Characters are around us every day. They’re in what we see, what we do, what we hear and watch and read. Have you ever seen the commercials for the USA Network? Yeah, those are characters alright. Characters are how we identify with the story or event. We look at certain characters and think, “Hey, that could be me,” or, sometimes, “I wish that was me.”
Games have developed to the point where you can barely see past the deep and highly developed characters sometimes. Take a look at the latest Splinter Cell game, Conviction. This game is about a man searching for his daughter and anyone who tries to interfere with that will not live to see the next day. The story is full of moments of frustration, of anger, and of a strong desire for revenge. Sitting and watching Sam Fisher go through all these things, the player can feel sympathy and their own desire for revenge on behalf of the main character. Sam isn’t a young character either, as this is the fifth game he’s been the main protagonist. In fact, if you go back to the first game in the Splinter Cell series, there’s very little character development aside from playing a super black ops guy. As the series went on though, you began to wonder about this man you controlled and this last game with its serious story and amazing developments was just inevitable. The game of Splinter Cell: Conviction IS the character of Sam Fisher.
Characters can have a lasting impression on players. From my own experiences, I know that I’ll never forget Captain William Eisen for coming to the rescue on the TCS Mount St. Helens supercarrier when my little Durango-class BWS Intrepid was getting kicked around by the TCS Vesuvius and Admiral Tolwyn. I’ll never forget Winston “Vagabond” Chang and his incredible card playing skills or even Todd “Maniac” Marshall for his insane style of flying. In fact, the TCS Victory (“Better known as Tin Can Sally”) was a character in and of herself. Take a look at the Wing Commander CIC and the Wing Commander series of games for more.
Sometimes the characters don’t have to say a lot for you to even identify with them. Take a look at Chrono Trigger. The main character Chrono only ever says one word and I believe it was “Huh”. In fact, the dialogue in Chrono Trigger wasn’t the best or even particularly revealing of the characters’ natures. For some reason, I know that I kind of clicked with these youths and somehow belonged among them. I suppose this sentiment was common as Chrono Trigger is one of the most popular Japanese RPGs of all time.
I recall reading a book once where there was a secondary character that I was particularly fond of. When he clashed with the main character (as it was inevitable) my favorite secondary character was slain. I was crushed. Similar things happen in games today, like in Mass Effect where you’re forced to choose between Kaidan or Ashley in the later portion of the game and in Mass Effect 2 where if you weren’t thorough enough, you could lose all your friends and could even die because of a lack of support.
Characters help you develop an interest in the game. They pull you in and ask for your help. They give you a reason to come back and keep playing and they give you a sense that they don’t know what they’d do if you hadn’t come along. They become friends, enemies, companions to the end of the adventure. They might not like each other (see Miranda and Jack in Mass Effect 2 for a great example of this) but they’ll push past that if you ask them to (just tread lightly).
Games without a population just feel empty. Games without characters aren’t necessarily bad (see Solitaire or any number of casual games) but if you want a story, you need characters. If you want a GOOD story, you need deep characters. If you want a great game? You’ve got to have great characters.
Until next time, be a great character possessing great character.
P.S. “A good character is the best tombstone. Those who loved you, and were helped by you, will remember you when forget-me-nots are withered. Carve your name on hearts and not on marble.” – Charles Spurgeon
In part four of my little series here, I’m going to touch on the thing that really brings us to games: context. It’s the purpose behind the game, the message, the point, the topic, the issues at hand. It’s a major piece in why people play games (especially me).
When I pick up a game, a lot of things go through my mind. What’s it about? What’s the style of play? What’s it look like? Will this be fun? Wait, let’s go back to that first question: What’s it about? Yeah, pretty much every time I look at a game or book or movie or what-have-you, the primary question is something along the lines of “what’s the point of this?” and “what’s it about?”
Why (in part) does a Star Wars game sell so well? Because it’s about Star Wars. Well, maybe that’s a superficial explanation of it, but it serves pretty well. Let’s try a different approach with some of the games I’ve talked about here recently.
X-COM: What’s it about? It’s about defending Earth from invading aliens. The primary goal is to beat the aliens so that they leave us alone. A secondary goal is to justify your continued funding by the governments of the world so you can achieve the primary goal.
Civilization: What’s it about? It’s about building a civilization up from nothing to a world power. The primary goal is to be the best civilization with a secondary goal of achieving milestones (like researching technologies and constructing wonders of the world) before any other civilization does.
Lunar: Silver Star Harmony: What’s it about? It’s about the coming of age of Alex and his discoveries of the world as he attempts to become the next Dragonmaster (you could argue that it’s about Luna, but I’d have to explain why and it’s a massive spoiler, however old the game may be). The primary goal is to win the game with secondary goals being to achieve certain points in the storyline that progress it in chunks.
Take a look at games like Solitaire and Bejeweled and similar browser/casual games and you’ll note that they’re all about just winning the game. There’s never a point where you miss the fact that you’re just playing a game. A truly great game contributes to a sense of immersion via their context. Sure, powerful music, acts of heroism, and a sense of making progress contribute to having a good time, but without a context behind them, it’s just a game as opposed to an EXPERIENCE.
The difference between a game like Solitaire and a game like Mass Effect is really the experience. Solitaire is all about the cards and beating your last high score (I swear I’ll never beat a 735), but Mass Effect is all about taking charge of a bad situation, figuring out what’s going on, stepping up and dealing with it. Is it a game? Yeah. Does it feel like a game when you’re playing it? Sometimes. Would you rather play Solitaire or feel like you made a difference in the futuristic world of Mass Effect? I’d say yes. Swap out the latter game if you say no (for those of you who don’t like Mass Effect for whatever reasons) until you say yes.
