Characters with Character

 “What do you mean? Samus never talked or anything before Other M! how could Team Ninja assasinate Samus’s character if she wasn’t even a character before?”

So, it’s been a few years since Other M and I feel like I’ve cooled down enough to talk rationally about what could have been done better. After all the complaints and arguments concerning the story have been made, Metroid : Other M was an amazing game, clearly worth the lofty designation of the term “Art”. It was visually stunning, had excellent kinaesthetics (game feel, essay seed 1). Other than the blatant misogynist overtones, Other M was a very well made game and it was clear that Team Ninja put a lot of love into the project. If they cut out all of the cutscenes and left the game (otherwise) as it was then I would definitely call it the direction Metroid needs to be going from now on.

So, what did they do wrong? Characterization. The cutscenes twisted Samus Aran into something she wasn’t. Samus has always been a gun-weilding, shoot first, badass chick in combat boots and the running, gunning, sideflipping, pirate shooting madness of Other M had me saying “Awww yeah” right out of the gate. It looked like Samus, shot like Samus, and moved like Samus. Other M was, from a pure gameplay perspective, a perfect continuation of the Metroid line. Unfortunately, that all fell apart every time my first crush opened her mouth. They turned her into a sniveling, weeping crybaby who couldn’t go to the bathroom without a man’s orders.

I am not saying all of the scenes were objectively bad. Some parts of Other M’s storyline were very well written, my favourite cutscene moment was when Samus learned that Ridley had (somehow) survived the ungodly tail-thrashing he received in Metroid Prime and Super Metroid. This was the one place in the entire game where I saw her emotional breakdown as realistic and justified. This was her parents’ murderer. Her mom, her dad, all of her childhood friends. Everyone (except Adam, aforementioned CO) that Samus ever loved was dead due directly to Ridley’s actions, many of them literally died screaming in front of her while dangling from his talons. She was 3 years old when she watched this monster kill and devour her family. Seeing as how Samus’s suit exists directly as an expression of her conscious will (it only remains active so long as she is calm, conscious and willful) it’s little wonder she lost control of it for a few seconds upon discovering that the creature that she destroyed, literally down to the cellular level, was somehow still alive. This scene was used to drive home the fact that this was the creature from Samus’s nightmares. I loved this scene because it showed us a bit of the woman inside of the suit. She has literally encountered the angels and killed the demons of her universe, yet there is one entity that still caused her to wake up sweating in the middle of the night, and this monster was now standing before her in his full glory after she watched him get vaporized; twice. I don’t care how strong willed you are, if you just watched The Terminator sink into that vat of molten metal just to watch him walk back out like it was a mineral bath you would panic too. If the Luminoth represent the angels of Metroid and the Ing represent demons, then Ridley was the Reaper himself, and she was locked in a dark room with him. Team Ninja could redeem itself if they attempted to tell how all that buisness connected to Ridley-X affected her psychologically (so far we have Ridley, Mecha Ridley, Ridley(clone), Meta Ridley, Phaazebeast Ridley and Ridley-X, I am really going to have to talk someday about Voldemort Syndrome).

Why am I saying this? I have always voiced my hatred for the writing and plot of Other M, but I want to emphasize that its not because Samus showed weakness. I feel that a strong character showing weakness isn’t contradictory. Every individual on the planet has something that frightens it to the point of mindless panic; for me its propaganda and the panopticon (think 1984). No strong character is completely for lack of a chink in their armor. This week I want to talk about characterization in video games. Now, I am no famous fiction writer. Most of this will merely be from a combination of 2 braincells and common sense. First I will describe some of the obvious mistakes we often make when we write characters. Followed by my favourite 2 examples of how to fill out a character without even the slightest drop of exposition.

Now, I know that 90% of us know what mistakes get made when designing characters. I am mostly doing this part just to make sure we are on the same page. The biggest mistake we make when designing characters in video games is that they are all just too tough. Video games are still largely power fantasies (at least in the AAA market). 15 years ago we discovered Duke Nukem and the AAA industry has clung to him as a perfect character, often making heroes that are permutations off of the “go here, kill that, react to all stimulus with blind, seething, endless rage” trope. Seriously, I bet Kratos can’t go to the bathroom without finding a reason to slaughter a small town. Yes, there are people alive today that are like that, but in the real world, a di-chromatic emotional range typically lands you in jail, not at the pinnacle of global politics or at the spearhead of military excellence. So far, though things are changing slowly, that binary emotional state (either neutral or aneurism inducing rage) seems to be all we hit with any level of accuracy.

