Are Video Game Characters Perfect?

Alan Wake.   Issac Clarke.   Nathan Drake.   What do these three characters have in common?   They are ordinary guys that are thrust into crazy situations in their games, crazy situations that they just happen to luck through time and time again.   They aren’t the only ones; dozens of video game characters, plenty of which are portrayed as average people who are thrown into a crazy predicament, people who seem to have a divine power watching over their every move.   They can’t die, at least not permanently.   They never fail to accomplish their goals.   They always win (by the end of the game/series).

Games are rather unique entertainment in that they allow the person playing them to manipulate things as they choose.   Unlike movies, television and books which have no interactivity, video games are entirely comprised of this interactivity.   Because of this, games have a bit of a different agenda.   They can’t just tell a story; they have to also be fun and challenging to play.  

For a lot of games, part of this challenge comes from the risk of dying and losing some of your progress, a holdover from the days of arcades and developers wanting as many quarters out of you as they could possibly get.   No matter how many times you die, at least in nearly every modern game, you get to come back within a few minutes of your death to try again.   It doesn’t make sense but if the game were to just end when you died, no one would ever have fun with it.   The Prince of Persia: Sands of Time excuse tends to work best, where the whole game is portrayed as someone recounting their story and saying “No, that isn’t how it went,” if the player happened die.   This is the exception, not the rule.   Most games just assume the player can suspend their disbelief and fill in the blanks themselves.   True failure is something that is never allowed in video games. 
 
L.A. Noire
is a game that came along and tried to change some of that.   Here was a game that allowed players to fail, at least in some aspects of the game, but still continue.   Players can miss key evidence, lose suspects during a chase, and even arrest the wrong person for a crime, yet the game will still continue onward.   Sure, the overall story of the game doesn’t change, just some small minutiae here and there, but it is a step in the right direction.   The characters are that much more believable because the game will let them fail, just like real life detectives that probably make mistakes every day. 
 
Failure in video games is a tricky beast, one I’m not quite convinced that can be solved.   On one end of the spectrum we have games with Hardcore modes like Diablo II and Dead Space 2 that end your game with one death, as if the character was truly real.   These modes tend to only be for masochists and achievement hunter.   On the other, we have the 2008 Prince of Persia where any death through combat or a misstep is immediately corrected by Elika’s magic.  This stripped the game of a lot of its momentum because there was never any penalty for making a mistake.   Until an acceptable middle ground can be found, we will continue to have game protagonists that are essentially godlike super soldiers who can never die or make a mistake, forever making us feel like inept human beings in comparison.

19 Comments
19 Comments
Posted by wemibelec90

Alan Wake.   Issac Clarke.   Nathan Drake.   What do these three characters have in common?   They are ordinary guys that are thrust into crazy situations in their games, crazy situations that they just happen to luck through time and time again.   They aren’t the only ones; dozens of video game characters, plenty of which are portrayed as average people who are thrown into a crazy predicament, people who seem to have a divine power watching over their every move.   They can’t die, at least not permanently.   They never fail to accomplish their goals.   They always win (by the end of the game/series).

Games are rather unique entertainment in that they allow the person playing them to manipulate things as they choose.   Unlike movies, television and books which have no interactivity, video games are entirely comprised of this interactivity.   Because of this, games have a bit of a different agenda.   They can’t just tell a story; they have to also be fun and challenging to play.  

For a lot of games, part of this challenge comes from the risk of dying and losing some of your progress, a holdover from the days of arcades and developers wanting as many quarters out of you as they could possibly get.   No matter how many times you die, at least in nearly every modern game, you get to come back within a few minutes of your death to try again.   It doesn’t make sense but if the game were to just end when you died, no one would ever have fun with it.   The Prince of Persia: Sands of Time excuse tends to work best, where the whole game is portrayed as someone recounting their story and saying “No, that isn’t how it went,” if the player happened die.   This is the exception, not the rule.   Most games just assume the player can suspend their disbelief and fill in the blanks themselves.   True failure is something that is never allowed in video games. 
 
L.A. Noire
is a game that came along and tried to change some of that.   Here was a game that allowed players to fail, at least in some aspects of the game, but still continue.   Players can miss key evidence, lose suspects during a chase, and even arrest the wrong person for a crime, yet the game will still continue onward.   Sure, the overall story of the game doesn’t change, just some small minutiae here and there, but it is a step in the right direction.   The characters are that much more believable because the game will let them fail, just like real life detectives that probably make mistakes every day. 
 
