Games That Got Character
So the focus of this blog is on the sense of ownership created from the characterisation of three playable protagonists in some old and new(er) games. The aim of this article is to look at these examples and compare the different experiences they might bring. How do players react to these different styles of characterisation? Which format works best? What is the relationship between the player and character? These are the questions I’m going to look at. Generally this blog will act as the beginning of these thoughts and is something I would like to return to in the future.
I’m going to write assuming that you don’t know the examples that I am using but if you do find a lack of information in my summaries, I direct you to Wikipedia – an extremely handy tool.
Tidus from Final Fantasy X
Final Fantasy is a huge franchise that began in 1987 centring around a series of iconic RPGs that have been primarily released on Sony Playstation products. Each game introduces a completely new narrative and set of characters so each game stands individually (bar some exceptions). Final Fantasy X (FFX) was released in 2001 on the PS2 and heralded a series of ‘firsts’ for game developers, Square (now Square Enix).
Tidus, a once famous sports player, is the main character in FFX and the game follows his mission to destroy Sin, a massive creature who displaced him from his home world at the beginning of the game. On his journey he meets a variety of characters who have similar ambitions and together they try to uncover the mysteries surrounding Sin.
FFX was the first in the Final Fantasy series to introduce voice acting amongst all of its main characters – this includes the central protagonist, Tidus. Tidus is an entirely ‘given character’ in that the designers chose his look, voice, movements etc. As a player we are not able to customize him except for his name which doesn’t have any significant impact on the narrative or gameplay. There is nothing particularly different about this arrangement, a lot of games have one playable character but I have chosen Tidus because, for me, he demonstrates an interesting experience of gaming.
I found Tidus a bit whiny and annoying, I think he looks quite silly and just generally didn’t like him. This is quite a judgemental and personal objection to this character but it does emphasise my point. Essentially I didn’t play FFX so Tidus could do well, I played to find out what happens and to drive the narrative forward – I had no real attachment to Tidus at all. I played in spite of my character not for or with my character. This should become a bit clearer later on.
Link from The Legend of Zelda Series
Legend of Zelda is another franchise that began in the mid-late 80s and centres around a series of action-adventure games. The Legend of Zelda is a Nintendo based series and always contains at least one of the following characters: Link, Zelda or Ganondorf.
Although the narrative of each game differs, the story will often involve an epic quest for the protagonist, and playable character, Link. His mission is usually to save Princess Zelda who has been taken by the evil Gannondorf, a character Link will often battle towards the end of the game. This story will often be set in the fictional world of Hyrule and include the triforce, a sacred relic that contains godlike power.
Throughout the series Link’s image has been roughly the same: green tunic, boots, blonde hair, sword and shield etc. – like Tidus, Link is a ‘given character’. One of the iconic features of Link is that he never speaks (in Wind Waker Link does say some words but never a full sentence); we never get to see what Link’s response to the characters around him truly is. His personality must be picked up from what we imagine he is saying or thinking. This is an important point. Because we never know what the character thinks the player can ‘throw’ their own opinions into his head. For example, in Ocarina of Time there is an owl called Kaepora Gaebora that reappears throughout your journey. Gaebora is a character that offers help and advice to Link but after playing the game twice (or more) this owl starts to do your head in as he just wastes your time. Due to Link’s lack of response and neutral facial expressions I assumed he thought the same as me. I projected my thoughts onto him. For me, this creates a bit of a blur between whether Link is me or not. I almost play Legend of Zelda as Link, as if he is the Hyrule incarnation of me. That can sound a little odd out of the context of the game but within the experience of the game I feel there is more truth to this idea.
And the final character:
Commander Shepherd from The Mass Effect Trilogy
The Mass Effect Trilogy is the newest series being reviewed here, beginning in 2007 and ending in 2012 (although there are many credible rumours that the series will continue). Company BioWare has released the games on a variety of consoles but they were originally designed for the Xbox 360. Unlike Zelda or Final Fantasy, each Mass Effect game (so far) has been a sequel to the previous. Decisions the player makes in the first role-playing/third person shooter game will follow them right to the end.
The Mass Effect universe is set in 2183, several years after the human race has discovered ancient (but more advanced) technology that allows them to explore the galaxy. In this setting we play Commander Shepherd, a character who is on a mission to save the galaxy from the Reapers – a mechanical race of intelligent beings hell-bent on resetting the organic life cycle ie. destroying everything.
With Mass Effect you can choose and design your protagonist with the options of a male or female* lead by the name, Commander Shepherd. You can also change the facial appearance of your character changing their eye colour, skin tone, hair length, style etc. Nevertheless there are limitations on what the player can customize, perhaps most notably, their voice, which will always be played by the default male or female actor. However, we are given control over Shepherd’s personality in the dialogue options we are given. For example early on in the games, when we reach a human settlement that has been attacked, one character explains how many enemies are ahead: “Looks like a dozen. Maybe more.” We, the player, are given the following options to respond “Can I help?”, “What’s going on?” or “Only a dozen?” There are obvious distinctions between the options, with the first being the ‘good’, helpful option, the second as the neutral and the last as the ‘bad’, rebellious option. This sums up the paragon-renegade system that runs throughout the Mass Effect games. Loosely, it defines whether you are the decent ‘good cop’ or the hard ass ‘bad cop’. Although we are limited by the choices we have, these decisions do have an impact on the main and sub-plots throughout Mass Effect. This decision-making also gives us a sense of ownership over our game. With Commander Shepherd we are playing with our character as she has a personality mostly provided by the game developers but then chosen by us.
The three characters I have outlined here are all variations on a similar idea: a formed human** character whom the player has, to varying degrees, restricted control over. Something which I have left unresolved throughout this article is the sense of ownership or identity attached to playing these characters. This raises the often unanswered question: who are we, the player, in relation to the character we control?
Ultimately, I think this comes down to a personal experience with these characters. For example I played Tidus from FFX despite the fact that I didn’t like him, I acted more as an outside eye than a player. I was not particularly invested in his well being but the well being of his team whom I did want to see succeed. Essentially I played with a narrative-driven attitude, disregarding the development of Tidus. If I needed to gain experience points it was to push the story forward, not so that Tidus was a strong character.
This differs from Link whom I recognise as almost partly me in fictional form. I project my thoughts into Link’s head; I assume he is thinking the same as me despite the lack of any evidence to say so. I think this is a really interesting character formation as it allows the player to make up their own mind and feel some ownership of their actions. In FFX I just went with it, in Zelda I actively want to be involved.
The same can be said for Shepherd in Mass Effect. I actively want to see Shepherd do well because I feel some ownership over her creation and development. I am the one making the decisions. Who ‘I’ am in this context is much harder to define. I am more than an over-seer as I created Shepherd to look and act the way she does. She cannot be a representation of me because she is a fully formed character with a different voice, appearance and thoughts. I can only conclude that as a player I am a ‘partly omnipotent’ controller of sorts. It’s a very grey area which will certainly require further attention. Psychologically, what are we doing when we are playing? I have only skimmed the surface here, and will develop these thoughts into a more coherent analysis.
*There has been some criticism of the gender differences in Mass Effect. Some of which are outlined here.
**Roughly human perhaps…
Post by Oli Back