There is one more mistake in characterization that we make in video games. We assume that an act 1 dump is all we need to establish who we are playing. Think of it. Look at Isaac and from Golden Sun. Other than that beginning bit where we explain that he isn’t all that great at his elemental manipulation and the insinuation that he has the hots for Jenna, you don’t really learn much about him before being strapped with a quest for some McGuffin and sent out. Golden Sun is one of my favourite RPG series and yet I can barely remember anything other than the fact that he is a mediocre earth adept and that he has it going for the water adept. I haven’t played Dark Dawn yet, but so far that’s 2 games we’ve been through and nothing important has been said about the hero other than the stuff at the beginning.

Now that we have that baseline established, I want to talk about some excellent characters. One of them is Link, the other is The Doctor. I chose these 2 characters specifically because of how easily they can be adapted to video games. Both of these guys are characters with character, and both of them get fleshed out into full, human characters without even a drop of exposition.

Let’s start with the example from our medium, Link. Does anybody know why Link is called Link? It’s more an expression of his character than a proper name. Link was named such because the original Zelda was supposed to have that multi-world mechanic that Zelda has become so famous for, instead of the Light World and Dark World used in Link to the Past and Link Between Worlds, the original Zelda was supposed to be divided between a medieval high fantasy setting, a present day setting, and a cyber-future setting. Link was supposed to be the only element common to all 3 worlds. This concept was extrapolated upon in later games. At first the big bad guy was Ganon, then it became about Ganon’s mortal identity, Ganondorf. Before long they dropped Ganondorf and moved on to Twinrova, Vaati and Maladeus. Eventually it was revealed that all of these enemies were extensions of Demise, a multi-dimensional, formless expression of ill-will. The same is true for Zelda. Almost every Zelda from every game is a different character, and sometimes Zelda isn’t even the female lead, sometimes it’s characters like Naryu or Hilda. All of whom are avatars of Hylia, but all discrete individuals. Some weak, some strong. Some fearful, some brave. A few of the Zeldas are warriors, one is a pirate, one is a ninja. Link, however, is the same guy, different bodies, but the same eternal spirit tying together all of the disparate elements.

It’s always revealed that Link is lazy, not the smartest fellow but definitely the cleverest, and all of this is said without even a single word coming from Link’s mouth. No explanation as to who Link is, no history for any of them. We usually get nothing other than “Hey, this guy is a forest elf” or “He lived on a back-water island”. The most we ever got on Link’s history was about his uncle, who was a member of the castle guard, and even that was revealed directly through gameplay. Yet what do we know about his character. He likes to sleep late. He’s not very knowledgeable, needing companions like Navi, Midna, and King of Red Lions (that boat) to instruct him on every single little step of the journey but he’s frighteningly crafty. There are immortals out there (like Vaati and Ganon) whom, despite thousands of years of experience, find themselves unable to even impede his progress. He has working knowledge of an array of gadgets that are truly dizzying if you really think about it (downing a fossilized dragon with a spinning top? Really? Really.). He doesn’t need the right tool for the job, he doesn’t need to haul a ladder around because he knows how to manipulate a whip or grappling hook into a sufficient replacement.

Link is good with animals and extremely gentle. In Link to the Past it’s revealed that his inner self is a rabbit, soft and cuddly at the core. Link prefers non-violent resolutions to issues. He would rather tie up a raging goron and wait for the giant to cool down than bash it with a giant hammer. Yet, he also has a savage side, his spirit form is a black dire wolf, some part of him loves the violence and the madness, he’s a barbarian that, on some level, revels in the war against Demise. These may seem like disparate and irreconcilable personality quirks, but are they really? Is it really impossible for someone to hate violence, yet get a perverse pleasure out of hurting bad people? My wife is one of those real goodie types. One of those “if you aren’t doing anything wrong then you have nothing to fear from being monitored” types, yet she turns a blind eye to when Ntac and I pirate games and music, she even occasionally gets a perverse kick out of getting free stuff so long as nobody is being directly harmed from the morally ambiguous elements of her krantt.

