Adam Jensen is shaking down a woman for her life’s work. I chose this option, but I didn’t want it. Upon setting out on Deus Ex: Human Revolution, I had only a couple ideas on how I was going to play his character. One: each action would be ultimately decided by logic, and two: If the situation calls for either anger or empathy, it should be as detached as possible. But when screen-Jensen goes from almost allowing the woman to cry on his shoulder to appearing to want to break her spine over his knee, I can’t help but feel that my initial goals were going to die unrealized.
For as much as a role-playing game Human Revolution is, it’s difficult to truly play it as a role-playing game. Every bit of dialogue that grates with my ideal is jarring, and snaps me back out of the magical game-world where player and character are the same. I found myself dreading dialogue options: Would choosing this option make Jensen look like some faceless arm of a crime syndicate instead of a person who merely weighs options to find the most logical one? Should I find a bag of puppies for him to oppress?
The problem is that Jensen is not me. He can’t be the character I envision in my head, no matter how much I try. He is his own character, an entity wholly separate from me. I am just the invisible hand telling him which baddies to shoot and what to say in conversation.
Strong, relatable protagonists are the gold standard in writing. If you’re writing a book, a short story, whatever, you want a character that can exist in the world you’re writing and be both realistic and interesting. Stories can rise and fall based on the strength of their characters, and people will get pissed if characters don’t live up to their potential. But this advice is good if you’re writing a novel. It doesn’t have any place in narratives of video games, so you should toss it out. Forget it, it’s not important.
What is important is the idea of a player character and a player avatar. There’s only one fundamental difference between the two concepts: the character. The player character has enough character and history to stand on her own outside of your, the player’s, influence. This has parallels between the concepts of a traditional strong protagonist, which I’ll get into in a minute. The player avatar, on the other hand, has no meaning outside of what you put into it. It cannot exist in a vacuum, unlike the player character.
PLAYER AVATAR AS A CONSTRUCT
I’ve played an uncomfortable amount of Skyrim. My character, a Khajiit shadowmage, was my companion throughout the fifty-so hours of trekking through Skyrim’s frozen tundras. But without me, the character is meaningless. He’s only tangentially related to the plot, and that’s only because the player is the most important person in the game. He can’t exist outside of my influence, he has no personality, no skills besides what I’ve chosen. I am him and he is I. That’s as simple as it gets.
This is the idea of a player avatar.
The player avatar is nothing without the player. Without you, the avatar cannot exist. The avatar works in a narrative sense by allowing you to insert yourself in the story of the game without breaking the flow. The avatar allows you to shroud yourself in the trappings of the chosen hero and coexist with the game’s world, peacefully and without conflict. I hate the word “immersive” because it’s so wishy-washy, but it’s the only word that truly fits here. When the player can insert herself into the game proper, the player feels more included. This makes it easier on the writers of the game as well: they don’t have to write a discrete protagonist character. All they have to do is account for what the player can and will do.
Dungeons and Dragons is completely based off of the idea of players as avatars. In my mind, it’s the ideal of role-playing games. The game doesn’t need to account for the player because it’s built around the player, that’s the entire role of the Dungeon Master. It’s an extremely powerful system because the players can create their characters however they please. To a video game, a drow ranger is a drow ranger is a drow ranger. To the player of table-top games, that drow ranger isn’t just any drow ranger. He’s the ranger who acts too fast and angers too quickly; the one who is just as skilled with the bow as he is with his fists.
That’s not to say that role-playing of this magnitude is quite as deep in a video game, far from it. The role playing servers on most MMOs are a testament to that. But there are several limitations that are in place in most RPGs simply because it’s impossible to account for everything the player can toss out of his mind. The game cannot implement your invented backstories, because to the game they don’t exist. The game cannot account for every single one of your actions through speech and dialogue, and the game can’t account for the chaotic nature of people.
To combat this, most of the RPGs I’ve seen invent something relevant to the plot immediately before the plot happens to insert the protagonist in. MMOs have the tutorial grounds before the player is dumped onto the full world. The Elder Scrolls games have some version of prison boat/cart/cell/spacecar that the protagonist starts out on. In a rather daring version, Fallout 3 traces throughout the player’s life before it reaches that magical moment when tutorial ends and plot begins. But what these games have in common is that what happens before that pivotal moment doesn’t matter one bit for the actual plot. Everything you make up to lead up to that scene is useless, from the game’s perspective.
