Editor's ChoiceWho Needs Friends?Editor's Choice - RSS 2.0
I free myself from a sewer pipe in a faraway fantasy land (or wake up in a sketchy apocalyptic suburb of Las Vegas), and someone runs up to me. A woman, an elf, a Super Mutant, a hyper-intelligent unicorn with a monocle and a jetpack - it doesn't matter. She's excited to see me. She's half-laughing and half-crying. "I thought you were dead!" she says. She goes on to tell me that last time she saw me I was getting shot, stabbed, imprisoned, whatever. It's clear that she's my friend: She doesn't have to say much to let me in on the fact we've been through a lot together. "You need anything, you come find me at the farmhouse," she tells me. And I nod, knowing that out there in the big wide crazy world I have someone I can trust, someone I can count on.
Here's why those scenes never happened - because videogame characters are often alarmingly friendless. They are detached from the greater ecosystem; they act as rogue elements, as weird loners or roaming Ronin warriors. It's as if they're birthed into the videogame world the moment you press the console's "on" button, except instead of a squalling infant riding on a wave of amniotic fluid, you're a whole, grown-up character manifesting straight out of thin air.
A character without connection? That's a no-no in any other storytelling medium - which is what a videogame happens to be. Most videogames serve as a storytelling medium in much the same way as novels, films, or television shows - it's just that they offer an intense interactive element as well. This interactivity is, in fact, what makes it all the more alarming that the characters often possess no friends within the game world. You as player are expected to interact with the world, but it fast becomes clear that the character that represents you has done hardly any interacting with the world.
If you did that in a novel, the reader would put the book down. If you tried that in a movie or a television show, the audience would shrug and wonder, "Why do I care?" moments before switching the channel.
What makes it okay in a videogame? Are characters supposed to be solipsistic (or perhaps even sociopathic) ciphers? Is that what lets us imprint upon them better? If we as players care less about the world and its inhabitants, is it then easier to watch other characters die - or to be the ones that kill them?