[In this Gamasutra analysis column, writer Jeffrey Matulef takes a look at the relationship between playable characters and their controllers, with examples from Deadly Premonition and Uncharted 2.]
Any playable video game character, no matter how developed, is dependent on a player's input. Red Dead Redemption's
John Marston may be a caring man, but that won't stop me from possessing his body to hogtie people, throw them over his shoulder, then bring them back to his place and slit their throats just for kicks.
Even a relatively scripted game like Half-Life 2
can be subjugated by hopping on top of Alyx's head while she's trying to talk to me about the fate of the world. While most games ignore this relationship between player and player character, others embrace it by having characters respond to their controller's actions.
This kind of relationship makes up the core of Deadly Premonition's
protagonist, Agent Francis York Morgan, whose multiple personality, Zach, is controlled by the player. For example, when York emerges from a car, he'll say "Zach, did you want to have a look around?"
recognizes that a videogame character is occupied by two minds in one body, so it makes sense that these two distinct personalities -- one created by the developer, and the other by the player-- should have a conversation.
This isn't a new concept, though. Point-and-click adventures are unique because the player character responds directly to the person controlling them. In The Secret of Monkey Island
, for example, Guybrush would give his thoughts on situations, yet he wouldn't act unless prompted. Guybrush is very cryptic with his knowledge, never outright telling you what possible outcomes he's pondering.
As a result, I didn't feel like I was playing as Guybrush as much as I felt like I was hanging out with him, whispering in his ear some things I thought might be funny or useful for him to do.
Curiously, this fourth wall breaking never felt like it broke the immersion for me. It didn't feel like he was responding to the disembodied spirit that is the player as much as responding to his own haphazard thoughts and realizing "hey, wait. That's a terrible
This doesn't always work, though. In Heavy Rain
you can listen in on characters' thoughts and effect their outcomes. However, this creates an interesting paradox since the player's goals are frequently at odds with the character's. Sinan Kubba wrote about this in his blog
"As Madison, I didn’t want to take too much care of Ethan. However, as the player, I knew that if she did it would probably improve the chances of him finding his son. Thus, a conflict of interests between two of my characters was borne, or more accurately between my characters and the seeming goal of the game. Should I have played Madison as I thought she would act, or did what I knew would help produce the happy ending I wanted?"
This mostly came down to the game being played through multiple perspectives. Had we been stuck in the role of one character the whole time, it would have been easier to cement a rooting interest. But with four character's whose fates you can manipulate, it makes the player feel less invested in any of them and more like a writer crafting where they want their story to go.
Even limited to a single perspective, it can lead to frustration if the player knows more than the character they're playing as. This was problematic in Phoenix Wright
when the player could spot a damaged fence in the background, yet Phoenix wouldn't mention this obvious piece of evidence until what felt like forever later.
It can also be pandering when a character points out something that's obvious to the player, yet adds nothing of their personality to the mix. In Resident Evil 4
, when the player prompts Leon Kennedy to examine a dirty bed, he'll respond with "this bed is filthy," which is completely superfluous.
Conversely, more elaborate musings can also give insight into the character. When the player makes Grim Fandango's
Manny Calavera examine a deck of cards, he responds with "this deck of cards is a little frayed around the edges. But then again, so am I... and I got fewer suits."
From that relatively insignificant exchange we learn that Manny is a.) weathered. b.) poor. and c.) has a dry wit and a knack for slick lingo. Without hearing his thoughts he'd still be a cute cipher for our actions and cutscenes could establish him as a dashing hero full of moxie.
But by allowing him to respond to the player's hypothetical scenarios we learn more about him than would be revealed solely by the story. Even after playing through Grim Fandango
three times, I'm still discovering new things about Manny based on interactions that I make with him.
This isn't limited to point-and-click adventure games. Take the Uncharted
series for example. While there's no "examine button" so to speak, and little to glean about Drake outside the main quest, there's still some notable optional interactions that flesh out his character.
In Uncharted 2
there's a brief chapter where he goes to a Nepali village. He's injured and unarmed, so all he can do is walk around and talk to people. Unlike point-and-click adventures, there's no dialogue trees. You hit a button to interact and Drake takes it from there, often with hilarious results like petting a yak's butt before muttering, "Why did I do that?"
There's another glorious moment where atop a hotel's roof is a swimming pool practically inviting the player to hop in. If they do so, Drake attempts to start a game of "Marco Polo" with his companion, Chloe (especially clever since they're searching for Marco Polo's lost fleet). Even when the player thinks they're taking their avatar for a joyride, they're surprised to learn that Drake was thinking the same thing too.
In a movie, moments like this might be considered cheating, or telling rather than showing, but that's one of the things that makes videogames so great. They can pack extra nuggets of information for those curious enough to seek them out. We can grow to appreciate characters not simply by watching them or even walking in their shoes, but by having conversations with them and placing them in unique scenarios just to see how they'll respond.
[Jeffrey Matulef is a freelance writer whose work can be found at G4TV.com, Eurogamer, and Joystiq among other places. He's also a regular on the Big Red Potion podcast. You can contact him at jmatulef at gmail dot com.]