The one major stumbling I can find with using an avatar in games is when the game tries to incorporate you into the plot too much. Skyrim drops you up on one of its mountains and yells about how you can do anything! The game tries to pressure you into experiencing as much as possible on the first run-through that it’s terrified of having even the slightest moment where the player isn’t extremely involved in everything. Everything in Skyrim is about your avatar, but the avatar doesn’t exist. It’s just a construct of you.
PLAYER CHARACTER AS A ROLE
Screen-Jensen is talking again. The words that he’s saying and the words that are running through my imagination zig-zag past each other drunkenly; sometimes they meet in perfect harmony, sometimes they occupy different sections of the universe. This is unsurprising to me; this Jensen and my ideal Jensen are mutually incompatible. Jensen, then, is the player character.
The player character has no relation to you at all, and is just the character the player happens to be controlling at the time.
Now, I’m anticipating your complaints, friends. You’re wondering why someone would choose to put a character into a role-playing game when an avatar would give you more power. While it’s true that role-playing games that feature a character as the protagonist are significantly more restrictive than games like Dungeons of Dragons, you’re still playing a role in these role-playing games. It’s simply a role with a character attached to it.
This lack of player control over the character could be a gigantic detriment to you, but it also is a major boon to the legion of writers who slave over the game’s narrative. Narratives that focus on avatars generally can’t have any relation to a protagonist’s backstory besides extremely general information and events that happened in earlier games. Once you give a protagonist some depth, well dang, you now have the ability to work backwards in addition to working forwards.
Look at it this way. In Elder Scrolls V, every single character you will ever meet over the course of the game is a stranger. All of the NPCs are introduced over the course of the game, and they start out with no relationship to your character whatsoever. But when you take a game like Deus Ex: Human Revolution and give the protagonist some history, suddenly everything has more narrative significance. The generic quest-giver turns into the bereaved mother of Jensen’s girlfriend, the person you harass mid-quest becomes Jensen’s ex-partner.
It, quite simply, gives the plot a little bit more weight in ways video games only can. For as much as I loved Skyrim and its story, I couldn’t find it quite as relatable on a personal, character level. In Human Revolution, I’m infatuated with the story and its characters, simply because Jensen is an interesting character in an interesting setting. It’s not a terribly powerful way to structure a character gameplay-wise, as evidenced by my issues with its dialogue system, but it certainly works, and works well.
COLUMN A, MEET COLUMN B
I’m loath to say that these are the be-all, end-all way to structure an RPG protagonist. Like so, so many other things in life, the ideas I’ve put forth operate on a spectrum. Because of this, there exists protagonists that would fall somewhere in the middle between avatar and character.
The eminent Commander Shepard from the rabidly popular Mass Effect franchise tends to cool her feet solidly in the middle. She has a solid past, but it’s immaterial and usually not brought up within the narrative proper. Additionally, you can customize the name and face of Shepard in true avatar fashion. (Because of video game restrictions, of course, no one will ever comment on your name and face. I’ve seen some truly horrifying Shepards that the in-game people wouldn’t bat an eye at. Yikes.) While she has these avatar-ish qualities, she displays the level of emotion that would generally be attributed to a character. It’s also worth noting games like Bioware’s older games (Baldur’s Gate) and the more recent Dragon Age: Origins as exceptions to the ideas I’ve talked about in the avatar section above. Both games star the player as an avatar, but have heavy backstory elements attributed to them. They don’t run truly contrary to that idea of a true avatar (where the player is in complete control of the character), but they are characters without faces assigned by the game proper. If you imagine a line, Elder Scrolls and most MMOs would be solidly on the left side cooling their toes in the avatar camp. Dragon Age: Origins would sit comfortably in between the midpoint and the avatar side, with Mass Effect in the middle and Deus Ex: Human Revolution on the far right.
It’s not uncommon for a shift along the spectrum to happen within a game series as well. I’m bringing up Deus Ex again because man, I love Deus Ex. It’s also an extremely important game from a narrative perspective, but for the purposes of this post, I’m just looking at the characteristics JC Denton and Adam Jensen. For all of its high points, JC Denton wasn’t a terribly strong character. Instead, to me, he felt like more of a mould than a character, and because of it I didn’t have any of the problems with projecting myself onto him like I did with Jensen. His backstory was lightly detailed and his character was significantly more influenced by the player’s actions rather than the rigidity of a narrative.
When writing a gaming narrative, it’s important to ask several questions to yourself. The most important of these is: How much do you want to include the player in the game’s narrative? Is telling a story more important than giving control to the players? Do you want the game itself to tell the story, or do you want the characters to do it?
This is the first essay in a series of essays I’ll be writing that critically analyze the structure of role-playing game narratives. The second will come next Friday and will deal with the illusion of choice. Exciting stuff!