Even the Blankest Slates Don’t Stay That Way
Game characters used to be much, much simpler.
The griffin's shadow leaps across the grassy plains below Gran Soren, streaking toward a dilapidated aqueduct. I ready my bow. It's the holidays, I've popped in Dragon's Dogma, and I'm emotionally tired. I want to disconnect.
I don't want my heartstrings pulled. I want to take a break, or try to. I want to pick up something with minimal emotional impact. It's the media equivalent of a jog around the block instead of a carefully-planned trail run with water bottles and energy gels strapped to your waist. I didn't come here for the long haul; I came here to for a quick, low-stakes jaunt.
My loyal pawn Alessandra comes skidding to a halt next to me. She's voice-acted, and full of personality. She's talking about the ruins surrounding the city; about how grand it must have been once. Another NPC cracks a joke. Someone else frets, wondering if there is a way to escape more fighting.
Shit. Now I care about the griffin, because I care about the people it's about to pulverize.
In games, as in books, the most powerful stories are those driven by characters. Banking on inherent empathy in players (as in life) is unwise at best, damning at worst. Characters aren't what make the worlds we play in beautiful—they're what make these worlds meaningful. They accompany us into altruistic or vengeful acts, coloring our choices with consequence. Their responses to our action (or inaction) can turn what is typically an admittedly limited palette of outcomes into something capable of wrenching you in two.
No longer a static voice and mere convenience for the player (as in so many elder games), the guy selling you a bow in the introduction might bellow for rescue later (and in a voice you recognize), when the villain razes the town. You may hear him again, murmuring thanks for your choice to rescue him from a burning building, at the expense of time or other plot points.
Characters that "should" be blank slates are becoming more and more difficult to experience that way. We're allowed (and even encouraged) to create story where it might otherwise be lacking.
Personalities find their way in, in spite of their planned (or accidental) absence in a game. According to the lore of Dragon's Dogma, your companions ("pawns") are very much empty vessels, widely-known throughout Gransys to be absent of free will. Yet their banter and the emotional tones you can (somewhat creepily) set for them give them more character than you'd expect from your average soulless follower.
When my Friar Tuck-esque healer Nicolas races to my side and affirms that "he's got me!" I'm touched, imagining the training he received elsewhere, the people he's stoically raced to rescue before me. When my fractious fireball-wielding mage Rosemary pads up to me to recover my stamina a bit, upbraiding me for taxing myself past my limit, I read all of her future commentary, however bland, as a veneer over that spiky-but-loyal core. Neither of these NPCs are even pawns I myself created, but they are now people. The force enabling me to do this—enabling our path to these stories and characters—is, chiefly, the gift of voice.
This even happens in multiplayer games. When it comes to player characters, I always, always choose to hear the scripted character over the real person piloting the character. And I'm not sure that says great things about me.
Take Dragon Age: Inquisition's multiplayer, for example. Ostensibly, it's a way for you and your DA:I-loving peers to get some sweet camaraderie in after you've finished the single-player quests. It's team-based PvE, and you and your compatriots are always on the side of good, relatively speaking. So hearing each other's voices should be a boon, right? You're among friends, right?
Except, as in so many other places on the internet, it's not. I haven't left the mic on since my first week of play. Even accounting for the troll-y nature of most voice chats, I don't want to talk to real people, to needle each other about breasts or skill level, to hear an endless array of other players, hunched over keyboards across the hemisphere like I am. The people I want to hear—the fictional people—evolve. They see more, and become more, they grow. You cannot bank on the same from real people, real strangers. Not where you can see them.
Each character you can choose to control comes with a full complement of voice lines, wherein they comment not just on the grandiose Orlesian architecture or the horrifying nature of the creatures you are up against, but on their own evolution as grunt-level members of the Inquisition. Just like in the single-player game, the multiplayer characters' banter with each other shapes their relationship to the worlds through which they walk.
