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Connecting with characters - Press play for feels

Updated on February 21, 2015
Choosing between half-naked men is hard...
Choosing between half-naked men is hard... | Source

When watching a movie, we depend for the most part on the characters presented to carry the plot. To keep us interested and engaged. Our entertainment can be had or utterly ruined by our connection with the people presented. This comes largely from the fact that the medium offers a very passive experience. With games, the consumer becomes more involved. They are present within the plot through a manifestation of an alter ego and can directly influence what's going on. This in turn gives us much more varied ways in which we can establish a connection to our characters, which we can divide according to how much of the storytelling is done through classic tool as seen in movies and how much is conveyed through gameplay itself.

Scripted stories

In many ways, the line between games and movies are becoming blurrier with each jump in graphical fidelity. Not just because the visuals look more realistic, but ironically also due to certain limitations that come with more detailed environments. They take much more effort to make and in turn, they also take much more processing power to tell. Thus they rely much on movie-like cutscenes and scripted events to set the player on a linear path that pushes the story along. Just like with movies, this approach hinges a lot on the likeability of the main character. However, this creates an additional problem, as the game wrests control from the player on multiple occasions. If the scripted story progression take up most of the game time, we are stuck in a strange place. On one hand, we aren’t really in control, on the other, we aren’t just watching a movie either, as the game keeps demanding input just enough to see if we fell asleep, or if we didn’t just let it play in the background as an excuse for making out.

Present in the picture: first map of Doom, every first map of a modern shooter ever made and the reason why games of the same franchise can come out on an annual basis nowadays.
Present in the picture: first map of Doom, every first map of a modern shooter ever made and the reason why games of the same franchise can come out on an annual basis nowadays.

Silent protagonists

In order to minimise the risk of the main character saying something that would throw the player out of the experience, games are often designed with the protagonist having no direct interaction with his environment at all. Rather, his presence or actions trigger other characters to interact with him, making it so much easier to impress a persona onto the main person. The story can still very much be a linear experience, but the reactions to what is going on is purely the player's, avoiding most schizophrenia between the character's speech and the player controlling it. Silent protagonists were a product of the limitations developers experienced early on with the assets they had at their disposal, but lent the games a very personal charm. You are left to decide what you feel. You are left to decide if you are okay with the actions you're going to take. A popular example, Gordon Freeman from Half-Life, can show us just how well the imprint of the player can work on a silent protagonist.

Game mechanic driven personalities

As we step further and further away from a passive narrative seen in movies, the game mechanics start to take over. Personality traits become less about responses to the environment and more about how the characters handle. A character's abilities and handling can very much help us imprint a persona onto them. We may associate fighters with douchebags that just want to punch things, paladins with douchebags that always nag you about even the slightest rule breaking and wizards with douchebags that will selfishly bend the fabric of time and space until they summon the end times in one way or another. Remember, it's important to hate everyone equally.

The forefathers of metalheads already battled robots and ate dinosaurs.
The forefathers of metalheads already battled robots and ate dinosaurs. | Source

Joking aside, the way the character's handle is a tried method dating back to the days of the Lost Vikings. The game featured three different characters: an agile one, a fighter and a protector. While the game also featured banter at the end of each level, the main characteristics of each individual comes from actually controlling them. Soon, traits like quick reflexes, love for food and fearlessness become associated. Then they become more complex to the point of becoming a story of their own. I'm still convinced that once back home, Eric invented American Football, Baelog started robot wrestling and Olaf invented pants-less hand-gliding.

The different ways of telling a story can also provide interesting blends. For example, a good mix of Silent protagonists and game driven personalities can be observed in the critically acclaimed indie title Thomas Was Alone. Graphically reduced to its bare essentials, Thomas Was Alone has you play and differently shaped and coloured rectangles while being nudged through the game by a narrator that imprints feeling to the actions of the rectangles that fit their abilities. Some are small, some are tall, some are fat and some are flat. Quite a few have particularly strong feelings about their shapes and abilities. These in turn have very specific uses and provide hurdles the shapes have to overcome to become a better... uhh... person... type... geometric object? Yeah... that. It's really strange to see how engaging a game with the most basic of visuals can be.

I'm pretty sure the green one is green because of a severe fear of heights.
I'm pretty sure the green one is green because of a severe fear of heights. | Source

Carte Blanche

Games may be the only type of media that can get away with imprinting absolutely no character on the main cast and get away with it. Prevailing mostly in games featuring permanent deaths of characters (meaning you can't load a previous state of the game and try again), game are able to provide interest in something fleeting that the player knows he could lose at any minute. This is probably best demonstrated on an example, so let's talk Faster Than Light;aA game, where a crew, named by the player has to reach a certain destination before token rebels catch up to them. So you pick your crew, you assign them each a task and try to keep the sorry sods alive. You depend on the little guys. And maybe you even named them after your friends, so you can go on a space adventure together. You cheer for them doing a good job, you start associating them with their jobs. You start associating them with their successes and failures. The characters never do anything to disagre with these associations. And then one of them dies horribly. You wont' be getting them them back. The loss of the crew member is instantly felt on the whole performance of the ship. Yeah, remember when John Doe was still with us? Those were good times, man. I've no idea why he kept standing in that fire. Guess the pressure got to him.

I have a good feeling about this bunch. Surely there's nothing that could go wrong here.
I have a good feeling about this bunch. Surely there's nothing that could go wrong here. | Source

The losses are felt and your crew eventually dies one by one. You have to start all over. You stare down at the randomly generated name tags of your new crew. Something feels off. You remember How Claire evaded three missiles in a row while you were on your last health and put her as the pilot again. You remember how Leon shot that rebel drone to bits before it could even fire once and put him on weapons again. You remember how Sherry dealt the final blow on that huge sentient rock that tried to disable your oxygen and send her to tend to the shields again, setting off on a new adventure, creating an even deeper bond with a crew that technically should be generic as any other, but somehow, this set up is far better.


... Then you remember you should get actual friends instead of Resident Evil characters, but that can wait after one more adventure.

What would you name your crew as?

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