Mr Marston Is Not Who I Thought He Was. *No Spoilers*

How many times have you identified with a main character in a game?  

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
 
 Do You Know This Man?

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.
      
 How about this Man?

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.
16 Comments
17 Comments
Posted by ApolloJ85
How many times have you identified with a main character in a game?  

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
 
 Do You Know This Man?

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.
      
 How about this Man?

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.
Posted by Chronologist

I NEVER play myself in games... I would much rather make up a different role or dive into one than play what I already am. 
I guess that's why I really like games like Heavy Rain and Red dead where the characters are predefined, and I can then get into that world the way the writer wanted me to.. 
Don't get me wrong, I loved Mass effect and plenty of other RPG's, just not when playing as myself.

Posted by Kyreo

Sometimes games don't WANT you to play the role you think that you would in real like.

Posted by DystopiaX
@Kyreo said:
" Sometimes games don't WANT you to play the role you think that you would in real like. "
*life 
and yeah, I agree. I love open world games where you're not a blank slate just as much as I love open world games where you ARE a blank slate. you're trading a heightened sense of immersion (FO3, Oblivion), for a better story (GTA, RDR). Both games work well- I loved playing assholes in FO3, etc., but I think that the story in GTA IV and RDR are among the better ones in gaming.
Posted by DaemonicGrim
@DystopiaX said:
" @Kyreo said:
" Sometimes games don't WANT you to play the role you think that you would in real like. "
*life and yeah, I agree. I love open world games where you're not a blank slate just as much as I love open world games where you ARE a blank slate. you're trading a heightened sense of immersion (FO3, Oblivion), for a better story (GTA, RDR). Both games work well- I loved playing assholes in FO3, etc., but I think that the story in GTA IV and RDR are among the better ones in gaming. "
agreed, I normally (but not always) find that having less control of your characters personality lends itself to a better story. Admittedly Mass Effect and Heavy Rain both allow loads of individuality and have great story lines but these are rare finds too. After all, when watching a film or reading a book you don't have to love the character to love the story or be compelled to see it through to the end.
Posted by kelbear

I liked John Marston in the first act, but hated him after reaching the second act.
 
For the first part of the game John Marston was essentially a good guy. In the second he is party to some pretty fucked up stuff and does nothing to stop it. The story lost a lot of its momentum here and every mission left a bad taste in my mouth. Part of me didn't even want to keep playing, but I kept going in hopes that the 3rd act would get better.

Posted by ApolloJ85
@Kyreo:   
  I agree with that, but I feel RDR is conflicted in how it handles John Marston. While he has this great personality that is completely independent from the player, you are also encouraged to go about the world outside the main story in any manner you like. So while you may be playing John as a jerk outlaw or a shining example of chivalry, that part of his personality gets thrown away as soon as you engage the main plot. It's more than a little jarring. 

@DaemonicGrim:  
 That's true, but I think that games (RDR in particular) encourage a level of personal interaction with the characters that books and movies don't.
Posted by Ihmishylje

First of all: great post!
 
Secondly, yeah, probably the only thing that jarred with me in RDR was a scene where there was some horrible shit going on in the main storyline in Mexico and I (or Marson, whatever) could do nothing about it, even though in side quests, I would do the honorable thing. Now, I wouldn't mind Marston as a character being apathetic towards others than his loved ones, but  since he did alway save the damsel in distress in other situations, it made him seem quite flippant and his character progress inconsistent. While people in real life are sometimes inconsistent or irrational, in drama this always feels like poor writing. 
 
You've mentioned the reasons why, production-wise, it is impossible to do in a console RPG what a tabletop RPG can, which is a shame, because on the other hand video games can do all kinds of stuff the old pen & paper approach can't.
 
I guess where I stand is that, in a video game, I prefer the Mass Effect approach to cut scenes. Yes, it's limited (for the time being), but it still gives you, at least in theory, the chance to act a few different ways in order to build a certain kind of character archetype you prefer, even if the result is not you per se. I love RDR to bits, but I can't shake the feeling that this kind of writing belongs to a movie, rather than a game. 
 
ME2 is hopefully not be the best way to do narrative and character development in a game, but it's the best I've seen so far. I don't think a character needs to be a blank slate for you to RP the hell out of it and have a ME style choice system that develops the character and shapes the world around it.

