Building Character

By Alexandra Geraets in Serious Infotainment
Monday, May 21, 2012 at 10:00 am

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Video games have reached what I like to think of as a renaissance, writing wise. Writers are getting smarter, narratives are becoming more finely structured. Games are becoming smarter, and they're becoming smarter because the writing in the general entertainment world has been rising on the intelligence curve for the past decade. The audience is smarter, and so the writers compensate, creating better experiences for all.

 

Characters have rich, fleshed out back stories that some professional book writers would envy. Villains are no longer one-dimensional. Heroes are no longer straight-and-narrow good buys. Stories are no longer simple go-here-do-that quest adventures.

 

Characters are becoming a driving force behind certain games; the player character is drawing a gamer into the story, into the world, into the game itself. This person, this creation of a team of writers, is becoming the face, the presence, the representation of a game. Characters are pushing games forward, and it's truly a joy to behold and play.

 

Then again, there are elements of this excellent writing and characterization that are starting to wear thin.

Every gamer has a pet peeve when it comes to characterization in their games. Some people could care less about characters. Some gamers can't stand dialogue at all. Others don't like silent protagonists. For me, I can't stand chatty sidekicks or side characters. Party banter amuses me; yapping sidekicks do not.


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If a character simply runs their mouth and contributes nothing to the game world - other than the feeling that I have a horde of mosquitoes buzzing about my head demanding to be heard - then the overwhelming urge to hit them rises up. A mouthy character is, however, the ultimate archetype of this current gaming generation. Almost every game I've encountered in the past several years has one of these characters, if not an entire cast seemingly drawn from a Joss Whedon project. 


I could almost blame Whedon for the new breed of archetypes that we're seeing in our current video game generation: the selfless, ambiguously gendered (in mind) lead; the noble, yet tortured male lead; the catty, sharp-tongued female lead; and Annoying Sidekick A, B, C, and D. Look through your games, and you'll find these characters.

 

While I love good writing, I also like some surprises. This type of writing, pithy quips and so-called clever observations, it isn't new, and it's quickly growing tiresome. Every time I hear certain voice actors playing the same character for the third or fourth video game in a row, I cringe, and I scrawl a mental question mark beside that character's game. If I'm to play a game for ten hours or so, do I really want to hear what amounts to eight-ish hours of one person talking to her or himself?


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It's partially what turned me off from Batman: Arkham Asylum. While I greatly enjoyed my time lurking around the asylum grounds, I quickly grew tired of the Joker's constant stream of, well, nothing. I realize it's part of the character's nature, it is what makes him who and what he is, but after the third or fourth hour of it, I was twitching every time I heard the loudspeaker go ping-ping. I knew that a stream of chatter was coming my way, and I had little to no interest in hearing it. Yes, it was oddly amusing at times, but after a few hours, it's tiring.

 

I had the same issue with a similar character, oddly enough voiced by the same actor, in Darksiders. Darksiders was a game that I really, really wanted to like, and yet I didn't. It wasn't the world, which was a delightfully unsettling post-Apocalypse disasterpiece. The main character, War, was a bit of a broody chap, but I liked him. His allies were few, his enemies were many, and his sidekick, The Watcher, was a motor-mouthed know-it-all whom I desperately wanted to punch into the next century. What made me ultimately put Darksiders down? This guy.

 

War was an interesting character. The Watcher was irritation made flesh. War was the advertising character for Darksiders. The Watcher was the bug buzzing about my ears like his own personal horde of mosquitoes, wasps, and assorted other unpleasant summer insects.

 

Darksiders was many things, and I hear that the game world opens up and becomes an exceptional gaming experience. I wish I could have shut my dislike of War's unwelcome sidekick off long enough to enjoy it. To be fair, War didn't seem all that fond of the chatty one either, but I really wanted a permanent mute button for him.

 

I kept envisioning a cartoon of these two: The Watcher says something that is equal parts snarky, gross, and cute; War punches him. Rinse, repeat.

 

The footage I've seen of Darksiders II does not appear to show Death, our horseman of the moment, with any kind of sidekick, save a horse who does what horses in video games do best: run and trample enemies into oblivion. No talking sidekick, no lingering odor of eau d'Court Jester, and, mercifully, no repeat performance of War's irritating Watcher.

 

Death doesn't seem like much of a talker, either. And why should he be? He's Death. He hardly needs advertising.

 

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Serious Infotainment runs on Mondays.


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