There is one technique for helping the player step into the role of the game’s hero that deserves special attention: giving the hero a real role in the story. Planescape: Torment famously places you in the role of an immortal amnesiac, who starts the game waking up on a mortuary slab with a splitting headache, no memory, and a note to himself gouged into the skin of his back. (You didn’t really think it was possible to write about story in games and not mention Torment, did you?)
A bold move, and one of the best stranger-in-a-strange-land introductions ever. All the same, this clever trick would ultimately have been a clever trick, and no more, if it had not also been a beautifully evocative prelude to the sophisticated and poetical central theme of the game.
The game whirls around the questions of your past and your nature, and then the nature of these very concepts. These aren’t just problems that the designer had to deal with – they are problems that you, as the Nameless One, grapple with, and which change you as you unravel the mysteries of your own past. I believe the fact that the hero of Torment grows and changes through his choices and experiences over the course of the story is one of the reasons many of us have found this game so powerful. We have changed and grown through the playing of it.
In a sense, it seems surprising how rarely you see heroes change and grow in games. It is, after all, such an important component to other forms of storytelling (not to mention the point of Joseph Campbell’s mythical journey, which he claimed was a representation of our inner lives). But a glance back over all the constraints placed on the player character make it pretty clear how hard it is to get to the point where you are even considering something so advanced.
And yet, as with Planescape: Torment, I think that the potential to give the player an experience of dramatically significant choices, leading to real and powerful character growth, might more or less be the holy grail of story-telling in games. From the whole-game view, in other words, this is what a really great player character can give you: the type of emotional investment in the game that takes it from fun to memorable, meaningful, and timeless.
When it comes to how to give the protagonist a character arc, Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey cycle is an excellent place to start. This cycle lays out the mechanics of the structure of, supposedly, all myths, and is described in detail in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Both everyman and action hero plug perfectly into the arduous journey from home into the Unknown, where (and this is the point here) he or she learns or grows in some vital and meaningful way, then struggles to return with that accomplishment to the home world once again, completing the cycle.
For the everyman, growth generally means rising to the challenge of becoming great. While in video games this will most often mean becoming the most powerful warrior in the ‘verse, it does not have to be that literal. Indeed, you can remain a simple hobbit and still rise to the duty and challenge of your destiny.
The important thing is that where you were just another person when the tale began, because of luck or fate or hidden virtues, you must come to accept and master a greater role. This involves sacrifice and difficult choices. The Buffy the Vampire Slayer series largely focused on this one aspect of hero growth, moving through it slowly and developing all the themes to be found in struggling to accept greatness and relinquish normalness.
Of course the action hero already knows he’s hot stuff. He can’t grow or change by doing what they do best. Instead, the action hero has two major paths for development. As with everything in the shades-of-gray land of story mechanics, these are actually the same thing.
One path of growth happens when the action hero encounters a problem that his powers don’t address. This is the classic “if all you have is a hammer, all your problems look like nails” scenario, where you come to something that hammers just don’t work on. One day the action hero meets the femme fatale or the villain who uses brains rather than brawn, and then must face his own shortcomings, struggle, adapt, and overcome them.
The other sort of development is when the hero meets a challenge that far exceeds her powers. Here a good setback is required to cut the hero down and give her a good sense of doubt to struggle with. After the doubt and the struggle and perhaps a glimpse at what the world will look like if she abandons her duty when she is needed most, then will return to the treadmill, train, get a good montage scene in, and push herself to be a worthy opponent of her foes.
Mysteries are good tools both for intriguing the player and matching character growth with plot development. For a good mystery to be more than a trick, it has to be personal: the truth about the death of your father, about the girl or boy that you love, about who you yourself are.
As good as mysteries are, difficult choices are better. Case in point is the Train Job episode of Firefly: more than halfway into a problematic job for a shady employer, the crew realize that their actions are doing great harm (the stolen goods are needed medicine). The episode does a great job of conveying the difficulty in choosing to do the right thing. Difficult choices do not have to mean forking (or rubber-banding!) story paths. A choice with one option – could they not return the medicine? – as long as it is truly, morally difficult and not just a styrofoam zen koan, is still a choice. Perhaps one-option choices are even better for video games, as they do not interfere with the player’s desire to succeed at the game.