I read an article on the Escapist about How Game Stories Suck because the protagonist doesn't change. It got me thinking about the role of characters in a game and narrative. Why don't game characters change?
In my narrative heavy games, I sometimes feel there is a disconnect between the narrative character and my avatar. The narrative has set up this character to seem like a certain kind of person. However, as I begin playing, the character is no longer like that. For example, when playing a game like Legend of Zelda, Link is set up to be heroic, courageous, and trusted. However the actions the player performs as Link are hardly heroic. The cover up of course is that the game narrative ignores certain player actions. Particularly in Role Play Games (RPGs).
A game character has two roles in a narrative style game. The story character and the game character. Most games play these off as separate entities. This disconnect reduces the effect of change or perceived change in a character.
Narratives are truly linear in their presentation. That is the way narration works. A game narrative is not linear. Sure we may play "linear games". But they are only linear in level design or connected by cutscenes. However the narrative is mostly handled by cutscenes or dialog, character actions rarely make an impact on the story. Think about time within a game. In dialog, a character will tell the player to please hurry there's not much time to complete this task. The player may choose not to complete that task until later and suffer no penalty. The character requesting the action recites dialog as if the player completed the task on time instead of taking an in-game week. Time is a funny thing in games. Unless there is a timer on screen there's no rush. The narrative is 'in-charge' of real time, so you can stay several nights at an inn if you so desire.
This time anomaly removes the sense of danger or urgency, unless said timer is present. Danger and urgency connects the audience to the character in a narrative. Having that same urgency or time limit in a game does not add to the narrative or player-character relations. In most timed situations it can be a detractor as the player must now focus on completing the task instead of taking in the world and narrative.
The narrative however is not told through dialog alone but the whole world. Anything the player can look at or interact with tells part of the story. So much can be missed if the player is not looking. This is meta-data that a narrative story would portray only if it is necessary but this allows the story to be enriched in a way the player can care about if s/he so chooses. A player that stops to smell the roses gets to take in more of the game narrative.
Elements of Change
As I've pointed out before player action seems to have very little impact in terms of story and character behavior. Any impact that the player could have is predetermined by the game writer/designer. Narratively, if the writers lend us the control of a story character then through dialog and cutscenes the character develops. Gameplay does not develop the character per se.
However, open world games or sandbox games DO let game play affect character. In the game Red Dead Redemption, if you run over a dog there are in game consequences as townsfolk are enraged at your cruelty to animals. The character's reputation and ability to explore are affected by these actions. This makes moving through the story different based on player action. The changes occur in both game and narrative. Similarly in 'choose your own adventure' style games in game action affects the narrative but not the character necessarily.
If the player is immersed in the game they become the character. Changing a person is a more difficult feat than changing a character as it turns out. Not all players get immersed in a game fully either. For example, when I play a 'choose your own adventure' style game like Dragon Age or Knights of the Old Republic I have multiple desires. One, I like being immersed in the story and playing as a character with specific traits so I try to choose dialog options that would pertain to that character's beliefs. Secondly, I want to achieve a certain ending for this character so I want to select dialog choices that will net that ending. Thirdly, I want to make sure that my character has the right abilities to complete the game and fight the next boss.
Often times, I find myself at a self-imposed struggle when it comes to options and choices. I have to choose which desire I will give into. Will I stay "in character" and select the choice I know will not give me the ending I'm aiming for? Or do I make an out of character choice to get the best game advantage? But not everyone plays like this. Where every dialog choice is a moral dilemma.
Player motive and play style changes how they play and how a character develops.
There are all sorts of pleasure in a narrative experience that stem from dynamic characters and points of change. Likewise there are pleasures in the visual-interactive that allow a player to see things engulfed in flames and explore fantastical places. When these work together it's heaven, however, it's difficult to write a story for a game and have it be meaningful if our hero can break into a house, break their pots to steal rupees but still be considered our savior.