Monday, June 30, 2008

The Selfish Gamer

But what can they do for me?

Probably the hardest thing about creating likeable characters in videogames is answering this question. What can they do for me?

Characters who are defined by their need to be helped are rarely likeable. There's a whole quest-giving escort-requiring tribe of these layabouts out there, with Mario's passive-aggressive taskmistress Peach at their head.

On the other hand, powerful characters can be just as problematic. If an NPC can do what the player does, only better, they risk trivialising the player's experience. Characters who give out benefits as if they were candy become little more than glorified vending machines.

One answer is to divorce characters from the game mechanics; have them neither help nor hinder the player, but merely talk. If your characters are more hated than Hitler due to their poor AI and complete inability to defend themselves from the most low-level goblins then you might be well-served by this possibility. But for everyone else, it's a cop out.

Players can be friends with characters; they can even do this when characters interface with gameplay. Ico did it reasonably well. The World Ends With You did it very well. And Wing Commander did it perfectly.

I love Wing Commander. It's almost entirely beyond criticism, as are its first two sequels and all of their expansions. The space dogfighing action is very good, especially considering the technical limitations of the time. But what makes it excellent are the wingmen.

You can't think of Wing Commander without thinking of Paladin, Maniac, Angel, Bossman, and the other pilots of the TCS Tiger's Claw. Each has their own backstory, their own relationship with the main character, and their own unique flying style. Between missions they talk about their hopes and expectations, and in battle they back you up to varying degrees.

One of the reasons that Wing Commander's wingmen work so well is that they didn't ask for the assignment. They haven't "tagged along" or imposed themselves on you. In many cases they'd rather be flying solo. They don't want to have to rescue you any more than you want to rescue them.

Another factor is that they don't need to excel to be useful. They're helpful just by being there. Flying with a wingman means that you're taking half as much enemy fire, and enemies are much easier to shoot down when they're chasing someone other than you. If your wingman happens to make a kill, that's icing on the cake.

But probably what works best of all is that they're all annoying in different ways. If you're frustrated that Angel can't hit the broad side of a barn, you'll at least be grateful that she doesn't abandon the mission to chase every enemy she sees. If you're ready to throttle Maniac for completely ignoring your orders, you'll at least be impressed by his above-average kill count. And the wingmen don't try to pretend that they're perfect; the crew of the Tiger's Claw are more than aware of each other's faults, and won't hesitate to bitch about them.

If all that's not enough for you, you're welcome to let the wingmen get killed off. They'll get a moving funeral sequence, they'll vanish from the break room, and any future missions you would have flown with them you'll instead be working solo. But each time they survive, it's another story you can tell. The next time you fly with them, you'll be thinking, "I remember the last time I flew with this guy."

So the selfish gamer asks what can they do for me? The answer is simple; they provide company. They work well because they're such fully realised characters. When you can look out of your cockpit, see only one other ship in all the darkness of space, and know the name of the person behind the stick, it makes all the difference in the world.

Please visit the Round Table's Main Hall for links to all entries.


mwc said...

Interesting post. Do you think the growth of multiplayer has had an effect on the inclusion of fully-realized cooperative NPCs like those of Wing Commander?

Greg Tannahill said...

I don't think so. The number of multiplayer-focused games has increased over the last six years or so, but that's really only in proportion to the explosion in numbers of games released over that period. You're seeing more single-player-only JRPGS, shooters, GTA clones and suchlike than ever before.

Nismo said...

Ah, I love posts like these. I only stumbled across the Blogs of the Roundtable thing last month, so I'm new to the topics being discussed and everyone's entries on the subjects, but from the little I have seen it has all been very interesting and I am actually considering joining it myself. I should probably update my blog with other posts a bit more regularly first, but anyway.

Back to the subject, the way people connect with characters has always been interesting to me but more importantly, I think anyway, is why some people connect to characters while others don't. For example, a lot of people seem to be connected to Master Chief from Halo and while I can understand the connection, I personally don't have it and I find that interesting. I guess the same could be said for me and BioShock; I connected with that game a lot and while I have a few reasons as to why I think that is, it's interesting for me having that connection to read about others who didn't connect with it, or are seeing the game and story (and whatever else) in a different perspective to mine.

Furthermore, does our connections with the characters of gaming form in a similar way to that of ours with characters (and stories) from other mediums? Or are they separate just like the mediums themselves are?

All interesting stuff and reading this post was some good insight despite never having played Wing Commander. Now to read the other entries...

Greg Tannahill said...

I think Master Chief works for people because he's iconic. He's a single character that evokes all the best aspects of the Halo series, from the absolutely stunning soundtrack through to the fast-paced gunplay. It's not so much that they're identifying with him, it's that he's reminding them of the fun they've had with the game.

BioShock, conversely, has the opposite problem. The iconic character there is the Big Daddy, and what that thing is associated with is the gun combat of BioShock, which is arguably its weakest aspect. The star of that game turned out to be Rapture itself, so it's a shame that that couldn't have been used more centrallly in the advertising or been personified by a single memorable character.

Nismo said...

See, for me Rapture was the character and therefore obviously, my connection to BioShock was through Rapture. Sure, the Big Daddies and Little Sisters, Andrew Ryan, Fontaine and everyone else played their part, but for me, Rapture was the character and the personality and individuality, not to mention history was fascinating for me.

With regards to Halo, as I said before I can see and understand why people connect with MC, but I just don't have the connection. If I was to be connected to anything in Halo, it would be the story rather than a particular character. Unfortunately, a lot of people only know about Halo through the games and are completely unaware of the novels (not to mention upcoming games and possibly the movie too if it ever happens).

Greg Tannahill said...

The Halo story was presented poorly enough in the games that I was never motivated to go looking for more of it. Halo's actually a lot like Gears of War - minute to minute the narrative looks fine, but when you take it as a whole it's prettily shoddily told.