No one can deny that, despite hundreds of the characters being created pre the Xbox 360/Playstation 4 generations, these consoles have introduced some of the best-loved characters to the audience which have ever been produced in any form of media, modern or otherwise.
Though, once again, I open myself to ridicule, I honestly believe that Mass Effect’s Commander Shepard, despite his (or her) myriad dialogue options, in-game choices and varying appearances, he/she is one of the best-written, most lovable characters I have ever had the privilege to follow, rivalling any fictional persona written by Shakespeare, Dickens, Huxley or any famous writer you care to name. Maybe this is because I have simply grown alongside the character, first encountering her in December of 2007, making it almost six years since that shock of red hair and make-up too strong against a skin too pale burst into my life. This was one of the few games in which I elected to play as a female character, simply for the reason that I did not want to play as either of the standard faces, and I could not get a male face to look like anything more attractive than a spavined monkey.
I think, at least for me, that one of the reasons I like the character of Shepard so much is that, despite the rich universe in which she dwells and compelling narrative of the franchise, is that she/he is a character who has more than one or two emotions available. I saw my Shepard laugh with Joker and EDI, gun down hundreds of Geth alongside Jack and Grunt, lead a final charge with Garrus and Miranda. I saw her spit in a reporter’s eye and then punch her in the face… Twice.
Unlike the badass Shepard, I find myself turning to another character introduced on the 360, Marcus Fenix of Gears O’ War fame. The problem I have with this character, if we ignore the entirety of his personality is little more than rage and an over-production of testosterone, is that he appears impossible to write well for. When a character is angry from the moment he wakes up with his over-compensating Lancer by his side, to the moment he closes his little eyes whilst using a Locust’s head for a pillow, it is impossible to make him a relatable character. I understand that his world has gone to hell, and that everything he once knew is little more than a distant dream, but he could do with chilling out a little.
In fact, out of the two main characters, I prefer Dom as a protagonist. Admittedly, the storyline which made me prefer at such a huge level over Marcus, his search for his wife amidst the Locust slaves, begins with a bad expression of unbelievable anger (not because he reaches a peak of fury which even his bandana-wearing companion has yet to ascend to, but rather it is so sudden and seemingly forced, that it is simply difficult to take seriously) as he smashes a poorly rendered window in and isn’t even mentioned in the first title of the series, but I still feel the payoff was worth these oversights.
Though Dom’s search is rewarding, it pales in comparison to the next example of emotional attachment I’m going to through your way. It is an obvious one, and I feel that everyone must have played the title by now and so will understand exactly what I mean without having to delve to deep into specifics. Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead, and the relationship between every character you meet but, specifically, that of Lee Everett, your playable character, and the only child in videogames I have actually felt any serious emotion towards, Clementine.
Her careful blend of innocence, intelligence and early maturity, the fact that she does not rely on you completely for her defence, indeed when you first meet her she had been surviving, alone, in a zombie infested neighbourhood for four days, makes her not so much a burden, but instead a close ally. Once you have taught her to shoot, and she has been through some terrible circumstances in your group, she hardens up to the point where she can do far more than merely look after herself. I would have traded every single character in the game for Clem’s safety and that is a rarity, in that we feel exactly the way the writers desired us to feel.
Towards the end of Season 1, after you save her for the final time from a psychopath whose life you destroyed without even knowing, Lee’s infection gets the better of him, finally weakening him enough to bring down the man I grew to love as much Clem herself. the-walking-dead-episode-3Somehow, and I’ll never know how she managed it, Clementine drags an unconscious, dying Lee through a crowd of Walkers to relative safety within an abandoned building.
What follows is the most emotionally charged exchange in any media I have ever had to fortune (or misfortune) to witness since the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones. This goodbye had me in tears, whether that makes me a soft-hearted fool, a mentally-unstable soppy git, or someone suffering from early onset depression, I am strangely proud of it.
You see, this is the kind of writing which makes masterpieces. Video games are typically seen as a barbaric form of media, almost every mention of the industry being because it inspired some massacre here or there. But, if someone whom has never picked up a controller before played this game, with its simple gameplay, engaging and compelling narrative and the feeling that you are actually making a difference in the world, I believe the Gaming Industry could be thought of in the same way as any amount of paint tossed across a canvas, any metal burnt and blown into shape or any group of jaded, alcoholic actors prancing about in tights.
Though the writing for TWD is amazing (there can be no argument about that, I’m afraid) an example which suggests that it is simply a matter of time spent with a character, which can make their death emotionally rocking, is that of a woman with whom everyone should be familiar, our old friend Cortana. This purple, see-through, little gal has been stuck in my head since Halo 2 (I barely remember her in the first), and I have rarely felt that she has legitimately helped me out in the game. I may have got a little choked up at the end of Halo 3, with the words “It’s been an honour serving with you, John”, finally making me feel as though the franchise had come to an end, it is in Halo 4 that you realise just how much of an influence she is on the narrative.