Let’s talk about The Doctor. Who is the Doctor? Well, if you’ve been paying attention, that question has been at the forefront of the entire series since the relaunch. Classic Doctor Who did a great job and describing what the doctor is but was intentionally ambiguous concerning who The Doctor is. What does that mean? Well, I didn’t catch it until my most recent run through #11/12. Doctors 1-10 (with the exception of Tom Baker, glorious bastard) have all been smarter than they were good looking, and they kept to this motif even in Day of the Doctor when they revealed the new #9 (the War Doctor). The Doctor has always been humanity’s teacher, he was our role model, our hero. Tennant was an intentional deviation from that theme. He wasn’t a teacher like his predecessors, he was chosen specifically to juxtapose Rose Tyler against the most popular of companions, Sarah Jane Smith. To Sarah Jane, he was a teacher, a mentor. This relationship was a perfect microcosm of the pre-Tennant Doctor’s relationship with humanity. He wasn’t our friend, he wasn’t our lover, (as much as Sarah Jane might have wanted him to be) he was our teacher and guide. Sarah Jane was a microcosm of what The Doctor is.

Rose, on the other hand, was the first element in answering the titular question, ‘Doctor Who’. She was the first visible character (other than the lightly discussed wife and children of The Doctor) that could be considered the Doctor’s lover. We already know what The Doctor is, but it wasn’t until we met Rose that we learned who The Doctor is. Until now, we didn’t know that he was a closet romantic. The concept that being the sole parental figure of an entire species (and effectively an entire universe) might be lonely was largely underplayed in the old Doctor Who serials. Whereas Sarah was an exemplar of what The Doctor is, Rose was the beginning of Who. That is why Billie Piper played the Hologram in Day of the Doctor. Even though Doctor #9 had no idea concerning the identity of Rose at this point, she remained the purest expression of who he is.

The later series goes further into this concept. The Doctor eventually gets married to River and it’s eventually revealed that the Williams family were the first people he actually considered close friends. While Doctor Who has never really concerned itself with telling a believable story, there are a few things that aren’t stated via exposition. In season 7, the Doctor, likely in mourning over the loss of the Williams family, reverted to a mentor/student relationship when introduced to Clara. I predict that with Doctor #14 (Capaldi) we will see a full reversion into the Doctor’s previous role. Doctor Who has always had a full pantheon, including it’s own angels (not just the weeping ones) and demons (not just the one on the asteroid). Capaldi will likely revert to his role as the lonely and enigmatic Mad God of the Whovian pantheon (mistreatment of religion in games, there goes a seed).

So what does this have to do with video games? Well, depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re part of the Call of Duty crowd (I’ve really been unfair to you guys, I shouldn’t have judged you as a community by your genre, especially since I have no CoD or Battlefield experience myself, plus, you guys have the mechanical scene on lock, so sorry) then nothing. Every medium has it’s easy fun pieces (ease of assimilation versus ease of completion). Everyone has to start somewhere and games like CoD and WoW are excellent launching points for perspective core gamers. This doesn’t mean you have to love CoD or be in a top end raiding guild to be a hardcore gamer. You don’t have to love The Matrix to be a film buff and easier pieces like these are excellent jumping points for people who want to get into serious gaming. That being said, if you want to go any further than a night of stupid, awesome fun with your guildmates, or even if you just want a story line that doesn’t sound like it was written by a 6 year old, then this information is going to get really important.

Let’s face it, we, as a medium are dead in the middle of a trend. AAA developers are trying to hardboil everything. The last 10 years have seen releases like Shadow the Hedgehog, an attempt to make a dark gritty story out of Sonic the Hedgehog, it was just as bad as it sounded. Usually I don’t like reducing an experience to it’s most apparent layer but this piece of racist trash really was just black Sonic with a gun. Seriously, the cover of the game featured a black hedgehog with gold bracelets, gold anklets and designer shoes brandishing a pistol. Racism in games, essay seed. We have also seen releases like Twilight Princess, a ham-fisted and half-assed attempt at dragging Lovecraft into Legend of Zelda, they really should have gone whole-hog on portraying the Twilight realm as a twisted version of Hyrule instead of just putting a sepia filter over most of the land and coloring the sky black, ref. environmental storytelling. On top of these old series going hardcore we have a myriad of new IPs that are starting off in Grittsville. We have scores of designers insisting that serious games can’t be done without cutting edge graphics. Unfortunately, we are all failing to realize that hard boiled stories have nothing to do with graphics, aesthetics, palette or even setting.