Failure in video games is a tricky beast, one I’m not quite convinced that can be solved.   On one end of the spectrum we have games with Hardcore modes like Diablo II and Dead Space 2 that end your game with one death, as if the character was truly real.   These modes tend to only be for masochists and achievement hunter.   On the other, we have the 2008 Prince of Persia where any death through combat or a misstep is immediately corrected by Elika’s magic.  This stripped the game of a lot of its momentum because there was never any penalty for making a mistake.   Until an acceptable middle ground can be found, we will continue to have game protagonists that are essentially godlike super soldiers who can never die or make a mistake, forever making us feel like inept human beings in comparison.

Online
Posted by TheDudeOfGaming

@wemibelec90 said:

It doesn’t make sense but if the game were to just end when you died, no one would ever have fun with it.

I see you've never played Diablo II on hardcore. Although you are right, it was more likely for me to scream at my PC than to have fun.

Also, you're kind of stating the obvious here duder.

Edited by satansmagichat

L.A. Noire only let you arrest the wrong people when it was convenient for the story. In those situations, it was literally IMPOSSIBLE to arrest the correct person. LA Noire is not the first game to do what you are describing, either. See Heavy Rain or the indie developed Passage. These games are created around the concept of player choice as a key game mechanic.

Posted by Animasta

You can fail in Persona 4, multiple times. you can fail in Dead Rising and Dead Rising 2; I know there's at least a few more, though I can't think of em now.

Posted by Pezen

Taking our own failures into account of how to view the character is a bit strange to me. Because the story told is not about me dying, it's about the character prevailing over forces of evil. The fact that the character can die is only to make me feel the characters struggle, otherwise we're having an interactive story. Which brings me to Heavy Rain. There's a game, better so than La Noire, that let you fail but still succeed at making the story move forward. But at the same time, aside from how you might have wanted the game to play out, it never felt like my character was in any immediate danger, unlike Alan when chased by a ton of shadows in the forest and you don't have batteries left. While my "fear" at that time is me not wanting Alan to perish because I would have to redo that section, the sensation still mingles with the atmosphere and it feels like Alan is trying to escape danger.

But aside from failure, "perfect" would imply more than just aversion to dying. And I think a lot of modern video game characters come with some amount of built in flaws, otherwise we would view them as cartoony. It's the reason Mario could never be in a serious game, aside from style wise he has no depth.

Posted by wemibelec90
@satansmagichat
I knew I would forget something.  Heavy Rain is another fantastic example of a game that lets you continue the story with the death of a character. 
 

@Laketown: 
The difference with Persona 4 and Dead Rising 1/2 is that the story essentially ends when you fail.  Persona 4 resets to a previous point in time and Dead Rising refuses to let you continue the story if you miss a story mission.
Online
Posted by TaliciaDragonsong

I agree, lots of characters seem so inhuman, then factor in stuff like Prince of Persia had and yeah, you're invincible and dead is just a annoying cutscene that won't go away.
 
Its hard to balance a character two ways...ingame and then story wise.
I mean, how many times did we not clear an entire building's worth of goons and a big ass boss with it, just to have our hero/heroine get knocked silly by the ultimate story bad guy? O suddenly jumped by 5 dudes and drugged? I don't much care if it drags the story along but there are times where it just feels lazy...
 
First you take out half an army, then 5 dudes will give you a hard time because....well because the developer thought they should for no real reason but to slow the game down.

Posted by wemibelec90
@TaliciaDragonsong
It's always silly to see a video game character go from unstoppable to hindered by the tiniest thing (at least in the scope of the rest of the game).  Things like Nathan Drake's gut wound slowing him down more than any of the dozens of bullets he takes during the course of the game or the ending of Red Dead Redemption make me laugh at how ridiculously things suddenly change.  It's hard to make your character seem like he/she is in trouble when they are practically unkillable when controlled by the player.
Online
Posted by Animasta

@wemibelec90 said:

@satansmagichat:
I knew I would forget something. Heavy Rain is another fantastic example of a game that lets you continue the story with the death of a character.


@Laketown: The difference with Persona 4 and Dead Rising 1/2 is that the story essentially ends when you fail. Persona 4 resets to a previous point in time and Dead Rising refuses to let you continue the story if you miss a story mission.

