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Friday, January 13, 2012

Mobilis in Mobili: Characterization in Games

Everyone who has ever heard of the argument about whether games are art or not and can put words together to express an opinion has written about whether video games can be or are art.  This seems like a rather silly thing to talk about, since not only does nobody really have a good answer about where unintentional implications stop and art begins, but because people don't really know much about what a video game is either, what ways it can generate meaning.  Video games, for an idea that's already been around for several decades already, are still very much undeveloped, and by their very nature, less applicable to standard conceptions of art than even film.  I don't know if you can call video games universally "art," and I don't think all video games should try to be high art in the same way that it'd be uninteresting if all films tried to be high art, but I think I do know one thing that the medium may be uniquely suited to handling: creating characters the player cares about.

Most video games fail at writing badly.  Most video game characters are half-heartedly conceived, half-heartedly written, and half-heartedly voice acted and animated.  Perhaps this is because most video games try to develop their characters in ways similar to how a film or novel might develop its characters: using cinematics and linear narrative.  They are immobile in a mobile element.  Everyone reading this who is a gamer should try and think of the most compelling video game characters they know, and how they most often interacted with them.  I think most gamers will come up with characters who are either physically with the character in the game world and with whom they have interacted through the game's mechanics, or who are omnipresent throughout the game as part of the meta-narrative structure.  I believe this is because the association and interaction with these characters as part of the game's environment brings something to the table.

For instance, Skyrim is great for many reasons, but its characters aren't really one of them.  However, like many players, I own a horse.  Actually, I've owned several horses throughout the course of the game, but my first horse - her name was Rin - stands out.  I had her for a good long while.  I journeyed from Whiterun to Winterhold to Solitude across the wastelands on Rin.  We fought wolves and frost trolls and bandits together.  I actually started to grow fond of the horse to the extent that I was willing to retrace my steps a good half-hour's worth of game time once to make sure she didn't die.  I cared about her, but she's just some brown draft horse I got from the stables outside of Whiterun.  She could climb up mountains like a goat and ford a good mile of freezing water with a rider and gear on her, but all Skyrim horses can do that.  There was absolutely nothing that made that horse special except the context the game itself provided: a shared experience.  Unfortunately, Rin later died by Frost Troll a good several hours before I discovered it.  I bought another horse: didn't care about her that much.  (My current horse's name is Yukari.  My Imperial mage is Japanese, apparently.)

I think many of you may have already played a game that consciously uses this phenomenon: Portal.  Remember the Companion Cube?  How many of you are still scarred from that one?  You may or may not have heard that Valve had found a paper that described how people in isolation (i.e. most gamers >_>) would become attached to inanimate objects.  From this, Valve decided to make a level that required the player to use a single box with which to solve the puzzles.  While the effect happened, it was too short a time span, and players would often forget about the box.  Valve started thinking.  What if the box had a defining characteristic?  What if they had GlaDOS start talking about the box constantly?  What if the player then had to incinerate the box to complete the level?  Because of Valve's experiments through playtesting, they created one of the most interesting (and painful) experiences in a video game to date.

On this level, however, the attachment is mostly due to projection or personification.  Wilson the Volley Ball isn't a great character, and neither was the Companion Cube.  However, this can be the catalyst of something greater.  Imagine what happens when characters - to which the player can already become attached, given the right circumstances - are given good writing and characterization.  You get things like Mass Effect and Half Life 2 (another Valve game).

Mass Effect especially I think is beginning to touch on the potential (and let me emphasize: potential) of games to develop characters in ways that film and literature may quite literally not be able to.  Mass Effect, no matter if you're one of those people that insist it isn't a proper RPG or not, is still a game in which the player has an almost unprecedented amount of interaction with its characters, not only in the game's environment but as part of its mechanics.  Because it pairs this with unusually strong attention to writing and voice acting, Mass Effect 2 has not only some of the most memorable characters I have personally found in a game, but some of the most memorable characters I have personally found in an anything.  Even Jacob Taylor, Kaiden Alenko's successor to the throne of Prince of Milquetoast (both royal blood descended from the first high prince, Carth Onasi), is a pretty cool guy.

Like almost all story-focused computer RPGs before it, Mass Effect adds a layer to the formula by making characters not merely passive forces in the world but elements of the gameplay itself, through its dialog trees.  I don't think anybody - including Bioware - has the idea of interactive conversations down quite right, but in theory, if not always in practice, dialog trees allow the player to learn about a character by observing their response to what he or she says.  In any passive medium, characterization is done by having characters respond to events and other characters.  The fact that video games can allow for characters to respond in direct response to its audience is unprecedented, and opens up avenues that were literally impossible before.

Now, Mass Effect's characters are largely static: they do not respond to minutiae in the player's own character because the player's own choices are still extremely narrow compared to real human interaction.  It would be impossible to write a character like that, much less design a game that could actually simulate a real interaction without, say, a holodeck.  However, all this does not deny the things it does bring to the table.  Because of the game's nature, and because of the quality of its writing and voice acting, Mass Effect 2 creates a sense of camaraderie with your crew that very little else outside of real life can evoke.  That it's entirely possible that nobody survive the suicide mission at the end of the game makes it very compelling.  Tali died on my first playthrough.  I didn't have Zaeed, and I sent Grunt back with the rest of the crew, so the math didn't work out for her, and in that game, her remains are now drifting somewhere in the distant reaches beyond the Omega 4 relay.  I almost immediately started another play-through to change her fate.

