Video games have countless unique considerations as an art form, but among the most compelling is how to allow players to impact and experience their worlds.
Film directors usually do not need to worry about justifying the presence of a camera in a scene; audiences accept that their perspective is that of an invisible observer.
But character-based video games, which by their definition are interactive, must somehow account for human beings manipulating their artificial world.
They accomplish this in many ways.
Many games, particularly those early role-playing games which establish worlds that seem to exist outside of player exploits, give players a silent protagonist to control.
This design choice, which is seen in games like The Legend of Zelda, Chrono Trigger, Dragon Quest, and the original Final Fantasy, lets other characters in the game speak to each other and to the hero without fear of placing words in players’ mouths.
This springs from mostly technological concerns: human dialogue is a very complex thing. Creating a system which would allow users to participate fully in a conversation with pre-scripted partners capable of reacting in real time is a feat of software engineering which still eludes us.
Thus, the few questions which are directed toward the hero have their answers distilled down to simple list items: Yes; No; Rest; Save; Fight. These choices are meant to convey the general idea of the ensuing speech, and it’s assumed the character is participating in the conversation more fully — we just don’t hear it.
Crono, the main character of Chrono Trigger, has (almost) no lines of his own despite playing a pivotal role in the game’s events. A few moments of player decision come from simple dialogue choices, but most emerge simply from deciding what to do and where to go at any given time.
Silent heroes did not disappear with the advent of common voice acting in games, although they did become much more rare.
Gordon Freeman, the main character of Half-Life (the so-called thinking man’s first-person shooter series) holds a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from MIT and the respect of his scientific colleagues, though his perennial silence is a common subject of the game’s self-referential humor.
Players are capable of much more nuanced expression with their heroes in battle than in dialogue, where attacks can be carefully plotted out to combine and counter in a conversation of their own right.
The set of priorities which made interesting violence develop much earlier than interesting verbal interaction in video games merit exploration of their own.
Role-playing video games like Mass Effect and Fallout took the RPG system of simple speech choices and expanded them.
Players are still limited to at most four or five responses to any given part of a conversation, but those options are realized as fully developed thoughts.
This choice makes main characters seem to be more of their own people with their own experiences, but leaves it up to the player which kind of person — from a relatively narrow set of possibilities — they want the character to be.
It allows main characters — and thus players — to be a much more powerful force in the game’s story, as opposed to letting non-player characters do all the talking while the hero just sticks around to kill the dragon.
Almost all of Mass Effect’s much-vaunted moments of decision occur within dialogue: players must choose which subordinate to save and which to leave to certain death by encroaching enemies and a soon-to-detonate bomb from several options in an interface wheel.
However, these moments also have the potential to disenfranchise gamers. None of the choices presented may be comfortable for the player, or the actual content of the dialogue which will ensue once the choice is made may be unclear.
Mass Effect and other games with similar methods of character interaction simply distill the basic idea of each dialogue choice into a brief sentence to save space and make it more interesting to hear or read over again. If a summary sentence is misinterpreted and chosen, players can feel immediately divorced from the experience by an apparatus which fails to reflect their will, and the unwanted consequences which may ensue.
In other situations, players may feel thwarted when player choice suddenly dries up to expose a clearly delineated path.
This was very much the case in the ending moments of Fallout 3, when players were forced to martyr the main character to provide clean water for a post-apocalyptic wasteland, despite the presence of several characters who could clearly accomplish the same thing safely. This inconsistency was later rectified by content released after the game.
It may be preferable to give gamers no influence on character behavior at all. This allows them to distance themselves from the main character and accept the third, most commonly used option in modern video games — keep the character’s personality and the player’s agency separate.
Characters from more action-oriented games such as Uncharted, Call of Duty, and Halo clearly have their own thoughts and inspirations completely separate from whatever the player may want to pursue, which they usually express in cut-scenes or quips throughout player action.
The juxtaposition of player action and character expression can, however, often interfere with character identity.
The main character of the Uncharted series, Nathan Drake, is a typical good-hearted rogue who is not afraid to scrap and steal but seems to follow his own moral code.
But that moral code evidently leaves room for sneaking up behind henchmen and snapping their necks before they can even utter a cry of surprise, because Drake never expresses any cognitive dissonance at the violence the player commands him to carry out, nor the body count in the hundreds he accumulates by the end of the game.
No form of character expression is perfect, and all previously enumerated in some way indicate the problem central to many games — balancing player input with the directive of a compelling, pre-authored experience.