Sometimes when I talk about what’s possible for stories in games, my non-gamer friends ask me if games can ever be as good as books and movies. My answer is always that as limited as game stories seem to be (until someone proves us all wrong!), they have the potential to be the most powerful thing you could experience – because as the player, you are the main character. Every heartbreak and every revelation is that much closer to your jugular vein.
For what it’s worth, games are better when their heroes are good, strong characters who will grow and challenge the player during the time they spend together. While the protagonist is by no means the one make-or-break keystone of a game, it is the portal into the game for the player’s imagination – the term “avatar” is used for a reason. If the hero is bad enough, they could make an otherwise great experience hollow, and if the hero is awesome enough, doubt ye not its power to bring the game to life.
By and large, successful player characters will be either action heroes or everymans. That is, they will either be striking symbols of adventure wish fulfillment, or they will be sympathetic placeholders that let a firecracker plot do its work. Perusal of Hollywood blockbusters and adventure classics will reveal that these roles have their own grand traditions beyond the realm of games, and are in no sense limited, dramatically.
Dramatists should take heart for another reason: all of those limitations and constraints apply to the player character only. As we build better ways to interact with NPC’s, we can have our share of Iagos, Gollumses, and Kaizer Sözes. And like Shakespeare’s Iago or Brad Pit in Fight Club, I don’t know that it would be a bad thing for a truly outstanding NPC to steal the show.
As we pioneer new ways to introduce and portray protagonists in video games, I hope that we begin to shuck off some of the awkward glitches of the first several nascent decades of game design. I believe we are already seeing the first signs of a new generation of game heroes – and they are, thank goodness, as unlike each other as Alan Wake, Razputin, Kratos, and whoever that woman is in Hard Rain.
These and all the other games yet to be made, all the manifestations of the everyman and the action hero, like so many multi-colored and luminous skins for the players to put over their own, and feel the thrill of the game tingle on the tips of their fingers and up their spines.