A Look Back At: Emotion & Character Part II: The Faceless Character

And no, before anyone asks, I’m not talking about Slenderman; I assumed the internet, as a whole, would have had enough of that giant, faceless bastard. This is an ‘article’ (if I can feel justified in calling it as such), that is little more than an add on to a previous ‘Look Back At’, in which I discussed the development and importance of endearing characters. I don’t think I would even manage to get out half of what I’d still like to say, even in this little add on, but there’s no harm in making a start, surely?

Anyway, I have been wondering recently, with all my ramblings about the development of characters in video games, how do we ascribe certain characteristics to a series of pixels whom have no real personality written for them.

In particular, those for games which provide randomised characters such as State Of Decay, Xcom: Enemy Unknown and even, though this could be considered a bit of a stretch, characters which only build character through your own experiences with them, or whatever narrative you can make up for them, such as Skyrim’s Dragonborn, the Courier from Fallout: New Vegas, or even Portal’s Chell. Now, there have been characters in both Xcom and SoD that have made me restart the game when I lost them. I still remember James ‘Rhino’ Davis, a white-haired grizzled old man with huge cybernetic armour and a simply shotgun, which has killed more Alien scum, than Slim Whitman’s ‘Indian Love Call’ in Mars Attacks.

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I told myself he was a veteran of countless wars, no doubt the ageing hero of some generic action movie, probably similar to the Bourne Identity, though dealing with the problems his decline into dotage has brought him. Most likely something of a cross between David Gemmel’s Druss the Legend (too obscure of a reference for the modern, A Song of Ice and Fire reading audience?), Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell series’ Sam Fisher and the Batman from The Dark Knight Returns. Now, filled with repentance at his life as little more than a grunt, he strives to defend his home world from the attacking Alien hordes.

Not the most original of narratives, I know, but it is amazing what the brain will decide upon without realising it. Besides, you have to do something to amuse yourself through the interminable loading screens (throwing crumpled balls of paper into a bin across the room becomes less amazing when you’re doing it three or four times per loading screen. Thank God for rejected essay ideas!).

I don’t know if it is just me who does this, but I often tend to invest more in a character whom I create the narrative for, with a few obvious exceptions. There is no way I could create a narrative as endearing as that of the tragedy of Lee and Clementine, the grandeur of Master Chief and Cortana or the huge, living galaxy behind Shepard and the Reapers, to name but a few.

When the ‘Rhino’ died, shot in the back by a panicking teammate, (a woman whose nickname was swiftly changed to ‘Iscariot’ as soon as the mission was over), I was half-convinced I should just cheat, and reload a save from just before he died. I couldn’t do it though, I felt as if I would be dishonouring the memory of a man I had no knowledge of, despite what I conjured myself.

In one of my favourite XBLA games ever, perhaps second only to Minecraft, State of Decay has a similar effect to Xcom. Though the game gives you a little more background to your randomly generated characters, so far as sometimes telling you whether or not they like reality TV, you are unable to adapt the names or appearances of your characters, like you can in Xcom. This has the effect of making you feel as though need to keep the character alive, the harsh lesson that, once you lose a character, he is gone forever.

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Thankfully, rather than becoming a true annoyance, it adds to the tension, the desire to keep your character alive, especially if he is one of your most upgraded, or is carrying a particularly good haul of supplies, becomes so encompassing that you will leave other people behind, people you could have saved as you speed away in a big, black pickup truck, just make certain that you escape. There are a few characters you can control whom always remain standard, and these are given basic traits when you first meet them, such as Marcus’ bravery, Ed’s joking nature or Maya’s sheer, no-nonsense badassery, but most of the characters you are given are randomly generated ex-cops, hikers, professors, alcoholics, students (as if there are any real differences between the two, hell, I should know) rednecks, accountants and professional chefs. For such a small area, this ‘state’ has quite a varied population really.

