Monday, December 01, 2008

Filling in the Blanks

To continue this theme of hollow characters, I'd like to do a little thought exercise. I think you should try it too, because it's fun.

Picture one of the games you've played recently that had a hollow or window main character. Now replace them with a very strongly NON-hollow character. Imagine how the game would feel differently and then imagine how, if the game was designed with that character in mind from the start, how it might be fundamentally different.

For example, replace Mass Effect's "Shepard" with, say, Captain Kirk. This one's easy.

In most regards, Kirk is easy to picture in Shepard's shoes. It's not much of a stretch to see Kirk going to war like that, although it's not exactly what he would do in Trek. I can't see Kirk driving around on barren planets looking for mineral deposits and loot, but I couldn't see Shepard doing that, either.

From a plot perspective, Kirk fits fine into the role of the young renegade captain sent on a special mission with a special ship. However, all the interpersonal aspects of the plot will screw up a bit because Kirk's character doesn't really have those dynamics. His romances are always held at arm's length, for example.

The whole idea of "choosing noble or asshole" is still viable, but it would be done in true Kirkian style instead of mushy, wishy-washy hollow character. "Garrus... you can't... go around killing people!" "It's Wrex - he's gone out of... control!"

The fact that Kirk actually has a personality lets the writing justify letting Kirk take the lead more often, whereas Shepard is ENTIRELY a reactive character. This is because writing an active role for a hollow character results in the players feeling like they've been gypped out of the options they would really like... but that problem is much reduced if the main character has such a strong personality that the player can't deny that the options are all that make sense for him.

If the game was designed with Kirk in mind from the start, I think it would feature the ship more centrally, because Kirk is a captain above all. Sure, he gets in fist fights and fires lasers and boffs a space elf, but the whole purpose of his character is to be the beating heart of his ship.

This sort of character replacement is kind of a fun exercise. That example was pretty straight - a substitution of a bland character with a very similar non-bland character. But it's often fun to imagine really zany mixups, and we can still claim it's educational so long as we think about how it would actually change the game.

For example, imagine Mirror's Edge with Raz from Psychonauts as the main character.

Or imagine Ash from Evil Dead as the main character in Crackdown. (Or Ash from Pokemon, I suppose.)

Or imagine Shodan as the "main character" in SimCity. Go nuts.

The point isn't "How would these characters fit into the game?" The point is "How would the game change to fit in these characters?"


I especially like that SimCity one. Imagine a city-building game where you play an evil artificial intelligence. Ha! "The only thinggggs of beauty in the dirt you call a citttyyyy... are the thiinnnnggggss IIIiiii builllllt therrrrrre."


Patrick said...

Ok, that SimCity bit makes me buy the argument for general advantage more, however I´m still not convinced in regard to multiplayer games. I think what you´re argueing is that if you don´t have another person playing the game, then you should construct another personality to justify the constraint of finite AI/content.

Craig Perko said...

Normally, I would argue that. In this case, it goes a little deeper: the main avatar(s) are the primary shaping force. The gameplay, the plot, even the controls are all based around the main avatar, and if there are others in your party, their abilities are built to be similar to that of the main character.

A good example of this is Halo. Master Chief's character has a very particular space-pulp feel to him, which means his existence dictated (or was dictated by) the game dynamics relating to regenerating shields and picking up discarded weapons. These allowed him to have the proper "fists and skin of the teeth" flavor.

A game where the gameplay was more Quake-like, carrying all the weapons and having a specific flat health bar, would have clashed with the Master Chief decor.

In a multi-player game, you'll still need that kind of driving force. I don't know that you would call it "the avatar", but you need it.

Greg Tannahill said...

Not sure in what sense you say that Shepherd is a reactive character. She (I played her as a chick) is driving the main plot pretty constantly - she keeps getting given smaller goals, which she reacts to, but in the context of constantly pushing for action on the larger issue. Her insistence on going after the bigger threat borders on zealotry.

