Character’s Freewill

As gamers, we never stop to really question why. Why are we mowing tons of enemies down? Why are we progressing left to right in a seemingly endless fashion? Why are we tapping rhythmically to floating notes?

More than the why, I question the what if. What if your character doesn’t want to proceed? What if your motivation for completion goes against the character’s will to survive? This is something that rarely gets touched on in games.

Murasaki Baby actually has a small segment that inspired this blog. The game is an indie platformer for the PS Vita that makes heavy use of the systems features (in that pretty much every feature is used). The basic mode of transportation to by grabbing your characters hand and yanking it to move forward.

The game follows some weird looking child on a search for her mother. Your bar of health is a single balloon that must never pop. Other than that, it’s basically solving simple puzzles that require touch, are time sensitive and sometimes make you tilt the whole system.

It’s a neato little game, but the part that struck me most was about mid-way through. The main character has been through some major stuff at this point and becomes scared to proceed. You have basically failed at your job keeping her safe, since she has had a few near death experiences.

Until you manipulate the world around her, your character will not move. Yanking her hand fails to produce any action. She simply stands her ground and refuses to listen. She doesn’t like what you’ve done so far and isn’t going to blindly obey anymore.

While Murasaki Baby never comes back to this, it got me thinking about how some characters may not actually believe in the gamer’s goal. Why would they want to senselessly murder hundreds of people? That makes them look like a sociopath.

I remember awhile back reading about how Dom Santiago from Gears of War was supposed to be the voice of the player. In the sequel, he was constantly shouting about how pointless the war was and how killing the Locust was fruitless.

While I don’t agree with the statement of him reflecting my views, it makes for an interesting idea. Dom in Gears of War 2 is ready to die. His wife is more than likely destroyed and he’s got nothing to return home to. While he may help the battle, once the war is finished, what will he fight for?

In that regard, the player controlling him and making him kill isn’t so much representing Dom coming to terms with his eventual mortality, but outside pressure making Dom react in a way he doesn’t want to. War is controlling his mind and he’s, basically, a cog in the gears of war (pun intended).

Grand Theft Auto IV also had a little of this, though the plot is far more convoluted. Niko Bellic wasn’t a heartless person. His past was dark and vicious, but he simply wanted a new chance and a new life.

The criminal underworld of Liberty City does not allow that for Niko. Since killing is his business (and business is good), Niko gets roped into a conflict without his consent. That his cousin is a big failure contributes a lot to Niko’s failure to live his “American Dream.”

At the same time, Niko isn’t really going against what he desires. The whole point of the plotline in GTAIV is that you cannot escape your past. Eventually, you will have to answer for the sins you commit, either in life or death. Niko falls back on a skill he knows because it is the easiest thing for him.

He also throws away his desires to reform himself when his family comes under fire. After time Roman is captured, Niko goes on a literal killing spree. He doesn’t gun down innocent bystanders (unless you make him), but he doesn’t pull punches on his “enemies.”

His kind of dichotomy makes Niko one of the most interesting protagonists in the Grand Theft Auto series. While Rockstar wrote the rest of the script without much thought, Niko was well fleshed out. He, ultimately, represents the idea I’m talking about.

An idea like this is mostly why games don’t try to focus on the inner humanity of a character. If you are forced to not do something, suddenly the game is becoming a scripted plot. Without player input, why even bother making a game?

Tomb Raider (2013) had a major problem with this. Lara Croft was traumatized by killing, but she eventually employs the same tactics her enemies do. That doesn’t make a lick of sense. She shows no remorse, either. She just happily plunges axes through her victim’s necks.

Spec Ops: The Line reveled in this. It made you, the player, want to try a different method. Your enemies don’t deserve the punishment that Cpt. Walker doles out on them. His mind breaks due to the trauma of war, so he feels every action is justified. It’s a reversal of what this blog is talking about.

For the most part, you won’t find many objecting protagonists. For a game to make the most sense, the main character must want the end result. Since a lot of action games focus on killing, trying to have a person abstain doesn’t make for an intriguing game.

Then again, I always play Deus Ex without killing anyone, so maybe I’m the weird guy?

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