To conclude this bit on context, I offer this: I believe the reason the context of a game is so important is because we need to feel like we’re spending our time wisely. Games are an investment in a wide world of entertainment. We are bombarded with a wide variety of choices and I know that I need to feel like I’m doing the right thing by picking one form of entertainment over another (even when none of the answers are more right than any other). Personally, I hate how much time I’ve spent on Solitaire and other context-less games, especially when I have so many games WITH context around.
Ask yourself if you feel like you’re spending your entertainment time wisely during the next game you play. I do it pretty frequently. I believe I might write more on this with something of a breakdown on what gives games context next time.
Until next time, keep on… um… contextualizing? *laughs*
A quick aside before I start this piece: I’ve recently read that a new X-COM game is in the works by 2K Games (the people who made Bioshock). Well, it’s actually called XCOM (no hyphen) and it’s going to be a first-person shooter, so obviously the fans of the original were and are a bit steamed that they’re not getting a dedicated remake of the original. I’m hoping for something cool, but I’m worried I won’t be able to play it due to the motion sickness I tend to get from first-person shooter style games. You can check out their minimal site promoting the game here and the article I read regarding this is here.
Now, the thing that keeps me coming back to games on top of great music and heroism: a sense of progress.
Most games, if not all, give the player a sense that they’re making progress somehow. In a first-person shooter, your progress is typically measured by the number of levels or zones you’ve completed (or the fact that every area behind you is devoid of enemies) and sometimes by the development of a story. In a role-playing game, your progress is typically measured by the progression of the story, but also by the levels/skills/equipment gained by your character or party. In puzzle games, the puzzles get harder to complete. The list goes on. Without this sense of moving towards something, I know that I get very frustrated. Personally I find certain games to be very pointless, but allow me to explain this particular perspective.
When I perceive a game as “pointless” or “a waste of time”, I’m typically referring to the lack of a story or some sort of measurable progress. Solitaire is a great example of an entry into the “pointless” category. Likewise with a lot of casual/browser games like Bejeweled and so forth. Yeah, I supposed the game sometimes gets more difficult in a fashion or deeper in some way, but how does Bejeweled compare to say Mass Effect or Bioshock or Wing Commander? Well, partly, it doesn’t, but as an expenditure of time, I’d rather spend my time experiencing the full story of Mass Effect as opposed to wasting hours trying to beat my top score of 735 in Solitaire (yeah, I can’t seem to do it). I’m not saying I DON’T waste time playing Solitaire (it keeps me busy while I chat online or watch streaming television programs), but I’d rather spend my time in a more productive fashion (if playing a game can be called “productive”).
Making progress is an everyday thing that kind of occurred to me earlier today while pondering what else I could talk about in this segment. I mean, I measure the progress of reading a book by how much is left to read and how much I’ve already read. I measure the progress of eating food by how much food is left to eat and how full I feel. I measure the progress on this article by seeing if I feel like I’ve said all I want to say at that time (I reserve the right to bounce around and add and edit). So it’s only natural that a very obvious sense of progress is applied to our forms of entertainment.
I really do believe in the “to each their own” perspective with video games (among other things). By that, I mean that everyone has a different preference for gameplay and in styles of progress it’s no different. I prefer having a clearly defined personal progression (levels, experience, skills, so on) and I look forward to character development and storyline progression. I have friends that don’t care so much for the story as for the number of kills they can rack up before it’s time to quit. I have other friends that appreciate the leveling mechanic, but could take it or leave it because they just want to have a good time. However you play it, every game needs some sort of satisfying progression mechanic to make the player feel like he’s doing well or accomplishing something with his time (and money). I know that earlier today I felt great satisfaction reaching level 8 in D&D Online on my new favorite character and that I’m doing pretty well fending off the alien invaders in X-COM Apocalypse when I played on Saturday by how I’ve been aggressively intercepting UFOs before they have a chance to drop their troops in the city. We all want to be successful and an obvious marker of that is a sense of progress.
Of course, you get the occasional spanner in the works there. By that, I’m referring to Wing Commander. The creators put a winning story and a losing story into the game. If you lose a mission, it’s not the end of the world, but you’re put on a slightly different path for a bit. If you lose more than one mission, well, you’ll probably see some cutscenes I’ve never seen except as movie files on the net. This is a type of progress and some people intentionally fail these missions to see the movies for themselves. It’s something they implemented in all five of the primary Wing Commander games (don’t recall if they did it for the expansions, but they probably did). The issue with this winning track/losing track thing is that the game takes a lot of extra development and most developers would rather spend time on ONE story rather than on WINNING STORY vs. LOSING STORY. More’s the pity because that adds a level of complexity to the progression mechanic. In the end though, I can easily say that I get way more satisfaction stopping all the bioweapons in Locanda and being able to save Flint’s home than being forced to protect the evacuation of the system. For more on this story, I’d recommend looking up Wing Commander III: The Heart of the Tiger. I also recommend visiting the game guides for the Wing Commander series because you can actually see the differences in the missions when you win versus lose. Oh, and for more Wing Commander goodness, I recommend my browser homepage.
A great game that displays all three of the components I’ve discussed thus far (Music, Heroism, Progress) is Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. In this game you have the epic Star Wars music to back you up, you have incredible moments of heroism and places where you can be that guy or gal who saves the day, and several markers of progress in the levels of your characters, the number of locations you have left to clear out (or the number of places you have cleared), and the story where you can go light side or dark side. It’s a great example of a quality experience, at least according to my own metric that I’m building here. There are other games that have more varied reasons within my current structure (Final Fantasy Tactics, Unreal Tournament, Lunar: Silver Star Harmony, etc) but I’m not going to go through all of them right now. Besides, I think I might have another couple of things to add to my What makes a great game? series.
Until next time, keep moving forward (even if it’s the losing track)!