Sunday, August 14, 2011

Developing a protagonist (Part 2)

In my last post I discussed the tendency of games to provide players with choices that were either good or evil or fell into "categorised" choices of personality.  One potential issue with such "choices" is that the player is not ever having to think about their protagonist's true character or how they would react in particular circumstances. These people are effectively metagaming, with only one option that they can pick during dialogue when making a decision, and that is based on a choice about the mechanics presenting the available personas to them. Such characters don't have the depth of a protagonist in film (or even in some games where the player gets no choice in terms of dialogue) because they operate on a predefined set of rules that can be very cleared outlined from very early on in the game.  If we're taking a good/evil dichotomy (as is common in many games), the delineation is simple:

Good: Selfless, will give up rewards, protects innocent people, hunts bad guys, etc, etc.
Evil: Selfish, will threaten/bully/kill to gain rewards, doesn't care about innocent deaths, kills anyone who gets in their way, etc, etc.

These two opposite ends of the spectrum don't offer a whole lot of depth in terms of personality. One's a rampant goody-two-shoes, the other an egotistical psychopath, and never shall the two meet.  Of course, this isn't to say that players can't decide to create a character with more depth that might provide a mixture of both personalities, but they need to be provided with reasonable choices in which to do so. Blanket black and white choices don't and can't provide this depth of character, even for the player who is trying to create it. We're frequently given choices equivalent to rescuing a stranded cat in a tree (and potentially breaking a limb in the process), or setting the tree on fire to incinerate both it and the cat. These aren't challenging choices that make for interesting or complex protagonists.

Rescue the innocent girl or "harvest her for power" isn't exactly a complex choice

Why should writers care about this? After all, flat characters can be a part of entertaining movies, and some of the best selling video games have featured some fairly uninspired and one-dimensional characters.  However, this comes down to whether the writer wants to convince the player to take on a predefined stereotype persona, or help them create a complex and meaningful character as they go through the game. If players are presented with choices that don't neatly fit into Good/Evil or Paragon/Renegade (and don't have gameplay mechanic implications associated with them) then they are more likely to analyse the choice they are about to make and try and develop a rationale behind their decision. The aim is to stop players from going "I'm being good" or "I'm being evil" but actually have them engage with the game to the extent that they are creating a multi-dimensional protagonist of their own imagining.

If we're dealing with a roleplaying game, should the writers not attempt to get the player to create a character equally as complex as a protagonist from other storytelling mediums? Should the designers not only facilitate but actively encourage players to create a fully fleshed out and realistic protagonist with a believable personality? The player may start the game with a shell of a protagonist, maybe even one of the three basic stereotypes listed above.  But by the end of a story with well-crafted decisions, they will have developed a character with a set of morals and values every bit as complex as the most fully realised characters within the game.

Faith really didn't gain any personality in Mirror's Edge

It should also be considered that some people play their protagonist as a virtual avatar - they "are" the protagonist within the game world, and make all decisions as though they are the main player in the story. Arguably, these players offer potentially the greatest reward for a writer: the ability to teach the player something about themselves. 

If a player is forced into a true dilemma where they are forced to pick between two very hard choices, then they will potentially learn something about themselves. Would they risk lives by letting a criminal go free and tracking him to potentially catch a bigger fish in the pond, or would they bring them in straight away? Would they allow a mother to sacrifice her life to save her son's, or would they risk both of their lives in an attempt to save them both?

Save a friend/ally/lover or the lives of strangers... now we're getting warmer.

The protagonist should be the most important and complex character within the story.  This axiom is commonly used when determining the overall worth or emotion or long-lasting impact of a film.  Given this is such an important aspect of storytelling in film, theatre and prose, why is it such a frequently neglected aspect of storytelling within computer games? Gordon Freeman is a blank, emotionless, silent slate: it is up to the player to "be" Gordon and provide him with their thoughts. War from Darksiders has little personality, and along with Marcus Fenix from Gears of War, is practically a static character despite the events within their respective games. Even Alan Wake, a story about a writer, has a personality that's almost as flat and lifeless as they come.

In part, this flat nature may be because these characters never really progress beyond the basic traits that are shown to the player in the earliest stages of the game. They're never forced to develop or show what they are made of besides the straightforward collection of stereotype traits because they're never placed in a situation where they have to make a tough choice. If the protagonist can be placed into a true dilemma, where there is no clear "right" or "wrong", then just as with other story telling mediums, they must display their true character and their values through this choice. These choices are where protagonists from other mediums really shine and mature as characters in front of the audience's eyes.

Games that feature defined characters where the player does not make key game decisions can and should evolve through the story. The protagonist is a willful character that the player is taking through the events of the game, so they should be placed into situations that will demonstrate their true personality and values to the player. This will let the player see more than just surface characterisation, and show a deep and complex protagonist. In Assassin's Creed, Altair goes from being self-centred and arrogant to a more humble and understanding hero. In Thief 2, Garrett leans to trust a former adversary and even laments her death.  These characters retain the core personality introduced very early on in the game, but grow and mature throughout their storytelling.

