Gaming is a strange new medium, still, and as an industry it’s still finding its feet – we’ve only been going for around 35 years, give or take. We’re still working out how characterisation works. Often, it doesn’t.
Gaming’s an interactive medium and with that comes a lot of choice on the player’s part – not only on a narrative level (i.e. should I save this fluffy kitten or should I stretch it painfully over my face and use my multilated kittenmask to upset local children whilst hiding in their bedrooms) but due to a lack of patience or competence. In Assassin’s Creed, for example, legendary Assassin Altair spent every single one of his long-winded briefings at Musyaf spinning in a circle as fast as he possibly could. Well. In my version of events he did, anyway.
A similar argument often comes up with Rockstar’s 1940’s grimfest LA Noire – Cole Phelps may be the rising star of the Los Angeles Detective squad, but he’s also prone to stealing fire engines and driving them as fast as he can down pedestrian sidewalks. He makes dead hookers wave to him by grasping their wrists and waggling their hands back and forth.
I could go on. I will! Crack gunfighting cop Max Payne jumps headlong into walls, stairs and closed doors over and over, no doubt sustaining massive head damage. Expert infiltrator Solid Snake scoots around warehouses on his knees and lies unmoving whilst guards gather around him and unload assault rifles into his back whilst I answer the phone and try to work out what the “stand up” button is. James Bond unloads clip after clip of ammunition into exploding chairs.
JC Denton stands in the middle of a New York park and smokes five entire packets of cigarettes in one explosive inhalation, keeling over dead on the spot. The forgettable protagonist of Alpha Protocol grows his beard long and wears a Yorkshireman-style flat cap, refuses to use guns, and punches his way through every international incident he’s involved in.
Frank West takes stupid amounts of pictures featuring solely dead women in their underwear and whistles appreciatively under his breath before caving their heads in with a broom. Oh, actually – that one was deliberate on Capcom’s part. Awkward. Anyway. Moving on.
An awful lot of games where any choice is inherent leave the protagonist blank and uninspiring so they don’t get in the way of whatever story the player wants to tell – and even some games where there’s no choice whatsoever, even down to the basest level. Look at the Elder Scrolls games, for example. Or Call of Duty. Or Battlefield. Or Crysis. Or Bioshock. Or Hitman. Or Mass Effect. Or Grand Theft Auto 3.* Or – fuck it – Half Life. These silent protagonists are just floating viewpoints into a world, left intentionally blank so the player can’t rub against their personality or motives with their actions.
As gamers, we want to rebel – it’s funny, after all, if your Assassin takes time out of his busy schedule to touch everyone walking past him and you mutter lasciviously under your breath during – but it’s accepted that this is non-canon. The disconnect between the actions of the player and the story that takes place can be big and the game can still be engaging.
We can watch blooper reels from films and television and still enjoy the main programme, because we understand that these are people doing a job and they can make mistakes. We can endure one-off specials (such as Treehouse of Horror shows) and understand that their narrative doesn’t tie into the main series. We’re not, to put it bluntly, idiots.
Nameless, faceless protagonists often piss me off. It’s all well and good to project our own character onto stories, so it feels like our own experience, but that runs the risk of feeling second-rate. No story can hope to accommodate every character decision and run in a way that’s a) believable and b) interesting. For all of Skyrim’s pomp and ceremony, for example, the story is a ball sandwich and the intro sequence is dull enough to make me not replay the game with a new character.
Mass Effect 3 has managed to take the idea of the blank protagonist and, with appropriate tools, given the user a means to build their own personality – and it works, too! It’s a fantastic, involving storyline. But it’s a rare gem in a field of mechanically brilliant but emotionally uninvolving near-misses.
* Rockstar have, of course, sorted this out now and Tommy Vercetti remains the only videogame character to inspire me so much that, at the age of 16, I had an email address incorporating his name