After a few hours of play you know that the necromancer is taking in all the new surroundings and is still pretty distrustful of other people, and that the Dalish elf is rather churlish with others but becomes begrudgingly open to awe, if exposed to enough wonders. The longer you play multiplayer, the more of these characters you get to know, and they are who I want to hear. Always.
Overwatch is the same. Here, too, it is the banter between characters that I listen to. And these are characters in whom I am called upon to invest precious little! What demand have we for story in a game about strangers shooting each other pretty much constantly in a lore-logic vacuum? We don't need to care about that. We are there to blow things up. To level. To win, sometimes in the nick of time. No one, conventional wisdom says, plays competitive shooters for the feels.
But I have feels! And I am in no way alone. I have no use for the harangues of my randomly-assigned real-life teammates, where, again, I haven't turned the mic on since the first week. Yet the characters, whose exploits aren't even peppered with cutscenes from which to glean deeper slices of story, still manage to make us care.
No one, to my knowledge, bought Overwatch wanting to listen to the twang of their own heartstrings. But Ana's spray depicting a hologram of her daughter? The halting entreaty of an out-of-work relic beseeching his one-time pals, in the intro, to work together again? Pharah explaining in response to a comment that no, she didn't know her mother well growing up, since she wasn't really around? And that now, amidst a hail of bullets, she is finally getting to know her?
That slays me.
The paths to the emotional vacuum I was seeking are increasingly rarer, at least for me. I may not want to invest in the characters, or in what befalls them. I may be there to point and click and shoot and point again. To zone out to the rhythm of the match. But I find it harder and harder not to care about the hands holding the crosshairs steady. Or the people in those crosshairs. I fled the empty tundra of a midwest winter to bask in the pixelated glow of far-off lands, but there is nowhere you can flee to—fictional or otherwise—where there are no people who need caring for. Who deserve it.
Why, then, do I choose to drown out the voices of those countless unscripted thousands—the real people—behind the handful of written personas? Are they not also deserving of care? Or at least acknowledgement? Wouldn't it be worth the occasional troll to open lines of communication that I know very well would improve my score? All our scores?
I wish I knew it was worth it. But those characters you see growing into better people, through banter and the occasional cutscene, don't tend to reflect any catharsis on the parts of their players. If part of the appeal of games for me is the fantasy world into which they let me escape, equally as important to that fictional reality as entwining tendrils of magic or rays of scintillating sunlight is the impression of earnestness.
"There is nowhere you can flee to—fictional or otherwise—where there are no people who need caring for. Who deserve it."
Sure, there are prankster characters in every story, in every game. But underneath their mockery, gentle or not, is the sense of greater things afoot. Of a threat to overcome—even if only by laughing at it to make it seem less scary.
It is hard not to feel that the world—the real one—is threatened these days. To carry the weight of it with you, always. I have precious little sass to go around, and to have to conjure that levity—or to have to defend against it—from strangers, from whom the only support I will gain is a brief few minutes (maybe) of better, more tactical fighting, is too much. The price is too high. The payoff too little.
So I listen, instead, to the scripts. To Reinhardt flirting with Ana, before flinging up a shield to hold back a volley of arrows. To Luka the alchemist regaling the party with the tale of that time she ate mushrooms in the mountains, back before the the Inquisition. Korbin, the Legionnaire, advises her to try them cooked in ale, served over roast nug.
Even as he says it, though, the player piloting him makes him bunny-hop angrily on the steps before me, impatient to go on. I trot after him, staff at the ready, and my character says something about never understanding dwarves. This conversation, I think, is better than the one we'd have with our mics on. Safer. Scripted. Unsullied by reminders of the uneasy state of the real world, or the need to pretend that it's okay.
Even in these fictional worlds, though, I'm not off the hook. The last bastions of no-strings-attached, blank slate characters may be giving way, not least because we are encouraged to want them to. We are encouraged to care about what goes on behind even the deadest pixelated gaze, regardless of whether we know much of what story gave rise to the character in question. When there isn't any story, we increasingly—if fan created content is any indication—fill that void. It's like staring hard into a pitch-dark room. Eventually, you see lights.
If only the people fighting darkness in every world shone so bright.