The problem with building character: Game of Thrones, Around the World in 80 Days, and a dhow.

This post contains major spoilers for Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead: Season 1.

Episode 3 PalinDVDcoverof Michael Palin’s seminal travel adventure series, Around the World in 80 Days, makes for some of the most compelling television ever put to air.  In his bid to follow in Phileas Fogg’s footsteps, as told in the Jules Verne literary classic of the same name, he finds himself crossing the Black Sea on a rickety old dhow: sleeping on the deck, shitting off the stern, and eating ‘freshly’ cooked rice ‘delights’ from a communal bowl with his hands.  Sure sounds like an adventure to me.

It was the people he met though, that made it such a brilliant piece of television, and an utterly memorable 40 minutes of human interest.  If there was ever any doubt as to Michael Palin’s personality, his presence, his humility, just watching the way he interacts with the humble and the impoverished will put that doubt the rest.  The way he bonds with these people, learns from them and teaches them, crossing cultural boundaries is what sticks in the memory.  And it’s these connections he builds over the course of less than an hour of television that sticks with you long after his journey is over and the credits role.  Conversation is an art, and an art that can bridge any spurious notion of nationality, gender, or religion.  And Around the World in 80 Days is conversation at its very best.

What does this have to do with video games?  Bear with me.

I can think of only a handful over the last few generations, that have really managed to build in the idea of tangible relationships.  The first was Persona 3, which managed to juxtapose the fantastical ‘world saving’ premise, with the mundane of the real world.  A game where building up relationships – often through simple acts like sharing a bowl of ramen- weren’t only interesting but were integral parts of the game.  It was character building at its very best, and it was through the art of conversation – often on everyday parts of life – that you really were able to build very personal relationships with these people.

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But the second, and this is where it gets really interesting, is the recent XCOM: Enemy Unknown where character building is right at the heart of the game’s mechanics.  But it’s not through dialogue, or through scripted conversations, that Firaxis build character connection, rather its through the time spent building the traits and skills of these characters.  The first time you lose a character you’ve had with you since the beginning is heartbreaking, and almost as if in the movies, a montage of all of his or her triumphs run through your mind.  It’s character building at its most simplistic, as their level and rank reflect your relationship with them, but they’re an individual with a name and a history and that’s enough to form ‘real’ bonds.

And then of course there’s Mass Effect and The Last of Us – but I probably don’t need to go there.

Games have improved in their storytelling, this there is absolutely no doubt about.  You just have to look at Lucius’ recent piece on Heavy Rain to see that. But when was the last time a game felt more about the people you met along the way, perhaps even bonded with, more than it was the gameplay or the destination?  While I wrote a scathing assessment of Telltale Games’ adventure game efforts recently, I have to give them credit for putting the characters front and centre, often at the expense of any cohesive journey or direction.  When it works, it absolutely works, with Episode 3 of The Walking Dead Season 1 being a masterclass in killing off key characters.  But when it doesn’t, it feels like it is trying to build players’ emotional connections with characters, so that when the inevitable downfall comes it pulls at the heart strings.  Killing a kid was one thing, and at your own hand at that, but killing off characters does not in itself make for emotional connections or strong characters.  Fool me once, Telltale Games…

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And I’m not sure television is much better.  Look at Game of Thrones, a television show (and books if you’re that way inclined) that doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to putting characters in uneasy situations, and having them share in journeys across the great land of Westeros.  There’s the guy that gets his head cut off, the guy that gets his bollocks removed, oh and the guy that falls down a mountain.  Did I mention that guy that pushes that woman into the hole in the mountain?  While Game of Thrones may have a plethora of complex characters, full of political intrigue and rambunctious backstory, I couldn’t tell you any of their names.  So while they may be fleshed out to the nth degree, there’s never really any chance to feel connected to these people, and so in the event of misfortune my most emotive response is usually “well that’s unfortunate”.  Not sad.  Not heartbreaking.  Not even immoral.  Unfortunate.  People dying is sad, but like anything else, it is all too easy to become desensitised to tragedy.  And when you don’t carry any agency in the outcomes on screen one way or another, when the people are so despicable and incomprehensible in their motives, it is quite simply hard to give a rat’s.

