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Thinking about identity in games

posted on June 26th, 2009 by simon

As I sat staring at an enormous horde of Mongol marauders storming across the bridge, I felt a certain pride at the waiting ranks of Byzantine heavy infantry that stood on the other side. I’m not sure why, but I’ve always felt a certain affinity for those crazy Byzantines. Positioned at the crossroads of two continents, bordered by distinctly unfriendly Islamic and Catholic nations on either side, one of the greatest cities on earth as their capital. In both of the Medieval: Total War titles, the Byzantine Empire is one of the toughest factions to succeed with, surrounded by enemies and few potential allies, and that’s before the Golden Hordes turn up sometime along the way with their endless armies of terrifying heavy cavalry and horse archers. You can see why they struggled, despite their heritage and wealth.

Still, I’m a fan of theirs, and I do find myself playing Medieval II and trying to rebuild an empire that ended 500 years ago. It made me think about identification in games – sometimes you feel you can really identify with the character (or, you know, last vestige of the Roman Empire) you’re playing as. Does that make a game more involving?

Looking back a bit through gaming history, did people really relate to Mario, a plumber trying to rescue a princess, as he leapt through a series of surreal 2D levels? I’m thinking not much, but he is an undeniably likable guy, latter-day backlash or not. He’s got a cool mustache, no one with a mustache can be a bad person. They managed to fit a surprising amount of character into so few pixels back in those early games. Now sure, there’s only so much connection you can have with a 2D sprite that you’re directing. So maybe you didn’t feel like you were inside his head as you jumped down drain pipes, but you were on his side.

Then another staple of the early 90s; 2D Fighters. You found a character that best fit your personal outlook on violence – be it running around fast and jabbing with cheap attacks, doing nothing but throwing fireballs from a safe distance, crushing people’s spines or to my biggest fan – Johnny Cage. Uh, I lost my thread – wait, okay so you probably found a couple of characters that you were particularly good with and largely stuck with them, and you most likely felt a certain connection with them right? Some of them were outlandish indeed, ninjas that could freeze a man solid, killer robots, super spies, undead warriors and uh… also quite a few boxers and wrestlers. I don’t even know where to start with Dhalsim…what the hell is that guy’s deal? The characters were extreme and often bizarre, but they had a lot of personality and you might spend a lot of time in their company.

Which leads us on nicely to RPGs. It’s not uncommon for people to form a real bond with their RPG characters, I suppose it’s hard not to when they’re fairly lengthy undertakings, but there’s more to it than just time. In Western RPGs you’re traditionally given more of a blank slate and you generally have some degree of control over their behavior and attitudes to the world at large. It often conforms to the good/neutral/evil categories laid out somewhat D&D style: you’re either helping rescue cats from trees, setting those trees alight while the cats are in them, or helping rescue the cat and then demanding a reward and burning the tree down for good measure. So in controlling how your character acts you directly influence how the world reacts, and how they come to be perceived, it’s kind of like street theatre.

It’s not really like street theatre at all. In an interesting schism, most Japanese RPGs give you a lead character (and yes, fair chance they’ll be a very effeminate man) and often give you less control over how they act. These games tend to be rather more dominated by lengthy cutscenes that flesh out the story. It also seems fair to say that they give you less control over how a character develops, leveling up often a more automated process, forgoing the careful consideration of whether to improve trap laying or basket weaving that you might get in a western RPG.

Because a lot of JRPGs feel more like a progression through a set sequence of events and pre-defined improvements, I’ve never enjoyed them as much. But then again, many Western RPGs provide more of an illusion of influence than anything else, with events often turning out much the same regardless, or perhaps alternating between two extreme finales. I do enjoy being a blank slate from the start though, and choosing my character’s direction – deciding whether to be some guy with a bow/laser sniper rifle and sneak skills, or a sword/laser sword wielding melee fighter extraordinaire, that kind of thing.

I suppose first and third person shooters, the most ubiquitous genres these days, are most guilty for propagating the trend of alienatingly terrible characterization. How many times have you played a game with a hulking, gravelly voiced alpha male stereotype or barely dressed femme fatal for a lead character? It’s become a regular complaint, people railing against unimaginative writing and basic archetypes. While graphics have improved a thousand fold in the past 20 years, with super-detailed and lifelike character models, the writing has barely moved forward at all. Mario, in all his pixilated early glory, somehow had a lot more charm than many instantly forgettable game heroes of a more recent vintage.

So I guess what I’m saying is that I like to identify with the character I’m supposed to be embodying. It adds something intangible when you feel some connection, some investment in their fate. Don’t give me nihilistic posers with stupid voices or irritating tough guys with stupid voices, games are often better when you’re kind of glad to see the hero(s) succeed. It’s nice to identify with your characters, whether it’s because they’re interesting and charismatic or that you had so much influence on their development and actions throughout the game. Or even because they have a uniquely difficult starting location and an intriguing mix of horse archers and western style heavy infantry, that works too.

5 Comments

  1. Cunzy1 1 said on June 26, 2009:

    “It’s nice to identify with your characters, whether it’s because they’re interesting and charismatic or that you had so much influence on their development and actions throughout the game” or have tits.

  2. Michelle said on June 27, 2009:

    I identify with very few video game characters, I see myself as quite separate to their story, I can separate their game experience and mine very easily.

    Why? Because the vast majority of game characters are male, and although I don’t want to put too fine a point on this, the decent male characters in games vastly outweigh the decent female ones, much as it pains me to say it.

    This is particularly apparent in current gen games with more and more wonderful open sandbox features… that doesn’t let you choose a female character. It bothers me, but I am quite, quite used to lugging a big, hefty man around with my controller.

  3. Zeta Thompson said on June 29, 2009:

    Well said and exactly my point in RPGs. Lately it is getting harder to identify with the main characters. Oh for a game like Eye of Beholder again!

  4. Alexis said on July 2, 2009:

    If I may chime in on the “girl playing a male character” point, I don’t find it hard to identify with the good characters (ex: Adol [Ys], Link [Zelda], Toku [Lost Winds]). I tend to forget what gender is being portrayed unless they really rub my face in it (ex: Mad World, Gears of War, games with characters that could have a testosterone rather than health meter). But that works for those games… for the most part.

    As long as the story as a whole is good, I find gender of main character to be a negligible factor. Like in a great book with a male f.p. narrative, you cannot help but be sympathetic when you are looking at the world through his eyes.

    Also, YES, decent female characters are rare. If the main character’s masculine, that dude can just be a character without being a MAN. But if it’s a girl, the character has to have a feminine twist. But hey, I am totally willing to admit that I am just being over sensitive because as soon as I try to break it down logically, my argument fails. Maybe it’s just realistically full characters that are on short order (and no, freaking out over your wife doesn’t make you realistic Dom, sorry).

  5. Cunzy1 1 said on July 6, 2009:

    At least female characters come in different flavours: Sexy Ice Queen (see any fighting game), enthusiastic barely legal (see any final fantasy game), chirpy advisor (RE4, Metal Gear Solid), chubby evil types (Jo from Dead Rising) and sexy evil mother types (silent hill).

    Guys tend to be much more one dimensional. And no “androgenous” is not a type. Hell Gordon Freeman doesn’t even talk……

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