I knew the man centered in my crosshairs well. He was a sharply-dressed, insidious huckster who had earlier propositioned me to act against the sheriff of this one-horse shit-hole called Megaton. But instead of turning against the lawman, I warned him. I followed the sheriff back into that ramshackle gin joint, high on the shack-lined crater of the walled shantytown, and watched closely as he moved in to arrest the huckster.

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By this point in Fallout 3, I was already unsure about my character. Earlier in the game, he was stained by my own impatience: In a situation that was more nuanced than I understood, I mistook some of my fellow vault-dwellers for Bad Guys and gunned them down, appalling the childhood friend I thought I was rescuing. I was desperate for some action and curious to see how the gunplay fit within the gameplay. As a result, my character had become a brutal young monster. What was for me a misunderstanding of the game’s moral dynamic was, for my character, a bloody crime. This is why my characters usually end up being impossible for me to like: My curiosity leads them into actions I can’t condone.

But I kept on playing without loading a prior save, sucking up the consequences of that outburst and pressing on for the sake of fairness – or what I thought was fairness, anyway. Things would be different in the outside world, I thought. When I got out into the real game, where I could shoot up mutants and robots, where I could put my character’s interpersonal skills to use, I’d play him as someone more heroic, someone with a dark past trying to make amends. In my head, this character of mine became a nuanced anti-hero, struggling to do right in a nasty, unjust wasteland.

It didn’t last. Back in the Megaton saloon, I watched intently as the sleazebag turned himself in. “Lead the way,” he said. But something was amiss. He was too slimy, too quick to surrender and too plainly murderous. The next instant, the scene exploded into a fatal gun battle. I slew that finely dressed sociopath with point-blank pistol blasts to the head … but not before he gunned down the sheriff and shot off nearly every one of my hit points. Now my character, wearing the very clothes and armor I’d looted from that first rash shooting, was once again splattered with blood.

Faced with my own blown health, feeling bad for another leap to violence and starting to hate the murderous maniac my character was becoming, I loaded an earlier saved game and tried the encounter again. This time, the huckster made the first move: He shot the sheriff in the back, issued my character a quick threat and moseyed right out. Now my character wasn’t just violent – he was a fool and a coward who stood and watched as a good man was gunned down before him.

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As a player, I knew that the sheriff was doomed to die either way. That left me with a choice: I could reload the last save and try to kill that huckster again, or proceed from where I was with my hit points intact, the sheriff dead and that slick bastard on the loose. I chose the latter, but I despised my character for it. I hated him for getting people killed, for putting his feet in his mouth, for not being bold enough to take out true villains. It wasn’t just my character that had to soak up the consequences of his actions – it was me, too. If I wasn’t careful, I’d end up with a character I couldn’t abide, and I had hours left to spend with this dude. It’s a lesson I’ve learned the hard way over the years: The character it hurts the most to hate is your own.

Watching your own character develop into someone you don’t like can be bittersweet … or just plain foul. What do you do when one night’s whimsy or a fleeting bit of bad attitude turns your character into a proper asshole? Where’s the line between sordid, human complexity and just being a miserable jerk?

We inhabit our game characters only occasionally, and we often play games to vent, to decompress or to throw off the unhappy chaff that we accumulate between plays. Weeks might go by between visits with our characters, while in game-time only minutes have passed. Yet the choices we make during play are often so grand, so dramatic, that one evening’s sour mood can steer our characters into choices that affect their identities forever. Have a bad day at school, and that afternoon your noble knight might badmouth the king to his face. Get anxious on a Saturday afternoon, and your post-apocalyptic escapee might get caught in a gray-area gunfight with the wrong men.

Old-school tabletop RPG players may have more power to dictate every nuance of their characters’ personalities, but they can’t rely on saved games to bail them out of sticky circumstances. Choices aren’t governed by dialogue trees; every action is a chance to describe your character, both visually and dramatically. Is she the kind of wizard that relishes blasting hapless Orcs with mystic fire, or does she dish out damage with a twinge of remorse and a bit of terror at her own power? It’s all in your hands, and if you succumb to a single day’s errant whims, your whole character can change from one you love to play into one you love to hate – or hate to play.

This can happen in any game where we have the freedom to create or destroy. The flexibility of play means we can craft our own identities, but curiosity in a world without consequence – that is, most game worlds – so often makes us anti-heroes. We throw enemies into the freezing death of outer space to see what our powers can do. We kill the character we could spare to see if the story will change. We do terrible things in the name of freedom and trust that a saved game will absolve us.

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A saved game isn’t a clean slate, though. The progress you make in the game is informed by the actions you took and the ones you rejected. The connection between you and your character is more complicated than just button presses on a gamepad. As you get better informed, your character becomes smarter, but also bolder or more wary. The reason my pathetic Fallout character became a coward is because I saw how lucky I was to beat that huckster in the first place – my last hit point and I chose not to take that gamble again.

But I didn’t forgive my character for getting the sheriff killed, nor did I absolve myself of my decision to go back and weasel out of some damage. I felt like my character was getting away from who I wanted him to be. I’d made a choice I didn’t like, and it became a part of him.

When you play a character in a game, you are both actor and audience. In theory, your character only has to impress and entertain you. But which character do you choose to see? What personality do you assemble from the available saved games? Which portrait emerges in your mind after multiple play-throughs? Who is it that materializes from the choices you make over weeks of play?

For every hero we patch together in our imaginations, from our best saved games and most informed decisions, there’s a tawdry misanthrope to be made out of our mistakes and failures. And sometimes our own actions leave us to choose between two anti-heroes, like the bloody gunfighter and the wary coward.

We know what our characters are really capable of because we have explored the sordid possibilities. Along the way, we see a shade of what we are capable of ourselves – and how often it falls short of heroism.

Will Hindmarch is a freelance writer and mooncalf. He writes more about games at Gameplaywright.

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