I had one character, a retired, grizzled ex-policeman named Martin Toth (do you think I have something of a fetish for grizzled old men? I’m pretty sure I’m developing one for the word ‘grizzled’ at any rate), whom I played with whenever my top three guys were either wounded, exhausted or nowhere to be found. In fact, I spent so much time playing as the man, he ended up with the same stats as my top played character, Marcus, and better ones than Maya or Jacob (Characters 2 and 3, respectively)!

He died in a most horrific way, but he did so like a hero. After rescuing a group of survivors, whom I had never met before, he was sneaking back to my home base. Just a few blocks away, a Juggernaut (affectionately called a Big Bastard) powered into him and, in the ensuing fight, Martin’s silencer broke. With one of his last bullets, he killed the BB, but drew in a horde. Overwhelmed and surrounded by clawing, decayed hands and rotting, gnashing teeth he bravely pulled a Thermite grenade and pulled the pin.

Though I got an achievement, I almost immediately restarted the game. I had the last mission, the ‘Escape From Trumball Valley’, all ready and raring to go, I couldn’t bear the thought of escaping without bringing someone who was so instrumental in my community’s survival. Martin Toth was a hero, to be counted amongst Master Chief, Shepard, Dom Santiago and Lee Everett but, without this little blog-type thing no one would ever have known of his death.

You see, this is what I’m talking about. Some of the characters we love the most are the ones we create ourselves, those randomly generated champions whom we believe are truly products of our own actions, our own imaginations. These are the ones I want to keep alive. I feel that if the game doesn’t end when a character dies, if another person takes over the narrative after you have lost the person you have grown attached to, you feel more compelled to keep yourself safe. The idea of permadeath is a hell of a threat, to the careless player.

Of course, I’m sure it will turn out that I am in the minority for this. Perhaps more people prefer to be told everything there is to know about a character? Even with Shepard, that character we all love, that blank model that each of us seems to personalise into our own image of what he/she should be, is tied into a narrative that will follow a few basic points. For all your choice, it is incredibly rare that a game offers you true freedom, either in terms of the development, or in the sense of freedom.

In fact, these are games which I hold dearest to my own heart. State of Decay, Mount&Blade and even DayZ, these offer you the chance to build a narrative your own way and encourage you to give your characters their own back story, simply by refusing to tell you anything about them. Even Journey, with that silent red shape skidding down sand dunes and flying alongside red scarves, gives you a few basic images to show the narrative, and it is up to your own mind what these events mean, as part of the unnamed figure’s story.

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But the character in Journey has similarities to quite an incredible amount of other protagonists, people with no history, no family and no story beyond the game. We’re never told why Chell is trapped in the Aperture science laboratory and testing centre, we don’t know why the Dragonborn has chosen to ride into the rebellious land of Skyrim and we don’t know whether the Courier in New Vegas was executed and buried in a shallow grave during his first delivery or his hundredth. I’ll admit, this point seems to be heavily Bethesda based, but for a company who always provides an engaging narrative, they see remarkably open towards allowing the player to create any character he or she may desire.

Obviously, I doubt anything I could come up with to fulfil the protagonist’s role even comes close to that of professional writers, and if anyone else were to read these narratives, I would have little doubt I’d be unable to show my face in public again, but that isn’t the point.

The point is, these Faceless Characters we are given, their personal narratives are mine. It doesn’t matter whether each and every character I design has the word ‘grizzled’ in his description, it doesn’t matter to me whether they all end up looking a little like Jon Malkovich, (except for my first Female Shepard… that bugged me) to me whether or not they’re based on games designed by other people, what matters is these half-sensical plots, these barely existent, incoherent ramblings characterisation, they come from me. And that is why Faceless Characters like Martin Toth, and the ‘Rhino’ can often be as endearing, important and provoke as much emotion in the player as the Master Chiefs, the Clementines, the Niko Bellics and hell, even Kyle Katarn! (If you don’t get that reference, I don’t blame you, but you’ve been doing Star Wars wrong!)

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