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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Why Video Games Beat Hollywood Action

Sylvester Stallone will never learn when to give up. At the roaring age of 64, Stallone has created countless sequels to classic movies that have tarnished the original idea. He’s also written and directed his fair share of disasters and starred in a porno.

But Stallone is still kicking. His most recent train wreck, “The Expendables,” proved one thing to me; video games beat recent Hollywood action films. Throughout the entire movie, aside from trying to figure out who was punching whom, I had flashes of the brilliance I’ve played in games over the years.

The fights made me think Street Fighter is awesome. The plane scene made me remember Battlefield 1942. Hell, the explosions made me think of the intensity and visceral joy of Uncharted 2. All of these games last for much longer than the 2 hours of Expendables and they’re a hell of a lot more enjoyable.

I’m not sure if this is just because of Stallone’s inability to direct and write, or whether video games are just more enjoyable because you’re interacting with them. Something just seems more pleasing when virtual fists are trading hits and you’re behind it all.

It could possibly be the rotten characters. Recent action cinema has taken a turn for “old-school.” What I mean by that is everything is trying to be as cheesy as possible. Plots consist of, “You took my woman,” or, “I’m no hero.” The action is completely over the top and, in most cases, poorly edited to look like jump cuts.

While Uncharted doesn’t have a deep plot, at least it has something that isn’t a dead give-away. Hell, even Gears of War has a plot that is more involved (well, 2 does). Whatever happened to chivalry, or fighting for something you believe in? A human element really drives home insane destruction.

To even look at a more ludicrous game, Red Faction: Guerrilla is hilarious fun. Action movies don’t go as far as this game does, but everything is in your hands and for your enjoyment. You see a building that looked at you the wrong way and it’s gone. How about that bridge? DONE!

Stallone’s film might have also benefited if there was any decent acting. Obviously Stallone knows how to act (the last scene of First Blood is just awe inspiring), but where does his talent disappear to? Statham just plays Statham, a rather over rated and irritating guy. Jet Li plays a particularly good sport to the fact that he could rip everyone in half.

It’s all very cold and no connections are made to the actor’s fates. Statham has some love interest, but he’s shown winning her over by beating the piss out of 5 guys. That will certainly work. Hell, Terry Crews and Randy Couture don’t even appear in more than half of the film. I don’t even know who they are.

And yet video games have been increasing their talent over the recent years. Mark Hamill has given some surprisingly good voice work to recent Batman games and Darksiders. Johnny Young Bosche plays a very good Nero in Devil May Cry 4. Nolan North has become the defacto hero man after his great role as Drake in Uncharted.

Of course games have bad actors, but the really great roles and the general interactivity balance the ugly out. Who cares if your hero sounds like generic man A (I’m looking at you Prototype and inFamous)? When you can pick up cars or unload on armies of the undead, you don’t really need that much in the way of charisma.

As it stands, action movies just don’t do it anymore. Unless you’re making a well edited and stylistic film like “Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World,” don’t even bother. Video games have you beat and I’m sure they’ll continue to get better and more action packed. I think Hollywood should just leave the action to the professionals, or at least the Chinese. They’ve known it better for the past 40 years, anyway.