Don’t Speak: Silent Protagonists

I’m using video games as illustrative texts in the first year composition course I’m teaching this semester, and we’re focusing a lot of our attention on identity. It’s a topic I think about a lot, particularly when I’m playing narrative-heavy games or games that are meant to be especially immersive. I wouldn’t say I actively or consciously think about it, though. It just kind of buzzes around my head when I’m creating a new character or interacting with people in RPGs. “Would I have really said that?” I might wonder as my character says something particularly barbarous to a party member who I actually kind of like. Moments like this, in games like Mass Effect, or Fallout, or Final Fantasy make me think of the days when the silent protagonist was the default lead character in RPGs. While they’re still around, they’ve mostly been replaced by protagonists that do speak, even if prompted by specific user input. Were they better at creating immersive narratives?

EarthBound Ness

Well I’m not here to answer that, but I wanted to sort of work my thoughts out about it. I don’t remember thinking about the fact that my character was ‘silent’ in NES games like Faxandau or The Legend of Zelda. It was just how things were. ‘You’ were Link, or Mega Man, or the countless and nameless other lead characters of many classic games. But when I made the move to RPGs like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy III, and EarthBound (a console generation later) I found myself thinking about my character, or ‘me’ more, likely due to how much dialogue there is in games like these and the fact that you actually interact with characters and make decisions that affect the story.

Chrono Trigger

I had some things in common with Crono. We were both teenagers who lived at home and had a particularly hard time waking up in the morning. But he had pretty bulky biceps for a ‘kid,’ spiky red hair, and he ended up being pretty fierce with a katana. I had pretty average biceps, a shaved head, and was only fierce with an SNES controller. I knew I wasn’t Crono, but I named him ‘Joey’ anyway, because I wanted to pretend that I was him for the adventure I was about to embark on. In fact, Chrono Trigger was the first game I remember having a party of characters who I could name, and it is where I began the tradition of naming the main character for myself and my supporting cast for my friends and/or celebrities. It didn’t really matter if I matched up very well with the main character; I was the one playing so I was the character who would make the most difference in how the story played out. It makes sense, given that as a child I wanted to be the main character whenever I played, whether it be something with a clear main character (as with Batman action figures) or with an ensemble (like make-believe Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). It makes me wonder about roles and identity in play outside of gaming, but I’ll have to dig into that in a later blog. I’m rambling enough as it is.

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James Paul Gee talks about the idea of identity in narrative games, with there being three distinct identities at play: the player, the character (a reflection of the developer’s own identities), and the character with the player’s identity projected onto it. The player brings their own identity to a game: they are, let’s say, adventurous but cautious. The character is written in a way that might be somewhat different than the player: maybe they are adventurous but brash and not very cautious. So the player projects their identity onto the character, reading those moments where the character does something brash as momentary lapses in judgement on their own (fictional) behalf. The player does not become brash in real life, and they can only make the character be cautious some of them time (because the developers choose points in the game where the character must act brashly to develop the plot how they want to).

Dragon Age Inquisition

With silent protagonists, it seems like developers are careful and very conscious of this interplay of identity. They want players to feel like they are in charge of the character’s actions and motivations, but not so much so that they mess up the game’s plot. Even in more recent RPGs, that have speaking protagonists but offer many choices for how your character interacts with other characters, you usually can’t do things that would spoil the main story of the game. You can’t simply leave the Capital Wasteland in Fallout 3, searching for a better life. You can’t build a little house on a remote planet in Mass Effect 3 and live out the rest of your days with Tali. The games give you many choices, sure, but it’s never really you in the role. You can make all of the choices that your character might make, but not all the choices that you might make if you truly had the options.

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The same could be said about your interactions with characters in these games. The BioWare RPGs are especially known for giving the player a host of dialogue choices and relationship options when it comes to your party members, but again, you can’t truly say whatever you want. If you’re trying to woo Dragon Age’s Morrigan, who is easily offended and put off (but worth the effort, because holy crap, I mean, come on), and you say something that angers her, the game doesn’t let you immediately apologize or try and smooth things over. Usually, you’ve blown your chance to advance your relationship with her and have to wait for the next opportunity to try again.

Morrigan

I’m not trying to make a point about limitations and reality, because I understand that for every player action, the developers have to code for a reaction, and coding for enough reactions to cover the breadth of human creative input is impossible. I’m just thinking about how these choices impact the player’s sense of projected identity. Games that allow you to choose how you interact with the game’s social world and shape your relationships with party members almost certainly make for a more immersive identity experience, even if it means that the character will say and do things that the player doesn’t necessarily want them to. Silent protagonists allow the player to fill in the blanks, imagining what the character would say to party members or how they would react to plot events. This may allow for a different kind of immersion, but it seems difficult to argue that it would be more effective than the characters that you create and use to carry out conversations with party members.

