Diamonds in the Rough: This month’s Blogs of the Round Table invites you to discuss character flaws, or the lack thereof, in video game characters.
I particularly like this month’s round table discussion, as some of my recent blogs have been about how games really need to start focusing more on characters and character interactions. In order for that approach to be successful, the characters in games need to have some depth to them, and flaws are an excellent way of adding depth and humanity to characters. My initial reaction to the round table topic is that I can’t think of many games off the top of my head that include characters with notable flaws that are somehow significant to the narrative, but I’m guessing that’s for two reasons: first, I really haven’t played that many games, so perhaps I’ve just missed them, and second (and more likely), it’s a reflection of how little emphasis has been placed on characters (and characterization) as a central developmental focus of most games.
I would also say that part of the issue with characterization and the use of character flaws in games is that, in my highly unscientific and poorly backed opinion, I would guess that the majority of this technique has been used with the player character specifically, moreso than the other characters in the game. After all, there aren’t very many games (aside perhaps from CRPGs) where NPCs stick around for most or all of the game. In most cases, NPCs represent only brief or superficial encounters, and there isn’t much opportunity to really develop NPCs with any depth. But as far as the player character is concerned, that is probably a different story — but in those cases, you’re now dealing with that nebulous barrier between the player and the character the player is playing, which can be a tricky thing. As a result, it’s difficult to convincingly introduce a true character flaw to the player character in such a way that the player is encouraged to play along with it. After all, how many people want to take actions or make decisions in a game based on a defined flaw in their character, which could result in a less-than-ideal outcome? Particularly when the emphasis in so many games is on “winning”.
I will say, however, that of all the different game types, interactive fiction probably has done the best job of characterization and the use of character flaws thus far. Well-known IF gems such as The Baron, Galatea, even Varicella and Rameses (and quite assuredly many more) all manage to incorporate and deal with major and minor character flaws in both NPCs and player characters to some degree, some more successfully than others. Perhaps it is the nature of the medium, perhaps it is a consequence of these games being created largely by writers rather than teams of programmers, designers, and artists. I’m not sure, but I know I have yet to play a graphical game that deals with the nuance of character the same way that some IF games have so far been able to.
Of course, that naturally leads me to think more about Vespers. The game received a lot of recognition for the NPCs, including the “Best NPCs” award at the XYZZYs that year, and I think Jason did a great job fleshing them out — including the player character. But even so, it’s tough to identify any true character flaws that come into serious play. Constantin’s short temper, Drogo’s insanity — these really come across as features more than pure flaws, and for those of you who are familiar with the game, most of the outcomes during the game are dictated not necessarily by character flaws but more from certain external forces. This also would hold true for the player character, the Abbot, although it could be argued that the setting for the beginning of the game — the Abbot choosing to close off the monastery to the villagers — is one of the main precipitants for the events that follow, and may be due to a flaw in the Abbot’s decision-making capacity. But even then, it comes across as more of a bad choice made in desperation, not necessarily the result of a particular flaw.
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