Over the past 365 days I have achieved many things. I have commanded “The Jackdaw”, a stolen brig on the Caribbean seas, defeated innumerable cartoon supervillains inside of a dilapidated insane asylum, led an elite band of soldiers (the “Ghosts”) to save a dystopian future-earth from the machinations of a post-nuclear-war South American Federation, and won the FIFA World Cup, both as manager and player. All this whilst also holding down a full time job and leading a relatively normal, if not somewhat insular, life.
That this has also happened to millions of gamers across the world matters little, such is the sophistication and depth of today’s video games each player’s experience is now inexorably different. Open-world “sandbox” games are now the norm, allowing narratives to morph and evolve through the actions and decisions taken by the user, not the programmer.
With the exception of a handful of works (including a series of wonderful children’s books in the 80’s), novels and film do not allow their audience to choose their own adventure with anything like the same level of meaning and perception as video games do. That is not to say that video games are necessarily better than film or literature, in fact there are very many examples in which they are significantly worse. It is more that they provide a greater sense of inclusion and self for the audience, and that these feelings invariably eliminate the notion of a fictional character. Essentially, you can experience events alongside Frodo, but you are Lara.
The shining example of just how immersed within a computer game players can become is the football management simulation series Football Manager which puts gamers into the hotseat of any one of over 500+ football clubs worldwide. The game is so addictive that it has been cited in no fewer than 35 divorce cases and there are scores of online communities, each telling stories of how they hold fake press conferences in the shower, wear three-piece suits for important games and have deliberately ignored real life footballers because of their in-game counterpart’s indiscretions.
Yet the sense of self is never more apparent than in the first-person genre of games, such as the Call of Duty and Far Cry franchises, which, more often than not, mirror the rare second-person literary narrative by placing the gamer themselves in the centre of the action. In novels, when the reader sees “I” they understand it to represent the voice on the page and not themselves. In first-person games however, “I” becomes whoever is controlling the character and the camera position is specifically designed to mimic that viewpoint. In some of the best examples of first-person games, gamers do not control the protagonist, rather they are the protagonist. As such they are addressed by the supporting cast either directly by their own name which they supply as part of the or, more commonly, by a nickname (usually “Rookie” or “Kid”). This gives the user a far greater sense of inclusion in the story and subsequent empathy with their character and its allies than in any other form of fiction. As events unfold you live them as if they were taking place in real life and begin to base decisions not on your own “offline” persona, but rather as a result of your “online” backstory. While in real life you would probably be somewhat reluctant to choose which of your travelling companions should be sacrificed to appease the voodoo priest who was holding you captive – in the virtual realm one slightly off comment twelve levels ago can mean that your childhood sweetheart is kicked off a cliff faster than you can say “Press Triangle”. (Although, this being video games, they will no doubt reappear twenty minutes later as leader of an army of the undead).
The question of female leads (or lack of) is another pressing issue facing games studios, aside from the aforementioned Ms. Croft, it is very difficult to come up with another compelling female lead in a video game. Even Lara has taken 17 years and a series reboot to become anything close to resembling a relatable woman. This shows that the industry is changing, but slowly. There are countless reasons why video games have failed to produce many convincing female characters, enough to fill the pages of this magazine a number of times over, but it is fair to say that for a long time the problem has been something of an endless cycle. The male dominated landscape of video gaming dissuades many women from picking up a joypad, leading to fewer women having an interest in taking roles in the production of video games, which leads to a slanted view of how women in video games should behave, which leads to more women becoming disenfranchised and so on and so on ad infinitum.
But now for the tricky part. Subsuming a character in the way that first-person and simulation games force you to do is all very well if you see events unfold through a characters eyes and make decisions on their behalf. You can apply your own moralities and rationale to what is going on and why you have acted in that way. But what happens if that backstory is already provided? And worse still, what happens if you don’t like it?
For me, the game Bioshock Infinite provides this very conundrum. The central character, Booker Du Witt, is a widowed American Civil war veteran whose actions at the Battle of Wounded Knee have caused him intense emotional scarring and turned him to excessive gambling and alcohol. Now working as a private investigator, Booker is continually haunted by his past and struggles internally with questions of faith and religion. All very interesting stuff but there is nothing within the personality of this 19th century American soldier that I could relate to, and as such, I struggled to form the same kind of emotional connection with the character that I did with other, less fleshed out, heroes. Honestly, I even connected to a blue hedgehog in running shoes more than I did with Booker.
“Ludonarrative dissonance” is the term widely banded around the games industry to describe the disconnect gamers feel when playing such titles. It is both debated and derided in equal measure, yet there is some substance to the argument. The term was originally coined in a review of the first Bioshock, a game where the cutscenes openly ridicule the notion of a society built upon self-interest and men becoming gods yet the gameplay appears to reward these exact behaviours creating a jarring conflict of interest. When even in-game narratives fail to tie up, the question of identification and association is bound to arise.
The area becomes even greyer when referring to third person games, whereby the entirety of the character being controlled is visible on screen (albeit usually from behind). Here the character becomes more like those we are used to from novels and film, they are patently a separate entity from the player, with their own voice and backstory, yet they are still manipulated by the player. Then, during cutscenes and the like, control is wrested away from you and handed back to the character – allowing them to potentially act in a way entirely different to how you controlled them previously. So what exactly is your relationship with them? Companion? Support team?…God?
The very nature of video games does, of course, make drawing accurate representations of characters difficult. The whole point of a game is to allow the player to encounter events that they would otherwise never be able to – It’s highly doubtful that we’ll be seeing Office Supplies Manager hitting our shelves in the near future for example. Instead the events depicted occur at the very extremes of human experience, amid theatres of war, apocalypse and fantasy. As the vast majority of the population, thankfully, have never been exposed to these types of environments, and with the parameters of the reality in which these characters operate being so much wider than our own, it is tough to imagine, and subsequently depict, how any of us would truly react if faced with say, nuclear Armageddon or an invasion of mutated insects. Many of the tabloid newspapers like to blame various acts of violence on these types of emotive video games as they are an easy, and lazy, scapegoat. In truth “they did it because they saw it in a game” is a weak argument at best. There is a case to be made that games like Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty desensitise players to violence to some extent, but in most cases there are various factors involved in these types of crime and as such, to blame it solely on a computer game which has sold millions of copies worldwide is tenuous.
Like any form of entertainment media, Video games are a form of escapism and should therefore be viewed accordingly. If I don’t connect with a character, so what? I can turn off the game and put on another game where I will or, heaven forbid, go outside and speak to another human being. Right now, this act is as simple as pushing a button and putting down a control pad, the connection stops when the TV is off. However, technology such as the Occulus Rift headset and Google Glass mean that the lines between the real and virtual worlds are becoming more and more blurred. And as people becoming more immersed in their games, the more their impact will grow.
Video games are not yet at the stage where they can truly claim to influence popular culture to the same degree as film and literature has. But they will be soon. A few have already slipped through into the mainstream – Super Mario, Tetris, Pac-Man et al. – and where these lead, others will certainly follow. The huge media events and overnight cues for the release of the latest Call of Duty or FIFA games mimic the lines of people outside theatres on the release of Star Wars thirty years ago and the clamour for these superstar franchises will only increase. And herein lies the problem. As more and more people turn to video games as a legitimate medium of cultural influence, so too must the developers and writers of these games accept their roles as influencers. It will no longer do to simply shove a large gun in a generic tough guy’s hand and send players on their merry way, it will no longer do to give the heroine DD breasts and assume that makes up for a lack of personality or backstory. If these are the characters that we and our future generations are to look up to and mimic, then they need to be good. They need to be true. They need to be real.