The importance of character in video games

There were two games that I played through recently that reminded me of something that in video games (and stories in general) is often overlooked. That something is of course, character. Not just that a game has characters, or that the characters in said game have personalities, but that we feel we can connect to them. Making a character some outlandish caricature can only work so much before actual unique traits need to be added to a character.

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What caused all these thoughts about character and character development is that recently I was playing through two different, but similar games. One of them is Until Dawn, which my girlfriend had been wanting to play after we watched some of Funhaus’ playthrough, and Detroit: Become Human, which is free on Playstation Plus. Now, after playing Heavy Rain myself and convincing a friend to show me a little bit of Beyond Two Souls, I promised myself I wouldn’t pay for any more David Cage games. Since Detroit: Become Human was free though, that was a loophole and I figured I’d give it a try.

What interested me the most about comparing the two games was how I felt about both sets of characters after I made it through a significant chunk of the game. I have not yet completed D:BH, but I have little doubts that my opinion of the characters will change with the ending. A feeling that I’m sure is not helped by the prospect of more David Cage writing. The writing in Until Dawn is far from perfect and in the beginning me and my girlfriend were non-stop laughing especially with the constant sexual innuendo the game throws out early on.

[SPOILERS FOR UNTIL DAWN INCOMING]

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Over time I found myself caring about the characters, some later than others, Jess starts off as one of the more generic characters. Then she ends up getting very little screen time, so she is more of a wash. Although if she is saved in the end her reactions on the camera at the end are very sweet and how she was asking about Mike was very cute. So often in television and film (especially horror movies) actual affection is never portrayed so seeing her moved by Mike attempting to save her was very cute and I appreciated it.

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Sam is another character that is kind of generic. I don’t know if it is because she was easily the most famous actor/actress in this at the time it came out or what, but despite the fact she is a main character she has very little actual participation in the story. She is always portrayed as this goodie two shoes and does very little for the actual plot being more of a generic character. Her bravery in getting everyone out in the end if going for the save everyone ending is nice, but if not for Jess disappearing for 80% of the game she would be the worst character.

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Chris and Ashley are the typical will they won’t they in this story and as a result are also more generic. There interactions are cute, but you never really get the sense of these people should date. They have a good friendship, but honestly I would pass on the dating life if I were them the chemistry was weak. One of the more interesting aspects of these characters is what happens if Chris fires at Ashley with the gun loaded with blanks. Ashley in the scene begs Chris to shoot her rather than sacrifice himself. However, if Chris shoots at her then in a later scene Ashley will lock Chris out of the cabin leaving him for dead. Overall, these characters probably would have been stronger if they weren’t joined at the hip the whole game, but overall they are solid characters. I do wish there had been more actual choice earlier in the game and maybe we could have seen Chris without Ashley, but I understand design limitations.

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With Matt, even when you don’t play as a pushover he is still a pushover. A lot of people report Matt being the only character they lost as he has a fairly difficult death to avoid. If you try to save Emily even one of two times after the tower falls he will die. Unless earlier he had disagreed about going to the tower and then Emily gives him the flare gun. Matt doesn’t get a lot of character development, but like the others before him he still felt like a real person to me. Matt has a voice and he isn’t afraid to use it, and his relationship with Emily we only ever see one side of it even if Emily may be cheating on him.

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After that, let’s move onto Emily, one of the most polarizing/hated characters in the game. I’m not going to pretend that I liked Emily. I did like Emily as a character grow, her fear, her anxiety, her terror at being threatened with death by a bullet to the head, her anger when she found out the death threats were entirely unjustified (you didn’t have to read the book to know that I’m pretty sure you’d notice the second she started to transform into a giant monster). Emily feels like a real person in the game, admittedly a real bitchy person, but still someone whose feelings you can empathize with. While looking up the character intro picture to use I actually saw that Kotaku has published TWO articles about Emily. If that isn’t a testament to her as a character I don’t know what is.

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Josh is very interesting, because overall he has very little screen time, but you can get a lot of information from what little information there is. You can also glean a lot of information from his actions and his plan for the night. Despite how the night goes down Josh never wants anyone to get hurt, he still loves his friends he just wants to make them feel how feels, how he thinks his sisters felt. At the beginning of Chapter 10 you can really see his fractured psyche and how his sisters death has really destroyed him as a person. With how he treats his friends though you can really see how he still is the same person on the inside and is holding tight to his humanity.

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Now onto the final character, Mike, the actual main character. Mike is kind of the prototypical douche cool guy in a horror movie. He can be rude and sexualizes Jess a decent amount in the early goings of the game. Just like so many of the other characters Mike is easy to hate early on, inhabiting a typical horror stereotype. However, just like other people in the game, as he talks less and does more it ends speaking more for him. More than once Mike puts his body and life on the line for his friends and girlfriend. I do wish that we saw a bit more of Mike’s vulnerable side as he ends up taking a bit of stuff too much in stride, but overall he morphs from a stereotypical bro to a really cool guy that cares enough about his girlfriend to chase after her through the woods in the middle of the night and then infiltrate a scary mansion that he thinks houses a murderer.

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I’m not going to spend 1,200 words going through Detroit: Become Human’s characters and admittedly its partially out of fairness. I haven’t completed the game and I’ve played Until Dawn multiple times so trying to compare the two would feel shallow and unfair. On the level of them that I have seen though, D:BH’s characters are just like every other David Cage game. Caricatures with bad dialogue and no meaning beyond moving the plot along. In a game filled with so much choice, it should be about living through the characters, but so often, it feels like the characters actions are hollow and meaningless to me.

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To me David Cage always has so many powerful themes that he wants to explore, but he always does it in the most superficial way possible. The themes that he explores have been done before, been done better, and a big reason for that is his writing. He is trying to write Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, but he ends up writing Tingle goes to the market with a delicate veil of “I’m grown-up” placed over top. Everything feels ham-fisted, like a toddler trying to shove a square block into a round hole. While his games presentation and gameplay has become prettier and more refined the story has not. As games become more comfortable telling complex moving narratives, David Cage does not change. Detroit: Become Human and Until Dawn are completely different games with completely different purposes, but to me, one succeeds while the other wildly fails. The heart of the cause for each of these stories success or failure lies in the characters and how they inhabit the world.

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Now I’m going to do something you’ll find I do more and more often the more I write, compare things to Virtue’s Last Reward. A game which is easily one of my favorites of all time which Jason Schreier nominated for Kotaku’s Game of the Year award in 2013. Continuing the trend of characters is one of the best examples I can think of in terms of well written characters. You end up playing sections of the game over again, but with more information, something that is very interesting. As you play the game over and over again, you get to know these people who don’t know you well at all. There is an ending for every character in the game, and you have to get each one to reach the true ending. Some hold a lot more weight than others, but hearing the stories that these people have to tell is always moving to me.

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I will avoid going to much into spoiler territory as everyone that is alive should play this game and the game preceding it. What I will say though is that these never feel like caricatures. These characters are drawings, rarely having scenes with any kind of movement. That isn’t important though, Phi, Tenmyouji, Alice, and all the others all felt more real to me than any character in D:BH or even Until Dawn as much as I’ve praised it in this piece. The true thing about good writing is it doesn’t matter how much it is dressed up. Even in a visual novel with Escape Room puzzles, writing made me care about the characters, made me believe in the world I was inhabiting with them, the fear they felt, the choices they make and why they make them.

Fuck Dio though.
 

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