I’ve always enjoyed holding forth about how many limitations there are for stories in video games. Often to an audience of non-gamer friends, I’ll start by pointing out what you can’t do in a game with regards to the story. Most of it has to do with the protagonist. Because the hero is the player character, you can’t make that hero anything the player might balk at playing. For this reason, many of the most awesome main characters from film, fiction, and television don’t really work so well as a main game character.
For example, take Oedipus or Clytemnestra: the emotions that might make you gouge your own eyes out or stab your husband to death are one thing to witness, and another to do, even fictionally, even by proxy. Even Achilles doesn’t really fit the bill. There’s nothing wrong with being the world’s greatest warrior, but sitting and sulking in your tent – over some slave girl? Let’s say you begin the plot immediately after all the pouting – it’s still going to sit wrong. “Wait, why was I mad? Why was I being such an idiot? And now I’m suddenly supposed to be all mad about this friend who went and got himself killed?”
There’s no need to resort to antiquity, either. Add to the list Thelma and Louise, Travis Bickle, Holden Caulfield, Amelie, even good old Hamlet. What makes every one of these characters memorable depends on a key moment or characteristic that the player would resist and resent as an imposition on his free will.
And this is the root of the problem: the player wants a character to play, choose, act, and feel with. Being told how they should do those things is somehow, mysteriously, a violation of the contract. Perhaps it is interfering with a basic principle of agency. Maybe it’s the same principle that makes most of us hopelessly awkward and uncomfortable when we try to act.
The feelings and impressions that we create for the player must be earned by providing them with playable experiences, not by telling them who they are. Would you, in a game, opt to feign madness in order to get revenge, or construct an elaborate Easter egg hunt for the man you have a crush on, or make your grand finale at 70mph off the edge of a cliff?
Wouldn’t it bother you to think of the other choices you could have made? There is a steeper price of admission for choices that the player considers their own. Like the men and women of Greek legend, we gamers never want to be told our destinies. We insist on being our own masters – or at least the buzzed impression that we are.
As a result, if the player is going to accept the player character and invest in the game on more than a mechanical level, the limitations for what that character can be are real and formidable.
Many of the tools and examples that it’s tempting to steal from passive story-telling just won’t work. The hero cannot be so very stupid, daft, or brilliant that we can’t find ourselves in them. They can’t be so heartless or make such bad decisions that we push the mouse or controller away from us and wrinkle our noses. They cannot keep too many secrets or flip out at just anything, or miss obvious clues; there is a pretty small limit to the size and number of inner demons you can infest the hero with … at least in our current age of game storytelling.
If we want to create truly outstanding player characters, these constraints present us with some hard, specific questions. What sort of characters do work in video games? How do we create them, present them, and make them vibrant, real, and memorable?