Monday, January 25, 2010

The Tragedy of Videogame Heroism

My friends are manipulable. They are easily duped, predictable, largely unquestioning and mostly acquiescent. When they dissent, they sell their favor for cheap gifts and memorabilia. Despite these tendencies, my allies in Dragon Age: Origins are the most realistic companions I have ever had. But this post is not about them. This post is about the hero who will never be like them, the protagonist of this world and many others.

Two weeks ago I criticized a few pet peeves I hoped the industry would abandon. One of these, the "Blank Slate" problem, I defined as the tendency for developers to create emotionally vapid non-characters with little or no personality. These beings attempt to encapsulate normative players by aiming for averages. The short-haired white male with no internal monologue tries so hard to satisfy everyone that he relates to no one. This might be an extreme example. All videogame heroes, however, Arkania included (my heroine of Dragon Age), show symptoms of the blank slate. They are all victims of player agency.

There came a moment in Dragon Age, after a touching scene with Alistair and Leliana, that I realized I genuinely cared for these characters - all but Sten to be exact. I have yet to finish the game and I am actually nervous about where the story will lead. The cast is so well realized, each with a rich personal history, that I am concerned one of them will die. My protagonist, however, stands out from the group. Her death would be upsetting, but also natural.
There are many little touches that add depth and realism to the cast of Dragon Age. While exploring the world, party members will share idle banter, discussing their experiences, opinions, and generally joking around. Mementos found scattered about Ferelden can be given as gifts. Alistair shares remorseful memories when given an old locket. Leliana shows similar gratitude upon receiving a particular flower. I can also probe my cohorts for more information. I can learn about their personal lives, past tribulations, and aspirations by asking questions. Arkania, however, cannot play a similar role for them. She is detached from reality.

All the party conversations are between fellow supporting characters. My protagonist never has a quick background chat with others. She is never given gifts, and therefor never shares personal details to her friends. Occasionally, someone will ask my protagonist a question, but it is very rare. When the opportunity is given, answers are often short and limited in scope. I chose to play as a Dalish Elf, and many of my available responses revolve around this particular aspect of my character. Wynn, the party member who is most proactive towards Arkania, seems satisfied with curt answers to genuinely intriguing questions. The opportunity to tell a compelling personal history, one I did not experience in-game, is squandered.
Countless videogame heroes and heroines suffer the fate of the playable character. Story elements that players do not actually interact with are largely abandoned. The role of the videogame hero is to enact their agency upon the environment, not immerse themselves within it. Games with silent protagonists succeed not because the lead characters are so compelling, but because support characters and the worlds they inhabit are emphasized instead.

Our protagonists are different because we play them. Although I can control my entire party in Dragon Age, there is no doubt Arkania is my medium into this world. Accordingly, she is altered to suit my needs. Her dialogue decisions, for example, are not affected by past choices. They always offer uncharacteristically radical options, in case my gaming whims change suddenly and I want to become an evil character. She cannot inhabit the world the way all her friends can.
In this way, videogame heroes are very much like the tragic heroes of Western cinema, unable to live in the world they fight to protect. Admittedly, this is a drastic reading of the avatar within narrative games, but I think it works. As players, enacting our agency within a system of rules, we will never see the protagonist the way we see the supporting cast. Thus, our heroes and heroines are forever outsiders. They are different because they are player-controlled, and we design them intentionally to enact player will. Even a game like Dragon Age, with commendable writing and voice work, inherently shows the symptoms of blank slate character design.

All games that seek to tell a story must deal with this narrative chasm in some way. Interestingly, the protagonist of Braid is a hero who becomes villainous, forever separated from his goal by his blind pursuit. The game unwittingly exploits this narrative conundrum. Other games may cleverly circumvent the tragedy of videogame heroism, but they are rare. For most of our champion protagonists, past and present, their fate is sealed. Even the most realized world they will never call home.


  1. Great post. After reading it, I tried to think of any "blank slate" sort of characters that I felt particularly attached to or that felt particularly immersed in their world, and I came up with nothing.

    In fact, on this point:

    "In this way, videogame heroes are very much like the tragic heroes of Western cinema, unable to live in the world they fight to protect."

    Many of the most memorable and 'immersed' characters IMO usually are tragic in this way. Two heroic characters come to mind: Link and Wander. I think both of these characters actually strongly inhabit their respective worlds. They feel connected to their world in a real way. However, in Link's case, his tragedy is exactly what you describe: he can never stay there. He's often forced to leave the world he saves (Link's Awakening, Majora's Mask), or saving the world requires that his actions be 'reset' in some way (as in Ocarina of Time).

    Wander's tragedy is obvious, and the game's gathering sense of dread tells you that the game won't end like you want it to.

    I really can't think of many games where your character feels truly at home somewhere.

  2. Shenmue comes to mind as a game where the character truly feels at home. I think it's because you get to see Ryo's day-to-day life. His entire existence isn't scripted out for maximum excitement. Some days he just chats with the local gossip and plays some Space Harrier. Some days he finds a lead and gets one step closer to tracking down Lan Di. The game lets you - MAKES you - be present for both.

  3. Video game characters SHOULD be a blank slate. Video games are a simulation where you are controlling an avatar that is essentially you. If you have any feeling for the PC, you may as well be watching an interactive movie, because the narrative is not your own.

    The problem, the disconnect, is more an issue of technology. If you were able to interact with a NPC the same way you would interact with a person, I'm sure you would feel a bit more at home behind the eyes of the avatar. However, because this lack of interactivity, you WILL feel disconnected from the world because... you are! MMO's are the closest one can approach to "feeling at home" in a video game, and that is only because of your interaction with other people.