I meant, in Persona 4, the whole bad/good/true ending thing. the bad ending is straight up a failure

Posted by wemibelec90
@Laketown: I meant, in Persona 4, the whole bad/good/true ending thing. the bad ending is straight up a failure

Ah, right, that makes more sense.  That isn't the best example of the concept but it definitely fits.
Online
Posted by guiseppe

If they were, there wouldn't be much of a game surrounding them.

Edited by Doctorchimp

@wemibelec90: What exactly are you criticizing?

Writers and developers want to tell their story. So you can see the end of it and get a whole experience. If games were to be set up like you asked them, that would just amount to having a multiple of endings and different paths that most would never see. They would go through it once the way they want and move on. And all the hard work they put into the other areas are never even looked at or enjoyed as oppose to putting all the work into something every player is going to see.

Work can be measured, and games aren't magical just because you can move your guy around. There are still only a finite amount of resources and people to spend on it.

Why would you want true failure? To erase the countless hours you spent trying to get a satisfying end to make you start over?

Or would you have a voice-over pop up when you die that said "And since our hero fell off the cliff, the evil man took control of the galaxy"

Also the average guy coming out on top in spite of the odds, is almost every story ever told.

Posted by EpicBenjamin

@Doctorchimp said:

Or would you have a voice-over pop up when you die that said "And since our hero fell off the cliff, the evil man took control of the galaxy"

Yes.

Posted by wemibelec90
@Doctorchimp
Not really criticizing anything, just bringing up a point.  Got to thinking about how lucky video game characters are and just wanted to write something about it.
Online
Posted by Gamer_152

The way I see it, most video game characters may be ridiculously good in combat situations but that doesn't make them perfect human beings. Heck, as long as they take damage, make misteps throughout the game, etc. they're not even quite perfect at combat. Personally though, I don't think L.A. Noire making failure impossible in a game is "a step in the right direction" and I have little interest in the idea of games saying you can't fail. It's just not worth the narrative-gameplay trade-off by a long shot to make a game without the fundamental concept of flat-out losing in it. Of course that doesn't mean you can't come up with story justifications for the player being reset in certain circumstances.

Moderator
Posted by SeriouslyNow

@EpicBenjamin said:

@Doctorchimp said:

Or would you have a voice-over pop up when you die that said "And since our hero fell off the cliff, the evil man took control of the galaxy"

Yes.

Why the fuck not. I miss Sierra Adventure style quips when you fuck up.

Posted by TheVeteran13

I don't know about perfect but Nathan Drake is a dreamboat

Posted by Makoto_Mizuhara_Sakamoto

@SeriouslyNow said:

@EpicBenjamin said:

@Doctorchimp said:

Or would you have a voice-over pop up when you die that said "And since our hero fell off the cliff, the evil man took control of the galaxy"

Yes.

Why the fuck not. I miss Sierra Adventure style quips when you fuck up.

Or what about the ability to hold your breath underwater for eight minutes? Or seeing things that have been killed (and by you) multiple times before, coming back again and again? What about stuff like that?

Posted by Sinclose

'Perfect characters' is a bit of a strong term, IMO.

They might be terrific at combat, and sometimes that despite the fact they're not really trained for it(like Isaac Clarke and Gordon Freeman) but essentially these characters are fulfilling the role of a character who's of a 'good' moral alignment winning against all odds. The reason why they could be deemed 'godlike' is because you're personally fighting all the battles they come across - they might not stumble, but that's because they're basically your avatar within the game, you can't affect their combat prowess without affecting the gameplay. Some games do this, but it's pretty normal most don't - devs choose not to hinder the player because it gets in the way of the gameplay style they're aiming for.

Even then, flaws in video game characters reside mainly in their personality, and some games cleverly translate this. For example, Drake might be a supersoldier in gameplay, but the way he stumbles when he walks on uneven terrain, the way he quips to calm his nerves in the impossible situations he lands himself into and the fact that he is worried for his life in them don't really give the impression you're controlling a generic static 'one man army'.

There are games that can make you fail horribly and, as you may guess, they tend to be quite harsh on the consequences of what you do. These might be exceptions rather than the rule, but given the gameplay objectives of most games it is difficult to reverse that, and I believe understandably so.