Video games are all about escapism. They’re even better than movies or TV because they engage us in an interactive story where we control the protagonist. When taking on the role of a video game hero, immersion is important, but too many games trip over the first hurdle by casting you as a muscle-bound, wise-cracking, weaponry expert with enough testosterone to drown a small village. Now I know the audience for games has grown but honestly how many gamers are able to really identify with that kind of character?
If you are able to imagine that you are in the starring role (after all you’re in direct control for most of the game) then the immersion is much deeper. This might require a few examples.
Duke Nukem: Why He’s Not So Great
I started thinking about this again recently with the surprise release of Duke Nukem Forever. No game that spends that long in development is going to turn out well and sure enough it didn’t. Now Duke is the ultimate example of what I’m talking about, he’s a big macho meathead. I don’t like him at all and so I don’t want to play as him. The fact he is a weak pastiche of better characters and completely ripped off Bruce Campbell in Army of Darkness might be something to do with it, but anyway I digress. The point is how many people really identify with that character? No one does, not really, and that fact detracts from the game. As you play through you are constantly reminded that you’re not really the video game hero, you’re just taking temporary control of a walking cliché.
Silent, Scrawny Type
The number one rule for creating a real blank canvas for your video game hero is to make them silent. Any voice acting is going to immediately remind you that you’re taking on a role. They also don’t need to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger. All shooters are weapon based and so there’s no need for the main character to be ripped. There are some great examples.
You Can’t Beat Freeman
Gordon Freeman is arguably the best video game hero ever created. He’s a physicist but since his battle for survival never relies on his physics knowledge that doesn’t feel like a detraction from you assuming the role. His special powers come from his high tech suit and otherwise he just picks up and uses the weapons he finds along the way. Anyone can wield a crowbar and if your life depends on it you’ll learn how to use a weapon fast — you don’t need a military background.
Crucially Gordon is also silent so there’s no character voice getting in the way of your immersion. The usual problem with no character speech is deftly side-stepped by having player controlled cut scenes where he doesn’t need to say anything.
When playing as Gordon you feel like the main character. For me he’s perfect, he even looks Scottish (I’m Scottish), he has reddish hair, glasses and a beard and he likes to smash things with a crowbar. He could be one of the Proclaimers.
Anon in GTA 3
My other favourite blank canvas hero is the central character in Grand Theft Auto 3. This was the game that really catapulted the GTA brand to the top of the crime family tree. One of the reasons it was so addictive and immersive was the fact that the main character had no name, he never spoke and you were in complete control of his life. It was easy to take on the role and the sandbox nature of the gameplay really added to idea that this was your story. You weren’t guiding someone through their adventure you were actually carving out your own path.
Rockstar made him a generic white male, dressed in typical fashion. He was a photo fit for their typical demographic and worked brilliantly as a main character.
As much as I loved the follow up, Vice City, I couldn’t get quite as immersed playing as a Scarface style gangster voiced by Ray Liotta. Whenever he would scream his lines it always reminded me that I was playing a character. Don’t get me wrong, his performance was typically great but it created a break between the player and the hero, or in this case, villain.
Master Chief Actually Scrawny Weakling?
The last example I’m going to throw out there is Master Chief in Halo. Ok, he is muscle-bound, but wait, maybe that’s just his suit; I like to imagine there’s a pasty, scrawny guy inside there. They spoiled him a bit by making him talk in the cut scenes but while you are in control he never says a word. They were obviously going for the Clint Eastwood style of hero and he is supposed to be a hardened soldier but it’s more fun to imagine that scrawny guy in there with a gravelly voice changer.
There’s no doubt that the fact we don’t know what he looks like and the fact he doesn’t talk much helps players to assume the role and feel as though they are the one saving the galaxy.
Exceptions to the Rule
There are exceptions to every rule and some hero characters with a background and personality are undeniably a lot of fun to play as, but I still contend that the blank canvas approach is the best for immersion. Let me know who your favourite video game hero is and whether you agree in the comments.
- Duke Nukem, © 2011 3d Realms and Gearbox Software.
- Gordon Freeman (© 2009 Valve Corporation) and Proclaimers image created by author.
- GTA 3
- Master Chief, © 2006 Bungie/Microsoft.