Wearing John Marston's Skin: How I Learned to Inhabit Videogame Characters

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Wearing John Marston's Skin: How I Learned to Inhabit Videogame Characters

When you focus your thought-beam on iconic videogame protagonists (that’s the royal “you”—I can’t see inside your head, whoever you are), there are probably a few grizzled (and, less often, not-so-grizzled) countenances that spring to mind without much effort. I’m referring, of course, to the John Marstons of the world. The Geralts of Rivia. The Snakes, both Solid and Liquid. The myriad evolutions of Lara Croft. These are characters that stick to the corners of your brain long after you’ve finished the games they star in, that leave you facing real-life conundrums (what to eat for dinner) and frowning to yourself and wondering, “Well, what would John Marston eat for dinner?” (He’d eat bear meat). So how is it that these characters impress their handprints in the squishiness of time and continue to haunt us years later? By what mechanism is such freaky voodoo made possible?

I’m inclined to suggest—hell, I’ll just go on and suggest it, enough pleasantries—that these characters remain guests of the public consciousness due to one of their most obvious and ubiquitously held traits: they’re characters. That is to say, they’re not vacuous stand-ins for you, the player, to employ as a tool to enact your most horrific, pedestrian-murdering fantasies, or even to simply “project yourself” into their personality-less shoes (if, you know, shoes had personality). Instead, they’re fully detailed people complete with backstories, emotional baggage, defined temperaments, preferred costumes, and favorite beverages, and it’s your job to jump in as puppetmaster and guide them around while they go about their business questing or dragonslaying or whatever.

But—and here’s the important part—they were going to do that anyway. You’re just along for the ride, experiencing their experiences through their eyes, which, chances are, are looking at something different than yours (unless, to continue using John Marston as an example, you’re a battled-hardened turn-of-the-century gunslinger living on the Texas-Mexico border, in which case, good for you).

There are various gradations of personality within that realm of fully “characterized” protagonists, with the most hardcore, defined attributes belonging to those characters whose personalities were lifted wholesale from established properties. Geralt of Rivia, for instance, existed long before The Witcher surfaced on PC in 2007—he’d been parading around the landscape with his potions in the original Polish short stories for over a decade by that point. That being the case, CD Projekt RED’s job, at least as far as protagonists go, was about as hard as kicking over a bowling pin: just import Geralt straight into the game, all personality quirks intact and operational. As the player directing Geralt’s actions, you get to know him pretty quickly and, depending on your style of roleplaying, you probably tend to make in-game decisions according to how you believe Geralt would make them, if only to avoid the cognitive dissonance that might result by forcing the poor sucker to do stuff you know he wouldn’t do.

So, what do we know about Geralt of Rivia? Well, for starters, this guy fucks. No matter what else he’s got going on in his life at the moment or how distracted you think he ought to be given the circumstances—he’s covered in the blood of a million huge spiders he just murdered, he just witnessed a gruesome monarchical execution that will send the kingdom into centuries of upheaval, whatever—dude is generally DTF, and you know what? That’s commendable. What else? He has no time for your politics—he’s just witching for the money, man. And that’s only the tip of Geralt’s iceberg. Same goes for John Marston, in the sense that you know enough about him to have a feel for how he’d react in certain situations. John’s seen some shit, and that’s reflected in his worldview (to be fair, he’s also vocally disgusted by the contents of the stomachs of the animals he slays and flips his absolute shit when he walks through a campfire, but those are attributes arguably more universal to the human experience as a whole).

When you play as an established character like Geralt of Rivia, John Marston, or Cloud Strife, you’re participating in their story as an invited guest. What you’re not doing is forging your own. Plenty of games with established characters allow for a certain level of cursory decision-making, sure, but it’s rare that you’re given free rein to significantly redefine a protagonist whose attributes predate your meddling. You’re there to point them in the right direction and lend a helping hand in baddy-vanquishing, maybe steal a potion out of a barrel or cabinet along the way, and push them along the gradient of their plot arc and help them grow as a person—but you’re not building anything new. You’re along for the ride, stuck in your boat-on-rails watching animatronic pirates go about their piratey business.

Speaking of pirates, you know who else is saucy with personality? Guybrush Threepwood. That guy’s got it in spades. In the Monkey Island games, his starring vehicles, as with most point-and-click adventure games, you get to choose what he says to other characters by way of a handy dialogue tree, and in that way you exert a certain level of control over the character. You can call that customization or “creating a character” if you want, but you’re wrong: all of your dialogue options are inherently Guybrush-y. Yes, you can decide whether to open a conversation by hawking fancy leather jackets or by jabbering about how great it’ll be to be a pirate one day, but both options are totally in line with what we know about Guybrush. In other words, neither lets you veer off in a direction that plays against character.

