Understanding Character in Video Games
Posted on: 15/07/2005
By Matthew Sakey
To a games scholar, Sega's Sonic The Hedgehog is a fascinating subject, both from the standpoint of character and from a perspective of what Sonic did to encourage wider acceptance of video games among traditionally non-player demographics. Sega set out to create a mascot who could compete with arch-rival Nintendo's Mario. Everything about Sonic was manufactured, custom-designed and tuned to create a character that could generate immediate emotional buy-in with gamers. Attempts to fabricate such a connection almost never work; beloved characters such as Mario need to get that way organically. And yet Sonic was an instant hit, due in no small part to the fact that the first few Sonic The Hedgehog titles were among the best 'platformers' - scrolling action games focused on speed and precision - ever produced. Had the gameplay been poor, the result would have been disastrous for Sega, which was struggling at the time to achieve recognition for its Mega Drive console. As it was, Sonic The Hedgehog catapulted the Mega Drive into mainstream consumption and sparked the most vicious war of attrition in the history of video games.
Sonic The Hedgehog
Whatever the particulars of his birth, Sonic The Hedgehog remains one of the great success stories of the video game era. People liked the stylized blue hedgehog, and they continue to like him today, years after his first appearance, because he is so easy to connect with. Heavily stylised though he may be, there's an 'everyman' (or 'everyhedgehog') quality to Sonic that makes playing the character something any type of gamer can relish. Arguably, there is no other game character - including Mario - that enjoys such universal affection. Sonic has personality: he is intense, impatient and aggressive; but he is also loyally committed to his friends in the Green Hill and loved by them. Indeed, most of Sonic's time is spent rescuing those friends from the spectacularly ill-conceived malefactions of Dr. Robotnik, later renamed Dr. Eggman in deference to his original Japanese incarnation. Robotnik himself, with his ridiculous contraptions and blusteringly charming evil is such an adorably incompetent villain that gamers treasure him almost as much as his speedy blue nemesis.
Non-gamers who still think of video games in terms of the paddle-driven blocks of Pong may be surprised to learn that characterisation has become such a major element of games. Likable, emotionally engaging characters such as Sonic speak volumes about how far the medium has moved since 1980 when the game Adventure emerged. Adventure represented a seminal moment in computer roleplaying. It was one of the first games to invite you to be someone else, to live their lives and share their destiny... but that "someone else", in this case, was nothing but a featureless yellow rectangle. To identify with something of such simplicity now is thought laughable. Game characters have become much more than a mechanism by which players access the game world - more than a mouse pointer with advanced graphics.
The chief goal of a game developer is to create the most intensely enjoyable and immersive experience possible. An ideal game envelops the player, drawing them so deeply into the digital reality of the game that they quite literally forget the game world is not their native environment. Character is an effective tool to help build that immersion. The rise of cinematic games employing video and live actors in the 1990s sparked a particular interest in character, and though video was quickly abandoned because of its inherent technical limitations in an interactive medium, many of the creative lessons learned from the period resonate today. Just as a room full of cardboard cutouts is less engaging than a room full of breathing people, a game world populated with magnetic, intriguing virtual personalities goes a long way toward making that world seem real. As games evolve, becoming increasingly compelling as a form of artistic expression, the medium is digesting lessons from other art forms and creating a new set of rules to define interactivity.
Thief: The Dark Project (c) Eidos Interactive 2004. All rights reserved.
One of the most compelling and fascinating characters yet seen in the medium was introduced to PC gamers in 1998 in Thief: The Dark Project by Looking Glass Studios. Thief takes place in a massive, nameless city where lumbering steam-powered technology walks hand in hand with evil magics and supernatural horrors. Its protagonist, Garrett, has been trained in an arcane technique that grants him superhuman stealth capabilities - even to the point of disappearing completely in moderate shadow. Having abandoned the strict credo of noninvolvement espoused by his former masters, Garrett is now a virtuoso pilferer who delights in stealing from the rich and giving to himself. He has essentially very few likable qualities - and yet gamers adore him. Sly, sarcastic, abusive, greedy, cruel, callous and disdainful, Garrett is also whip-smart, funny and ultimately decent. The complex nature, enigmatic past and uncertain future given him, combined with Thief's magisterial art direction, resulted in a protagonist with whom players identified so thoroughly that one reviewer declared "You must become Garrett - or die." A far cry indeed from the movable golden block of Adventure.
In many modern games the character still exists in the role of a cursor: the conventional channel through which the game world becomes the player's world. Computer roleplaying games (CRPGs) must deal with this particular challenge. CRPGs draw influence from their (non-video game) tabletop forebears, in which many people play 'in character': they adopt accents, behave differently and make decisions based not on what they would do, but on what their character would do. The tabletop experience is very much about becoming someone else, and while many video games encourage this, it is often with limited success. The foundation of video gaming is still one of achieving the high score, reaching the end and accomplishing the goal. The journey, in video games, is less important than the objective. This can make it difficult for players to act out a role and do what their character would do rather than pursue what their instincts tell them is the action that is most likely to get them ahead. It is a creative problem that has plagued game development for years.
The protagonist, however richly conceived, is ultimately a cipher for the player. The less we know about the character we play, the more possible it becomes for us to project our own personality onto them. Developers are reluctant to force a persona onto the player, but they do also want to accomplish their creative goals. The challenge of interactivity lies in encouraging players to take control while still experiencing the story that the game developers want to tell. Some narrative games accomplish this by writing in richly conceived secondary characters while keeping the protagonist - the character controlled by the player -as a tabula rasa. Half Life, one of the most popular game titles of the past decade, does this with exceptional grace. The player controls Gordon Freeman, a physicist trapped in the double nightmare scenario of triggering an extradimensional alien invasion on his first day of work at a secret research facility. The rich and varied array of secondary characters all exhibit unambiguous and distinct personalities, but Gordon himself never speaks. Aside from name, age and education, the player is told nothing else about their character - freeing everyone to play Gordon as they see fit. The story of Half Life happens around Gordon; his actions, successful or not, move the narrative forward; but in the end he is one small individual on a very large stage. The player, not the character, is the primary participant in the story.
There is no doubt that the foreseeable future of games lies with interactive narratives: stories in which character, setting, theme and plot all play a pivotal role. Some have argued that video games, as the world's first interactive medium, have a responsibility to focus upon that interactivity over traditional narrative building blocks. The truth, however, is that these building blocks have a place in interactive narratives just as they do in 'passive' ones. People like other people, and want to identify with them. It doesn't matter if the medium is interactive or not. A novel without characters, no matter how compelling the narrative, lacks a fundamental mechanism to bind the interest of readers. The same is true with narrative games. People want stories about things with which they can identify. They want to understand characters' challenges, sympathise with their sufferings and experience the journey with them until closure. Whether we identify with hedgehogs or space marines, the core of a good story is always the same: the element of character cannot be underestimated in any medium.
Sega, the Sega logo and Sonic The Hedgehog are registered trademarks of Sega Corporation. All rights reserved. © Sega Corporation 2005
Adventure is a trademark of Atari (Inc.) USA all rights reserved. © Atari (Inc.) USA
Thief: The Dark Project is a trademark of Eidos Interactive. All rights reserved. © Eidos Interactive 2005
Matthew Sakey is a widely published and outspoken scholar in the world of video games. Best known for his monthly Culture Clash column at the International Game Developers Association website (www.igda.org/columns/clash), Matthew has also written for Game Developer, Play Meter and Joker magazines, AOL, MSN and many others. He consults with universities, researchers and corporate clients interested in leveraging game technologies for learning, and produces research on the cultural impact of the video game phenomenon.comments powered by Disqus