Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Fill 'Er Up

I hate blank-slate main characters, and here's why.

These days, most games have blank slate main characters. The idea is that the player's avatar is so incredibly nonexistent (especially outside of cut scenes) that the player can fill him with any personality he chooses.

To say this is common is an understatement. It's ubiquitous. To the point where it exists even in games with seemingly strongly defined main characters.

For example, in Gears of War, you play the improbably named "Marcus Fenix". He seems like an actual character. He's got a badass voice actor, he has lines of dialog, he's definitely not visually neutral.

But he's still an empty character. After establishing his very basic personality and history in the early cut scenes, he rarely says anything more emotional than "keep moving" and "could be a trap".

This sort of thing is easy to see if you compare the main character to the secondary characters. Compare and contrast: your main character in any Bioware RPG. Even if we take into account all the dialog you choose (and we shouldn't, because it doesn't actually constitute the avatar feeling any emotion), you STILL have less character development dialog than any given party member's left big toe. The other characters will have strong judgments, wacky opinions, fun lines of dialog, actual emotions on their faces... you, on the other hand, get to choose whether to kill the beggar or give him money.

Obviously, you can have good games with hollow avatars. The world is full of them: the Final Fantasies, if you like them. System Shock II. Fallout I & II. Half Life. However, this long list is not because of any strength in the idea of a hollow character: it's because there are ten times more hollow-character games than defined-character games. Even games that theoretically have strongly defined characters, such as the Spider-man games, end up hollowing out the character for your use.

But compare these to games which have a main character that is not afraid to have a strong personality. Psychonauts. Beyond Good and Evil. Planescape: Torment. Sly Cooper. Grim Fandango. Most of the best adventure games (and the worst, I admit).

These games have a very different feel from hollow-avatar games of the same sort. The main character's existence as an actual person shapes the whole game. It shapes the plot, the gameplay, the color, the EVERYTHING. You are living in their world.


The hollow avatar started back in the beginning, when you didn't really have much choice. Even if you made your avatar a bright red and blue clown, you couldn't really show him doing much in terms of emotion or characterization. But these characters were not intended to be hollow. They just HAD to be.

In the game designers' minds, the characters were fully formed. You can tell by the way the world is so strongly shaped around their personalities... even though you can't actually see their personalities. Little Nemo and Bonk are very clear examples: you don't really see much in the way of emotion or personality during the normal course of the game, but the whole world is built around their very strong personalities.

In some games, hollow avatars are used to great effect. System Shock II being an excellent example, or Half Life if you prefer the wussy little brother. These games make use of the same basic limitations: you never see your avatar's emotions because A) you never see your avatar and B) your avatar never runs into anyone he can have a chat with.

Similarly, Ico and Shadows of the Colossus both have hollow main characters, but, again, they are hollow because their personality rarely gets a chance to show. The worlds and plots are built around a very strong personality and set of emotions, and this shines through.

That's not the case in a game like Gears of War, where you spend the majority of the game staring at an armor-plated football player hanging out with other armor-plated football players. Obviously, your avatar has a billion chances to show emotion and personality. You can always see his body language, you almost always have people within talking distance, so why is it that the other characters all have interesting lines and you always just grunt? Why is it that the OTHER characters express all the things I, as THE PLAYER, am feeling?

Even in games where you make your own character, such as Oblivion, I think I would enjoy playing someone with a personality.

I think people assume that a hollow character is the best thing because it allows anyone to give any personality to the character. But that's stupid. If you've played Beyond Good and Evil, which avatar feels more real? Which avatar adds more to the game? The photo realistic, extremely cool Fenix... or the cartoony, slightly insipid Jade? I'll give you a hint: it's Jade. If you doubt it, go play both games again.

In honesty, I would have preferred to play Cole or either of the Carmines in Gears of War. I have a feeling I would have felt the war far more personally that way.

It's not as if a hollow character can be filled with any given personality, either. Even if we're playing something like Oblivion, with an almost unlimited set of options, the personality we give our character is going to be tightly linked to how the character plays. A good example is the assassin: a lot of people wanted to be assassins in Oblivion, but you can't make your avatar feel like a dangerous assassin. A) Assassins have to frolic (literally) through the woods picking daisies and B) bows suck. The "dangerous assassin" personality dies quickly, mutated into something bizarre and perhaps hilarious.

To me, this means there is no excuse not to give the avatar a strong personality. Make it permeate every facet of the game.

"But what if the players don't like the main character?"

That actually happens pretty rarely in decent games, and the reason is because the quality of the gameplay and plot will change their judgment on the quality of the character. Jade's character is actually quite irritating, taken out of context. But the gameplay is good and the way she's exposed to plot points takes the butter out of the smarmalade and lets us admire her.

Sly Cooper's about as interesting as a piece of cardboard, but he's got an extremely STRONG two-dimensional personality, and the rest of the game supports it. The main character from Destroy All Humans is practically ONE-dimensional but, again, the game makes him interesting to play as.

So... characters. Yeah. That feel things. And have personalities.

It's cool.

I think.



Ellipsis said...

