Sunday, 3 July 2011

Speech Check

Today I'm going to talk about game protagonists, the words that come out of their cake holes, and what a tricky bastard that can be to get right. Game protagonists differ hugely from any other medium since they act as a vessel for the player, but simultaneously must drive the plot forward. They must be given choices, but also focus to keep a story moving. It's the fundamental restriction of giving the player a place in the world, but without the tools to fully make them a part of it. It's a constant power struggle, but it also allows wildly different approaches for different games, just part of what makes gaming so great in the first place.

There's always going to be a problem when you try to give freedom in a limited system. You can exert control on the character's mechanical actions to greater and greater degrees, but what about their intellectual ones? You don't want your character open his mouth and saying something completely different that what you'd want, but at the same time it's hardly ideal for them to not interact with the world at all. From what I've seen, there are more or less four different approaches you can take: The silent type, the menu speaker, the 'feeling' guy, and the Batman.

The first, the silent type, is obviously enough, a character who never says anything, a la Half life, Bioshock, Zelda and the like. These are more common in first person games, which will more often place an emphasis on immersion. The character is silent because the player is, and the player will generally have a tighter reign on the character's actions. The player can't speak to the game (if they're reasonably sane anyway), so the character doesn't, to keep the player more directly tied to their character. The biggest advantage here is that it's the easiest way of making the player feel like they belong to the world. There's no character speaking to remind you it's not you walking around that hilly countryside/mountain made of your enemies' corpses. The disadvantages are that it's hard to make the player feel like they have an impact on that world. The player can seem unassertive, a follower, and whilst that can make some interesting situations in its own right (see: Bioshock), it becomes less realistic when the player is supposed to be leading the charge to save the world or whatever.

Gordon Freeman doesn't need any sissy words though.
He lets the crowbar do the talking.
The second, the menu speaker, is the character who has all his conversations like he's talking to the teller at macdonalds: Standing silently in front of them as he muses his preset choices from a menu. Fallout, Dragon age: origins and other Rpgs are the ones that most often do this. The advantage here is that player choice can become a lot more meaningful. If you have a list of responses each time one is asked of you, you can usually find something approximating what you'd like to say, and your choices become much more important as you feel like you're able to respond to the world better. The principle disadvantage here is pacing. Every time you want to respond, you have to spend 20-30 seconds reading each response, then weigh up which one you want to say, all the while your conversation partner stands there in awkward silence. Choices in this manner carry no urgency, or if they did, they'd be immensely frustrating since you still need time to find exactly what you'd like to say, when realistically you would do that in half a second.

The third is the 'feeling' guy. It's hard to describe this convention, I'll be honest, but basically, you tell him/her how they're feeling, and they interpret that in whatever funny way they want and run with it. This is seen in games like Heavy rain, Mass effect, Dragon age 2, L.A. Noire and the like. Of all the possible choices, this is trickiest by far. The advantage over the menu guy is they can streamline conversations significantly. With a few key words to guide the characters can have much greater flow, whilst still allowing the player to make choices. The disadvantage here is having the character satisfactorily respond how they'd like with a couple of words to guide them. It's vague and messy, and it can often feel like the character is slipping out of your control if it goes wrong, leading to a jarring experience.

The final type is the Batman. Everyone knows Batman, he's a predefined character. Just because you're playing as Batman in Arkham Asylum, it doesn't mean you can just go killing goons or teaming up with the Joker. That's not what Batman does. Batman says what he wants, does what he wants, and you're along for the ride. Now this negates a lot of what makes games unique, with player choice, but it's not inherently a bad thing. The main advantage here is extreme focus. The game can go in a singular direction, guided by the unchangeable protagonist, which results in a tightly crafted experience. You also don't get the jarring effect of the feeling guy, since you knew you were never really this guy to begin with. It does mean however, that the story is completely out of your hands. If you don't like the main character's choices this can be even more problematic, since there's nothing you can do to change them. On the other hand, you can be Batman. Batman knows best, don't question him. A lot of other games do this, like Metal gear solid, but they don't have batman, so they're hardly worth mentioning.

Pictured: Batman
People surprised: No one.
Which is the best? Well, there's no real best, to give as vague an answer that I can get away with. What I will say though, is it's of utmost importance to know what's best for the game. Grand theft auto has the Batman, and frankly that makes no sense, since the gameplay itself offers so much freedom. Niko from GTA 4 has his soliloquy about the horrors of war, and twenty seconds later I'm making him drive over old ladies on the street. On the flipside, our nameless, faceless goon from Call of duty never says a word, but he doesn't have the freedom to make use of that. He's a man on a rollercoaster, with duct tape on his mouth.
It's also important to keep in mind how it'll affect the tone of the game. Bioshock's main character never speaks, but aside from eventually being explained in universe (which is a great subversion), it also allows the meta twist to have that much more resonance, since it involves more directly manipulating the player. It's happening to you, not the character. It's hard to understate the importance of that, since with any other system it would fall short. And on the other side of things, without having the Batman, we'd never have subtle nuanced characters like John Marsten; no redemptive tales or mysterious backstories. We need different characters for different games, and whilst none of these systems are perfect, all of them can suit different needs depending on their importance.

Perhaps there'll be more involved input for conversations in the future (new school text adventures perhaps?), or maybe we'll see a fusion of the above. Or maybe something completely different. The main thing is that there'll always be room for different methods, since they have wildly different results.

And you can always be Batman.

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