There is, in fact, an inherent credibility problem with introducing the player to their avatar. Imagine asking someone to play Neo in the beginning of the original Matrix movie. Unless we whisk you from scene to scene, you need to know how to get around your house, find your way to work, and act like you are doing your job.
Plenty of older games might have just left you to wander the city and get hopelessly lost – but at that point, you’re not playing as Neo, are you? And then when the action starts, you don’t have the layout of your office memorized, and you feel like you’re bumbling when you should be all reflex and adrenaline. Plunking the player into an unfamiliar character in an unfamiliar world is a double whammy. It’s hard to believe that you are really the character when you don’t know a damned thing. And how are you supposed to know a damned thing three minutes into the game? Ten page or twenty-minute introductions are, of course, out of the question.
One way to handle the problem is by getting out of one or both responsibilities. Once again, Western RPG’s have proven themselves kings of the weird compromise by coming up with any number of scenarios where you are truly a stranger in a strange land. In the Ultima series you are summoned out of this world as the Avatar of Virtue. The Elder Scrolls games always make you an unknown prisoner, who is somehow released into an unfamiliar land, and Knights of the Old Republic uses a similar device.
To be fair, as a genre RPG’s push the envelope in terms of letting the player interact with the story. If they fail often, it’s because they tried. All the same, the stranger in a strange land trick is not subtle and it’s already become a bad cliché. True, adventuring in exotic locales is a tried and true aspect of all storytelling, but it loses much of its punch if there is no home to provide contrast, and to fill in the Campbellian cycle.
And yet one of my all-time favorite games is the RPG Fallout, which spins its own version of an unknown hero in unfamiliar territory. There are some key differences, however. First, there is a sense of a safe home, and second, in a sense, you know exactly who you are. Home is an underground bunker, which has been sealed away from the world ever since the nuclear holocaust. But the bunker’s water-purification chip has failed, and somebody will have to venture outside and find a replacement. And that someone is you.
The feeling of wide-eyed naiveté as you step into the hot sunlight of the radioactively transformed surface-world feels natural and earned. The game simply and gracefully has given you an everyman character to play, and a plot with the urgency and drama to make it work. You are a messenger on whom lives depend, and, as you learn more about the looming threats lurking in the wasted world above, a potential savior. (The point belongs to some other article, but the familiar Mad Max setting makes your immersion into the world that much easier.)
In other words, Fallout doesn’t avoid back-story and character definition at all. Instead, the player character is properly defined by the circumstances of the story, a perfect everyman. Situation is everything, and Fallout isn’t just a good beginning. By largely eschewing simplified morality (you don’t have to be a good guy, and most of the people in the game aren’t stamp-mold bad guys), these interactions become more real and meaningful than in almost any other game I’ve played.
A more direct approach to starting the hero on familiar ground can be found in the new Zelda game, Twilight Princess. The game does an elegant job of placing you in a small village where everyone knows you. True, you have the freedom of an independent young man, but they still manage to conjure a mentor, a love-interest, a trusty steed and a number of other personalities in early stages of the game.
What are some of the tools Twilight Princess and other games have used to successfully introduce a character on familiar grounds? At least half the answer lies in successfully using UI to simulate knowledge. If maps are filled in as you explore, familiar areas should contain revealed and annotated maps. Both Twilight Princess and Indigo Prophecy do an excellent job of using early gameplay tasks to familiarize yourself with areas so that you can perform with more confidence later on.
Both of these games also do a great job of using dialog with people you know to create, inform, and reinforce the information you need to feel like you know where you are. I am also of the opinion that internal monologue has great, if largely unused potential in this department, among others. By experimenting with techniques like these, we will, over the course of time, begin to assemble a vocabulary, in the semiotic sense used in film theory.
For instance, showing the hero’s home in the intro cinematic, or flashbacks and extra camera angles like those in Indigo Prophecy could slowly become familiar tricks of the trade. As the state of our art evolves, we should be able to put our audience in the shoes of more interesting, more original, and more powerful protagonists.