By ApolloJ85 17 Comments
Did you find yourself personally invested in GTAIV's story because you felt a great empathy with Niko Bellic, or did you immerse yourself in the world of Mass Effect through your personal stamp on Commander Shepard?
In light of my recent experiences with the lead character of Read Dead Redemption, John Marston, I've started to think about how hard it can be to create a character with a pre-defined history and personality that the player can really identify with. For example, I play John Marston as a good guy, as someone who will help people out, but still allow people to be responsible for their own actions. This is partly because of who I am as a person, and who I perceived him to be - a former outlaw looking for redemption. When he then starts trash talking people on the street, or starts associating himself with people who I wouldn't personally give the time of day to, it jars me out of my little fantasy and reminds me that I am in fact playing as a character with a personality other than what I thought it was. No matter how many good deeds I do, John Marston will always be defined by the path the writer has set for him. He will always remain conflicted between the actions that I choose for him to undertake and the actions I am required to undertake. Sure, I could just spend my entire time hunting animals and gambling, but that would deprive me of what I hope to be a fantastic story.
On the other hand, playing as a "blank-slate" character in games like Mass Effect or Fallout 3, I can define exactly how my character will interact with the world around them. They are a true extension of my personality. There may be an overarching story I am required to follow if I ever want to finish the game, but my character does what I want them to do, and has no personality outside my own. I can truly immerse myself in the game experience because it allows me to assume the role of the main character. At the same time, I little bit of excitement is lost, as I already know what the character will do in any given situation. The unpredictability in character interaction, and much of the drive in the storyline, is then transferred to the NPCs the game is populated with. No bad thing, but sometimes my interactions with those NPCs can feel quite shallow because game design limits the range of responses they have. Sometimes my intent results in something I didn't intend, because the game cannot account for the infinite ways in which any player can approach one encounter. I realise that MMOs solve this player interaction problem by introducing other humans into the game, but they do that at the cost of the story.
I guess I don't really know what's better. While I love to put my own stamp on the main character, I usually find characters such as John Marston and Niko Bellic quite compelling. I can identify with them and be alienated by them at the same time, which is something that happens a lot in real life. The scripted nature of those games also provides the potential of a tight, compelling storyline that blank-slate character driven games cannot.
The problem occurs when I am alienated by my character, as any immersion I had previously built up is then broken by the realisation that I am only playing as a character in a game. Or even worse, I end up disliking the main character (Niko Bellic, I'm looking at you), and eventually stop playing because I don't want to take actions that I disagree with.
Is there a solution? Probably not, and if there is it will probably involve advanced AI, and eventually our death to machines.