Player choice has been an increasing part of video games in recent times; alternate endings on older titles such as Silent Hill 2 were popular at the time with any kind of dialogue options relegated to old Computer RPGS, but now it seems dialogue options and a branching storyline that changes as you play and reacts to your decisions are the new thing which videogames have embraced.
And it seems like a natural progression playing to the strengths of the videogame medium. Immersion and the increased effect on emotions and urgency on the consumer cannot be replicated by purely visual mediums like movies and television. Unlike a movie, in a videogame you do not simply observe things happening but actively do them, and games seem to have moved away from long movie-like dialogue in favour of keeping the player engaged with giving them input not only in the gameplay sections, but in the story too.
Not all games have moved forwards in doing this. Lauded titles such as The Last Of Us had us be a witness to the decisions which Joel made and challenged us with “Do you agree or not?”, rather than offering us a choice. There is a definite place for games which continue this method of narrative design, and player-choice is still mostly seen in RPGs.
In games which feature these branching storylines and a large amount of player choice in what your character both does and says, there seems to be 2 very clear choices to a designer on the type of character that the player will control. These being an established character with their own backstories and personalities already established, and characters who are more of a blank slate which can be moulded to the liking of the player.
As a Game Designer and naturally being very interested in Narrative Design, I’ve often thought about these two types of characters and the ways in which they strengthen the games that they are in and effect how the choices of the story are shown to the player.
To begin with, I will discuss two characters from different videogames to represent both of these options. For the established character I will be discussing Geralt of Rivia from the Witcher franchise, and for the more ‘blank slate’ character I will be discussing Commander Shephard of Mass Effect.
Geralt of Rivia, before we even touch the first game of the Witcher franchise, is an already established character with pre-existing relationships, a defined personality and appearance, and traits and quirks that are well known and solidified. He’s a good character whom will go out of his way to help those in need, and at the same time is furiously against those he would deem to be evil and can and will end the lives of individuals who appear to be just that. He is judgemental and un-forgiving in this, but among friends he is sarcastic and has an almost young and immature sense of humour.
Being an already established character, this instantly changes the way in which choices are given to the player. Decisions can only feature a limited spectrum of choices realistic to the character; Geralt would never act in certain ways, and so the options which are offered to the player to choose from need to remain within the bounds of his personality and character traits.
An example of this is one moment during the Witcher 3 when investigating a murder in Novigrad. After investigating the body, you discover that an individual looted the corpse before it was handed over to the morticians. When he admits to what he did and apologizes, you are offered two choices. You can angrily tell him to get out of your sight immediately, or you can punch him in the face.
As you can see, there is no “Forgive him” or “Get out of here, scamp!” options as, realistically, Geralt would never forgive such an action. Geralt will condemn such seedy and nasty tactics such as stealing from a body, and the decisions which are offered to the player accommodate this trait.
Witcher 3 was therefore written with a more focused story in mind than others could do, as you do not decide what kind of character Geralt is but mainly steer him to whichever way his moral compass may land in a situation. Will you angrily condemn a bandit for stealing, or will you attack and kill them? Some options will allow Geralt to be apathetic to certain situations but he will continue to not support actions he would deem wrong or evil.
Commander Shephard, on the other hand, is less of an established character than Geralt is. At the beginning of the first Mass Effect game you can choose your character’s first name, origin, and class. During the story, there is a lot more freedom to shape Shephard to be the kind of character you want. Rather than offering options simply on a spectrum of what a character like Geralt would do, Mass Effect can offer options of a more broad range.
Paragon and Renegade are the two styles of Shephard which you can be. You can be a force for good in the galaxy, going out of your way to save lives and refuse to buckle your morals under pressure; or you can be a blood-thirsty rogue who does whatever needs to be done to see success, no matter who it costs.
Shephard is not a completely blank slate, despite this choice given to the player. No matter which type of Commander you want to be, Shephard is not evil beyond all recognition or wish galactic-scale destruction. Whether good or bad, they do work to save the galaxy from threats such as the Reapers and they are usually pragmatic and stubborn in their resolve to do tasks such as that. But the means as to how that goal is met is up to the player.
Effect on Narrative
Both types of characters have ways in which they strengthen the narrative of the game and the decisions of the player.
More focused story-telling
The established character is easier to have explore a more focused story as the narrative does not need to be written almost in half to accommodate wildly different choices being made by the player. Going from Point A to B will usually be more consistent and easier to predict, and it’s the journey which is more the experience than the destination.
CD Projekt wrote Witcher 3 very well in that they offered scenarios with a lot of grey area to them and that enabled Geralt and the players themselves to make more broad, wider-impact choices without sacrificing the consistent of the character. This is arguably a lot harder than being able to offer almost any spectrum of choices the writer wishes to.
Easier to write consistently
Due to them often featuring a wide and pre-existing backstory and, as mentioned above, the stories they’ve involved in often being more focused, its usually easier to write the character as being very consistent in their personality and traits. In games like Mass Effect, you are free to flip back and forth between good and bad, but this can often leave your Shephard acting somewhat un-characteristically based on how they usually interact.
An established character won’t usually run into that issue and not only is it easier on the writer and game designers, but this will allow more focus on the quality of the writing itself.
| Blank Slate
Due to not being held down by a pre-established backstory and personality, the range of decisions that can be made, and the consequences which happen because of them, can be of a much wider range that from games which have an already created character. Some games such as Fable even go so far as to allow your character to be absolute good or absolute evil, with you deciding which route you wish to go down.
This improves the freedom of the player substantially in them not only playing the game how they want but experiencing and crafting the story how they want too.
One aspect of videogames that will always give it an edge in story-telling over any other medium is the immersive way in which you interact with it, rather than simply view the content. And giving the player control of not only the game but of the story itself can potentially enhance the immersion and increase engagement.
All games can be immersive, but the wide range of choices and the absolute freedom to engage with the game as you see fit in every way possible is a significant factor as to why many RPGs feature even blanker characters than a one like Commander Shephard.
Videogames are an exciting and creative medium for telling stories, being able to tell a story in ways that are otherwise impossible and that will always be their greatest strength and the reasoning as to why videogame stories deserve the accolades which they get. Player choice in games, popularized in less core audiences by Telltale’s games like The Walking Dead and other story-telling titles such as Life is Strange, seems here to stay.
Regarding the essay title itself, and as mentioned before, there is room for all types of games. Stifling creative minds or believing any types of games are “wrong” or “won’t work” is counter-productive to maintain such a creative and progressive industry, and player choice is one such way that the industry is progressing in how they tell a story to the player.
And within that medium, there is room for both established characters and blank characters that allow the player to shape them as they wish. Both strengthen the narrative in different ways and as long as the tory is well written with the type of character in mind, there’s no reason to believe it can’t succeed as an entertaining and potentially thought-provoking story.