A (Brief) Look Back At: Gamertags & Profile Names

This little wonderment contains the most spelling mistakes I have ever had in anything I have ever written, ever. The problem is, they are all deliberate representation of the Goddamn identities we see every day. It makes you weep for the future, doesn’t it? Obviously, not you, you’re too cool to weep. It’s either a solid bawl or nothing for you, am I right?

The Payday 2 Crime.Net system, that which allows you to find and either join or begin Heists, has made a topic which has always annoyed me become much more prevalent and noticeable. Now, I’m proud of my Gamertag, well, as proud as one can be of a word. But that is why I’m proud of it, because it is an actual word. It may well be Latin, but it is still a word. There are no gaps between the letters, no alternating capital X’s, no reference to my ability with a sniper rifle or whether I am a ‘Loner’ or not.

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Obviously, you will have seen and, the chances are, you even HAVE a Gamertag (or any kind of profile name) which bears at least some similarities to ‘ii L0N3 SN1P3Z ii’, ‘xXx R 8 Z 0 R xXx’ or ‘Sp4r4n mLg Kii11A’. I couldn’t bear to have a name like that. Imagine every time you earned a kill in a game, every time you signed in, every time you sent a message or even simply joined a game, just imagine any of THOSE popping up at the side of your screen.

I don’t know when it happened, but it seems to have changed from having the odd person in a game, with some stupid, and often misleading, (I’ve lost count of the times someone who calls themselves an ‘MLG’ has been a twelve year old who cannot stop screaming ‘faggot’, a topic I believe I’ve already made my opinions clear on). This certainly has at least something to do with it, I think. People over an online gaming service, such as Steam or Xbox Live, take these things as they’re identities. So, should I really be surprised that immature arseholes, who really don’t think that their Gamertag has anything  to do with whom they really are, are using names like ‘Eggzot1cz HuNt3r’? I know for a fact that I have come off as incredibly judgemental during this little rant, but that is because for things that I believe violate human rights or something which I hold dear, I am. (I mean, it’s almost a torture to see these kind of names on a regular basis. They should put that shit in the Geneva Conventions!)

I may well be in the minority here, (in fact, judging by the prevalence of these names, I’m sure I am), but perhaps there is some psychological effect here, that I just don’t understand? What if the name ‘pR0 G4M3rZ’ strikes fear into the first of every other player except for me? Or is it likely to become one of those circumstances which seem to be mentioned every other day on Facebook, where you have to give someone the email you had when you were twelve? Are these ‘1337 Sh0tTy’s’ going to be the ‘bubblegumprincess@hotmail’s’, or the ‘goatcheesefish@yahoo’s’ of the next generation?

So, do you guys feel ashamed whenever you have to tell someone your profile name? Or are you proud of it, no matter how many similar names there are, how many letters have been replaced with numbers or how many alternating capital X’s it may possess?

All of the above are Gamertags and emails I made up. If they do happen to be yours, (or those of someone you know), then either you, (or they), should be ashamed of your inability to come up with anything, at least relatively original.

A Look Back At: Grand Theft Auto IV

Seeing as a huge number of AAA titles are to be released over the next few weeks, I thought I’d go back and, rather than make vague arguments loosely based around some topic which doesn’t really relate to anything I would, if not review in a literal sense, then at least talk a little bit about, so here goes!

Grand Theft Auto is a series everyone must be familiar with if only because, along with such others as Manhunt, Call of Duty and even its insane cousin Saint’s Row, it has been used as one of the main examples when discussing how video games are damaging the impressionable minds of today’s youth. You know, I hate that word. I feel like I may as well just stuff myself with tweed whenever I have to say youth.

In the most recent release, GTA IV (at the time of writing, I know GTA V comes out in, like, three weeks, but whatever) you play as Niko Bellic, an immigrant from the ‘old country’ probably some weird off-shoot of Mother Russia, who runs to Liberty City to escape his criminal past and live with his cousin Roman in the lavish lifestyle of a wealthy American businessman.

Of course, we all know that isn’t how videogames work. His cousin is a liar, heavily in debt and running a taxi cab firm from some grimy little office in Liberty City’s slum area. Within perhaps an hour, you are gunning down drug dealers and cops, stealing cars and running over old women, all the while ignoring Roman’s requests to do some inane activity with him. I hadn’t played this game in a while, and forgot just how annoying he was.

And no, no, Roman. I do not want to go bowling with you. Ever.