Visas Marr

I’m also a little curious about why they’ve fallen from popularity, especially in western RPGs. They were, at one point, a bit of a punchline (as many tropes end up), but I don’t recall hearing many complaints about their use in games like Dragon Age: Origins, Knights of the Old Republic or The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. It will be interesting to see if their use declines further, and even more interesting to see if they make it to the (eventual) virtual reality RPGs. With language detection becoming more widely used, I can easily imagine an RPG that shows you your dialog choices and gives you the option of saying them out loud. Anyway, I’m rambling again. I’m not so silent about this topic (see what I did there?), and I could go on and on, but I just wanted to work some of my thoughts out for later use.

Finally, (Real) Virtual Reality

As we’re entering the time of year where lots of games are released, big and small, there is much to be excited about. I just received my copy of Paper Mario: Color Splash, which is definitely cause for celebration for this Paper Mario fan. The Dragon Quest VII remake was recently released, too, so I’m excited about picking that up. The Last Guardian is (finally) coming out in December, Friday the 13th: The Game should (hopefully) be out in the next month or so, Final Fantasy XV will soon be a reality, and Battlefield 1 seems worth checking out. There is one thing that I am easily the most excited about, though: PlayStation VR.

PlaystationVR

I’ve been following the new virtual reality movement since the Oculus Rift was a KickStarter, and I’ve read several of the previews of the different VR systems present at this year’s E3. While I’d love access to some of the more independent and experimental PC titles that will likely show up for the Oculus, I just don’t have the money for the headset and a new computer that could handle it. The PS VR is in my price range, though, and it seems capable enough. I’ve been skimming reviews and editorials about some of the VR units in recent months, and I almost get the sense that the technology is already being taken for granted. I get it. Due to the consumer interest in the Oculus when it was introduced as a concept, the market has quickly become crowded with competitors and could soon be flooded and confusing (if it isn’t already). For me, though, I find it hard to fathom this technology becoming old hat so soon. Why? Well, it all started in the early 1990s…

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90s VR Experience

Thanks to the increase in households with PCs and the rise of the Internet and web culture, technology was booming in the early-mid 90s. It’s no surprise, then, that the first wave of commercial virtual reality experience popped up then. I was just past ten years old at the time, and my love for video games meant I was ready to throw my time and money away on any VR experience that I could. Luckily for me, living in Chicago meant that I had easy access to what used to be the North Pier mall, which my family would visit pretty frequently. The mall had a BattleTech Station, which housed two sets of ‘virtual reality’ pods — one set for the game BattleTech, and the other set for a game called Red Planet. Both games used similar pods, which were made out of wood with a door that slid shut, leaving the player seated in darkness with a monitor, joystick, throttle, and a bunch of lights and buttons that were merely for effect.

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BattleTech Pod

While not the headset-oriented VR that we’re accustomed to, these pods provided an immersive gaming experience like no other that I can think of for their time. One round of either game was, if my memory serves me correctly, $8 for kids and $10 for adults, meaning that our family of five could usually only afford a round or two. BattleTech was, of course, the more popular of the two, but we only played it a few times. It was fun, but my family members struggled to control their giant mechs (a couple of which I owned in toy form because they were pretty damn cool looking).

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The game we heavily favored and had tons of fun playing together and with strangers (there were eight pods, so any stragglers would be placed with us) was Red Planet, a game where you raced spacecraft in mines on Mars and took your opponents out with your ship’s mining beams when the opportunity presented itself. I was pretty good at the game and excitedly collected the print-outs of our win/loss and kill/death results after each match. I chose the handle Predator because, well, I was really into the movies at the time. I probably still have a score sheet tucked away somewhere because I loved that game so much that I felt it necessary to squirrel them away for some reason.

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Red Planet

 

Not long after the BattleTech Station opened, another station opened nearby. I don’t recall the name, but they offered people the chance to play an early version of what might look more like today’s virtual reality experience. You wore a headset that displayed the digital world directly in front of your eyes (they must have projected them into your eye like the new sets, right?), and you held controllers in your hands as you stood on a raised platform circled by a guard rail.

VR Standing Station
More 90s VR

Okay, so maybe it was only slightly like today’s VR experience. I don’t remember what the game I played was called, but I remember that the world was made of rudimentary geometric shapes and had a checkered floor (a popular choice in many a PC game at the time, too). I started out on a platform and had to descend stairs to find my opponent (a stranger, as this was a two player game). We exchanged gunfire and were supposed to use the columns and walls for cover, but with the level being surrounded by moving clouds that stretched out into infinity, and slow character movement, it was all a bit disorienting. I remember feeling underwhelmed by it, especially given its $15 per-session price tag.

VR Standing

As disappointing as my first ‘real’ VR experience was, I still had high hopes that the technology and games would get better and cheaper. My dreams were (marginally, at best) answered when Nintendo came out with its Virtual Boy in 1995. I couldn’t convince my parents to buy me one, but I rented one from our local Blockbuster (phew, this blog is making me feel older with every reference) as soon as they were available, with plans on getting one for myself eventually (it would take five or so years). If you haven’t seen one, the Virtual Boy was a headset that sat on a stand instead of your, well, head, and it used a standard game-pad as a controller.

