Imagine Dante stumbled across this circle of Hell: You have a name, a history; your actions are reflected upon by enemies and friends, alike; the only limbs you see are from your upper body, and then only to hold objects and swing them. You have no chest, no feet, seemingly floating like an angry ghost who cries out sometimes when attacked, or lashing out to attack others.
Welcome to the life of the generic player character of modern first-person shooters.
Things become more ridiculous in certain examples: Metro 2033 has the lead character, Artyom, narrate the story. You see Artyom in third-person cutscenes except, bizarrely, for his face. Why do this? The creators have already given us Artyom’s backstory, family and so on. What purpose does it serve to sneakily mask his face in distance blurs and conveniently angled cameras? Artyom is already narrating, so why can he not respond to the world around him? With his mouth taped shut, he becomes more an oddity than a living remnant of the world being created.
Corvo, from Dishonored, is a more recent example. The game begins with Corvo returning from a diplomatic mission, involving negotiations with other countries for resources. Did Corvo sign at them? Did he gesticulate at children’s pictures, indicating what his land needed? We already know Corvo has history with the royal family and appears well-loved (sometimes too well-loved) by the Empress and her daughter. What purpose does it serve to hollow him out just to put the player in? Like Artyom, the fully-realised world of Dunwall makes Corvo an oddity where characters interact, talk and react like human-beings not mute, angry ghosts or robots.
Why do creators bring to fruition life and reality, beauty and depth, to worlds but not to player characters? Scraping out detail from protagonists hollows out a space for gamers to lock themselves into, apparently. By being silent, we do not discriminate and we, as players, can react as we would.
But this has long been a nonsense claim.
Fully-realised protagonists, like Thief’s Garrett, Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s Adam and, from what’s appeared, Far Cry 3’s Jason, are bridges – not vessels – for players to enter the world. But we don’t need mechanics to integrate with the world: that’s what our controllers and keyboards are for. It’s strikingly odd when characters don’t cry out or respond to important emotional situations, tragedy or explosions. We’re not calling for three-thousand tiered dialogue options; look how Jason responds to explosions, attacks and so on in any Far Cry 3 trailer; recall Nomad’s cries of desperation and conversations in Crysis.
What’s jarring isn’t some American, soldier type responding to someone else by swearing; indeed, I expect that. What’s a slap in the face is being a spooky ghost that bludgeons people to death and is regarded as the saviour of the world: no, I’m an angry spirit with spatial issues, not humanity’s last hope.
Rungs of Idiocy
FPS creators have a fear of ladders. But they overcome this because with the spooky, angry ghost, you can just ascend it while they play footstep sounds. That’s not climbing a ladder: that’s flying vertically close to a wall while making noises.
Not only are we denied a voice, but we’re denied limbs. We turn wheels and open doors like we’re bloody telepaths, instead of actual people engaging with the world. When you look down, there’s often just a blob of shadow as if you’d soiled yourself. If anything undermines the illusion of being an internationally-trained, Delta Force operative, it’s being a spook with a bladder problem.
Sure, we can grip guns and toss grenades, but apparently brain-magic control computers and doors are designed by fairy-tales. Abraca-frikking-dabra.
Again, games that actually show feet and hands interacting with the world, like Crysis and Far Cry 3, make it more believable that I, as a player, am in this world.
Laziness and Self-Denial
FPS’s are in a state of self-denial in two ways. Firstly, the illusion that by having empty vessels, you have more engagement instead of, in reality, less; and, secondly, an almost literal denial of the protagonist’s self: his identity, his voice, his actions. You are ethereal, not really there, only your actions matter, not who you are. Which would be interesting, if it wasn’t so often poorly handled and used as an excuse to be lazy with the lead character.
When you’re choosing dialogue responses, in games like Fallout 3 or Skyrim – who, even though allow for 3rd person views, sometimes don’t give you feet or let you touch wheels or doors – how exactly are we conveying this? We must assume we’re using the same mental mutant ability, which opens doors and suchlike, to communicate with strangers – unless everyone knows sign language (which doesn’t make sense, since we can clearly see our character’s hands filled with guns).
This has gone beyond silly and into the absurd. How are we meant to take a spooky ghost, with a short temper and shorter bladder, seriously when the world’s fate is at stake? How can this entity matter when he magics doors open and shoots invisible answers into people’s brains?
We should be done with this and done with games that do this. I’ll play them, I might even enjoy them (the Half Life series being the massive exception); but it doesn’t negate that I’m still a ghost in a world needing physical responses, not spooky haunting.