You track her rapid descend into Rampancy (which appears to be some kind of holographic Schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s and Dementia all rolled into one) with the increasing desperation of your situation. People die because she cannot operate at full capacity, people whom you should have been able to save. Of course, no one cares about the barely memorable NPC’s wandering around the 8” tall Master Chief, but at the tearful farewell at the end of Halo 4; Cortana seems to regain her lucidity, at least temporarily.
Of course, it wasn’t the loss of Cortana that I feared, but rather a terror of what this loss will do to Master Chief. His obstinate refusal to give up on her, even when it becomes obvious she has gone too far into her insanity, is almost heart-breaking to watch. It is the first time I have ever seen that huge, remarkably-unremarkable visor, and felt as though there was any emotion behind it. I don’t know why I become so attached to these characters, but it is obvious that the writing for Video Games is becoming more and more mature. Although, it does seem that the way to make a popular, emotionally-charged story nowadays is to give the player a little girl to protect in a “cold, cruel apocalyptic wasteland”, and make various attempts to systematically break any sense of human decency they might possess.
One game, however, which manages to skirt the edge of this narrative without following it to the letter, is that shocking, mind-blowing shooter, Spec Ops: The Line. Being described as a “modern-day Heart of Darkness” would normally be the sign of a game that takes itself too seriously, but the careful balance of the generic gameplay, unremarkable characters and a story which draws you in and breaks you as coldly and cruelly as any famous narrative can do, becomes a twisting, guilt-creating, mind-breaking journey through the insanity of a protagonist, and the dangers of hero-worship.
And then we turn to Saint’s Row… Yes, the franchise is fun. But it is often a strained kind of fun, like a clown turning up wearing another clown’s face as a mask and proclaiming loudly to a group of screaming child that he is “ironic”. Of course, I am half expecting that mechanic, or at least appearance, to be actually added in to the latest rendition of Grand Theft Auto’s cousin, the one he never invites to anything except for Christmas, and even then he spends the whole day gently twitching in the darkened corner and giggling to himself. The characters spend most of the game mourning Johnny Gat but, of course, it is kind of hard to feel any kind of empathy with someone dressed head to toe in fluorescent purple leather, with a coarse English accent and racing around the city on a Witch’s Broom whilst using a shotgun to hit people between the legs. The gameplay is amazingly fun, but I can’t say I really cared about the narrative. I just wanted to slap Cyber-terrorists and Luchadores, before watching them sent flying when a car modelled after Gat’s head hurtles into them at a speed which can only be classified as: fast.
In Call of Duty, there appears to be a recent fetish for killing off your player characters. The first time I can remember this was during COD 4, when your American character dies in a nuclear explosion. This point was genuinely shocking, at least to me, I think it was amongst the first time in any game really, where your player character dies as part of the narrative, as opposed to dying because you messed up. I couldn’t pretend to feel any particular sadness when he finally hit the floor, under a red sky and surrounded by the ravages of the explosion, but it was surprising to me.
The best example of killing the player character was probably Red Dead: Redemption. After everything John Marston (a grizzled cowboy who is basically every character Clint Eastwood has ever played combined) had been through, the innumerable odds, the journey as he hunted his old companions across the desperate wasteland of the last days of the Old West, the final reunion with his family, all came to nothing. It was masterfully done. Once you finally returned to your family, you had to deal with the normal household problems of the ranch you owned; the game had no neat ending.
Even once the Feds attacked your home, and you fought off near a hundred of them, your character is gunned down coldly and brutally by the men he was once forced to help. A natural ending point indeed, until you realise that the game hasn’t ended.
Instead, you take control of John’s son Jack, once a well-read teenager whom regarded his father as a thug and a fool, but has now become almost a mirror image of the man. You hunt down your old captor, the same man who killed John Marston, and shoot him into the water whilst he is merely enjoying his retirement. This open ending, with the Old West breathing its last and Jack seeming as the ‘Last Cowboy’, (of which there must have been billions by now, if you judge numbers by the amount of old Western films featuring the “last… whatever”) makes you feel as though you haven’t really accomplished anything. The man you grew to like is dead, and you play a stranger, simply making your way through the open-world remnants of what John left behind.
The writing of Video Games is changing. Narratives become less about simply shooting zombies, hacking and slashing through Demons or hunting terrorists, and instead about the relationships between characters, the situations life makes these characters (no longer the perfect image of Duke Nukem or Matt Hazard) endure and what it does to them, and the world around us. Though gameplay is still important and even graphics play a part in creating the feel of a game, but it is the idea of games as a narrative device which makes me love them. I long for the day when something published by Bethesda will be seen with the same credibility as something published by Tuttle or Chatto & Windus. Games aren’t just for teenagers and nerds anymore, they are another way of telling a story and, I for one, cannot wait to see what the future holds for the industry.