SONY DSC

Some reviewers complained about neck strain, having to lean down to play it, but I never experienced that (perhaps due to my young age and sturdy, youthful neck… or not). Another complaint was eye strain and headaches due to the fact that games were rendered only in red light. I never experienced those effects either, but again, I was young. I didn’t so much mind the red, and I was encouraged by Nintendo’s promise to introduce green and blue lights soon, increasing their graphical spectrum greatly (due to color mixing). The system sold poorly in both the U.S. and Japan, though, so Nintendo stopped supporting it far earlier than expected.

virtualboy

As excited as I was about the Virtual Boy, and as fun as I found games like Mario’s Tennis, the system still didn’t quite deliver the kind of virtual reality seen in movies like 1992’s The Lawnmower Man. Not even close. And with Nintendo’s failure to spark interest in the market, Sega’s cancellation of their own VR headset, and a rapid loss of consumer interest in the kinds of experiences I’d had with the standing VR set and the BattleTech Station, virtual reality died out almost as quickly as it had popped into the consumer consciousness.

But that was 20+ years ago. Gaming PCs and consoles can produce graphics not even conceivable by many of us back in the early 90s, and, from what I hear, the new VR headsets really do make you feel like you are in another world. So, despite some of the cynicism and trepidation surrounding PlayStation VR — at least from some corners of the gaming world — I am incredibly, irrevocably excited. I have been waiting for something like this for most of my life, quite literally. Maybe it won’t be perfect, and maybe the Holodeck is still a decade or two (or three) away, but that won’t stop me from strapping that headset on and fully appreciating just how far we’ve come.

The Little Things

I’m not quite as old as dirt, but sometimes it feels like it. In my thirty or so years of playing games, I’ve built up a cache of experiences that I draw from every time I play a new game. It’s not a conscious or purposeful thing. I don’t play games to snidely compare them to others like them. It just happens. Sometimes it’s inescapable comparisons of ‘big’ things, like gameplay, mission structure, or premise (think Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row, or BioWare and Bethesda games).

Sometimes, though, it’s the little things, and these are the things that catch me off guard and make me think about how far games have come in terms of graphics, design, and narrative. Given the casual, personal nature of this site, I want to write about some of these moments as they happen. I don’t feel like they warrant much attention, but as the whippersnappers say, ‘I do what I want.’ So this will be the first in a series of such observations and commentary.

Having said that, I’ve been playing a lot of Dying Light lately, and I’m enjoying it pretty thoroughly. I’m a fan of Dead Island, though, and this is basically Dead Mainland, so it’s no wonder I took to it so easily. Early in the game I was running around, bashing zombies repeatedly in the head with underpowered melee weapons in the bleak urban setting, when I decided to cut across one of the few grassy areas on the map. As much as the game is designed to encourage constant movement, I had to pause at the top of the hill to admire the grass and other plants.

Dying Light Field
Dying Light – Field

I don’t know if Dying Light has the most beautiful digital greenage ever, but it’s pretty dang pretty. There is a diversity in terms of size, color, and type, and the placement makes it feel like it’s fairly realistically wild, with clumps and gaps placed where it seems they should be. A static image like this does it little justice, though, as the movement of the plants as they sway adds a lot to their realism. It’s oddly calming to behold, despite leaving you utterly vulnerable to the zombies ambling around you.

After admiring the lively field for a few moments, I moved on, but my mind kept working it over. One of my first thoughts was how, as beautiful as it was, it was still far from where it would need to be to exist as a realistic simulation in terms of an immersive virtual experience. I’m hoping that the new wave of virtual reality ‘experiences’ takes off and ushers in a new era of gaming (and general entertainment), but how long will it be before I can bend over and handle a single blade of grass, pulling and tearing it realistically, zooming in to observe individual cells? How long before leaves bounce and twist according to actual laws of physics and the variable wind patterns instead of pre-programmed swaying motions? When will I be able to pluck an apple from a tree, extract the seeds and plant them in fertile soil to grow a new tree that looks different than the last, all in a virtual world where this isn’t some core piece of gameplay? To create a truly realistic virtual reality, it’s these kinds of details that would have to be addressed. But that seems so far away, right?

At this point I was back to hacking at zombie faces in the game, but the thread of thought continued. How far we’ve come. My first memory of an open field in a 3D game was my first steps on Ocarina of Time‘s Hyrule Field.

Ocarina of Time Hyrule Field
Ocarina of Time – Hyrule Field

Stepping out into this field felt magical at the time. A real world in three dimensions. Grass, trees, mountains over the horizon. When compared to recent games, of course, it’s bland and bare, closer to the wastelands of a Fallout game than a lush and realistic field. The ‘grass’ is blurry dabs of color stretched over a flat canvas, and trees are likewise flat images pasted together to give the appearance of branches and leaves.

Hey, I’m not griping. At the time this was breathtaking, and some of gaming’s top designers worked on this. But we really have come a long way in terms of not only graphical capability, but artistic cohesion when it comes to piecing graphical elements together to make a realistic world for players to traverse. If we’ve come this far in twenty years, what will another twenty do? Maybe, just maybe, I’ll live to see a virtual world where I can pull those individual blades of grass or plants those apple seeds that I got from crushing a newly plucked apple from a tree. That would be pretty neat.