Cipher, n. – One having no influence or value; a nonentity.
The word has a rich history and many other definitions, but that one relates specifically to storytelling. As a lover of intricate plots, layered characterization, interesting dialogue and even just an appealing lead character, it’s pretty hard not to be disappointed when the lead character of a game turns out to be a cipher.
Part of the reason this problem persists as much as it does is that a lot of commercial games and Hollywood movies get away with it constantly. For a recent example, let’s use Orlando Bloom’s character in the Pirates of the Caribbean series. What was his name again? Gotta check imdb because the character wasn’t interesting enough to remember it…Will Turner. Jack Sparrow, on the other hand, is quite an effective lead. He’s hilarious and unique, but also has moments where he’s a self-serving jerk. Reasonably layered, but not drowning in angst by any means. I’ll talk a little more about Mr. Sparrow later. For now, let’s go over some bigger issues.
The Balance of Strength and Flaws
Let’s start with something fairly obvious. An unstoppable hero is not interesting. You’ve seen these types before – a grouchy behemoth with a gigantic sword who slices through hordes of enemies and speaks only in vague half-sentences, or a buxom “strong female character” who can beat male enemies into submission but has nothing interesting about her except for a barely-there outfit. These are well-worn clichés and they ought to be avoided if you’re looking for a truly interesting hero. Heroes need obstacles to overcome. This is basic storytelling stuff.
With that in mind, flaws are your friends. They help you avoid that “Mary Sue” character whose biggest problem is that she’s just too beautiful. People are not perfect and they relate to characters who aren’t perfect either. If we’re being honest with ourselves, we all have character flaws that we can recognize in a hero – a short temper, poor self-esteem, lack of social tact and greed are just a few examples.
There is another side of this that isn’t discussed as often. While a hero needs flaws to be believable, go too far in the other direction and you’ll have someone the player can’t sympathize with. In the late 90s there was a wave of video game protagonists who were tousle-haired bakset cases who sat under trees in the rain moaning about how they had driven away everyone who loved them. We’ve established that invincible heroes are not appealing, but the opposite extreme is also a problem. That doesn’t mean that a train-wreck character can’t work, it’s just HARD. I’ve tried it and the reception was mixed to say the least.
The balance is important and in this case, a hero should have positive qualities that help the audience tolerate the flaws and develop empathy for them. Traits like a good sense of humor, enthusiasm for certain subjects, or just simple kindness can endear a character to the audience without overlooking their bad side. Most people, even people you don’t like, have good qualities. Balancing those with bad qualities is what makes a memorable hero.
The Silent Hero
This character type has been with us for as long as video games have existed. These heroes aren’t really meant to be full characters, but to represent the persona of the player with the goal of creating an immersive experience. But is it still viable in an era of more complex storytelling in games?
Of course it is, but I think a lot depends on genre and, more specifically, how much dialogue you’re expecting to have in your game. The silent protagonist works wonders in first-person shooters or platformers. These are the kinds of games you don’t necessarily want bogged down with dialogue. But I’ve never really liked the concept in an RPG. It always seems awkward when a lead character can barely interact with the other members of the party or NPCs. Most of these games give you choices as to what to say, but that’s just not the same.
As much as I love Chrono Trigger, I don’t recall having a huge emotional response when Lavos disintegrated Crono given that he had not uttered a single word. A large-scale adventure needs a lead character who can fully engage with the world around them. The Bioware games (i.e. Mass Effect, Dragon Age) strike a nice compromise with this. You’re given a lot of freedom to design your character and are constantly given the chance to determine the character’s attitude and actions. Having voice actors deliver a response that you chose is much more satisfying than just assuming your character said something after you selected it from a menu.
But there are other ways to convey personality other than dialogue and this can add a great deal to the games that don’t have heavy story and characterization. One example is Shovel Knight. Technically, the lead character does have dialogue in a few spots, but I can’t remember a word of it. What gave Shovel Knight his personality was his design. Obviously he has a unique weapon but if you watch closely, there’s a ton of character in the little poses he does as you trek through the levels. It was a great way to pull off a (mostly) silent hero but still make him highly memorable.
Conclusion – Breaking the Mold
So let’s get back to Jack Sparrow. Before that first Pirates of the Caribbean film came out, the pirate was generally a stock character and not very interesting. Then came Johnny Depp, who played his character as a swaggering effeminate lunatic who had clearly spent way too much time out in the sun. The producers initially balked at Depp’s bizarre interpretation of this character, but he knew better. Now it’s hard to imagine pirate movies before the arrival of Jack Sparrow…and with Cutthroat Island in mind, perhaps it’s best not to.
Writing in games is, unfortunately, not held in the highest esteem right now. People feel like they’ve seen everything and that the major game studios simply repeat the same stories and character types over and over again. The explosion of smartly written indie games with unique characters over the last decade has made a difference in terms of pushing back against this, but we still have to deal with the presumption that writing in games is inherently less intelligent than movies, books, etc. The best way to fight this is to break the mold.
It’s a sad commentary on the industry that even having a female lead character is considered audacious and risky, but we can go deeper than that. After all, we’ve seen recent games where the playable character is a goat or even a slice of bread! Those games aren’t necessarily masterpieces but they are welcome arrivals because they expand the audience’s idea of what a game can be.
So whether the lead character of your game is a complex warrior with a dark past and lots of secrets or just a household object on an adventure, let your imagination run wild and show the audience something that feels fresh and exciting. People remember that.