Are Characters in Games Simply Caricatures?

“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.” Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

Although the above quote is, in this case, writing about the development of characters in novels, this is even more true for the video game world. Video games do not have the luxury of devoting page after page of detail telling the character’s backstory and describing in detail what the character thinks, and why. In video games the characters and the plot are quickly introduced and then the game begins, the plot develops as the characters complete tasks along their way. Similar to following ‘footprint left in the snow’ the story of the game unfolds before you as the game goes on.

With that said, not all games have characters and neither do they have plots. Some well known games that do not have characters are Tetris, Sims, SimsCity and many others. These games, instead of focusing on human emotion, character development, and establishing a connection between a narrative and an audience, these games focus primarily on the functionality of systems. As stated by Ian Bogost in his article in the Atlantice “Video Games Are Better Without Characters” , video games are similar in some ways to photography. “Just as photography offers a way of seeing aspects of the world we often look past, game design becomes an exercise in operating that world, of manipulating the weird mechanisms that turn its gears when we’re not looking” (Bogost, 2015). Bogost was a fan of video games that did not have characters or plots within the game for several reasons. One reason was that games without set characters and plots, allow you to escape and have more agency then you are able to actually have in life (Bogost, 2015). Although this could easily be argued by the fact that the game does not have endless options and combinations, there are limits set into the game and therefore there can never be true agency even in these ‘freewill’ games.

Another reason that Bogost was against the development of characters in games was simply that other media outlets do it better than video games do. “Other narrative media succeed more often and more profoundly at producing identification and empathy with individuals of our own creed, color, gender, and sexual identification — or with those of other identifications” …“ Yet, alas, at their best, game characters and game stories are still mostly like bad books and films and television, but with button pressing” (Bogost 2015). I am not an expert on video games and have not played enough video games in my life to form a holistic opinion on whether or not video games need characters, or whether or not characters are worse or better in games versus other media outlets. However, as I stated in my previous blog post, I do believe that the use of characters in video games make it more likely for the player to become more emotionally invested in the game and care more about figure out how the game ends for the character.

Unlike Bogost, whose title was blatantly clear with his opinion on characters in video games, Kat Brewster plays a bit of devil’s advocate, she is in favor of character in video games, but only if those characters are developed respectfully and realistically. Brewster writes about this from her own experience as a video game developer. Brewster developed the game 80 Days which is supposedly a spin off of a novel in which the character travels around the world in 80 days. In the game however, Brewster has realistic female and minority roles. The example that she gives in her text is one where a native woman will not accept assistance from the character that the player in playing. No matter how many times you try she will not accept help, the point of this moment in the game, according to Brewster, is to demonstrate the reality that this native has no reason to trust white men, and in fact her history is telling her to do just the opposite, and therefore there will never be a moment in the game where the player would be able to convince the girl to let them help her. (Brewster, 2017). “The protagonist cannot get past years of ingrained distrust of whiteness and his ignorance of local culture and politics in the course of one conversation — she is never going to open up to Passepartout no matter what item you — the player — try and use from your travels” (Brewster, 2017).

Both of these articles make important points, video games, perhaps, are not the best method of creating a story and developing a character, and if the creator of the game chooses to have characters it is important that the characters are realistic, relate-able, and someone who invokes a connection with its audience, just like a story, book, movie, or tv show would have to do. Personally I enjoyed Sims far more than any other video game I ever played as a kid. I enjoyed that I could make my own characters and could do what I wanted with them (very Freudian thoughts). However, as I have gotten olderI have grown to appreciate the ‘losing myself’ that Bogost mentions, but I lose myself best in the games with characters and goals/quests. Recently I started playing a Batman game, which I love Batman as an individual so I was already invested in the game and already knew the story so it is fun for me to play the game and watch the story develop around me like footprints in the snow.

Perhaps, though, if I didn’t already know the story and love the character maybe I would not be as interested in the game as I am now? Food for thought.

Works Cited

Bogost, I. (2015, March 13). Video Games Are Better Without Characters. Retrieved September 24, 2017, from https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/03/video-games-are-better-without-characters/387556/

Brewster, K. (2017, May 22). The Pitfalls of Trying to Tell Stories Outside Your Own Experience. Retrieved September 24, 2017, from https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/9k9vw5/the-pitfalls-of-trying-to-tell-stories-outside-your-own-experience