But it’s not just games.  It’s a broader problem with pop culture mediums, and one that has me losing rapid interest in most of them, in favour of more personal stories told in books or documentaries.  Watching Michael Palin’s documentary series now, they all have on thing in common, and that they convey something very human.  Sure, they purport to be great adventures, great journeys, great travels across the world, but what they really are are tales of human interest.  It’s about the people he meets – the people travelling on roof of the train in Africa in Pole to Pole or the blind man that give him a close shave in  Mumbai – and the trip from point A to point B is merely a device to tell these tales.  Telltale Games gets this, and while often falls a bit short in the personality department, understands the importance of ‘people’ over ‘place’ or ‘premise’.  But across the industry the human interest story is covered up by blood and smoke and the explosions and weaponry tend to take centre stage, as the games’ heroes often go from hopeless to hero, and rise from the ashes to save the world.  Some of that is great, after all, we all love a spectacle.  Sometimes though, just sometimes, it is nice to stop and have a chat.  Get to know the people around you, because it is these stories that are the heartwarming stories of triumph or heartbreak that will endure long after the war is won.

After all, it is the stories of Anne Frank and the Oscar Schindler that have touched more people in the years after World War II, than a story about the tanks rolling across the Western front ever will.  In the same way, bringing it back to Around the World in 80 Days, it is Michael Palin’s ability to connect with people from every walk of life that makes it timeless television coming up on 30 years later.  Video games have come a long way, both in the portrayal of characters, and building player connection with them.  But it’s got a long way to go, and like other mediums, writers of narrative need to stop relying on shock and awe to try and build connection with the people on screen.  Because as humans, it’s the simple things that allow us to connect with one another, rather than the big sweeping narratives that permeate through a majority of the games we play.  The conversations we have with one another, bonding over the things we all share as part of the same greater race, is the greatest part of any story in any medium.  And I’m convinced that the first game to truly nail this, will perhaps be the greatest piece of interactive entertainment ever made.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about the importance of characters and conversation.  But have I missed any games that get character building right?  Am I right off the mark?  Is Game of Thrones the brilliant piece of literary fiction everyone seems to think it is?  Let me know in the comments!

6 Comments

  1. While I generally agree with you, I have to disagree on Game of Thrones. A lot of the deaths in that series were easy to shrug off for me, but a few of them – no, absolutely not. I definitely felt some connection with at least a few of the characters who got it, and there were plenty of readers (and watchers) I know who got super-pissed off at a few points out of “how could they kill him off” sentiments. Though my experience might be different because I read all the way up to the most current book before watching any of the HBO series.

    I am willing to give that the series might be getting so saturated with blood now that this will become a problem, but I swear to god if they kill Arya off… holy shit. Sorry.

    1. I guess for me I didn’t have any connection with the world or the characters. Add to that the fact that the ‘twists’ were so clearly signposted if you just asked the question “WHY” whenever a new character or House is introduced, and I found it a recipe for “who gives a shit”. I’ll admit that perhaps the books are different, though.

      I think we’re getting a point where because writers have a new found courage in killing off key characters, and character assassination of others, they’re relying on it for a crutch. But I think they’ve perhaps missed that in order for an on-screen death to be impactful you have to have formed a relationship with that character (even if it’s not a good one). I find The Walking Dead (the TV series and comics) has done a fantastic job of doing just that, but Game of Thrones, for me not so much.

      And games are even worse for the most part.

      1. I haven’t played the games, but fair enough. I can’t say how I’d feel about these characters if I hadn’t read the books first, especially since they really put you into the minds of a few characters who are central to the plot and end up getting killed. I did get a connection with at least some of those characters (well, maybe two specifically.) Then again, I’ve seen friends who haven’t read the books freak out at stuff like the Red Wedding too, so maybe it’s just a matter of certain works “clicking” for some people and not for others.

  2. Great article! I spotted a typo though – dowel should have been dhow. I’ve changed it, hope that’s OK.

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