Of course, as annoying and pathetic as he is, Roman is a good character, and that is something that both GTA, and Rockstar in general, have always managed to do well. After playing the game, you will be able to remember most of the characters you have to fight alongside, or work for. Obviously, Brucie, the steroid-pumping car fanatic who could do with calming down, and Little Jacob, a gangster version of Bob Marley, who is so unintelligible in conversation it’s hilarious, are the two most memorable.

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One of the things I like about you character, Niko, is how absolutely hideous he is. Even when dressed up in a suit and tie, he still looks as rough as I can imagine a character looking. Rockstar haven’t gone for a tall, proud champion here, with golden hair and a finely chiselled jaw, he looks like a thug, a hired killer and, more than likely, one of the many unnamed villains someone like Liam Neeson would gun down in a heartbeat. He doesn’t have the same bearing as, say, John Marston, the protagonist of Rockstar’s next game Red Dead: Redemption, his shoulders seem hunched, his stomach flabby where Marston’s would be straight. Niko isn’t perfect. He’s a criminal and a killer, though compared to some of the other characters you meet, he is a veritable saint.

With the advantage of hindsight, which seems to be what everything I decide to write about relies upon, the gameplay feels quite jilted and clunky, the movement is unresponsive at the best of times, which is a problem when chasing someone on foot, but the part that really lets the gameplay down, for me at least, is the cover system. I had expected, judging by the amount of damage guns do to you, that sticking to cover would be paramount in surviving gunfights but I have been killed more often when glued to walls with strategically firing around corners, than when walking forwards with a goddamn double-barrelled shotgun.

One thing I have always hated in Rockstar games is the auto-aimer which seems to be used as a standard, which tends to make the title less of a game than an interactive narrative. I always switch it off when given the chance, but when you go online it is all but impossible to keep up with other players who do use the auto-aimer.

However, I’m more than willing to forgive this for the simple fact that the multiplayer is so damn enjoyable. Today I spent around four hours just in free mode with a few friends of mine, and never once stopped having fun. From racing across the city in stolen tow-trucks, to ploughing into each other with choppers, to simply racing across roofs shouting ‘parkour’, every few minutes would have us all but falling out of our seats with laughter.

Though the core game itself was good, it is in the DLC that it really shines. In the Lost & the Damned, the focus is on a group of bikers, which opens itself up to a much wider variety of gameplay and contains my currently favourite game type, Chopper VS Chopper. One player tries to pass through a series of checkpoints whilst riding a ‘Hog, whereas the other takes control of a combat helicopter and tries to hunt the Biker down. Though it sounds pretty one-sided, and I suppose it is seeing as the gunship will eventually kill the rider, it is actually a lot more tense and uncertain than it sounds. The race to escape the explosive rounds, and the tenseness caused by hunting a small target through a heavily-populated city seems to be the gameplay that the title was designed towards.

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The Ballad of Gay Tony seems to solve a few of the problems I had with the core title, though it could just be myself getting used to the sensitivity again. The gameplay seems more fluid, and the controls more responsive, along with adding a much more over the top and varied amount of weaponry. It seems to take away a great deal of the grit that acts as the main focus of the game, replacing it with a look and even physics more designed towards entertainment than realism. Of course, the physics could simply be the amount of unrealistic things we have done in the game, that rewards us with bigger explosions and more time spent flying through the air before landing face-first on the pavement.

GTA was never a series that particularly grabbed me and, to be honest, the single player still leaves a lot to be desired, but the multiplayer gameplay has kept me entertained than most games as a whole tend to do. It is the sole reason I’m looking forward to GTA V, not for the different characters or the seemingly over the top missions, but simply going on Free Mode with some friends and having fun.  That is what GTA has become about for me, not the narrative, or the characters, not the so-called corrupting influence on my relatively young and impressionable mind. With a few friends, GTA becomes one of the best games to play, even with all its faults.

A Look Back At: Romance

As of yet, I’ve taken up your time, (I hope) talking about characters and their emotions, but I think it is time we moved onto an aspect of this topic which is rarely done well.

So, unless I can think of another way to aid in your procrastination, this should be the last Character-based LBA (Look at me! Using acronyms and everything!), and I can get back to thinking about the addictions of Achievements and the quality control of franchises, along with a few other things I have in mind.

Romance is the topic of this little… whatever the hell this is. Specifically, the sheer fakery of most of the romances we are shown in games. Everyone who has ever picked up a game will, have no doubt, been subjected to at least one example of ‘love’, which seems like nothing more than something thrown together at the last minute, in order to provide some ‘drama’.