At the same time, Mass Effect goest to effort to give the character more defining attributes than we'd expect. However you play Shepherd, you know she's from Earth, you know she's a patriot, you're impressed by her competence, while simultaneously being aware that she's a relative newcomer to interacting with other alien races. It's clear that she has hardline military training, but possesses a spark of intelligence, if not necessarily a lot of imagination. She's got a penchant for expecting the worst, although whether she occasionally hopes for the best is up to the player. That's a pretty good start to build off, and it helps even the worst roleplayer feel that their character is a real person and a well-connected part of the world she inhabits.

Fallout might have been a better story with a predefined character, but it would have been a poorer game. The most memorable and fun gameplay of that franchise comes from defining your character, picking perks, and exploring different approaches to problems. The point of the game is to be a blank slate, and the story is merely one of the sandbox tools to allow you to explore and play with that experience.

Halo, on the other hand, should definitely have had a "real" protagonist. It gained nothing from its annoyingly underfined main character.

Craig Perko said...

Well, my issue with Shepard is probably tainted by the gameplay. My Shepard certainly wasn't terribly focused or talkative: she spent the vast majority of her time driving a car around and shooting random bandits. And she didn't take much initiative about anything else: she just ran where the council told her to go and then came back, with a few year's vacation between while looting a moon somewhere.

In this case, it's irrelevant as to whether Shepard was a hollow character, a window character, or a "real" character: his or her personality had NO BEARING ON THE GAME. I'm trying to very carefully link the character not just to how he or she expresses himself in cut scenes, but how they shape the nature of the game.

The gameplay and the plot in Mass Effect were so divorced from each other it felt like they were two separate games that happened to meet in a bar somewhere.

Furthermore, the plot was super-attenuated by the ridonkulus idea that instead of chasing after this criminal who's days away from destroying all of the known universe, we should instead pop around to various planets pulling armor and guns out of trash bags and downed satellites.

None of these made any sense from a Shepard-centric perspective. My guess is that you and I played very different games of Mass Effect, but I can't imagine they were THAT different.

Your point about things like Fallout is definitely a sticky wicket, though. In games where the whole point is to let you define your character as you see fit, including a strong main character doesn't make any sense.

However... I'm not sure that the "make your own character" gameplay we see so often today is actually a good idea. I have a sneaking suspicion that you could get games that are just as deep and interesting in terms of gameplay and choices with a stronger personality. Planescape: Torment is an example of this: still get to customize your character, but he has a very definite existence as a character, or at least as much as the engine can allow. He's not hollow.

Another example of this sort of thing is actually Fallout II. While the vault-dweller is a hollow character, the circumstances surrounding him or her are heavily directed by the underlying fact that he or she IS the vault-dweller and spent most of his or her life living in a cave somewhere.

This is the sort of thing I can see for make-you-own-character games: even if the personality is not strongly defined, the CIRCUMSTANCES of the character are strongly defined enough that they can shape the game's dynamics.

Is that clear?

Greg Tannahill said...

I understand your point.

I guess for me it comes down to "if it ain't broke don't fix it". It might be that there are games more fun than "define your own character" pieces, but that doesn't stop the "define your own character" pieces from being fun, and I'm reluctant to abandon established fun to go searching after better, purer fun.

My Mass Effect experience does sound a lot different. I really had a great time playing Shepherd as a hard-ass who ran a tight ship, and deliberately ignored missions that seemed stupid. The game still gave me achievements for seeing most of the game, which I take as the tacit confession of the developers that this is the way they hoped I'd play. The very fact that two people can talk about Mass Effect and appear to have played two completely different games is testimony to how the character defines the gameplay.

I suspect the summation of your argument is that there are indeed some very good hollow-character games, but:
(a) could we have some very good games with anchored, fleshed-out characters who define gameplay, and
(b) could we stop using hollow characters as a kind of default, regardless of whether they add anything to the game.

Both of those propositions I heartily support!

Craig Perko said...

I agree! Yay!