Sign up for news

Leigh Alexander writes about the top 5 game characters of 2007. A lot of fine points in there, but there’s one that just flies in the face of reality, and things that do so have a tendency to inspire epileptic neural impulses in some unknown part of my brain that refuses to die no matter how much I might have to drink at the holiday party.

You is not such a great game character.

While Mass Effect does some interesting exploration into how the player’s role interacts with their character (such as how your chosen backstory intertwines with the rest of the game’s narrative), I’m talking about the Time-inspired, socially networked, voice chatting You of game characters.

You is an anonymous, homophobic, mysogynistic dickhead.

And not even a lovable one at that.

12 Responses to This is why we can’t have nice things.

  • James Wallis says:

    Yeah, that was either a year-old joke or a pretty dumb idea. And everyone knows the game character of the year is the Weighted Companion Cube, and I do mean that. Getting players to empathise with an inanimate object is impressive work.

  • Leigh says:

    Tsk, don’t be so hard on me. Toplists are not fun business, and since I have to do a few more, the cube will surely get its due! Fear not.

  • Borut says:

    Leigh – to be fair, everything else was spot on (well, I still have to play Eternal Sonata, but it’s good to give it props for doing what it does).

    As for the Weighted Companion Cube, to be honest, I think it was a little spoiled for me b/c I had read so much about it beforehand. The fact that it only appears in that one level (and the very end) was kind of weak for me – I was expecting it to show up again, at the very least. GLaDOS, however, is easily the funniest character I’ve come across in any medium in the last couple years.

  • Borut says:

    But Gordon Freeman is explicitly *no* character (or every character, if you want to get philosophical about it).

    The thing is, the player has absolutely no ability to input anything into Gordon Freeman’s character. Nothing they do will change or express anything about his/their character. Nor does the story of the Half Life games tell you much about him either. He is as bland a character as you can get. So I have a hard time classifiying him as “you”, being the player’s character.

    The Half-Life games show their strength in storytelling despite this though. They’ve been able to get at least some people to care about such an empty character simply by experiencing the same events he does – despite the fact that he has no discernable personality traits (some physical ones, that’s about it) and no discernable character arc. What has he learned after all the events of those games? At least, I have no insight into what that might be.

  • Nick says:

    Well, the faceless pink Spartan yelling obscenities is no less of a blank template for a character than Gordon Freeman. The fact that he is no character leaves lots of room for your personality to take effect.

    As a narrative in a videogame and not a ‘Make Your Own Adventure’ book should be, Half-Life gives players information through the events they partake in. You know everything Gordon Freeman knows about Black Mesa and City 17 because you essentially are him – yes, you roleplay as him, but you are in his shoes. Gordon Freeman is a much less bland character than _____ Shepard – I have never done any of the great things he did, I simply selected the text that says I did them.

    So, what I’m trying to say is that the strength videogames possess is interaction and not choice. You don’t choose to flip to page 43 if you want to explore the cave – you can do that in a book.

    There seems to be a general consensus that an action has no effect and is unimportant unless it is recorded in some way – if I remember ambushing an enemy patrol and taking them out one by one, the game doesn’t record it and it doesn’t have any impact on the ‘story’ of the game, but I just changed the way the sequence of events within the game took place.

    I ‘expressed my character’ when I threw a cinder block at a Combine guard and you expressed yours by not doing so. I expressed myself when I allowed my rebel squadmates to be disintegrated so I could survive the sprint to cover – you expressed yours when you tried to save every last one of them and were yourself disintegrated. Stories are a second hand record of events – games, interactions, are the events.

    Did I escape Black Mesa? Yes, yes I certainly did – and it was a hell of a ride. You shouldn’t be asking what Gordon Freeman was supposed to learn after all those events, what did you learn?

  • Borut says:

    Well, Kratos goes through a character arc in terms of the linearly presented story, even if I don’t learn anything playing as Kratos.

    In contrast, neither Gordon Freeman NOR I playing as Gordon Freeman, learn anything by the end of any of the Half life games.

    While I agree that experiencing those sequence of events is a powerful thing, what I’m saying is that we can aim higher in terms of character expression. In HL, you’re often pretty much forced to fight the Combine guards – choosing to throw a physics prop vs. shooting a small weapon vs. a heavy one to kill them is not a meaningful expression of a character’s personality, nor does it express the growth of a character by learning something meaningful.

  • andrew stern says:

    Nick, I think you were feeling some agency playing HL, but I agree with Borut, that HL doesn’t (nor do most games) give players much freedom to express themselves as their own self-defined characters. I.e., you have little means to differentiate yourself between being shy, cruel, depressed, confident, heartbroken, generous, dumb, selfish, brilliant, and so on. Traits that really define characters.

    (And, actually, it’s probably only local agency you’re experiencing, i.e. control of the details of the moment — but not global agency, since in an overall sense, you have little to no choice but to follow the mostly-linear plot of HL.)

