Saturday, 3 January 2009

Week 10 - characters and story

If games are here to stay as an stable medium, developers need to do things to grab a hold of their potential audience who are thinking along the lines of ‘why play a game for the characters or plot when I can watch a film or read a novel’? Games don’t yet have enough historic or critical weight to be compared with these other mediums to any great extent. Writers are only a small name in the credits of a game, whereas for films and books, it’s considered reasonable to consume them based on the writer or director’s name. I don’t think this is feasible for games right now, as there hasn’t been enough time for game writers to gain credentials which would be noticeable to mainstream consumers.

The principle of character is has underestimated power. People often claim to be following something for the plot, but the plot should come second to good characters, because without them the story wouldn’t have any appeal no matter how complex or ‘deep’. Every type of drama is based around the characters and conflict, the foundation for the story. We’re still unfamiliar with the concept of ‘buying’ characters or seeing them as consumables, when the selling points of games over the years have always been the characters – they are symbolic of their franchise.

Unlike film, games provide us with the opportunity to be the character and not just observe them. There is an element of projecting yourself onto the character you control which is probably why we can feel close to them after spending however many hours playing a game. It’s a different type of feeling compared to an emotional connection, which is how empathy with characters from non-interactive media works. The connection via gameplay can make even cliché, shallow characters endearing if its fun to play as them. A few years ago I found it surprising when I recognised that the characters I used to really love weren’t actually that deep or developed or even likable [certain characters in the FF series], but I hadn’t recognised that at the time because I was so absorbed in the game. Or I was naïve and easily infatuated by long haired men with big swords. Now my preferences have changed, and as I grew up I now find myself more inclined towards short-haired men with big swords. Or guns, or eyepatches, or beards, or mullets. What I’m trying to say in a really shallow way is that stereotypical character design is really effective at pulling people in, but some companies just exploit that way too much to the point where it doesn’t work anymore. Or it really shouldn’t work anymore. Why is FF7 still making money??

Something I don’t really understand is how people can say things like ‘but...they’re not even real’ in response to your fondness for a character. Just...What? I really like Heathcliff and Mr Rochester and no one has even found that particularly strange. I don’t see why it should be different for any kind of fictional person. It’s pretty funny how loving a character from a game/animation is strange, whereas obsessing over real life actors is practically encouraged. If the things that make up a character is at the least a description, or an image, or a voice, or some combination, the two dimensions really aren’t that different to me. Stay with me before this starts to sound insane. On the surface, there’s not much difference between a Photoshopped photograph of a celebrity and a painting. Both are unattainable, because what you see from actors is invariably different from their real selves. If anything, a 2d representation of a person is a purer way to satisfy our needs to admire or idolise others. Its easy to say ‘I know the difference between real and imaginary people, so there’s no need to think about it anymore’, but I like to think about it quite a lot.

The kind of archetypes I like are most definitely the slightly broken, emotionally vulnerable males who still have this air of strength about them. Bonus points if they’re either slightly arrogant or selfish as well, though I also like the gentle type who’s secret tragedy is revealed later on [Suzaku from Code Geass, if you know the show]. When the theme suits it, I also like hotblooded manchildren just for entertainment factor. Generally I love tragedy and melodrama when it’s done well, and still like it but pretend not to when it’s done badly. One of my favourite clichés is timeskips, when you get to see the hero, or the heroine’s lover come back as a different person, and it’s gradually revealed to you how he came to have changed. Ah, I love it when we get to see blind Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre, such a tear jerking moment which made him a very endearing character to me, it set my protective instincts to full power!

[Also, I apologise if this post seemed to be all opinion, no fact. Finding the balance is hard, and I'd hate to sound forceful.]

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