What We Need Are More Jokers
Video games serve as entertainment and provide escapism. That is the conventional wisdom. Thanks to the wonders of gaming, players can take on the role of a seven-foot Spartan, a British adventurer, or an invincible COG soldier. These brave warriors face death constantly but in the end always prevail. However I find that as I grow older that all this excitement is not enough for me. Oh sure, I still love to gun down waves of enemies and solve puzzles, but I find that I long to care about the characters involved. Not just the non-playable characters (NPCs) but my own as well. I just read Jeffrey Ollendorf’s “The Benefits of Banter” over at Gamasutra and I agree that in role-playing games it helps if party members talk, tease, and joke more. My own take is that writers should consider adding two other elements in addition to banter: physical challenge and fear.
I don’t mean physical challenge as in defeating waves of enemies or jumping from ledge to ledge, but rather as a term that replaces “disability” or “handicap.” A character who is physically challenged might struggle with injury, disease, or illness. Nearly all the characters in games are in peak physical condition. In fact many have superhuman abilities and technologically advanced weapons. What if game character development took the opposite approach? What if we could control more characters like Mass Effects’ Joker? Now here is a character, Jeff Moreau, who suffers from what is commonly called brittle bone disease. Near the end of Mass Effect 2 the player briefly takes control of Joker as he fearlessly moves through the Normandy trying to rescue the besieged crew. I honestly cannot remember if there was another time I had control over a character that wasn’t super fast, overly strong, heavily armed, or unbelievably agile. Joker is a regular person with a regular person’s issues.
What if Joker became a party member in Mass Effect 3? Suppose there were missions where Shepard needed to commandeer a vessel and only Joker could fly it? I would love to see Joker pick up a rifle again and blast those evil alien Geth to bits! Not a superhuman Joker. Not a frail Joker who takes one bullet and dies. No. I want a Joker who uses his wits to stay alive where other members use bullets and biotics. And like that one scene in ME2, Moreau cracks jokes as he cracks heads.
However that one scene in ME2 could have been more powerful if he had actually displayed fear. The idea of the protagonist, party members, or friendly AI displaying fear seems to run contrary to the notion of being a hero. Perhaps the enemy may be afraid but never the hero. It’s okay for the little grunts in Halo 3 to run off when Master Chief runs in guns blazing but you will never see Marines do that. Okay that may be a little extreme. But what if the heroes were anxious before battle? What if my character actually got the shakes? Now there’s a thought.
Let’s take Dead Space as an example. There were plenty of times I jumped while playing and I spent most of my time turning around to make sure something didn’t grab me from behind (in the game that is, though I usually played at night with the lights off). Yet all the time I moved through those dark corridors my character, Isaac Clarke was a silent efficient killer. I never identified with him. Never connected to him. A lot of that came from the fact that he didn’t speak. That’s a shame. But more than that he never showed the slightest bit of emotion. None of the characters did. Isaac seemed be friends with Kendra Daniels. Imagine if Daniels and Clarke actually showed the strain of their situation. Having Daniels show fear and Clarke being apprehensive would have served as a vehicle to connect gamer and character. Small additions like a loud heartbeat, shaking hands, and unsteady aim when afraid would amp up and already tense shooter.
I watched a short clip on the upcoming Dead Space 2 yesterday. It seems that Mr. Clarke will be in charge this time around. No more getting direction from somebody else all the time. While that sounds well and good I hope we get to see a more human hero travelling through dark corridors blasting aliens.
Perhaps what we need are ordinary people who at times rise above their meager means and origins in order to save the rest of us. I don’t mean the classic hero-myth saga where boy/girl meets mentor, rejects mentor’s appeal, is forced to into being a hero, loses mentor, goes to the underworld, realizes he/she is truly a hero and saves the world. No I mean we need playable characters like you or me. People who, while they realize they must fight, have trouble shooting because they are near-sighted. I’m talking about folk who hate killing. I mean ordinary people who want nothing more than to get away from their situation and go home in peace.
I realize my opinions go against that whole concept of escapism I mentioned at the beginning but I am always a proponent of adding greater character depth in the ever elusive hope of moving video games into that mystical state of culturally respected media. Perhaps I ask too much of game writers, but I don’t think so. Take a chance.
- Indoctrination, Assimilation, and Elimination: The Reaper Methodology in Mass Effect
- Return to Mass Effect: The Compassionate Shepard
- The Walking Dead Game: A Case Study of a New Hegemony
- Airport Massacre Revisited: How “No Russian” Might Have Influenced a Killer
- Mass Effect 3, Marketing, and a Magic Bullet: Emily Wong Reporting
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