|"Purple Eye" by Birthstone|
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Of late, I have been fascinated by what I see as an interesting difference in the types of character representation found in role-playing games. Though before I continue, I should specify that I am referring solely to computer RPGs, not table-top. I do not believe it is possible to change what a table-top character is without fundamentally changing what the game is itself...which would pretty much make it an entirely different type of game. Which is fine, but that's another argument entirely.
I'm also not speaking about character classes, races, skills, professions, proficiencies, powers, or abilities; those are incidental and are part of what makes the subject to which I am referring.
No, here I am referring specifically to the persona (or lack thereof) adopted when one plays an RPG on a computer (whether that be in the form of a PC, Mac, or game console). What I see is a difference between three rather broad character representations. The first I will call the Vessel; which is an empty collection of skills and abilities into which the player can pour their experience of the game’s adventures. Second is the Mask; a specific character controlled by the player who yet has their own emotions and motivations that can be directed by the player throughout the game. Third is the Personality; a fully-fleshed character over whose personality the player has no control.
In some ways iconic of the RPG game type (I refuse to call it a genre) as a whole, the Vessel is not a personality at all. This type of character can be personified by the vast majority of MMO characters, the characters played in games like Baldur’s Gate, or similar games. The Vessel has no voiced dialogue, no personality, and no motivation aside from that provided to the player through the game’s story. Very often the Vessel has no history, though if there is one it is either rather limited or it is completely tied to the game’s story.
In favor of the Vessel, this type of character allows the player to completely place themselves into the game itself. There is nothing between the player and the game’s interactions; when NPCs in the game speak, they are speaking directly to the player. When events of the game happen, they are equally happening directly to the player, through the proxy that is the Vessel. Anything that happens to the Vessel is by intent happening to the player. In this sense, the Vessel is nothing more than an empty space into which the player can step to live the adventure.
Negatively, the Vessel can also be clearly and easily seen as the empty space that it actually is. This can be a bad thing. For example, when NPCs speak, depending on the quality of the game a particular interaction can involve a tremendous performance. The NPC gives several heart-wrenching / hilarious / fascinating / engaging lines of dialogue, to which…the Vessel does not respond. The player instead selects from a series of fully written responses, which are completely silent, and then the NPC gives another bit of dialogue. This can have the unfortunate effect of removing the player from the events, given that they are simply watching an NPC spout lines of dialogue on specific ques.
Unless the player is in the habit of talking to the screen in response to the NPCs; but that’s another ramble entirely.
One step removed from the Vessel, we have the Mask. This type of character can be found in games like Mass Effect and (as far as I know) the upcoming MMO The Old Republic. The Mask is similar to the Vessel in that the player can choose their skills and abilities as well as the character’s actions and dialogue, but differs in that the Mask generally has voiced dialogue. There is quite often a legitimate history built for the Mask, even if it is left sparse enough for the player to fill in their own details. What’s more, the Mask likely has motivations of their own, which may or may not be tied to the primary story or even known to the player at the outset.
The positive aspects of this character type come to bear in the emotional impact potential of a game. Given recorded dialogue, the Mask can actually be seen and heard responding to NPCs in conversation. This can potentially up the emotional impact of a scene, as when the NPC gives the great performance mentioned up above, the Mask can reply with an equally moving performance and the moment isn’t broken. This moves an RPG’s conversations closer to the potential emotional level of movies, yet the player has direct control over the flow and direction of the scenes in which they are involved. Needless to say, only games can do this, and it is unprecedented.
Yet the downside of the Mask is the fact that such a modification almost turns conversations into a cinematic experience. While this, as stated above, ups the emotional and engagement potential of conversations it also casts doubt on the reason games are a unique medium all their own in the first place. Much like cut scenes are an element of cinema brought over to movies (in part because, with such a young and new medium, we’re not sure what to do with it yet), giving conversations a more cinematic feel can in itself almost defeat the purpose of playing a game. The more like a movie it ends up, the less like a game it becomes.
Finally, on the opposite spectrum from the Vessel, we have the fully-developed character that is the Personality. At the time of this writing I cannot think of any Personality characters off the top of my head, but I want to discuss the idea none the less. With a full detailed history, specific motivations both known to the player and discovered throughout the story, there is nothing left for the player to develop other than to choose the Personality’s skills and abilities. Quite often, the player has very little say over the actions of the Personality, beyond whichever standard gameplay elements may be present.
The advantages of the Personality are great both for the game developer and the player. For the developer, specifically setting out who the character is and giving a player no control over this makes game design much easier. This reduced complexity of existing material frees the developer to add more and more on top of that, which means the Personality offers the developer the potential to develop much more rich, intricate, and even thought-provoking storylines than can be offered by either the Mask or the Vessel without tremendously complex work that would be very easy to fuck up. For the player, this means a game story that is potentially much more interesting, at least in terms of the character’s interaction with it.
The downside of the Personality is that it moves the character’s aspect of the game almost fully toward the cinematic experience mentioned earlier. When a player has absolutely no control over their character’s personality, they are essentially just watching little movies between gameplay elements (or perhaps even listening to radio productions during those same gameplay elements). This, again, moves the game away from what makes games unique. We lose the interactivity and control, which is something that no other medium offers.
Why Do I Care?
I have been mulling this idea over in my head for several weeks now, and I still can’t decide how I feel about the subject. One of my problems (of which there are a staggering number) is that I am very good at rationalizing an argument; even an argument that conflicts with one that I’ve already rationalized. There are legitimate advantages for each of these three character types; I can happily play any of the three, and I have developed multiple game concepts for each. Yet I do think this is an important topic to ponder, as a wannabe game developer, specifically because of what I talked about in the negative aspects of each character type.
See the removal of a character from the game, an empty vessel, almost leaves a hollow feeling in a game. When there’s no character to identify with, you are removed a little bit from the scene, even if you’re technically the one the NPCs are talking to. Yet the move toward a more cinematic feel of gameplay is, as stated, defeating the purpose of games in the first place. I don’t want games to mimic other forms of media; movies are movies, books are books, and games should be games. They shouldn’t be movies. As much as I love me a good cutscene (and I really do, believe me), I would love it much more if I was controlling my character through that scene.
I tend to lean towards the Mask, but this might be a simple copout. Being the middle ground between the two, it is possible that I have simply decided to take the safe path between the two extremes. Perhaps this means that the Mask is indeed superior somehow to the other two, but I haven’t come to that conclusion. Even deeper, I believe there are even multiple variations of the Mask (one closer to the Vessel, another closer to the Personality) which can again weigh a game’s standing in one direction or the other.
Is the middle ground always the best? Are extremes better for their nonconformity, or “purity” of concept?