people were upset with the ending because it forced them into a choice that they didn’t like.
The choice wasn’t for the player, though, it was for Shepard. (End spoilers) Almost In the decade before Mass Effect, it was never expected that players assumed the identities of their avatars. Sure, Link has ever been a blank slate, ditto for Fido in Grand Theft Auto 3, and most characters rolled for any Dungeons & Dragons based RPGs like Baulder’s Gate are similarly meant to be the player’s substitute as well. But on the whole, characters were allowed to be written. Final Fantasy Tactics, for example, did an excellent job of writing characters that were not all meant to represent anybody but themselves. There are absolutely no story-based decisions that the player can make in FFT, the hero, Ramza, makes all of them. Spoilers ahead.
In fact, most of Ramza’s decisions don’t actually have a huge impact on the overarching plot. The narrative is framed in a historian’s research that uncovered Ramza as a critical but overlooked element in a massive continental war that overthrew approximately every-single-bloody person in the game’s world. It’s a document on a history that has already passed, the events are solidified. The most influential character on the raw events is Delita, he’s the true hero, anti-hero and villain of the “War of Lions,” but FFT spends most of its time away from him. Ramza is powerless, so is the player, that’s what makes FFT a great tragedy. It’s a rich world populated by some very human characters–even if it is the story of a reluctant paragon chasing down Macguffins to stop the world from ending. The game couldn’t work if after each battle the game stopped to ask the player how the would like the world to proceed.
The whole point of Ramza as a character is that he’s exhausted and burnt out by the greedy people he loves killing each other; he just wants it to end. But he keeps sticking himself in the middle of a fight because he can recognize when somebody is being exploited and he’s able to stand up for them. He doesn’t really have a choice about whether or not he wants to stick his nose into the war to help people, it’s just who he is; the player is just along for the ride. Ramza can’t stop most of the things that happens, but he does what he can do and he’s admirable for it. That kind of motivation and inner conflict doesn’t pop up organically when the player is given authorial power.
FFT follows a young man with a great deal of power, choosing to give it all up rather than use it for violent and manipulative means; then when he has very limited power, he continues to put himself at risk to help honest people. He’s a character independent of the player. That couldn’t happen if the player was given all the power Ramza had at the start of the game along with a chance to use it however they wanted. The story is written with a pretty clear purpose, and it needs Ramza–not whoever the player wants to be–to reach that point.
I want to say again, I don’t think that stories told from a defined character are better than stories told from a player-substitute or a customized character. There are great games with great stories where the player assumes the role of the protagonist and that’s just fine. I just want to emphasize that sometimes not having control over a character can work as well and that it this point is worth bearing in mind. A game doesn’t have to make the player into the hero, the player doesn’t have to relate to the hero, the player doesn’t even have to like the hero,
Further Reading: Cross, Katherine. “Characters Done Right: Kreia of Knights of the Old Republic 2.” The Border House. Feb 4 2011
Brennen, Sera. “The dilemma of character versus gameplay.” The Border House. Dec 8 2009.
Brice, Mattie. “Women, the Ensemble Cast, and Narrative Authority in the Final Fantasy series.” PopMatters. Feb 27 2012.