"The world lies on the brink of destruction. Only a select few may be able to save it."
This is the actual description on the back of the box for a well-known video game. But do you know which one? How many different games could this apply to?
Whether you're about to wage war against the darkspawn in Ferelden, survive a zombie-filled apocalypse in Raccoon City, or restore wishing power and stop Smithy from achieving world domination in Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, all stories share a certain formula and similar types of events between them.
At least that's the monomyth theory posed by Joseph Campbell, an American mythologist. His ideas surrounding the fundamentals of a hero's journey are what served as inspiration to George Lucas when he was creating the classic Star Wars trilogy. Campbell's theory outlines several events that are used universally in storytelling, including the hero's call to adventure, their road of trials and tribulations, achieving their ultimate goal and becoming free from the binds that tied them.
Does this sequence sound familiar?
Also familiar are the character archetypes that are used in each game. The bare-bones character traits that indicate who is the hero, the villain and the sidekick have reoccurred throughout history in folktales, literature, film and video games.
We've all seen child saviours, like Ness (Earthbound/Mother 2) and Link (Legend of Zelda), anti-heroes like Kratos (God of War) and Claude (GTA 3), and veterans like Master Chief (Halo) and Marcus Fenix (Gears of War), repeatedly in our gaming ventures.
The heroes are often reluctant, upstanding folks. The villains tend to be power-hungry and narcissistic. Supporting characters, regardless of whether they support the hero or villain, are either their biggest fans or have a hidden agenda that goes against what their leader stands for. For all characters who share an archetype, their motives are similar in nature, in addition to their appearance and overall personality in some cases. Take for example Tidus from Final Fantasy X and Vaan from Final Fantasy XII. Both of them are main characters, outspoken, cocky, young, blonde and relatively shirtless. There were times where I would be playing the game and could easily picture Tidus saying some of Vaan's lines.
How is it that game developers can avoid making their games feel like a rehash of something that we've played before? The characters above share similar motives, so then what is it that really separates them? I'm reminded of what Rachel Dawes tells Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins: "…it's not who you are underneath, it's what you do that defines you." What defines a character the most is their actions during the course of the story.
Dr Clara Fernandez-Vara, who teaches a "Writing for Video Games" course at MIT and is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, relates this concept to one of her recent gaming experiences.
"I replayed Monkey Island 2: Lechuck's Revenge recently, and I realised that one of the fun things of the game is that Guybrush is defined by what he does," she said. "He's a pirate (and not a very brave one), so a lot of what he does is finding different ways to cheat and do rather awful things to people.
"In video game design, the "verbs" of the game tell you what the core mechanics of a game are; those can also be the actions that define your player character. That's one of the reasons I like adventure games and RPGs: the range of verbs is usually larger, dialogue is essential to gameplay (most times), by having more actions the characters have more nuance."
Part of what makes video games so much fun is that you get to do things that you can't or shouldn't do in real life, so it makes sense that the more options we're offered to control our character's actions, the more likely we are to become immersed in the game and see it as a unique experience.
At a simple level, think about how fun Super Mario Bros would be if you couldn't launch fireballs, become invincible or even kill enemies by jumping on them? How much fun would that be? Would you want to play it? Would the experience get old quickly?
Having different actions makes a game fun and can set characters apart from each other. Take the platformer characters Kirby, Mega Man and Super Mario. Mega Man wields a blaster, Super Mario has many different power up options, and Kirby can suck his enemies up like a vacuum to gain their powers for crying out loud! Each of their abilities contributes something to their overall personality in addition to making the game more fun. Kirby's especially, merely because he looks so darn cute and harmless.
In more complex games, there are generally more opportunities for the player character to shine, sometimes with help from the player themselves.
"In the case of the player-character, writers must leave room for the player," says Fernandez-Vara. "Letting the player choose what to say is giving her the opportunity to fill out the player character."
Some of the most well-received games are those in which the player character is required to make certain decisions that will further impact the story.
Take for example Dragon Age: Origins and Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3. Both games allow the player to alter the course of their player character's journey by way of letting the player put words into their characters mouths. You're also able to fully control your relationships with non-player characters, which can lead to either costs or benefits, depending on which types of dialogue options and in-game decisions you have your player character make.
In Persona 3, strengthening "social-links" enables you to create new personas to use in battle. In Dragon Age: Origins, status enhancements and side quests become available to certain party members based on how much they "approve" of the player character's attitude and actions. If a character doesn't like you, they may leave the party or even engage you in combat depending on the scenario. Dragon Age's specific dialogue options allow you to choose your player character's personality, making them a loyal do-gooder, seedy low-life or anything in between.
On the other side of the coin, you have many games with absolutely no dialogue in any form coming from the player character. With this missing element, you would think the player character would be unlikable and make for an unmemorable experience.
On the contrary, Dr Fernandez-Vara can explain how silent characters can offer a great contribution to the player's experience.
"The player completes the character," she said. "That's why Gordon Freeman is silent: it doesn't remind the player that she's controlling someone different."
The same is true for games like F.E.A.R and Fallout 3, where you rarely, if ever, see your character on screen from the third-person perspective, and your character does not possess a voice. In cases like that, character definition is more or less in the hands of the player. Developers provide the scenario and a rough outline of the player character, but it's the player who fleshes the character out and makes it their own.
However, even with some of these strategies in place, character design is still, by all means, a challenge.
"The process of character creation is something that we're figuring out in games," said Fernandez-Vara. "By thinking about character in terms of what they do, it is easier to make them part of the game design. There seems to be a disconnect between what the player character does (which is defined mostly by game design) and who (s)he is (which is defined a lot by the visual designer and rather less by the writing).
"Part of the problem is that game writers, who define character not only through the story but mostly through what they say, come late in the design process and have to 'slap on' an interesting character on top of mechanics, which are usually conventional or do not lend themselves to much interesting character development. Part of the problem here is bringing together game design, visual design and writing to create compelling characters, beyond their 'looking cool'; the other main problem is how much room the player character has to appropriate and define the player she controls. There are no solutions yet, just different ways to approach them."
As game design progresses, the storytelling quality and the dynamic range of characters can only improve. As some games become huge successes and others fail, developers and gamers alike will be able to see what works and what doesn't work.
What makes the most sense to me is having the game written out first and everything else comes later rather than having the writers get pulled in later. It would be kind of like hiring someone to do the illustrations for your book once it's written instead. But that's just me talking from a writer/television production student's perspective. Nonetheless, the problem still remains that it can be difficult to translate the ideas buzzing around in one person's imagination to work well with ideas from the rest of the creative team.
Oh, and that back-of-the-box quote from the beginning? That's from Final Fantasy X.