This brings me to the whole point of this essay. Good stories are not about setting, environment, or even appearances. Good stories are all about the people.

Wait, let me interrupt myself, when I say people I don’t mean humans. Humanity is just a fraction of what we pass for characters. In Middle and South American mythologies the relentless march of the seasons are personified all the time. The Greeks even personified the fear of death and the unthinking hatred one man on a battlefield feels for another (Phobos and Deimos, respectively, for the record, and I really need to get around to that religion essay).

Anyway, as I was saying, good stories are about characters. In case you haven’t noticed, we at Something Wicked Games are huge fans of narrative. In fact, I would love to see games that stretch the traditional definition of video game characters. I know there are games like Proteus, Journey and Flower that try to personify the flow of time and that’s all well and good, but they fail to do so in any meaningful way. Look at Proteus. In Proteus you play a personified version of the seasons, watching wistfully as life marches on. Now look at Antichamber, which anthropomorphized the non linear journey of life. We have plenty of games that try to bring character to less literal concepts, so it is possible, but these games often fail to do anything meaningful with it. Well, we could look at Flower. Flower uses the petals of a flower and the wind to anthropomorphize nature in it’s struggle against the march of “civilization”. So I suppose that counts. OH! I have one! Lets look at Dark Souls.

On the surface, Dark Souls is just an incredibly difficult hack-n-slash. However, if you look just beyond the surface you can see a deeper narrative. Dark Souls isn’t just a by-the-books monster slayer. Dark Souls is about the futile struggle between man (as personified by your character) and the darkness in his own heart. Dark Souls has you making war against mindless hordes and the very darkness of our collective unconscious (as personified by the warped creatures who’s souls you have to conquer) and in the end makes you choose between saving yourself by dooming the world and extending the light of hope for a few more days by sacrificing the last person who could even be considered human.

In Dark Souls all of your allies are personifications of man’s sin. You have the templar who compares himself to the sun, the flame keeper who has been conquered by lethargy and apathy, the murderer in the mask. There’s even a robed figure who literally trades money for absolution in the eyes of the gods, whom never actually make their presence known, begging the question ‘do they even exist’ (and by the way, am I the only person who nearly soiled ’em after ringing the first bell?). Dark Souls tells a story, on top of the standard that we all saw on the surface, about the hopelessness of the human condition and goes on to question whether we’re even worth saving. Just think about it, each character personifies something horrible about humanity. You fight to save as many of these corrupt souls aspossible and at the end of it all, the choice at the end asks if these creatures (which I repeat, represent the darkness in man’s heart) are even worth saving. Best of all, Dark Souls manages to tell it’s story through environment but pose the central questions through the NPCs. I personally feel that they did a stellar job of telling a multi-layered story. I can’t think of another game that manages to divide it’s intended messages so clearly.

Oh dear. Top of page 9 and I have managed to spend the entire time rambling about stuff I like and haven’t gotten to the meat of our discussion. Jesse is giving me the ‘wrap it up’ sign. Don’t get me wrong, she usually lets me do whatever I want but she usually expects consistency (ironic given who she married) and I have to crank one of these things out every week.

If I had more space to write I might go into explaining archetypes. I might also go on about different types of characters like tragic heroes or anti heroes. I would also love to talk more about making games with a less literal bent and how to hint people off on the function of your characters. For now, since I’m out of time I will leave some questions to be discussed in the comments. Tune in next week so that we can continue this discussion.

 

  1. Who is your favourite character in all of gaming?

  2. Why do you like him/her/it?

  3. If you’ve played Dark Souls, how do you feel about the ending? Did you come to the same conclusion as myself concerning the role of the characters and how it all relates to the choice you make at the end?

  4. What message did you take from Flower and Proteus (if you’ve played them)?

  5. If you have any other thoughts that relate to gaming (even if they don’t relate to this essay) sound off like you’ve got a pair. Also, let me know what you would like me to discuss in the future. This machine runs off of imagination and I’m going to need yours in order to get it going full steam.

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