Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Some Thoughts about Real Characters

Warning: The following blog post contains spoilers about an anime that was released in 1998.

I was talking with my friend the other day about the ending of Cowboy Bebop. At the end of the 26 episode show, the protagonist dies. That's right. You follow this characters story for hours and hours and at the end of it all, he dies. Strangely enough, that ending was fulfilling. In fact, it was far more fulfilling than having Spike Spiegel ride off into space. Instead, his character is satisfied with how how his life has come to this point, and he dies. Just before he leaves for the climactic finale he says, "I'm not going there to die, I have to find out if I'm really alive." Spike Speigel is a human being.

People love Spike Spiegel. He has a human beings flaws and emotions. He carries a past with good memories and bad memories just like anybody else and then he dies, just like every human being. That's what pulls you into the series and what makes you feel satisfied at the end despite a non-traditional ending. So why is our industry so obsessed with the exact oppisite?

Many of the industries famous protagonists are barely even recognizable as humans. Lara Croft, Master Chief, Link, Dante, etc. most of these characters don't even have last names. Even the ones who do feel more real, such as your character in Mass Effect or Solid Snake are rarely more fleshed out than the bare minimum necessary to keep the player engaged with the mechanics of the game. It's almost insulting as a player. As if my puny gamer mind can't comprehend characters more complex than the cardboard cutout cliche they throw at me.

One of the few games that felt like it had a "real" protagonist was Shadow of the Colossus. Through very simple cutscenes and and animations, the player gets a real feel that the character is a human being going through an extremely trying ordeal. He hardly talks and he is more human than 90% of the characters we see today. What are we doing out there?

There are some games that are excused from this critique, no doubt. There are some games where you aren't playing a human, or the intent isn't to go down that road. I don't fault Mario for not behaving like a real plumber with feelings and depth. But if you're trying to present a strong character in an interactive narrative, we have got to start giving our characters a little more depth.

P.S. I know that Master Chief is a rank, and his name is John, and he was taken from his planet and blah blah friggin' blah. I shouldn't have to read a novel to know the back story of my character.


Mark said...

Spike Spiegel is killed by Snape with Rosebud at the very beginning of the movie.

Well, what's your response to people who say that these "blank" characters make it easier for the audience to project themselves into the character, thereby lending personal meaning to that character's experiences?

Ray Ortgiesen said...

I would in turn argue that most of these characters are NOT actual blank slates. Even Gordan Freeman, the blankest of blanks, has some traits that undeniably show through when other characters speak of him. Most of the characters I mentioned are there simply as a childish means of pretending to be some hyper cool guy. And while I admit that's okay if that's what you want to go for, I'm lamenting the the best known characters our industry can offer are worse than cardboard cutouts in most cases.

Glen Cooney said...

I think the key is having what I'd call "hooks" when you are trying to have the player project themselves into the shoes of the game protagonist. Basically, little events, reactions, and other things that evoke an emotional response, with the intent of representing something that is relatable to the player themselves.

Shakespeare did this really well in his plays, at least for me. The events and trials of his characters dealt with the rigors of love, revenge, anguish, in theatrically exaggerated ways of course, but also in a way that is profoundly relatable as well.

This is an interesting point, though... might just blog about this myself...