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Characterization of the Dead


Edward Blake (a.k.a The Comedian) embodies the cliché telling us that when we lose a loved one, they “live on” in our memories. The recent Before Watchmen series notwithstanding, Blake’s murder sets the entire comic in motion, so most of what we learn about Blake comes from flashbacks and anecdotes from his fellow crime-fighters. As such, we’re left to rely on the testimony and interpretations of others to speak for his character. By the end of the original Watchmen mini-series, Blake’s as fully developed as the rest of the living heroes, though whether he’s a sociopathic nihilist or a disillusioned realist depends on who you listen to.

Videogames in particular can take advantage of a character’s absence to enlighten us about them.

This kind of posthumous characterization happens in all sorts of media – see Twin Peaks‘s Laura Palmer, House of Leaves‘s Zampanò, and the thousands of murder victims in police procedurals, for starters. When properly executed, it acts as great example of world-building, showing that the world the characters inhabit in the fiction exists beyond the events that occur within the story. And if the ability to create a world separate from the people inhabiting it (allowing characters who aren’t there physically to exist) is the most important factor in posthumous characterization, then videogames may just be the best medium for properly eulogizing the dead.

Before I continue, it’s important to establish what I mean when I say “posthumous characterization.” It does not simply mean fleshing out characters that have died – if a character’s ghost comes back to life and becomes important to the plot, it doesn’t count. It also doesn’t count if a character is alive, killed, and then continues to influence the story. Rather, posthumous characterization means learning more about someone in their absence. Under that definition, Zampanò is probably the most pure example of the ones mentioned above, since he doesn’t appear in person at all, while both Laura Palmer and Edward Blake are depicted in flashbacks, dreams, and videotapes at some point.

Videogames in particular can take advantage of a character’s absence to enlighten us about them. We see (and listen to) hundreds of short stories in BioShock’s dilapidated art deco city of Rapture, like the increasing insecurity of Andrew Ryan’s estranged girlfriend and an irreverent handyman’s rant about getting the pipes fixed; Portal‘s Ratman is absent from the narrative of both games, yet his imprint can be found throughout various test chambers; Metroid‘s Chozo race leaves behind volumes of lore for Samus to sift through, detailing their way of life and extinction.

The importance of these stories to their respective games’ central plot varies, but these stories can often be stronger than the main one. The strengths of environmental storytelling in games have been touted before, but suffice it to say you can tell the player quite a bit without speaking directly to them. Where this benefits videogames more than other mediums specifically is in characterization, because the people we’re told about indirectly don’t have to adhere to the mechanical language of the game. Ratman, for example, doesn’t need to solve puzzles to tell his story; similarly, most of the people in BioShock you learn about through audio logs and plasmid-induced hallucinations don’t have to be Splicers or gunmen. By separating these stories from the actual game, developers can tell a wider breadth of stories, not just ones that have to contextualize themselves around a gameplay hook.

It’s of course possible that loading a game with a large amount of tangential information can do it a disservice. But collecting the clues and information about the dead can work just as well as the centerpiece. Dear Esther revolves around this very idea; the game has no combat or obstacles to speak of – in reductive terms, all you do in Dear Esther is walk along various paths to a goal. And while the game doesn’t have any easily identifiable puzzles, you’re not likely to piece together the entire story on your first playthrough, or without outside help. In that sense, Dear Esther‘s puzzles aren’t mechanical, they’re narrative – “beating” the game means building a story from the pieces you’re given. And because all the possible clues are strewn about the island, without any of them being shown or described directly, the player has to sift through information and decide what is relevant.

The lack of special attention given to any particular object in Dear Esther also means the player isn’t looking through any personal lenses. Placement can still invite some rhetoric – an enormous message scrawled along a cliff in white chalk, for example, is difficult to ignore – but the only lens you use to examine this message, along with the game’s characters, is your own. Contrast this with House of Leaves, where everything we learn about Zampanò is told to us through the editing and notes of Johnny Truant, who’s hardly a reliable narrator.

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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