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Characterization of the Dead

Suriel Vazquez | 14 Mar 2013 16:00
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Likewise, most of the non-game examples I listed serve all their character details through other people, who have their own views and biases. If we don't have a Johnny Truant to tell us what is and isn't important, or what to think about certain details, we're left with only our own interpretation of events and people. Presenting only the evidence of someone's existence, without an analytic lens, allows us to view a person in as objective a light as possible, though we're unlikely to know the whole story without context.

You might dismiss Dear Esther as too idiosyncratic of an example to use. After all, if you have to remove "proper" gameplay elements to get that kind of narrative across, then it must not be practical, right? But add an Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device, several test chambers, and a few buckets of paint, and Dear Esther becomes a segment in Portal 2. Without spoiling too much, the middle third of Portal 2 is more about characterizing Cave Johnson, the absentee founder of Aperture Science, than the puzzles you're solving. You never meet Johnson once, and yet he's now privy to just about the same kind of internet reverence as Chell or GLaDOS.

Posthumous characterization also allows games to show us a character piecemeal, instead of simply presenting them.

Posthumous characterization also allows games to show us a character piecemeal, instead of simply presenting them. The audio logs, journal entries, and proofs of life scattered around a world allow characters to exist as a collection of impactful moments, rather than, say, a constant ally who repeats the same utilitarian phrases ("reloading!") over and over. These moments also don't need too much context to set up. How many times have we found two audio logs describing the events of two numbered lab reports, several entries apart, that were the only times something interesting happened? By telling a story in this piecemeal fashion, we get to skip to the juiciest bits of the story, something videogames often have a hard time doing between puzzles and combat. In the case of Cave Johnson, this lets Valve condense a lifetime into a few hours, all within Portal 2's larger narrative.

The piecemeal creation of characters like Cave Johnson also means that there's a lot left unsaid. Despite the amount of time the game spends teaching you about him, his absence still leaves room for speculation. Finding out more about someone who's gone has a particular mystique - like sneaking into someone's room and reading their diary. You may not get caught, but it still feels like an intrusion of privacy, even when the "diary" is a series of voice recordings enlightening you on various aspects of a test chamber through loudspeakers. When you're looking over a person's remains this way, you're engaging in crude archeology. And you're not shown the pieces - you're finding them yourself.

All of these elements - the ability to tell complete stories separate from the game's main narrative, the narrative puzzles, the lack of a personal lens, the ability to create piecemeal stories - make for a nice burial ground, coffin, and eulogy. But what does it matter whether the ceremony is a funeral or a going-away party? Why does the character have to be dead, and not just absent? It may not make much of a difference, practically speaking (if someone is absent, you can't tell if they're just gone or dead), but thematically, it can completely alter the tone of the story.

Posthumous characterization makes its impact by implying that the objects you're looking through are the remains of a life once lived, and that what's there is all that's left of a person. If that person is still around, then the archeological aspect of piecing together their story is diminished. Sneaking into someone's room while they're simply out for the night vibe is an entirely different - and more nefarious - affair.

The best way to create the an accurate picture of someone is to lay the important pieces out as they are, and let onlookers create their own impressions of them, but also add the anecdotes that key us into their personalities. Videogames can do this with anyone, but because the dead don't have to play by the same rules (pun not intended) as the living, designers are free to create more powerful memories of them to live on.

Suriel Vazquez is a freelance writer who wasn't allowed to play vidoegames the day after his grandfather died, but still managed to sneak in a few rounds of Mortal Kombat 4 in his honor. You can contact at him surielvazquez(at)gmail(dot)com

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