Thursday, 20 January 2011

Making Protagonists Suffer: Why I love it.

(by Ben Winterton)

I would never claim to be a nice person. In fact, one of the greatest aspects of video games is their ability to provide you with guiltless schaden freude. There is a great deal of fun to be had from just persistently acting like a dick in video games.

Let’s not get confused here; I’m not talking about being evil. Massacres are all well and good (well, they’re not, but shut up), but in many ways the fun of destroying someone is less than that of slightly annoying them. One of the best easter eggs of “Banjo Kazooie” was the dialogue you got with Bottles if you just kept pestering him. For those who don’t know, Bottles was effectively your guide through the game, telling you where to go, what to do and, crucially, teaching you new moves. Normally if you revisit him he goes over the move he taught you at that location. If, however, you repeatedly keep talking him, he starts getting annoyed, and eventually starts threatening to override your game. There is absolutely no tangible benefit to winding Bottles up, but my word is it enjoyable.


Thinking back over my gaming career, in fact, I can think of innumerable examples of times when I have chosen to act like a dick just because I can. One of my favourite features of the “Gran Turismo” games is the complete absence of any retribution for you mercilessly ramming your competitors off the track. Despite all its allusions to realism, I’m pretty sure that’s frowned upon in most forms of professional racing. Maybe if it wasn’t I’d actually have an interest in it.

But, as the more savvy of you may have noticed, the title of this piece is about making protagonists, not NPCs, suffer. And here I come to my main point. I play a lot of RPGs, a genre of games that generally put quite a bit of gameplay emphasis on some kind of experience system. Now the reason I can play these games endlessly is because I quite enjoy the “level up-assign attributes-repeat until your play time is over 50 hours” gameplay mechanic (if I didn’t enjoy it then that playthrough of “Final Fantasy X” would have been equatable to reading a novelisation of the entirety of “Coronation Street”).

Final Fantasy X

Because of this frequenting of RPGs, I’ve noticed a bit of a tension; namely, I want to get into as many fights as possible, as I want as much exp as possible. My character(s), however, don’t want to get into fights, as they have these crazy notions of self-preservation and violence being a bad thing. This can be seen best in “Mass Effect”, where Shepard (effectively you) always seems to be trying to avoid massive gun fights against hundreds of enemies. He doesn’t seem to realise that the only thing stopping me killing some of the more irritating NPCs is the fact that they don’t yield experience. Hell, I’d probably commit suicide for an attack bonus (both in and out of the game).

My main problem is the effect it has on immersion, as a lack of immersion can damage pretty much any gaming experience. It’s a hard one to reconcile, as I identify far more with a character like Shepard than a character that would warrant the “kill everyone I meet” mentality; give me “Mass Effect” over “God of War” any day. To “Mass Effect”’s credit, it does give you alternative options a lot of the time, and I hear many good things about the choice of play styles in “Deus Ex”.

Mass Effect

Maybe I’m being pedantic. Or maybe game designers should finally give me a game that rewards exp for tedious tinkering with arbitrary menus. That would be a game where I could truly play as myself.

1 comment:

  1. Fallot... now THERES a game where do get exp for lying, cheating... randomly putting live granades into pants. In the new Fallout, you can actually annoy your NPCs; the best being taking Boone's hat off him... his reply? "Ok, i'd like my hat back NOW .. please"




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