It’s all about your friends

I really like life.  It’s a pretty great thing really.  But as I’m sure you’re all aware, if even only vicariously through films such as Castaway, life is nothing without the people around you.  Love them or hate them, the people you surround yourself with are what makes or breaks your enjoyment of life and henceforth your attachment to your own being.  Nearly any journey can be made worthwhile if you have decent people around you.

Humans are interesting creatures really, we can anthropomorphise pretty much anything and as a result can emotionally connect with almost anything if we put our minds to it and as a result vehemently defend anything with conviction.   Sometimes this can lead to war, but more often than not it leads to connections that make the feeling of loss feel that much worse.  If you’ve ever seen a child lose his or her ‘security blanket’, even though its the loss of an inanimate object, to them it feels like the loss of a member of the family.

So given that humans do become connected to things where they feel they have a personal and emotional investment, it is not surprising that video games have the potential to sink their claws into our emotions and not let go until the credits role.  Even when the things we’re becoming attached to are black magii, alien life forms or murderous sorceresses – or in actuality a bunch of pixels or polygons on a television screen.  Sometimes the human brain defies logic, but it’s what makes us special and special in equal parts.

I love your curves and polygons, baby.
(The Witcher 2, CDPROJEKTRED, 2011)

But what are we actually getting attached to when we play these games?  It’s easy to come away from a game and feel that you were attached to the main protagonist, the person whose shoes you walked in while playing the game.  And absolutely that may be the case, Red Dead Redemption’s John Marston had some mighty interesting and emotional boots to walk in, and coupled with the ending, there is no doubt that developer Rockstar San Diego had created a character and a narrative that really gave you a sense of agency in the outlaw’s tale.

Does this represent the status quo though, or is it an outlier in the pantheon of video games?

If you think about how much you know about the average video game protagonist, actually really sit down and think about it, you might be surprised as to how much time you’re spending with almost a complete stranger.  Gordon Freeman is a great example, someone who we all identify with for whatever reason but really know not a whole lot about.  Amnesia can be a curious beast and it is one of many ways that developers start you off with almost a clean slate. And while some developers will fill in the blanks throughout the course of the game, others will just leave it to your imagination and let the game mechanics do the talking to the point where you forget why your character is in the game in the first place.

Relying on mechanics and forgetting about character development at all tends to be the case less often in Role Playing Games where it is expected that you form a bond with your character and, particularly nowadays with games with decisions and varying degrees of morality like the Mass Effect and Witcher games,  make decisions and take actions that are fitting of who you think you are reflected through your on screen avatar.  But even then that doesn’t necessarily provide you an insight into your character, rather just provides you with an insight into yourself.

One thing that games do well however, is forge the relationship between you and the supporting cast.   Or more accurately the relationship between your character and his friends (or enemies in some cases). In a kind of a friend of yours is a friend of mine kind of way, a connection between you and your on screen counterpart is implied vicariously through the relationships forged on screen.  These relationships are often driven so hard through the narrative that any desire to keep your character alive through performing arbitrary tasks only exists as a device to keep those around him or her alive.

But this is a problem inherent in videogames with the disposable nature of ‘life’.  We are faced with the death of our own character so much within the span of your typical game that it loses its impact.  And even when death seems permanent, like at the beginning of Mass Effect 2 with the temporary demise of Commander Shephard, there is always some loophole worked into the narrative that prevents its permanence which in some ways serves to reduce the impact of death of your character if and when it does occur.

This is most certainly not the case with your supporting cast.  Death often is permanent and most players will go to extreme lengths to preserve those around him or her, forging an almost unbreakable bond with those characters.  Bonds which often serve to define your own character, beyond the already established relationships within the confines of the game’s narrative.  So while video games may be weak on directly developing the traits, history and motivations of your own character, this same medium is incredibly good at defining the characters around you to a point where you can start to identify with what is often, a blank slate.

-Sir Gaulian