    I would like to feel more connected to the avatar that I am controlling, but until then, we must either just watch the protagonist in his story (Metal Gear Solid, every JRPG), or accept the role of a 'silent' protagonist, until games can truly be interacted with at all levels.

  4. @Danny: Saying that player characters "should" be blank slates is an absolute statement, imposing a philosophy on people and contexts that you and I are yet unaware of. Player characters should be blank slates for some games, and not for others. It's presumptuous to say that your idea is always true.

    Mr. Albor seems to be simply making the argument that there isn't enough of the alternative to blank slates—well-characterized players.

    @Albor: I'd like to bring your attention to an interesting treatment of the silent protagonist that I've never encountered before elsewhere: Mother 3. In the first portion of the story, the player's perspective switches between different characters, showing what they see and do the same period of time. But the unique thing is: when a character is controlled by the player, that character never speaks when spoken to. But later, when the player controls another character and sees the same scene, that first character does speak, showing the player what he or she says only when he is watching from someone else's view.

    The only game critic I've read mentioning this is Tim Roger in his review of the game.

  5. @ Grayson

    The Link and Wander examples are great. This is a case where story elements mirror our attitude towards the avatars before the game is even written. The tragically distant hero is written into videogames, to some extent, because it is almost impossible to design them in any other way.

    @ Julian

    I was I could say I have played Shenmue. The everyday life elements actually remind me of Harvest Moon, which could be a counterexample to the tragic hero. The lead can marry, raise a family, and build upon their home. They still seem abnormally responsible for the village as a whole though. Which brings me to Danny's thoughts...

    @ Danny

    I am really glad you bring up MMOs, because they do offer a level of integration into the world. The reason is because all the people you interact with, aside from the occasional NPC, are also heroes. That, however, has other consequences.

    I actually think tabletop heroics interestingly surpass the blank slate dilemma because the DM can shape a game around a player-created back story, and mutual learning can stem from everyone at the table. You are also not the sole hero, much like in MMOs. Even NPCs can be larger-than-life. Your avatar can also retire if you so choose.

    As for whether or not videogame characters should be a blank slate, I would have to agree with RBY. Despite many people's fear of linear/designer controlled narratives, interacting with such a narrative is vastly different than viewing a story on screen. I am fine with making choices in-game, but that does not mean it should be "me" making choices as opposed to a well fleshed and consistent in-game persona. Different strokes for different folks?

    @ RBY

    Please. Call me Jorge. (I've always wanted to say that.) Oh Mother 3 strikes again! I don't know what to say other than Mother 3 always sounds like an outlier. Do the scenes seem consistent from each person's perspective? Who do you play as at the game's end?

  6. It would be really intresting to experiment with ways of making a silent protagonist fit to its world, like Isaac Clarke on Dead Space, who is pretty much a blank sheet, but I feel that he fits perfectly because of his "instability", and how crazy things turn out on the game.

  7. Posted a few more thoughts on this article on my site:

    Again, great post.

  8. An interesting concept would be a character that has a story/senerio specific reason for why they cannot speak. In most games it is simply taken for granted. But a character who had their tounge cut out at the beginning of the game or is a literal mute, and have all the problems thereof. A novel concept.

    *Side note* Tim from Braid is not an Anti-hero, he can be argued to be a villian for his rather disturbing behavior when it comes to the princess. Or the tragic hero that falls to his own tragic flaws. Each depending on how you read it's various layers, but not an anti-hero. Sorry, pet peeve of mine.

  9. ME2 allows me to have the exact opposite of a blank slate, because Jon Shepard already has 40+ hours of backstory that I was instrumental in creating.

    For that reason, the game is engaging from the very start. I already know my character, and as a result, it's the closest I've come to role-playing in a videogame because I not tempted to engage in that schizophrenic hopscotch between good guy and bad guy. I want to remain true to the Shepard that I created in 2008.

  10. I delighted in your 'Searcher' image, and...

    "In this way, videogame heroes are very much like the tragic heroes of Western cinema, unable to live in the world they fight to protect."

    Note that in Mass Effect char gen you get to choose a background, and get immediate feedback on it during the intro with the voice-overs.

    That's a very small and asset-economical way to let you choose a non-limiting backstory, and get feedback on it during gameplay.

    Many paper-and-pencil RPGs had 'previous experience' elements in char gen, and I've always wanted to use similar elements in computer RPGs. That didn't fit the Elder Scrolls paradigm, however, and permitting an ambitious 'previous experience' component during char gen ought to be accompanied by later player character development opportunities... which would become increasingly asset-costly as branching expanded.

    And it would all still be fairly modest.

    As it is, it's probably best we don't try to do something we can only achieve modestly even after a vast expenditure of assets. AND for a feature for which there isn't much clamor among the game-playing audience.

  11. Apt comments all around.


    Anti-hero error noted and corrected. Keep policing. It keeps me on my toes. As for the silent protagonist, I could believe Chell's silence. She has nothing to say to GlaDos anyway.


    I mostly agree ME2, but I still think she is an outsider. But this is why I am amazed as Bioware changes how games tell stories.


    It won't come as a surprise that Bioware is one of my favorite game developers in the industry right now. ME1 also lets you choose a backstory for your character. As you progress, characters will comment on this back story, asking the player to interpret the world with this somewhat self-directed story in mind.