So, is there anything uniquely liberating about starting a “new” character from scratch? Infatuation with blank-slate protagonists seems to come in waves: in the early days of gaming, you played (by necessity) the lead role of a flat paddle knocking a ball around or a dot-devouring Pac-Man, and there wasn’t a lot of thought given to characterization or motivation. And why should there have been? It didn’t matter. You’re a Pac-Man, and Pac-Men eat dots. Go forth and do the same. As technology progressed and allowed for heightened complexity, developers began to see the value in making their games more cinematic, naturally leading to an increased focus on stories and, accordingly, the characters in those stories. Final Fantasy IV, for instance, came out in the dark ages of 1991, but it introduced Cecil and Kain, a pair of pixelated knights that paved the road for the personality-driven protagonists of today despite their crippling lack of graphic fidelity. Those characters were a marked departure from those of previous Final Fantasies, which, for the most part, relegated playable characters to obvious archetypes or else outfitted them all with the same cheery, one-size-fits-all personality.

Somewhere along the way, though—for some reason, after personality had been injected into roleplaying games—the silent protagonist became a thing. Not the “quiet” protagonist or the “grim-but-determined” protagonist, mind you, but the thoroughly, 150% mute protagonist. These guys don’t say jack shit. Even weirder: by some counterintuitive, dark machination, their species has an across-the-board ability to inspire hope among the oppressed, boost morale, and raise armies against mighty kingdoms of evildoers, traits usually reserved to the overtly charismatic. I imagine that game developers thought that because these characters were so aggressively personality-free, so liberated from the itchy shackles of any defining characteristics, players would be able to imprint themselves straight onto that empty canvas and play the game thusly.

It’s a good idea, maybe, but in practice, it’s weird as fuck. Why does my sister have so much affection for me? I’ve never said a single word to her! Why do these soldiers want to follow me into battle? Sure as shit wasn’t that rousing speech I didn’t give! Chrono Trigger and its sequel, Chrono Cross, are two of the easiest examples to point to for evidence of this phenomenon—Chrono Cross actually went so far as to (ironically?) identify its main character as “Silent Protagonist” in his in-game profile. You know, just in case you were playing through the game and wondering who this guy was and why he wasn’t saying anything. Suikoden and Suikoden II present an analogous case, offering up individual, unrelated protagonists who just so happen to be the quiet type. All four games do allow the player to answer questions and make decisions on behalf of the protagonists, and they tend to imply that, when those decisions are made, the protagonist verbalizes them in sentence form to whoever is listening, but there’s never any evidence that a true conversation has taken place. So, what—these guys are robots that sit around in batteries-out mode until someone asks them a question, and then they come to life long enough to answer it and go immediately back to sleep? I’m no psychiatrist, but that’s some sociopathic bullshit.

Silent protagonists are forgettable. You may absorb some moderate—maybe even some maximum!—joy from playing through their stories, but when you think back on the game, it’s that story you’re conjuring up, not its leading man or woman. And maybe that’s okay, maybe we don’t need captivating heroes to spearhead our videogames, but it makes for a bit of a disconnect when the character vaulted onto the throne at the end of the game remains utterly inscrutable. Chrono….well, Chrono had some bright red, spiky hair, and boy, he…well, he sure did get into some time-based mischief! And, ah, let’s see…he was friends with a frog? Named Frog?

During a recent playthrough of Suikoden II, my delight-sensor was tripped when I stumbled across the hero of Suikoden (his name was, not coincidentally, “Lewis”) sitting at the end of a wooden dock with a fishing pole without a care in the world. I’d worked hard to make sure that he showed up as an available recruit, and it looked like that dedication was about to pay off. But then, as my Suikoden II protagonist (also named “Lewis,” again, not a coincidence) approached the dock, I came to a terrible, stomach-torpedoing realization: neither of these guys could actually speak. This was about to get weird. Even worse, original Lewis had been renamed “LcDohl,” an unpronounceable traffic jam of consonants that sounded like a wet sneeze-cough when I tried to sound it out. Needless to say, the ensuing non-conversation, mediated by Gremio, sniveling, was not riveting stuff, and I pretty quickly lost interest in keeping LcDohl (bless me) around.

And that’s the problem—silent characters, those you’re meant to use as stand-ins for yourself, are no good because they’re not you. They’re limp paper dolls. I’ll take Lara Croft’s posh professionalism and wry humor over the nothingness exhibited by “that guy I created from scratch in Skyrim” any day. I don’t want that ambiguous mobster-looking guy from Grand Theft Auto III, I want Trevor Philips from Grand Theft Auto V. Trevor’s nuts, yeah, but nuts is way more fun. I don’t get to act like Trevor in my day-to-day life (I’d be justifiably locked up if I did), just as I don’t get to (frequently) ride horseback across the Texas-Mexico border under cover of night like Marston, so there’s a certain joy I take in getting to do those things in a videogame, in being someone else for a little while. I already get plenty of myself. I’m pretty cool, but I don’t need to pretend like it’s me in there.

When he’s not chained to his desk during the workdays, Lewis Beard is a writer, gamer, and musician living in Atlanta, Georgia. You can check out his thoughts on a wide range of random, possibly compelling topics at run4itmarty.com, and you can bask in the filthy goodness of his music on Bandcamp.

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