Decisions Vs. Character

by / Wednesday, 17 April 2013 / Published in Editorials & Reviews, News & Articles

Within the soon to be ending console generations, I have noticed two particular trends in video games, the ability to choose your character’s actions, thus creating enticing characters in genres outside of RPG’s, and 90′s point and click adventure games. This generation alone seems to have produced more memorable characters for me than any other generation out there. Yes, this article is again partially inspired by my love for Bioshock Infinite, but there were other trademark characters that really shined in this era, such as Nathan Drake, the Mass Effect cast, and the cast of the Borderlands series. Sure there are RPG elements tied into some of these games, but we are starting to see thrilling characters mashed in with other genres such as third person and first person shooters. However we are also starting to see main characters that come into the game with a blank slate, and you get to choose the moral principles of your character. While this is fantastic, this has sort of created an awkward contrast between these dynamic engrossing characters and your binary choice fueled hero.

I want to start out with Mass Effect here because I’ve noticed the biggest contrast between hero and cast. Think about your favorite character, was it Miranda? Jack? Garrus? Vega? Hah, kidding, nobody loves Vega. But I can tell you, thinking back on the series, Shepard was the one I forgot the most. Something odd for someone that had 99% of the screen time. You made your own Shepard, and that is amazing, don’t get me wrong. But because you are in the control of a person who’s personality can vary based on your decisions, you can never be as strong as a character who was written to be a certain way. Your all paragon Shepard could suddenly shoot a puppy and punch a reporter who was interviewing him about it if you told him to, and it disconnects us from the character. Now even if you played your character all paragon or renegade, Shepard still doesn’t seem to have much of a personality beyond his moral choice system. Even when you are given the choice to pick favorites, you can still tell every store owner that they are your favorite store in the citadel without consequence. Now I haven’t played the Citadel DLC yet, and this may change my mind, but I’ve also been hearing it’s more of a tribute to the rest of the cast than to Shepard, which is exactly how it should be, the Mass Effect supporting cast is unforgettable.

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Now for a game that does this right, and this is partially cheating because it is essentially a point and click game, but it’s a template for how this system should be handled; Telltale’s The Walking Dead game. You are put in place of Lee, and the main gist outside of surviving a zombie apocalypse is having to make tough decisions at a moment’s notice, much like Mass Effect. However what it does do differently is it makes certain aspects of Lee’s character a constant, such as his love for Clementine. This does not change due to your actions, Lee will still care about her no matter what. Because certain things about Lee are constant, the general audience as a whole can talk about him and not feel like they are comparing two different Lee’s between people’s play through. Not to mention that even when you do choose different options in dialogues, Lee still has the same personality, he simply handles the situation differently. All of the options sound like they are coming from the same person, rather than evil robot reporter punching Shepard vs donating all of my credits to charity Shepard. Choosing one choice over another does nothing to change Lee, it simply changes how people react to him, that is exactly what The Walking Dead does so well.

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While Mass Effect has a strong cast with a varying main character, and The Walking Dead has a strong cast with a strong main character, my third example, Alpha Protocol, has neither, it’s a weak stereotypical cast with a weak, and varying main character. As a whole Alpha Protocol is an underrated game, so don’t misread that. However what is interesting is that due to the weaker supporting cast, the varying personality of Mike Thornton, the main character, doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb. For those that don’t remember Alpha Protocol was a 2010 espionage action rpg shooter…thing that tried to be Mass Effect if Mass Effect took place in a modern day spy thriller. Your trope of spy buddies and villains were comically stereotyped, and some were just flat out bizarre, like the overly buff and sexually harassing SIE wielding an M60 most of the time you see her. Yes, this game gets a bit weird. The issue here is that your decisions are laughably douchey no matter what. You basically choose between 3 different personalities when you respond; professional, suave, or aggressive. This puts Mike’s personality all over the map, especially when you realize that you have to respond to characters based on what type of personality fits them best. You basically end up being James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Jack Bauer all fused together into some poncey man child. However, it doesn’t disconnect you from the other characters, because they are just as over the top and silly as your main character can get, so Mike Thorton fits right in.

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The next generation needs to keep something in mind, it needs to develop supporting cast along the side of a main character, and make them equally as strong as each other. It simply isn’t enough to have a strong main chracter with a weak cast, or the other way around. We have made clear progress, characters in video games have come a long way from the standard action shooter heroes who didn’t even have a voice or personality. But for every Garrus or Tiny Tina, I want a Booker in there as well.

 

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