One of my best examples of how romance should not be done is actually in a game I quite enjoyed, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. The writing for the entire game seemed a little, erm, strained, especially in a universe as rich as Lucas’ monster, but Starkiller’s romance with Juno Eclipse was painful to watch. Or, rather, it would have been had I realised there was any romantic tension between the two of them. Even when the chavviest Sith in the galaxy cut his way through an entire Star Destroyer just to rescue her, I still thought it was just a way of pissing off Daddy (well, his surrogate daddy anyway).

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It just seems to me that often the only reason a huge proportion of romance-based narratives are placed in games, is that writers feel as though they are necessary in making a protagonist relatable and, you know, I get that. I understand that it is a fairly simple way of making, what is in actuality little more than a collection of pixels, appear more human, but it can’t be that hard to do well?

I hate to keep using this title as an example of amazing writing, it makes it seem like I don’t have other games to use as points, but The Walking Dead’s early budding romance with Carley, which ends in simultaneously the best and worst possible outcome I could imagine for the game, is incredibly well shown, though it is done so in a subtle way. Though never going further than a quick kiss on the cheek, I liked Carley. She, besides Clementine, was the only character alive in that game, that I trusted and perhaps that is why I felt as though a romance with her was all but a certainty.

Maybe a good way then, to endear the player to a specific character, is by making all others seem cruel, cowardly or any other derogatory remark you can conjure. The problem this could create, however, is that the character you want the audience to like becomes nothing more than the ‘best of a bad bunch’, and their likeability will just be a standard. The Walking Dead offers you choices, which make you feel as though you are changing the game world with every decision you make, a trait, which is surprisingly rare in a generation of gaming where ‘you decide’ comes printed on the back cover of every second game you play.

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I felt that I liked Carley because she was sensible, because she was the closest person to saying what I was thinking, and that was a stroke of genius behind the title’s writers. And that should be the way our character’s love interests work. They should be genuinely likeable and attracting to the player, as much as the character.

I can honestly say, I’ve never cared for Princess Peach. A tragedy, I know, but there it is. I don’t understand why Mario keeps going after her, she is as bland as my first student accommodation, without the excitement of a bunch of light-weight ‘party-boys’ passing out in the kitchen every night.

Bastards.

I’d have hoped that Nintendo might have given her a personality at some point, but they seem to have completely forgotten that strong, female characters are on the rise. Though, in certain corners of the internet, this next comment will mark me as an enemy of the Glorious People’s Revolution of Hyrule, Zelda goes into the same folder as Peach. I’ve got to say, that whole ‘she is a princess so, clearly, you have to rescue her’ doesn’t really do much for me, narrative-wise. Even Princess Leia only needed rescuing the one time, but Peach and Zelda consistently get themselves into stupid situations and cry out for their Links and Marios, when someone like, say, Alyx Vance, Ashley Williams or even goddamned Clementine could sort it out themselves. I know that, in Ocarina Of Time, Zelda becomes Sheik whilst Link is sleeping in the Chamber Of Sages, and acts as the Seventh Sage, but compared to the amount of times Link has had to defend her, this one example of her growing a backbone pales.

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For all that the early examples of these games were bare of the, now typical, strong female character; I still feel that as these series’ have continued, they shouldn’t be so dependent on the same boring narrative. Mario still traipses around after Peach like a dog chasing a stick-thin, elf-looking, blonde bone; Link still struggles through elemental temples, with his little green hat strapped to his suspiciously blonde hair.

Most of the romances which I tend to enjoy, which are few and far between, are not the typical ‘a princess needs rescuing’ or the ‘boy meets girl’ narratives. One of the greatest romances I have had the privilege to watch develop over the years and, as far as I’m aware, come to an end, is that of Mister Generic and Ms Glowy Advisor themselves, Master Chief and Cortana. Though any real form of physical intimacy is impossible, she literally lives inside his head. He relies upon her for any real thought, and is nowhere near as effective without her.

That is one of the reasons it was so hard to watch her fade away, after everything the two of them have been through, all the wars, the dangers, the suicide missions that they somehow managed to escape, she dies by something that Master Chief could ‘possibly’ have helped her to survive, if he had been a little quicker, a little better. Personally, I don’t think he could have saved her, and she doesn’t seem to either. The possibility of her survival depended upon her return to Earth and so, it would be safe to assume, that this incentive was one of the last gifts she could give to Master Chief, a last reason to carry on after her mind sinks into Rampancy.