Posted by Jaqen_HGhar

I think they handled the John Marston well. Yeah, he is a tough guy who threatens old con-men when they do not work fast enough, yet you can play as a regular goody two shoes. How does this fit? Well, Marston grew up as an outlaw. The kind of life he has had up to where you start to control him has been harsh. And the people he have been associated with the most have also been outlaws. How do you survive in a world like that? You act though. Heck, you become though. But Marston is also a nice guy. Even towards those he threaten with a bullet through the brain for being slow. He just doesn't know how to act in any other way. When it comes to women he is always respectful though, as a gentlemen should be. 
 
And he had to work together with some unsavory characters, because he wanted his wife and son back. If dealing with bad people would speed that up, then of course that is the fastest option. But yeah, it doesn't always fit, and sometimes it is jarring. But I think John Marston was the right way to do this. His character makes it fit no matter how you play. If you are a bastard, then it fits with how he usually acts. Like a bastard who tries to control himself so that he can get his wife and son back. If you play as a good character, you have Marston act like a bastard because that is the only way he knows how to act with the people he have to work with.  

Posted by ApolloJ85
@Durandir:   
By the time i finished the game, I felt a whole lot better about the character John Marston, mainly for the reasons you offer. I understood that he was terribly conflicted, had a crazy sense of morality, and was ultimately forced to do things that he did in order to redeem his family from the FBI. 
 
Like you said it didn't always fit with my actions vs the story, but it helped me to come to terms with who John really was, and stopped me from trying to impose my own morals on him outside the story missions.
Posted by Zereta

Then is it now weird, if I say, I related to John Marston a lot more than I related to Niko, or my Shepard. I cried and I still shed a tear sometimes when RDR ended, because of that particular thing that happens.

Posted by ApolloJ85
@Zereta:  
 
Not at all. I think John Marston is a character that earns a player's affection and sympathy far more than Niko or Shepard did. His quest for redemption is something that almost everyone will want to succeed, and the way his quest ended pulls directly at those emotional  ties to the character that you probably built up during the course of the game.  
 
The overall story is superb, I just think that the player is given a little too much leeway to bring John Marston out of his pre-defined character when not undertaking story missions.
Posted by Jaqen_HGhar
@ApolloJ85: Yeah. It was kinda weird. I too felt that I didn't "connect" fully with Mr. Marston until midways Mexico. Then I just suddenly "got it", to put it that way. The rest of the game just reinforced it. So while not perfect, this has been the best example I have seen of giving the player full freedom with a pre-character.  
I also think they made the character John Marston beautifully, and I really came to love him during the game. There aren't many characters that are written so well I think.
 
I don't think this will help other games with the same problem though, because you cannot make every character like Mr. Marston. So while it has been done pretty well once, I think this will still be a problem in games like these. I am glad you wrote this piece, because this is something I have only half thought about without really realizing what it was. So thank you for putting it in words for me.
Posted by Zereta
@ApolloJ85: Hmm, I guess you're right but even then, the single most powerful thing that Rockstar did was not let me take a whore. That's something that is very much, let's say encouraged, in the GTA games and I like that for this, they said NO and at least, kept Marston there in a good way. Also, I want to know how many people actually did bad stuff as John Marston playing the game. As someone who got so invested in the character, when it came to the point where I could do a lot of bad shit, I didn't want to. I just didn't have the heart to do that. 
Posted by TaliciaDragonsong

While I liked the overall story and John's whole redemption thingie, I have to disagree with it being executed properly.
He was being kicked around like a dog in the second act,  with no promise of anything.
I mean, get a clue man! You're being used!
 
What I mean to say, I felt like there was something missing, like he was too passive about it all.

Posted by ApolloJ85
@TaliciaDragonsong: 
 
I know what you're feeling, and I felt the same way in GTAIV, and to a lesser extent in RDR. 
 
But look at it this way: John had absolutely no way of finding his former gang members without the knowledge of the people he was dealing with. They could have been anywhere in Mexico (ignoring the fact that they were clearly somewhere in the game map), and John needed to bargain with someone with local knowledge to get information. He chose the two best people in the area who had the most connections and worked from there. 
 
In addition, he knew he was being screwed around and clearly didn't like the people he was dealing with either. He just didn't have many options.
Posted by TaliciaDragonsong
@ApolloJ85: 
 
I hear ya on that, thing is that it just felt way to drawn out.
Might just be me and having played a lot of open world games, but I keep thinking gimme something like Saint's Row 2, most of that always action packed or at least progressed the story.
 
John didn't have much choice, that's a given, but it also felt overdone, but that's the feeling I get with most openworld games with a story.
Just rubbed me the wrong way he got betrayed, as I expected it the moment I met the guy in question.