Of course, not all games can or should be an RPG-esque affair like Mass Effect.  Simply having the characters in the same world as the player with smart writing and good animation can make very memorable characters, as most of Valve's body of work has shown.  There are doubtless methods of characterization in a video game that literally nobody has thought of yet.

Another phenomenon that sets games apart from other mediums is that they can have their cake and eat it too.  Novels have hundreds of pages to develop their characters, but a good writer has to evoke things with prose that you can't really describe in text alone: things like mannerisms, nuances of tone, and mood.  Films have all the tools of cinematography, sound, and editing at their disposal, and a good actor and writer together can show things with ease that prose must approximate, but can never portray in exact detail.  Games can have as much space and time to develop its characters as a full length novel, yet at the same time, it can approach the detail and nuance of film.  As it stands, games don't have quite the level of detail as a live-action film, since like traditional animation, the sort of CG animation that can actually be rendered in real time is still an approximation.  The uncanny valley has yet to be completely crossed, but it's not a question of if technology will reach that level, it's a question of when.

None of this is to say that great game characters can't or haven't come from more traditional, film style methods of characterization.  One of the people that would make it on my own list of best characters I've personally found in a game is Yellow 13 from Ace Combat 04, a game that is almost entirely passive in how it develops its characters and story.  Elements of film (in the case of Ace Combat 04, anime) are still important to games, and I don't think that will or should change.  The challenge of storytelling and characterization in games has been and will continue to be how to apply everything we've learned about literature, plays, radio, and film to this new medium.  We already have the will to create, we only lack the knowledge of how.


Anyway, I've been playing a lot of Skyrim recently.  I'm a mage and loving it: this is not a game of wand-waving conjurers of cheap tricks.  Chiharu Kagayaki - Imperial born but very Nordic looking - is looking to touch the powers of the Aedra and Daedra themselves.  She's defeated one wielding the power of the Eye of Magnus, slain the harbinger wyrm Alduin, harnessed the power of the Elder Scrolls, and once got in a drinking contest with the Daedric prince of debauchery and ended up blacking out and waking up in a temple half-way across Skyrim to discover that she had left a trail of rather upset people in her wake.  Pretty much everyone's written about their experiences with Skyrim, what nordic crypts they've grinded through, what glitches they've encountered, so I'll spare you a detailed account of what the weather was like in Markarth today.  I will say this though: it took me a while to actually get into Skyrim.  Someone once said the game is soulless, and in a way, its true: you have to put something of yourself into the game to make it work.  You have to find your own way in the world, and without a clear sense of direction, it won't engage you in the same way.  Once you do get into your character though, and once you do start really getting to know the world, that's when it becomes the all-engrossing time-sink that people have been writing about.

Marisa Kirisame: Ordinary Human Magician.  だぜ。
I'm also playing Touhou now and then.  I picked up Mountain of Faith the other day.  I had forgotten how to defeat most of the spell cards (your opponents' attacks), but the only stage that really gave me trouble was stage 4: Momiji and Aya.  Holy crap.  It killed me.  But I got through it, and I was doing well otherwise...but then I accidentally quit the game.  I was not happy with myself, not at all.  I will 1cc that game eventually.  Just not anytime soon.

One game (if you can really call it a game) I mean to play but I still haven't is Katawa Shoujo.  It's a visual novel, meaning that it's more or less an illustrated choose-your-adventure sort of affair.  And it's a romance.  About girls with physical disabilities.  Set in Japan.  Written by writers organized on 4-chan.

Internet sure is an interesting place.

Now, anyone who is familiar with 4-chan, or even those who aren't, are sure to realize what an unimaginably awful and ludicrous idea this is.  How can this fail to be anything but insensitive and stupid?  Well, apparently, not only is it not either of those things, it's actually apparently really well written and compelling with a very positive central message about how people aren't defined by their physical bodies.  Whaddaya know, $chan isn't all bad after all.  Of course, I still have to play the game for myself and see if this isn't just all a grand justification, but I never turn down a chance to experience good writing, especially from such an unlikely source.  The fact that it's free and for mac also helps.

I have Xbox Live now, but I still haven't actually played anything on it: too many other things to do.  I'll have to be sure to make time for myself at college to play with my friends from ACS and stuff.

When Mass Effect 3 comes out, I'm planning on doing a let's-play series.  I don't think I'll get too many viewers, if any, but I think it'll be fun.  The game I currently consider my "canon" is my most recent one, with Fern Shepard.  I haven't really developed Fern Shepard as much as a character, since ME and ME2, for all their good qualities, actively discouraged real role-playing with their morality meter mechanic.  However, ME3 is introducing a new "reputation" system that will supposedly not penalize the player for making more nuanced decisions.  That, the fact that ME3 is apparently going to be focused more on what Shepard is personally going through during this great cataclysm, and the fact that I won't be worrying about how my decisions might have totally unpredictable consequences in future games, will lend itself to a lot more character creation, I think.  Perhaps if I can make Fern compelling, and if my commentary is insightful and funny, I'll have done something of worth.

I dunno though, if Garrus or Tali die or anything, I really don't know what I'll do.

Damn you Bioware.

Incidentally, who's this guy they keep calling Shepard in all the trailers?

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