Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Developing a protagonist (Part 1)

Writing in video games is a unique challenge. While elements of writing, structure and story are common across writing, theatre and film, each have their own idiosyncrasies and challenges that demand different styles and approaches. The same is entirely true of video games, for while writing in this medium certainly shares many basic elements with these other forms, the video game writer has to deal with problems not faced by other writers. One of these key issues is that the player is the protagonist of the story - the player is taking the actions that will drive it to its conclusion as opposed to the being a passive viewer watching a defined character progress through it.

In many cases, this allows the player to project some degree of their own personality (or another desired personality) onto the protagonist character, whether it be through gameplay (e.g. a fastidious hero who meticulously searches every area for whatever supplies he or she can), or directly through persona-defining actions (e.g. picking a course or action or dialogue style). This can happen to an extent in other media, whereby people have slightly different interpretations of a character within the bounds of the scenes and events presented to the reader/viewer, but rarely is there the level of freedom granted in games, particularly when dealing with RPGs that allow great variance in defining the protagonist's persona. Since it's easier to work with the extreme case to illustrate a point, I'll focus this discussion on roleplaying games.  Admittedly it's my favoured genre of video game because of the strong story-telling elements and the player's ability to define their protagonist, but the ideas that follow can to some extent be applied to all video games.

We don't want games to have protagonists with as little depth as in this movie

However, it is important to take established principles of story-telling from these forms and examine their usage within video game writing. One such principle or idea I was presented with recent struck a great chord with me and its application to video game writing. The idea was simple: The choice between good and evil is no choice at all.

As this idea was presented in terms of theatre or film, the issue is presenting a character with a "dilemma" in which the established character can only logically make one of the choices without completely undermining their established persona. It's where a character is presented with a choice that effectively provides no choice, because they cannot make any other decision apart from the one that the audience expects.  The argument that follows is that the only interesting decisions are where the character must wrestle with their own morals or values in order to make that decision. The interest frequently comes from characters that make a decision that is difficult and shows the character undergoing a great change.

District 9 climaxes with the growth of a character's persona

This isn't to argue that these foregone conclusions can be uninteresting in and of themselves. James Bond never has to make a decision as to whether or not he will save the world, but the Bond films never lack in drama and excitement. Pirates of the Caribbean sees Jack Sparrow wrangle his way to getting his hands on The Black Pearl and double-crossing Barbossa after striking a deal with him. There is very little drama or interest in their actual decisions, but there is a great deal of excitement and interest generated by the events that result because of those actions.

Of course, the question to ask now is: "How can this principle be applied to games?"  How many times have you played an RPG that provides dialogue options like:
  • Sure, I'll help you.
  • Only if I get paid.
  • You must die!
The problem with this is that it typically doesn't actually present the player with a difficult choice. There's no wrangling from the player in trying to work out what they will do. We have responses based on three character archetypes: the hero, the mercenary, and the evil-doer. Many players will decide upon a particular type of character that they want to play and will merely pick the relevant choice based upon their chosen persona.  This means that the player generally doesn't really care about the dialogue, because their choices are largely predetermined based on the chosen archetype they've picked. They might care about the character and story and be involved with how the plot develops, but ultimately they've gone down one path that was chosen from the very beginning.

Which archetype: James Bond, Jack Bauer or Jason Bourne?

First off, I should say that this isn't necessarily a bad thing. I know many people who have played the Mass Effect series in this way - always picking the paragon option or always choosing to act like a renegade. They've still had a lot of fun playing the game, potentially even going through with both options in two separate playthroughs, and have come to really like their character, even though they're a very simple character in terms of the depth of their personality.

The trend towards voiced protagonists can accentuate this tendency, as the player builds an "image" of a particular personality because of their protagonist's spoken dialogue reinforcing one of the chosen archetypes that the character can portray. Unvoiced protagonists may offer the player more nuance and variance in how the player imagines the exact delivery of the line, which may increase the likelihood of them not neatly fitting into a predetermined archetype. Of course, this is speaking in generalities, and players can still make complex characters even with voiced characters.

From personal experience in Mass Effect, I constructed a mostly paragon character, but one who wasn't afraid to stray into renegade territory where conflict was inevitable. However, mechanics like the paragon/renegade scale mean that players will almost certainly focus predominantly on one such path because of the vast gameplay advantages obtained from doing so. As much as this type of mechanic is pushed as a means to enhance roleplaying it frequently ends up detracting from it instead because the player can end up more concerned with being able to receive the rewards that only come from pursuing one path exclusively rather than walking some kind of middle ground.

I'll discuss the ramifications of these types of choices and how we can work towards more developed protagonists in my next post...

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