It’s no secret that most video game developers haven’t quite figured out how to successfully combine solid gameplay with a riveting narrative. To be perfectly fair, there are a million reasons for this.
For example, some people will say that gaming, as a medium, is still in its infancy – which is true. Others have been known to opine that a complex narrative might possibly get in the way of the one thing that matters most in a game: gameplay. Again, not an untrue statement. And let’s not forget that gaming is an amalgamation and an evolution of all the art forms that preceded it. Making a video game in this day and age is an extremely complex task that involves painstaking attention to art style, music composition, color palettes, acting, directing, and convoluted computer code that can adapt to a variety of circumstances as well as player-controlled actions. On top of it all is the crucial gameplay factor, which more than anything, allows the artists behind the game to subtly control the experience – while giving the player the illusion of being in charge. It’s not a simple job.
At the end of the day, it’s easier (and better, really) to half-ass the story than anything else. How many times have you played a game where the narrative boils down to getting the magical item to the mythical place in order to defeat the monstrous thing? Even fairly open-ended games like Oblivion or Grand Theft Auto have only two basic mission types: find something or kill something. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, Mass Effect comes to mind, and it would be foolish to say that every game needs a compelling story (I’m looking at you, Mario). But even games with a great plot are missing the one thing that could elevate gaming to a whole new sphere as a storytelling medium – and that one thing is character development.
Now don’t get me wrong, weaving character development into a medium that has become more and more enamored with open-ended, player-controlled choice is not an easy task. But let’s be brutally frank here, all games, at their core, are linear experiences. Some allow you to do things in a different order, or with a slightly different outcome, but no game is entirely devoid of a cohesive plot, the outdated ramblings of Roger Ebert aside.
As of right now, there are three approaches to character development in games and while some are superior to others, not one of them is an entirely complete representation.
The Un-evolved Hero – Mario, Kratos and Master Chief are examples of un-evolved heroes. Mario is just your typical Italian plumber tasked with rescuing a princess. Kratos is just a really pissed-off albino dude with a suicidal streak. Master Chief is just the strong, silent type who’s really good at killing aliens. These three are the means to an end and their job is to not change. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?
Unapologetically one-dimensional, Mario, Kratos and Master Chief are really just supposed to move gamers from one set-piece to the next, and they do an admirable job of that. But that’s all they do and anyone claiming that Mario Galaxy, God of War or Halo has a deep, character-driven story needs to catch up on their freshman lit reading list.
The Deceptive Hero – Nico Bellic, Rico Rodriguez and John Marston are examples of deceptive heroes. The deceptive hero arises when a character with apparent motivations is given free reign to do whatever the player wants. The result is an inconsistent mess, at least as far as that character is concerned.
How many times does Nico talk mournfully of his past violence and desire to leave it behind, only to go on a cop-killing rampage or even murder the man that cheated with his cousin’s girlfriend? Is the island-nation of Panau really suffering more under the rule of “Baby” Panay as it is under Rico’s wanton grappling-hook-impaling and general destruction? Can John Marston be justified in slaughtering scores of Mexican freedom fighters only to switch sides as it benefits him? Instead of the story reacting to the character, deceptive heroes react to the story, and it shows.
The Illusive Hero – Commander Shepard, Demon’s Souls Dude and Jack from BioShock are all illusive heroes. Illusive heroes seem to be saddled with a blend of both apparent motivations and player control. The same weaknesses present themselves here as with the deceptive hero, though they are generally curtailed. If you’ve been playing most of the game as a nice Shepard, some cruel acts will be beyond your reach; they don’t make sense with the hero you’ve heretofore created. Shepard is almost an example of a developed hero – though he’s not entirely there.
Demon’s Souls Dude is allowed only a certain amount of freedom and is left mostly anonymous, and for good reason. Players are allowed to play him/her as they see fit. Is (s)he a stealthy sniper or a reckless berserker? You decide.
Jack may be the closest to a complete hero that we have in gaming, but that’s really only due to the narrative’s manipulation of emotion and motivation. The big reveal with Ryan is a commentary on gaming structure, more than anything else, and the subsequent battle with Fontaine feels right because you, the player, wants to nail that jerk to the wall. By using general anonymity and limiting choices, the illusive hero uses the player’s imagination to fill in the gaps of motivation. It’s the best out of the three, but it’s still not an ideal set-up for a developed character.
So how do we create games with evolving, changing, real protagonists? Well, you’ve got to do a couple of things that may not even be possible at this point in time. First of all, in a game with a linear story, game-makers have to limit the choices available to players while hiding the fact that’s what they’re doing. In a sandbox game, developers will have to borrow from Bioware’s playbook and make sure that behavior has consequences. The game world has to react to the character as much as the character reacts to the world. Easier said than done.
Second, choice needs to be more and more limited as the game progresses, but not in a way that’s restrictive. For example, in your life right now, you could drive to Ohio tomorrow but that probably doesn’t make a lot of sense. Game worlds need to operate in the same way. Third, the plot of a character-centered game should be subservient to the title’s protagonist. Fourth, make more tragedies, almost no one actually learns from their mistakes. Fifth, show, don’t tell. I want to see how the world changes in response to my character’s choices.
The points listed above are adapted literary and theatrical devices that could change the way that games tell stories. Lastly, people that write games should be writers first and gamers second. Most games have terrible stories and, in all honesty, most books would probably make terrible games. Nobody wants to play War and Peace or Catch-22, but when over half of the Academy Awards for Best Picture have been given to films based on adapted screenplays, there’s definitely an argument to be made for quality adaptations.