  • Nick says:

    Right, I see where you’re coming from, and you can certainly classify that kind of control as player agency: something that can be experienced regardless or whether the game has a story. I’m not quite sure why that is being downplayed rather than further explored though.

    It’s just that I don’t see some of the desired results of having a player express their individuality by having choice. No good novel, game, or movie lets the reader/player/viewer make huge choices while experiencing them because they deliver a message, and have been hand crafted to deliver those messages. What you’re essentially describing is the direction that Will Wright has taken his games: letting the player play with a dollhouse. You could say that a lot of MMOs do this as well. The effect of a lot of this choice seems to be exactly what you described in your initial post, Borut; people being misogynistic dickheads. Like in the recent Yahtzee rant about Mass Effect, I bet more than a few players went through their adventure with a hideous looking space captain named “Titty Shepard”. They squander the attempt at giving them free choice in this way. Maybe this means that letting players fill in the blanks is a rather condescending approach to free choice.

    Now, don’t you think local agency is more powerful than global agency? With one you’re manipulating the game, with the other you’re manipulating the story, or what others think of you. Think about it for a second – when you ambush a patrol or do something that represents your personality, you know that you did that and you experience it, but because there is no corresponding simulation on-screen, other players don’t know explicitly what you did. Does that make the interaction less important, because it leaves no permanent imprint on the game world? I think it ultimately delivers more satisfaction than an action that changes the overall story but doesn’t involve any actual interaction. We’re drifting away from a ‘game’ now.

    Then keep in mind that this is all a very Western way of thinking; Keiji Inafune has said that he’s seen Japanese gamers eject GTA from their PS2’s after only minutes because they don’t know where to go. They don’t want to be ‘free’ in the game. We make all these decisions in our real lives, whether we’re selfish, dumb, or confident, but we end up expressing them by accident while playing a game.

    Freedom in a videogame means something different – you’re approaching the goals of virtual reality: having a fake second life. Maybe that’s why most people don’t consider Second Life an actual game; you can express yourself but there isn’t anything to actually do besides the mundane things that make up our real lives.

    There’s something to be said for these kind of games and where they can go, but it just seems that we want players to express themselves without asking ourselves “why”. Freedom always seems like the best choice, because the opposite of freedom is constraint. But without any constraint we have what amounts to play, not a game; something more akin to virtual masturbation than a learning experience, because it’s hard to learn anything new if you’re the teacher (Socrates may have disagreed…).

    Without rules, a Mount Doom to head towards or a Death Star to destroy, it leaves us with no context with which to express ourselves. If we actually change the story, we’re just writing our own story. People can go take a creative writing class for that. I think the closest thing to true free choice in a game are those “dollhouse” games and MMO’s, but they’re still so immature. You can choose what quests to go on, choose not to progress the story, do the main quests or attack other players. But you still don’t learn or really accomplish anything – in the end you’re just doing all of these things for a new pair of boots, and you can never actually win.

    Then again, to use another example from Lord of the Rings, if Frodo hadn’t had the choice whether to accept the ring as his burden or not, the choice to do so might not have had as much weight or meaning to it. You get that feeling from a lot of games, the feeling of being funneled. I’m just not sure, with all the solutions we’ve come up with, that we’re approaching this from the right frame of mind.

  • Borut says:

    Well, there’s a difference between player expression & player agency. Expression has no consequences for the player. Titty Shepard will save the galaxy regardless of the fact that if you named your kid that, you’d be lucky if they grew up to be a janitor.

    Player agency, on the other hand, is choice with an effect – like if naming your character Titty Shepard not just caused everyone to giggle upon meeting you, but also affected the characters that would join your party. Of course, if that were true, the player could inadvertently greatly handicap their enjoyment of the experience (by being given a choice without knowing the consequences).

    Nick, you’re totally right in that increasing global agency doesn’t necessarily remove that problem of people acting that way. But part of the reason players do that is because they know those choices are meangingless, and mock the game by choosing them. (As a tangential clarification, my original point was directed more towards multiplayer social games, but this just as interesting a breakdown of the same symptom in a different context).

    I also didn’t mean to imply that local agency, was necessarily less worthwhile overall – as you point out, those moments still have power because the player feels like they own the experience (even if the setting & limits on available choices have been very strictly defined by the developer). It’s also not necessarily more powerful. The moments in Mass Effect (or other Bioware games) where you are given huge, wide ranging choices, often moral dillemas, are some of the most powerful moments in those games. They also gain some power by contrast, by the fact that you don’t constantly have those choices in front of you.

    So if one wanted to decrease the likelihood or ability of the player to act like a dick (potentially reducing their own enjoyment of the game, or at the very least immersion in it), global agency is very useful, and necessary, tool. As with GTA, though, it’s a tool that can be applied in a bad way (or in a way that turns a lot of people off). Each of those elements – expression, local agency, global agency – has their uses in different situations to achieve different effects, but just relying on the first two won’t really get the player to explore their character. Nor will just blatantly relying on global agency either, but the judicious application of it combined with the others. Or so I boldly claim. :)