[With the malware-splosion of the Apex Blog, I’m digging around in my backup files to repost all the things I did there, here. This first appeared at the Apex Book Blog, about a year ago.]
You know that game with the wise-cracking hero, and how he is all clever and athletic and a he has a sassy, flirtatious relationship with the female lead, and he is smart and tough and funny and… Yeah, it’s an archetype you’ve seen a lot of if you have been playing games. Whether you are a Prince of Persia, Nathan Drake, Spider Man, Serious Sam, Master Chief, Gabriel Knight, Dante, Ezio Auditore, etc., etc., etc., you know you are both a brilliant, competent dude, and always ready with a quip about how brilliant and competent you are. These characters could all probably be voice-acted by a young Harrison Ford to great success.
I’m sick of him. When I was playing Prince of Persia – the newest one, written by Andy Walsh – I was so sick of this guy that I kept imagining how great it would be to jump off a cliff and watch him actually land with a splat of blood and death. I don’t blame the writer. I blame the company that chooses to ask the writer to make their character sound like Indiana Jones.
As I was thinking about how much I hate this archetype – because I’m sick of his self-confident smirk in the face of danger – I got to thinking why this has persisted. It seems the only alternative is the brutal, angst-ridden guilty characters of GTA:IV and God of War. Think about it: either one is a total smirking man-muppet, or one is a total, raging pain monkey. There is little nuance, for the most part. in between these two macho extremes.
Because, for the most part, you’re playing characters that are supposed to be facing great peril, and deadly consequences, these two types have persisted. Most likely, your character is a mass murderer who leaps heights and distances that would make normal men break limbs against odds epically awful.
That wink at the crowd, or that comedically gruesome emotional angst, is the way designers have to try to deal with the reality that their characters are inhuman, and operating with inhuman expectations. They don’t have human emotions. When they kill someone, it’s nothing. When they jump from a burning building, a hundred yards, to grab a rope and swing over an exploding bridge, the characters’ emotional “stance” sets a tone that alienates them from the moment they’re in. A wise-cracking character always has their verbal defenses up, smirking to reveal the unreality and lack of actual consequences in the moment. An angst-riddled character is so inward-looking they never see what they’re doing beyond their emotional blinders, a pocket of pain like gravity weighing down an unfelt, shallow-to-everyone world.
Main characters in games – especially male ones – have an emotional distance from the moment they experience. They are always above the people around them, slightly better, slightly faster, or blessed with slightly better aim. They are special and the world treats them as such.
If I were to draw a graph of immersion, then, I’d have the player who is holding the controller, separated over, then the character that is above the world, then the game world, like so: PLAYER ->MAIN CHARACTER -> WORLD. As a cipher, the main character tends not to be part of the world in which they inhabit. As sick as I am of the wisecracking main character, it is the way that many games choose to keep their main character a little separated from the world around them, to allow them to be the cipher of the player in the living room with the controller.
I was thinking about this, as well, because I just saw the excellent film, Scott Pilgrim Versus the World, and it played like a game. Scott was the emotionally distant main character, a cipher for the audience, a little aside and above the world in which he inhabited. If one really thinks about it, were he truly engaged with the world he lived in, fully, he would never be able to separate from the persona in which he inhabited to grow as a person. Around him, all those quirky, funny, character-types are locked in their idiom, but none of them are capable of changing who they are without the action of the emotionally distant Scott, who seems to define everything around him.
At once, walking away from the film, I felt like I had lost something because I did not have, truly, that same clique of quirky, exciting, interesting people around me. But, the more I thought about it, the more I realized it is because I am emotionally engaged with the people around me as people. I am not distant from my friends and close relations. There is no player using me as a cipher for this world. I am totally immersed.
Indiana Jones archetypes are really a part of a larger problem, that the player cannot truly immerse in the virtual worlds. They need someone to stand aside of that world, and above it, carrying the loa of the player like a voodoo god.
That same perspective of emotional distance is all over books, too. But, as our characters do not have to be mass murderers to be interesting, in books, we are able to have a more mature immersion with the world of the book. We can approach characters as equals, for the most part. We do not need a wise-cracking, good-looking, super hero to carry us safely through the perils of the book. This may be what people are thinking about when they don’t consider video games an art form on par with great works of literature, that can carry the reader a while in someone else’s true skin.
But, I really thought Scott Pilgrim’s movie was fantastic. I thought it spoke to the truth of the human condition, despite the unrealities built into the design and application. The veil of the unreal placed over Scott and Ramona’s relationship enhanced the story, I thought, into the realm of art that spoke to the human condition.
The reason I thought this probably had something to do with how Scott Pilgrim did not sound like Indiana Jones. Unlike Nathan Drake, one could imagine Scott failing, hurting, or giving up, because Scott isn’t just an archetype. He may be our cipher in that shiny world, but he is also ridiculously, painfully human. He’s just as confused, stupid, weak, and petty as we are; and when he rises out of himself into true heroism and self-esteem it feels like it means something about how relationships and our desire to connect meaningfully with the people – to immerse ourselves in our world truly and completely – mean giving up that emotional distance. In the end, that’s what he does. He leaves his shiny, brilliant, cool world behind to be with the woman he loves, in a real, grown-up relationship.
And now I’m going to Amazon to buy the graphic novels…