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The Accidental Lesbian

Chris Gardiner | 22 Jul 2011 21:41
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Not knowing your protagonist is frustrating. Writers want to write powerful, engaging scenes, and that's hard when you're addressing them to a question mark. More and more we're seeing games dabble in ways to find out more about their heroes. In a move of brutish simplicity, they've started asking players to tell them things. Crazy.

The huge range of different approaches to character voice suggests game creators are still casting around for an ideal solution.

Echo Bazaar, for example, assumes you have a motive for travelling to Fallen London but asks you to say what it is: revenge, glory, desire, or greed. Each leads to a different story and is refined by further questions. If you say you're on a quest for revenge then sooner or later you'll be asked who it is you're avenging. A lover? A sibling? A friend?

Another little, under-the-radar title called Dragon Age: Origins , from plucky Canadian underdog BioWare, does something similar. Rather than tell you your character's background, it lets you pick and play through one of six origin stories, tracking your choices for later use. The game and the player collaborate to decide how the protagonist ended up on that bloody field at Ostagar.

However, tricks like that only get you so far. You can never fully know what the player's up to in the gap, and some of it is fundamental. One example of how the game and the gap have to interact is the issue of speech. What your character says and how they say it is a crucial part of their identity. If your Xbox insists your heroic knight sounds like Peter Lorre, it's going to grate. The huge range of different approaches to character voice suggests game creators are still casting around for an ideal solution.

Dragon Age has you choose your character's dialogue from a conversation tree, but once you've chosen? Silence. Your hero is the only person in Ferelden without a voice. You choose what your character says, but aren't told what they sound like. In this way, the game avoids confronting you with a voice that contradicts your image of your hero. Mass Effect , on the other hand, approaches the problem from the opposite direction. It only asks you to tell it the gist of what you want to say, then provides Shepard's fully voice-acted dialogue. The player becomes a director, issuing instructions to a virtual actor who provides their own interpretation of your character. Fable 1and 2 try to dodge the issue entirely by using a hero who never speaks at all, communicating instead solely through emotes. It creates a strangeness of its own. They're a quiet lot, Albion's champions. Quiet, but gesticulatory.

No approach is perfect; no approach is wrong. The relationship between CRPG and player is irreconcilable, and the only solutions are illusion and sleight-of-hand. But the struggle is worth it, because the identity gap is what gives RPGs their power. It's the space players use to make the game about them, and that's how RPGs engage us so powerfully. Game designers need to keep experimenting with ways to test it, to nurture it, and to explore it.

Some of us may suffer inadvertent lesbification in the process. It will almost certainly have been an accident.

Chris Gardiner writes for Echo Bazaar. He hopes we can get Idris Elba to voice him.

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