Who Needs Faces: Entrusting Players With Open-Ended Characters

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Thomas Was Alone is about some squares on a quest up and to the right. That’s about it. There’s some storytelling going on in the background, something about an artificial intelligence developing sentience, but it’s limited to short bumpers before certain stages. It’s nothing special.

Despite this, Thomas Was Alone made me cry. I wasn’t reduced to a blubbering mess like I was with Journey, but a few tears escaped my stoically bloodshot eyes while guiding that group of geometric misfits to their fate.

There were no climactic death scenes or rain spattered declarations of love in the game. There weren’t even facial expressions. There was just the wonderful narration of Danny Wallace telling us the story of these different little cubes and rectangles.

If you asked me to name more than three characters from the Gears of War franchise, I wouldn’t be able to. All the detailed facial animation and expansive backstory money can buy and I just can’t be bothered to give a shit about those characters and their struggles. Wasn’t one of them a football player? Great.

So why is it that I’m left unperturbed by the heartfelt goodbye of two friends who I’ve stood beside for three games now, but reduced to tears when a tall green rectangle just wants to jump?

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For me it was the story of Laura and Chris that did it. Laura, the squat little bar who functioned much like a spring board, and Chris, the bitter and judgmental square, both of whom fall in love and learn to trust because of each other.  I never found out who betrayed Laura, or what happened to Chris to make him as bitter as he is, but that doesn’t entirely matter. I know what it’s like to be used, what it’s like to hate everybody around me who can jump higher or survive more adversity than me. I could relate with Chris and Laura on a primal level, so much so that I didn’t need some plot based justification for who they are. They could just be, and I was okay with that.

I related to the protagonist from Journey in much the same way. He (or she, or it for all we know) has one objective: to reach the pillar of light on the horizon. There are hints that an extinction-level event has occurred, or that what’s occurring might be a pilgrimage of sorts, but there’s nothing absolute. There aren’t pages and pages of codex entries to thumb through before you can figure out why a character looks off wistfully at the mention of a certain battle or place. It’s just you and a spritely figure in a red cloak, there to explore.

Yet, and I sure hope I’m not alone in this, I cried like a little baby when he (she/it) soared through the air after collapsing in the snow. I was right there with them, skimming across the water towards my final destination. I felt closer to that vague footless figure than any range of well-developed and motion captured characters.

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Odds are good that I felt something different about them than you did, though. That’s the joy of open-ended character design – it leaves room for all those things that separate us as people. As an interactive medium, it’s something that video games are uniquely positioned to draw on, much more so than film or novels. For many writers, still following the rulebooks that have defined what it meant to develop characters over the years, it’s still a matter of crafting personalities that are solid enough that they can guide the player through the experience.

When this happens though, it’s the writer’s world and you’re just visiting, which is all fine and good if you’re sitting on your couch for two hours. But when you’re investing ten or twenty or fifty or a hundred hours into something, hands gripping the controller, there’s opportunity for so much more. It’s no longer just the story of the writer, it’s the story of the player who’s coming to the game as well, and how they relate to the world. We do this with films and novels as well, but video games can shift and change in response to it. It’s what makes the medium magical.

The cast of Fire Emblem: Awakening doesn’t have a whole lot of detail overall. Take Kellam the knight, for example. He’s almost entirely defined by a single joke: nobody ever seems to notice him despite the fact that he’s a massive dude in clunky armor. He’s about as blank a slate as you can get. Hell, he’s even covered up on the cover of the game!

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While playing Fire Emblem though, I found myself pairing him up with Cordelia, the exceptionally gifted pegasus knight, to bolster her low defense rating. As a result of this, they grew closer and Cordelia actually began to notice him around the camp, her desire to always be the best thwarted by his bizarre skills at stealth. When he finally proposed to her, after spending more than a dozen battles acting as her shield, I realized that I had started viewing Kellam as something far more than he was written as.

Through the game mechanics, I had told the story of Kellam and Cordelia, a story that you may not have told in your playthrough. The same could be said of my choice to marry my protagonist to Thraja the unsettling dark mage, or of the fact that I went out of my way to make sure that Nowi the eternal dragon creature and Vaike (the childish warrior) would find each other across a crowded battlefield.

You can bet your ass that if one of them died, I would reload that save. Just the thought of Kellam fading into the background, his wife lost to an archer that I had missed because I wasn’t paying attention…

Had the game driven me towards that, slowly building the relationship of the two characters towards an eventual tearful death scene, I don’t think I would’ve been nearly as perturbed. It’s the investment that adds weight to the characters. If they’re overwritten, there’s no room left for the player to bring themselves to the relationship.

It’s easy for characters to get lost in their settings, especially as the worlds we’re being given become more and more elaborate. Unless the setting itself is a character (see: the town in Salem’s Lot, or the city of Columbia in Bioshock Infinite) it can be easy to allow it to overwhelm the characters instead of informing them. An overbearing setting can act as a barrier between the player and the characters; something that requires intellectual energy to penetrate as we attempt to relate to the prime movers in the piece.

Final Fantasy XIII is a great example of this. The very fact that I need to open up a wiki page even to talk about the setting of the game is proof enough of how dense and overbearing that setting was. The conflict of being a fal’Cie in the land of Cocoon is relatable; it’s a pretty simple coming-of-age story for the protagonist Hope, but the fact that it’s buried underneath a glossary that would put the Oxford English Dictionary to shame diminishes the impact of the characters. Every bold-faced vocabulary term pushes the player further and further away.

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You’re just a tourist on Cocoon, so you better learn the language, show some respect to what the writers have made, and then go home. Don’t leave your mark, they  don’t need it. Look back on your trip and laugh, oh wasn’t that so much fun, remember when we did that? But don’t forget, it’s just another vacation, and you will always be just another tourist, seeing what every other tourist sees.

It’s when a game opens up to you, trusts you to interact with it, explore it, and make it your own, that you start caring. When games like Thomas Was Alone give you the barest bones of a character, a frame upon which to hang your accumulated experiences, you start to feel like you’re doing something other than listening to a person talk at you. You’re having a conversation with the writer across time and space.

Some people like to be tourists, I get that. They don’t mind ascending the double decker bus, snapping the same picture that has been snapped thousands of times before, sipping coffee, and having the same wistful expression as countless travelers before them. That’s fine, I totally get it.

It’s when the cast of Gears of War is desperately dances for my attention, doing whatever it takes to make sure that I can feel what they’re feeling, that the entire experience gets reduced to something cheap and tawdry. Connecting with Marcus Fenix and company is like having a conversation with a worker at Disneyland. Not only does it feel hollow, it’s explicitly against the rules. Don’t dig too deep, you might uncover the seams.

But when I think back on those few hours I spent with Thomas and his chromatic cohorts, I not only remember what they did, but also what I did with them. They needed my help and welcomed me with open arms, almost as if I was just another square on a quest up and to the right.