We all need friends. We can agree on that, can’t we? That having friends is A Good Thing?
Having friends is part of the human experience. We all have family, yes, but family is (in theory) loosely obligated to us by dint of shared blood. But friends? Friends have no such obligation. They do shit for you because they like you, not because they have to. Need to commiserate over a beer about a lost love or a bad day of work? Call a friend. Want to share your triumphs or exploits? Call a friend. Have a dead body that requires help with dismembering and dissolving in quicklime? Call a friend.
Friendship is a critical part of mankind’s ecosystem. It is the grease that keeps the very wheels of civilization rolling – without such mutual admiration and camaraderie, this train will likely break down in a cloud of steam, the engine collapsing into a pile of clanging debris. Friendship is part of our connective tissue.
Unless, of course, you’re a character in a videogame.
Here’s what doesn’t happen:
I’m a known Spartan. Or maybe just a nameless Orbital Drop Shock Trooper. Prepping for the scene of battle, one of my cohorts – another Spartan, a soldier, an ODST – comes up, claps me on my rattling armor, maybe gives me a head-butt like they do in football, then tells me, “It’s good to see you again, man! Last time I saw you, you were drunk in a bar in New Mombasa!” Or he talks to me about how we used to cruise for chicks. Or he wants to know how my sister is doing.
I’m an American Marine. We’re holed up in a house in the middle of a Virginia suburbs – suburbs that have been wrecked by the Russian Invasion of the United States. While we’re crouched down by the windows, waiting for our chance to move out, another Private First Class is like, “Ramirez, man, this looks like your house, doesn’t it?” And he talks to me for five, maybe ten seconds about that time on leave when he came over for dinner at my house. Or he talks about how when we’re all done here (meaning, if we live through the assault), he’s going to drink my ass under a table. He makes me care about him in just a few lines of dialogue. Lines of dialogue that implicitly establish the bond we share – not just the bond of war, but of something that goes beyond the battlefield, that goes beyond the Corps.
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?
Don’t we gain a more emotional and meaningful reaction if we are given emotional and meaningful connections to the game world and those characters that surround us?
This is by no means a universal problem, of course. Ezio in Assassin’s Creed II feels like a character who is deeply connected to the world around him. He has family and his family has friends. (This is compared to his present-day alter-ego, Desmond Miles, who seems to revert to the blank slate so popular in games. Desmond seems to be a nobody, while Ezio feels like a very distinct somebody.)
When Ezio walks around Florence, characters know him. They don’t merely know of him.
And therein lies a critical different between “know” and “know of.” The latter indicates notoriety and little else. The former, however, reveals connection.
The best example of this might be the separation between the last two Fallout games. Fallout 3 depicts your character as the Wasteland Wanderer, yes – an almost mythic figure stalking the bombed-out ruins of DC and its suburbs. However, you were born in a Vault. The beginning of the game reveals this birth – not as a fully-grown adult mannequin with a big question mark above your head, but rather as an actual infant pulled screaming from your dying mother’s womb. You establish friendships with characters inside that Vault, and those friendships come back into the game at later stages. You were part of an ecosystem. Yes, some characters have heard of you, but other characters actually know you.
This is in opposition to the Courier protagonist found in Fallout: New Vegas. There, as you travel the Mojave Wasteland, you are forever “that dude who got shot and was left for dead in Goodsprings.” The world sets up an uncomfortable dichotomy: you were once a known, working courier, and yet upon getting shot in the head, any and all of your apparent connections to the world in which you lived are now erased. You are, in effect, utterly without friends. It’s like you never existed before being pulled from the grave. The world knows of you. But nobody seems to know you. Nobody seems to have ever known you.
You are tabula rasa. You are a blank slate.
You are disconnected.
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