And, on that cheery note, I just realised I have other work to do, so this little LBA is getting split into two parts now! Wooooo, the anticipation must be killing you! Next time, I’ll be talking about those games where romance is more dependent on the player’s choices, games like Mass Effect, Dragon Age and The Witcher, rather than linear games like those I’ve already mentioned. So you know… yeah, see you next time!

A Look Back At: Franchise: Part II – Nostalgia VS Reboot

So, here we are again. Another series I grew up with, loved and played as I struggled through my formative years, being resurrected from the ash cloud of classics which long since fell out of favour. With a Star Wars: Battlefront reboot on the horizon, I should be shaking with anticipation but, almost to my shame, I’m struggling to summon up more than an average amount of excitement.

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The thing is, I find myself wondering who exactly this reimagining is aimed at. I have a sneaking suspicion that it won’t be at the gamers whom loved the series when it first stormed onto the gaming scene, but rather a ploy to make more money off of this monster of a franchise, mostly from the generations since that missed the games when they were in their heyday.

Though this may seem blasphemous, I feel as though, rather than reimagining classic games, Developers should be trying to come up with new titles, with the possibility of creating new, unique series. Let’s be honest, there is no way anyone who grew up with the previous titles will openly admit to the new games being more enjoyable than those they remember. I know how the greater proportion of people whom share this hobby of ours are; they feed on nostalgia as if they were some kind of emotional vampire. Now, that isn’t me being overly cruel, but I know how the minds of gamers work. We all have a competitive aspect that often makes us seem quite, well, ignorant.

There are some older games that I feel were never properly ended. I find it hard to support the reimagining of Star Wars Battlefront, when we all know how the story ends. The same could (and will be, before this paragraph is finished) be said with another game which dominated my childhood, TimeSplitters. I loved this series, I loved the changing time periods, I loved following the hilarious characters alongside an apocalyptic narrative reminiscent of Doctor Who, I laughed every single time Cortez said ‘It’s Time to Split’, and I choked back tears when Corporal Hart died.

But it ended, the source of the ‘Splitters was discovered, and time rewritten so that the war never happened. If the game were to be rebooted, or an extra sequel added on, it could in no way improve upon the nostalgic memory of the game I already possess. Obviously, if a new TimeSplitters were to be released, I would be first in line at the midnight launch, but i don’t feel it needs anything more.

One of the games I would like to see return is that classic third-person-shooter, Freedom Fighters, (the first game I ever saw rag-doll psychics in, actually). Taking charge of an American revolution during a Red Dawn-styled Soviet takeover, you chose where and when you would attack, you commanded your squad in a way I have yet to see improved upon and it was left open. The main antagonist figure is never found, and one of the last lines, I remember hearing during the ending sequence, was ‘They’ll be back, with bigger guns, and more soldiers’. Now, to me, that seemed like virtually a promise of a sequel but since around 2004, rumours haven’t stopped circulating about an eventual release.

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It isn’t even as if IO Interactive, the developers of this title, have their hands particularly full. They seem more than content to keep pushing out Kane & Lynch, or milking Hitman for all it’s worth, so why not, at least, give the best game they ever made a sequel? I can imagine it now, Christopher Stone is older, bearded and ‘grizzled’ (I’m starting to think this word really is an addiction when describing my ideal protagonists), and instead of fighting for the freedom of merely Manhattan, he has to lead a country-wide resistance. Exhausted by the constant warfare, he is losing hope of ever seeing a ‘free’ America again, but has been fighting for too long to just give up. I can see the bags beneath his eyes, the white scars and the grey-hairs already.

Of course, the trouble with this is the nostalgia factor. I loved the game when it came out, and loved it again when I dug out my old PS2 just to replay it, but any addition to the series will be given such publicity, such ‘over-hype’, that it wouldn’t be able to stand up beside its predecessor.

Of course, I can try to avoid it all I will, but there is one franchise that I know everyone on the internet longs to see. Half-Life 3. I get it; Half-Life was a good game, as was Half-Life 2 and the episodes which followed.  And yes, the narrative was left unfinished, with such a surprising end that I almost screamed at the TV when I finished Episode 2, that first time. But no matter how good a new Half-Life could be, it would never survive with an overall positive review. Either a new Half-Life would be too different to achieve the same levels of respect and awe the previous titles have created, or it would be too similar so that it would be treated with derision.

