The Evolution Of Video Game Character Depth Part I
Contains spoilers for Grim Fandango, Final Fantasy VII and Persona 4.
Video games are slowly evolving into a creditable media for storytelling. One might not see it amongst the wave upon wave of space marines or soldier types, and to find a game that doesn’t have a muscle glad hero or a busty two-dimensional heroine is becoming increasingly uncommon, but that is merely an unfair stereotype. Not every character has links to the classic view that each protagonist needs to be anatomically perfect. Recent efforts have bridged the gap between games and more traditional media; most notably Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and the complex relationship between the couple forced together by circumstance and forced to wander around a ruined New York wasteland. One could be forgiven for thinking that this was a recent development, but as any geek will tell you, our narrative journey starts way back in the 90s.
Due to the popularity of Sierra’s Kings Quest series, adventure games were met with relative success. Having a simple point and click interface meant they could concentrate on creating a viable world, rather than focus on the necessities of complex gameplay. Many tried to emulate their success, but really only one competitor managed to stand out, all by trying to do something a little differently. LucasArts in the days of point and click adventure games – rather than the days of milking the Star Wars franchise so hard that the udders ran dry fairly quickly – had a team of writers who brought to us the wonders that were Day of the Tentacle, Sam & Max: Hit the Road, and the Monkey Island series. Perhaps, though their shining achievement was Grim Fandango, which explores the ‘Tierra de los Muertos: The Land of the Dead. Here, those who are deceased are judged to be either sinners or virtuous, with the latter experiencing a journey lasting four minutes on the Double N [Ed - the "Number Nine" train that takes you to the Ninth Underworld], while those who are sinners take the four-year long perilous road to paradise.
“Though the game itself wasn’t the easiest to control, the narrative was amongst the best of its day.”
The Spanglish spliced within the dialogue has a deliberate Latin American atmosphere that when fused with the film noir settings and conventions creates an otherworldly presence that we can all roughly associate with. Some references may be lost on some people, such as the amount of smokers together with the amusing connection that all smokers in film noir will die; but others such as the random Spanish phrases inserted into spoken sentences are slightly more universal. Cultural context also seems to help establish the setting itself by the inspiration of Ancient Aztec philosophy and the thought of what happens when you die. It is an interesting blend considering the plot evolves into a tale of conspiracies, bribery and salvation. Though the game itself wasn’t the easiest to control, the narrative was amongst the best of its day.
Another game of that era deserves recognition, though one or two people will probably disagree to the value of its importance, and the mere mention of one sequence in particular will send most people who played it back in the day into a tear-streaming state of nostalgia as it was the pivotal scene in a truly epic story. Final Fantasy VII was ground breaking for its time; even if the characters now look like they came straight from a Megabloxx or Duplo set. The death of Aeris Gainsborough was something that was completely unexpected, primarily because this happens in CGI with no option to go into a menu and use a tiny bit of MP to bring her back, pretend nothing happened and skip off into the sunset. She dies permanently. You can’t rectify the situation, and the game pretty much tells you to “Man up and deal with it!”. It happens a fair chunk of the way into the game and because of the time spent finding her again in the first place, frustration and desperation are two really dominant emotions one faces when this happens. There are many who felt the need to find a way to get her back and re-establish the status quo. Death is a part of games that is deeply rooted into its being, but the expression portrayed here is potent thanks to the characterisation before and indeed after the event. We are emotionally tied to Aeris from the moment we first see her as a flower girl peddling her wares in the slums of Midgard and it hurts that little bit more emotionally when the long blade plunges into her midriff. The way characters deal with grief is fairly human for this relatively early period in games as they consider what she says about where people go when they die – back into the lifestream to become one with the planet. However, good storytelling need not focus on the theme of death and the afterlife.
The moment where people should start taking video game plots seriously appears as late as 2009, on a PlayStation 2 that was on its last legs and practically on a drip. It became a critics darling; a title that has usually been a curse for actual sales figures if the utterly beautiful Okami is anything to go by. Somehow though, the sales figures aren’t too bad for a game that was released on a dying console. Persona 4 caused plenty of discussion upon release for its representation of rather mature themes. While on the surface it is a game featuring Japanese schoolchildren and the occult, it is uniquely complemented by emotional traumas that are affecting the supporting cast. Persona 4 is mature about subject matters that are badly handled by gamers, designers, and tabloid newspapers. The textbook example is Kanji; a typical tough guy and a bit of a bully outside the TV. If it wasn’t for his personal problems, it would be easy to dismiss him as a sub-par stereotypical biker. His trauma is that he is a closet homosexual, who is so ashamed for who he is and what society would think that he hides behind the tough guy persona. His alternate form in the TV universe is what he is hiding, a camp man who just wants to express himself. At the end of his chapter, he finally comes to terms with who he is and for the rest of the game he seems more mature, but still roughly the same arrogant miscreant he was before meeting the rest of the party. Compared to the extremely camp guy within, Kanji is a more believable person who is coming to terms with his sense of self.
Click here for Part II.