How important is the (pre-defined) character you play?

I have a lot of RPG and MMO players who read this blog (well… “a lot” is a relative term) so first to clarify: in this post I’m talking about ‘pre-packaged’ characters like Lara Croft or Master Chief, as opposed to characters you create and are kind of a vessel that you can mold as you see fit.

Back at Gamescom Microsoft showed us a little more of a game called Scalebound. It was about a young man and his dragon companion. Here’s some footage:

After that aired, some friends mentioned they wouldn’t be playing because they didn’t like the protagonist. I thought that was kind of harsh at the time, but now I think I understand where they were coming from.

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve finished two games: Watch Dogs and Infamous: Second Son. In broad terms they’re kind of similar. They’re both open world games that take place in a city. Both offer lots of side quests and both are generally about a lone wolf going up against an organization. I really liked Watch Dogs but I feel pretty “meh” about Infamous: Second Son.

Much of the reason I really liked one game and not the other comes down to the main characters. Aiden Pearce (Watch Dogs) is an adult. He’s also a criminal, and during a heist he unintentionally runs afoul of the local crime syndicate. They put a hit on him, but the hit goes wrong and Pearce’s 6 year old niece is killed while he survives. He is a character driven my anger, guilt and frustration. While I’ve seen players of the game complain about him being emotionless, to me his attitude is that of someone kind of suppressing emotions in order to get a job done.

Delsin Rowe (Infamous: Second Son) is in his early 20s. He is a Conduit, meaning he has what are essentially magical powers that he gets early in the game. He delights in these (I probably would too). In theory he is driven by a desire to help the people of the small town he is from, but we see that at the very start of the game and the very end, and nothing in between. Honestly I’d forgotten about them by the time he returned to them. More immediately he wants to free other Conduits who are imprisoned, but there’s no passion behind that desire. It boils down to “He wants to beat the final boss” really. He’s sarcastic, flippant and a punk. His big brother is in the game, trying to look after him, and Delsin just mouths off to him over and over again.

I hated being in Delsin’s skin. Even though Aiden Pearce is a bad person, I actually didn’t mind playing as him because I could identify with his motivations. Really Delsin is a nicer guy (the way I played him). He can use his powers to directly save lives, for instance. Aiden can stop crimes to get the populace to like him but he does tend to leave quite a body count behind.

But I think it boils down to two things. First, Aiden Pearce feels like a real person while Delsin Rowe feels like a video game character. Second, as an older person I could identify with Aiden’s motivations while Delsin just reminded me of all those damned kids that I’m always trying to keep off my yard.

So yeah, now I’m a little worried about Scalebound too.

4 thoughts on “How important is the (pre-defined) character you play?

  1. I can play RPGs with silent protagonists (where I develop that character in my mind) just as well as an RPG that develops the protagonist. I think games that give you a pre-defined main character have the more difficult task, though.

    If the game can’t get me into the main character’s shoes, it’s harder for me to enjoy the experience. Even if the character isn’t a “good guy,” I can still have a great experience as long as the development and dialogue is believable. It’s really about immersing me in that character’s life – I’m much more likely to play longer when a game can do that for me.

  2. This is an interesting question, I hadn’t really thought about this before. For me, and maybe it’s a girl thing?, I generally dislike playing any game where I can’t choose who to play. Lara Croft, meh. Fallout4 — while I still struggle with the bleak landscape, at least I’m traveling it in a body I designed and I like that. The games you describe, I have not played and probably won’t because I don’t want to be a guy in the game. That totally ruins the immersion for me, especially when there’s a really butch voice actor to boot. (Ugh, and GTA had really butch voice actors for the females too, along with very masculine bodies/movements, equally sad – note to game devs, make believable women (even if they do have to have gravity defying tits) AND give them good voices! …but I digress).

    So back to your thought — I’m trying to think of a time when the characters morals/purpose/story put me off, and I can’t think of one. Maybe because I’m a lot more shallow than you? I generally am “playing the game” even when I’m deeply immersed, not quite over the edge into “this is me in the game”? I think the only game that touched me emotionally in recent memory was Last of Us. Man, that arsehole Joel still pisses me off, LOL. Another butch male voice/character I struggled to play anyway, but stuck with it for Ellie’s story… hmmm, maybe I’m talking myself in a circle. 😀 Shutting up now and going back to work before I *really* sound stupid.

  3. @Jennifer — Actually the Joel comment is a good example of what I’m talking about.

    I don’t really mind playing a female character but maybe that’s just because it’s still kind of a novelty. If I’d always had to play females and could never play a male it might bug me a lot more.

    Plus of course female characters are generally more attractive than male characters, at least to my eyes. Which is looking at things from a completely different angle, but I do like “my” characters to be aesthetically pleasing.

    For instance the Gears of War games I really struggled with the meat-head look of the characters. Huge bulging muscles, no neck, permanent scowl… bleh.

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