Video games catch a lot of guff. "They're not art. They can't tell stories. Gamers are loners, and the games just promote a culture of violence."
It's bullshit, of course. And we all know it's bullshit. But that doesn't mean that game designers and writers shouldn't make an effort to refute these claims by telling stronger stories. Stronger stories come from stronger characters, and characters can be made stronger by giving them depth and breadth - and, yes, by connecting them to the world in which they dwell.
An old storytelling rule is to start the story as late as you can - Indiana Jones is a character who is already woven into the fabric of the story. We don't need to see him meet Sallah, Brody, or Marion. Their friendships and relations are fully-formed. Every issue of Batman doesn't have the Caped Crusader reintroducing himself to Alfred. "Hey, I'm the billionaire playboy with Daddy issues who dresses like a bat and punches evil clowns. By the way, I live in a cave beneath this mansion. Do we know each other?"
Games might seem to promote violence, not because of the violence within them, but because they so frequently dehumanize the characters. Gamers might seem to be loners because they're playing characters on-screen who so frequently are loners.
Why must so many characters be without friends, without family? Why are they, metaphorically speaking, Ronin-Ninja-Without-Clan?
Answer: They don't need to be.
Games with strong narrative components should endeavor to treat their characters the same way that other storytelling media do instead of assuming the protagonist to be a mysterious loner with as many friends in his rolodex as the Unabomber. Ensuring that they enter the story not as adults shoved out of some narrative womb but as fully-imagined individuals with friends and family will help to further the cause that games are valuable, tell important stories, and, indeed, are art.
After all, in real life people have friends. Why shouldn't the characters in a game?
Chuck Wendig is a novelist, a screenwriter, and a freelance penmonkey. He currently lives in the wilds of Pennsyltucky with a wonderful wife and two very stupid dogs. He is represented by Stacia Decker of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. You can find him at his website, www.terribleminds.com