Lack of Character

It must have come across by now that my stance on scripted narrative in video games is somewhat ambivalent since on the one hand I believe predetermined stories are a direct violation against the very core of the medium in question, and on the other hand I find some in-game scripted events and machinimas fascinating nevertheless. I guess that’s one paradox I have to live with.

First of all, I am a huge proponent and fan of emergent gameplay (or emergent narrative), and it feels almost redundant to bring up Grand Theft Auto IV to illustrate once again what that means, but I believe it bears repetition. So, thanks to the sophisticated physics, decent Artificial Intelligence and other nuances, GTA IV is one of the few games that creates an environment (sort of an eco system of simulations) complex enough to allow the true spirit – the magic – of video games to take place, that is the unscripted, sometimes hilarious, random occurrences.

Emergent gameplay is precisely the reason why scripted narrative feels so out of place in video games. It, in a way, brings forward the core problems of the preconceived stories, as emergent narrative is the direct opposite of scripted narrative, especially those conveyed by cut scenes. In fact, the mere existence of cut scenes is the criminating evidence of the fact that scripted storylines don’t play well with games.

Moreover, characters on which scripted narrative is built generally fail more or less for the same grounds. Simply put, there is an irreconcilable conflict between written, “cinematic” characters, and the player’s agency on one. One way to deal with the problem is to minimize the character altogether, like the Half-life series did. Another way is to allow the player to create a character to his/her own liking, like, for instance, in The Elder’s Scrolls V: Skyrim.

Assassin’s Creed series is an illuminating example of, supposedly, character-centric games, or at least ones that are heavily marketed and perceived as such. For instance, Joystiq.com titled their piece on AC Revelations as “concluding Ezio’s story this November”. That in mind, consider the contrast between any trailer of AC games and the gameplay of the games itself, and tell me, which medium makes the characters of AC appear more serious and dramatic: the games or the trailers? Okay, the former example may be a bit unfair and purposefully selected, but it illustrates my point perfectly.

What, then, makes cinema, such as the aforementioned trailers, so effective at building characters is the medium’s total and utter control over how a character is exposed to the audience. Characters in video games, however, are solely in a mercy of the player, and no amount of carefully thought out backstory and other characterization will help when the player chooses to fool around and diminish all the mystique the character in question supposedly posses. Remember the mall scene in Heavy Rain how ridiculous the child-searching protagonist appeared when the player chose to hit repeatedly the x button to make him shout “Jason” just too many times to be a convincing worried father? The problem is, once again, choice – a choice to ruin.

In the end, characters in movies are more often than not idealized versions of the persons being depicted, which cinema as a medium allows. Interestingly, it seems that a video game character acts more as a mirror or a tool for self-expression than a vessel for an idealized person, which becomes apparent just watching the previously linked AC video. The one filmed with a camera phone.

After all, video game characters of today are nothing more than highly sophisticated action figures or marionettes of which strings are pulled via controller. And kids do play with their toys, not always as the toymaker thought and hoped they would, but how ever they feel like.