Garrett didn't let Viktoria die for nothing

If the player is defining the personality of the game's protagonist, force them to make situations that are truly dilemmas. Force them to pick between the lesser of two evils, or alternatively the greater of two goods. They might moan afterwards that they "had to play through the game twice" or "it didn't make that much difference" or "why couldn't I do both??!?", but ultimately this kind of choice makes the protagonist of the game more complex. This forces the player to examine what their character (or they themselves, if they are playing a "virtual protagonist") would do when placed into this situation. 
This is practically the ideal situation for a roleplaying game, as the player is truly forced to adopt a role.

However, there are two very important caveats when dealing with these types of choices. Make sure that these "true dilemmas" are not hamstrung by heavy-handed "alignment" systems that assign a "value" to each decision. If you have a good/evil scale (regardless of what your chosen axis/axes might be) do not modify it because of a player's choice in a "true dilemma". Doing so immediately assigns a value judgement to each option within the dilemma, which means that it is no longer a dilemma and hence the immense value of the choice is lost.

Why did Mass Effect 2 have to dish out paragon/renegade points?

The second caveat applies to all video game choices, but it is even more important when it comes to dilemmas: Don't have a protagonist say "why" they acting the way they are. For one, it sounds unnatural. Only the most poorly written characters verbosely explain the rationale for their actions, because people don't act that way in real life. Secondly, the player is the one making the decision, complete with their own rationale. There is no possible means for the designers to think of every possible rationale that players might have for making a decision, and attempting to do so will only annoy the players that have come up with something you haven't thought of. And that will probably happen in more cases than you would care to imagine.

Designer should be able to get players emotionally and mentally involved with protagonists by giving them true dilemmas to deal with. Let them evolve, grow and show real character and personality throughout the game, and you'll have a more interesting hero for your players to empathise with as they take that journey.


  1. I think you underestimate the Little Sisters dilemma. Later in the game it turned out there was no gameplay difference (saving them causes them to give you the Adam later), there is a distinct dilemma before that point. Only metagaming and knowing in advance that they give you the Adam later makes the choice "irrelevant", but it's still relevant as the player has distinctly more Adam and power before that if they choose to harvest.

    Of course I chose to harvest, not because my character was innately evil and hated little girls, but because he viewed this as the path to the greater good, the possibility that he could somehow right things, something he would need to be more powerful to be able to do. Lest one forgets, the Little Sisters go out an harvest the dead, there is no way for the player to know if the saving them is a permanent fix fix for their behavior or if they will revert to their original behavior. It is easy enough for the player character to see them as evil creatures preying on the dead (even if they were formerly innocent), just wrapped and hiding in the "good" exterior. Harvesting these evil creatures can be seen as good by the player, it's the inherent "little children are good" idea that makes it only seem to be a black and white decision.

  2. Interesting observation. From a personal standpoint I felt it was a "be good" or "be evil" choice. This probably came from a small amount of metagaming on my part; from a game design standpoint I knew that the game was not going to be impossible to beat should I choose not to harvest, because that would cause massive player outrage and would never get the green light from a (big) publisher.

    I also personally didn't get much (if any) "evil creature vibe" from them. I thought they were a little creepy because they were harvesting the dead, but given the environment they were living in, they were pretty much bound to be messed up to some degree. But, mileage may vary.

    But lastly, and perhaps more important, the game commits the second sin I listed above: providing rationale for the player's choice. If the player harvests more than one little sister, they receive the evil "you wanted all the Adam and wanted to take over the world ending". The game doesn't present the player with a dilemma because it forcibly removes the rationale of "doing evil for the greater good". Even worse, the game designers potentially dupe a player into thinking they are choosing sides in a dilemma, whereas they are actually making a good/evil choice.

    All that said, I agree that it's perhaps a less black and white example than I could have picked. Even so, I'd still argue that we've still got a long way to go.

  3. "take over the world" is because the player never gets a chance to explain why they harvested. A failing to be sure, but then there is the matter of how many potential rationales for the behavior the devs want to, and are willing to spend the resources on, writing in. Heavily branching story comes at a cost of dev resources, and devs may decide it's simply not worth the expenditure, choosing to spend instead on improving a more limited path. Keeping in mind that various studies have shown most players do not replay most games, it's a generally logical decision from a sales standpoint for games with stories, even if it disappoints those looking for replay value (since they're the minority).

    My next nwn2 work branches to completely different and exclusive paths based on player choice, beginning at the end of the first act, so it's something I've put thought in.

  4. Having undertaken modding efforts that provide branching content (and Shattered War does that to a very large degree), I understand the amount of work required. But BioShock presents a good/evil choice as an actual dilemma, and therein lies its failing.

    As for replayability... that's a difficult battle to fight. How do you persuade someone that there's different content available to them without resorting to immersion-breaking heavy-handed techniques like The Witcher? Moreover, if you're trying to present a believable story each time for each different option, do you even want to suggest that alternatives are possible, or simply present each at a unique reality?