I mean, hell, look at what happened to Duke Nukem.

Those franchises we consider to be classics, classics that stopped for whatever reason, whether it is because they were stale and tired, because the company behind it went bust, or simply because they felt the narrative should end, they should be allowed to remain dead. I loved Freedom Fighters, Half-Life and TimeSplitters don’t get me wrong, but I would abandon all hope of a sequel if only I could stop the newer Final Fantasy’s, Dynasty Warriors and  Tomb Raider from being thrown at the gaming community.

I could be wrong here, you might all disagree with me, and I’d love to hear about it if you do, but I feel that the sense of nostalgia, which we all seem to share, is too strong to overcome what could be the mere development of a good game. I suffer from it, the same as everyone else I know. But I feel that a new Half-Life would have to reach levels as of yet undreamt of by modern developers, to even have a chance of meeting the expectations of most gamers.

A Look Back At: The Rise of the Let’s Play – An Introduction

Of course, I don’t think I can possibly comment on the last generation of gaming, as a whole, without at least broaching upon a subject which is near and dear to my own heart, the Rise of the Let’s Play. Try and think of this as more of a… introduction, I feel that I need to be more specific than I have been for this particular subject.

Obviously, this little… whatever this is, will have a great deal of ‘fanboyism’ (is that a word? I feel like that should be a word) for both Rooster Teeth and Achievement Hunter, two channels I am particularly devoted to, but I’ll try and remain at least a little neutral.

First of all, Let’s Plays are simple enough, if you aren’t already a consumer. The player/s take a game and… well, just play it, recording as they do so. It takes a strong, or at least a funny, personality to make these videos work if recorded solo, but even in groups it requires a dynamic that is shared by few people who actually play together on a regular basis, no matter what they may believe. That is definitely the difference between, say, an Achievement Guide and a Let’s Play. Often these two crafts, if that is what you believe they can be called (I certainly do), run synonymous to each other, some of the best Let’s Players having learnt what kind of topic, game and narrative voice works whilst recording Achievement Guides or Walkthroughs.

I am a huge consumer of Let’s Plays, whether this be because it allows me to vicariously enjoy games I doubt I’ll ever play, because they make me laugh when they are done well, or encourage me to buy the games I see being played. I don’t think this last point is just for me though, it can’t be a coincidence that GTA IV goes on a massive On Demand sale for Xbox Gold Members, and just a few short weeks after the guys at Achievement Hunter began a series of Let’s Plays in the title. I know that GTA V comes out soon, and that will have something to do with this sudden sale, but I still feel that the AH lads have had an effect on the decision.

As an example, every other week I start to lose interest in Minecraft, drifting away to other games for a short period, then I’ll watch a Minecraft Let’s Play and be straight back on the game, trying to conjure up my own landmarks to rival that of Achievement City’s. Of course, maybe it isn’t just the Let’s Plays that draw the huge audience in. Of course, there is Red Vs Blue and now RWBY, RT Shorts and RT Life, amongst countless other video series’, which can always be guaranteed to at least put a smile on my face. These are, obviously, leaning more towards Rooster Teeth as a company in general, rather than the specifics of AH, but they can only help.

AH aren’t the only ones I feel as though are changing the face of the internet. One of the greatest, and funniest, video game reviewers (in my opinion, you may disagree but, well, you’d be wrong) Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw, along with creating the hilarious and yet still informative Zero Punctuation series, he has also written a novel, writes scathing poetry based on the gaming industry and, a discovery which almost had me squealing with joy, records Let’s Plays of the games he played when he was a child. Yahtzee’s  LP’s are vastly different from AH’s, though remaining absolutely hilarious, they also offer a great deal more information on the game itself, showing a style of gaming which most of the younger generation of gamers will have missed. Hell, I only joined in towards the end of the style of games they discuss, but I still remember games like Fantasy World Dizzy on the Sega Megadrive, and I remember owning an Atari, before I fully understood what one was.

Honestly, I feel that there is quite a lot I could say about LP’s, but it needs more a specific look than just a general overview. With that in mind, I believe I shall leave it here for now, but expect another ‘article’ soon; I’ve got far too much to say on this subject, to leave it at a half-baked introduction.

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!)

A Look Back At: Emotion & Character

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. Cortana-halo4s117-33183527-570-300

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. the-walking-dead-episode-3
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.3033129-marston-john-marston-19650138-1280-720[1]

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.