Monday, 21 November 2011

I Knew Him, Horatio - On Characters and Characterization in Games

From plumbers, apes, and hedgehogs to soldiers, assassins and everything in between characterization in video games has been around from the start, but as the technology has grown and the time has passed we find that more complex characters can be created. What turns a character though, from a necessary part of playing the game, into an icon?

Something that I've often thought about -- and that I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking about -- is how characters have come to be represented in video games. Certainly advancing technology has made more realistic characters possible, and allowed for advances in character portrayal that early game designers would have only dreamt about. The thing is that it seems to me that despite how far we've come we still generally see a lot of older characters enduring, and certain strengths and weaknesses popping up time and time again.

Take some of the earliest games for example: PAC-MAN, Mario, Sonic. Three icons of the gaming world, but it was years before any of them talked, even in terms of dialogue boxes or things of that sort. Early in games you were told the basic premise of the story from the instruction booklet (on a side note I can't be the only person that misses those things, right?) and really the rest was either filled in by the player or perhaps not filled in at all. You didn't need to hear Mario talk about how difficult his quest to save the Princess was because you were Mario, and after falling into that damn bottomless pit for the umpteenth time you knew that it was a real slug fest.

Let's look at Mario though, shall we. All in all, the guy hasn't really changed, and I'm pretty sure that he's been alive longer than I have. Certainly he's gotten better looking as the graphic improved, and he does now have a voice. For the most part though, aside from various grunts, yells, and what have you Mario is still, for the most part, a silent protagonist. For him, it's something that feels right. Seeing Mario go on a diatribe about, well, anything, would kind of just feel strange. His concise, to the point responses do more to endear us, the audience, to his character than any amount of monologuing or chewing the fat in cut scenes or through gameplay would.

It's not the same for every character, of course. Creations like Cloud Strife, Lara Croft, Nathan Drake, and countless others have always been more animated in terms of actual personalities, but the results have seemingly been mixed in that regard as well. Certainly giving a character a recognizable persona makes them stand out, but sometimes it isn't for the right reasons. People often take issue when characters personalities seem to go all over the place in terms of continuity from game to game, such as Lara seemingly becoming more and more detached and brutal with each successive Tomb Raider game (reboots notwithstanding in some cases), or Nathan Drake being a callous dick spouting one liners while killing people.

Giving a character a personality also makes any potential changes to the character harder to manage. For a good case of this see the Devil May Cry series. The first Devil May Cry game clearly established Dante's character as a brash cocky man, but also one that will ultimately do the right thing and is not without compassion or sombreness. Then the second DMC game came along and Dante pretty much didn't talk at all. He kept a pretty tight lock on his mouth throughout the entire game, and the overall effect was that the audience pretty much agreed that it just didn't feel like Dante. The latter games in the series rectified this well enough, but it's still a very prominent example of what can happen when a character with a personality undergoes a change, or in this case one might even say a removal of the previous traits that they did have in favour of new ones.

There's much to talk about here, and I've only really scratched the surface, so in the following days you can look forward to a more in depth look at protagonists (both silent and non-silent), antagonists, the overall cast, and how technology might have both helped and hurt characters and characterizations. Should be a fun week to write, and I hope it's also a fun week to read!

1 comment:

  1. You make a good point with Dante, and you can see the same thing happen but the other way around with Samus in Metroid: Other M.

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