For games with preset characters, I agree - I don't think there's any good reason not to fill out characters, because otherwise they just comes across as bland.

In the case of a game like Oblivion, though...I think it would be seriously cool if you could fill out a character with a personality of your choosing. The problem is that Oblivion (and other games in which you create your character) doesn't provide you with that - your avatar is just a pair of eyes and a pair of hands in the world that you control, that let you play in it. In order to have a character with a personality, that personality has to sometimes express itself in ways the player doesn't have full control over, and this seems to run contrary to the philosophy of a game like Oblivion, but I think it would be interesting: sometimes your character refuses to do X because it's against their principles, or they reach out and pick someone's pocket while you're just trying to walk by. You chose to make them lawful good, or a kleptomaniac, but the choice has an effect on the way your avatar behaves. That's what I would do.

Soyweiser said...

I kind disagree with you on the Final Fantasy part. In ff6 and ff7 they showed some emotion. Sure it wasn't that much. But they are not blank characters.

Have you ever played disgaea 1? I absolutely hate the main characters in that game. I don't know if it is a bad translation, or the voice acting, but every character in that game feels wrong to me. Way to childish.

(But I do agree with you, having main characters with character usually adds to the game).

Patrick said...

This only makes sense for single player games. Right? If you're making a multiplayer game that is ultimately supposed to be about the players relationship with each other, then this would only obstruct the interaction.

Soyweiser said...

Not in every case, in coop multiplayer games it would still be fun.

It would make little sense in a deathmatch shooter. (But if you look at team fortress it could still be possible). What would happen if the different characters would react differently to each other.

Olick said...

I'm fairly certain that Disgaea was rather well translated(Atlus does a good job usually, and NISAmerica similarly does) and the voice acting isn't the worst possible.

I'm a big fan of Nippon Ichi games, but even the most dramatic of them is still pretty lighthearted, but still sometimes depends on your ability to take it seriously. I enjoy the story, even if it gets childish at times, but I guess I can see how that's a turn-off.

On another note, I'm annoyed every time a story-heavy game doesn't at least give the main character's good interaction. Zelda series are prime offenders, most of them have had increasingly more intensive stories, but the traditionally mute Link does little more than get shocked. Sometimes.

Darius Kazemi said...

I just started playing GTA4 (yeah, I'm late to the party) and I must say that Nico Bellic is extremely UNhollow. But it just goes to show that you're right: it feels weird to play a character with his own characterization and emotions. I find him to be an extremely likable guy, even.

Craig Perko said...

You're not late, Darius. These guys jumped on this post really quick! I can't speak about GTA4, since I haven't even seen it played and I doubt I'll ever play it myself, but it sounds like you know what you're talking about.

Soyweiser: The Final Fantasy characters are a bit unusual in that they are "window" characters rather than "hollow" characters: they have a personality, but it's built specifically to not interfere with the game. Chronotrigger was the same way.

I lumped them into one category, but they ARE different categories.

I really like Disgaea, largely because of the childish characters and insanely complex tactical game. It was often over the top into cartoon-silly land, but it's still one of my favorites. I especially like the voices of Etna and Captain Gordan.

But that's arguing over trifles. In the end, it sounds like everyone has a pretty solid grasp on what I was trying to say.

Ellipsis: I like the idea of being able to choose your avatar's personality to some extent, but it has several drawbacks. One is the extreme difficulty of programming that much content. The other is the fact that you can't shape the world so heavily around the character's personality, since the world has to be able to support the various personalities of the various players.

I think Patrick's right about multiplayer games, at least ones where you're sitting in the same room or have headsets on. You'll get a big dose of the other players' personalities, and it would be overkill to bring artificial personalities into the mix in most situations.

Similarly, you don't want to screw up gameplay to demonstrate personality. For example, if you're in the middle of a deathmatch, you don't want to take control of your avatar away so he can be dejected. The idea is to allow for more expressive gameplay, not for more expression DURING gameplay, if you see what I mean.

Darius Kazemi said...

Here's a pretty good example of how the PC in GTA4 is not a hollow shell. (It's only the opening cinematic that's worth watching, about 90 seconds.)

Craig Perko said...

Yeah, he's got a personality. Looks like he might be a window character, which makes sense when you've got to use specific gameplay.

Greg Tannahill said...

I don't think it's fair to criticise Fallout or Mass Effect for being hollow-shell characters. A large part of the gameplay of those games is about projecting onto your character and deciding what kind of person they are; they wouldn't be the same game, or the same gameplay, if the game fleshed out the character for you.

That's to be distinguished from Half-Life and Gears of War. In Half-Life they deliberately decided that wasn't the way they wanted to tell a story and for better or worse chose to have a hollow shell. Gears of War, the storytelling was just lazy.

Craig Perko said...

I understand the theory, but my problem is that the gameplay and story of a game is tightly bound to the personality of the main avatar, if there is one.

Games like Fallout and Mass Effect take the dubious choice of reducing their gameplay depth in favor of gameplay breadth. I'm not sure I like that, although it turned out well in Fallout's case.