No, I will not be writing about James Cameron’s billion dollar light show today as I am unlikely to do so on any day. Instead, I am writing about the player character, the ostensible ‘avatar’, that is controlled throughout a video game. At times, the player character can be considered either the most integral part of a game or the least engaging – sometimes scrutinized, but at other times overlooked. This comes down to the many ways an avatar can be employed in a game, perhaps similar to the differing ways a narrator of a book can be employed. Yet in a game the avatar is always a character in the story, and a character the player controls completely, one that can either drive the story or simply be a vehicle for it. Here I shall give some examples in an attempt to find out what qualities make an avatar an engaging figure or a very simple device for progressing in the game.
An increasingly popular treatment of the player character, owed to an increase in technical abilities, is the customizable avatar. In this game the player is given some or many choices to make about how their avatar operates and appears, as well as the character’s name, age, and race, fictitious or otherwise. A game like those in Volition’s Saints Row series give the player the tools to create a person very near to themselves or just a person they find it fun to be, all down to very particular detail. In this series, the avatar has a very active and central role in the story and many choices therefore can feel like an extension of the player. It can then lead the otherwise nameless and faceless avatar itself to be seen as the player, whether or not the avatar looks or acts as the player might do in real life, and the player character is then observed and remembered as the player him or herself. Such a motile design choice for the avatar is intended to leave this exact impression upon the player so that they are further immersed into the game world, and in a way it is designed to make the avatar as invisible as possible to supplant the player into its shoes. But does this make the avatar itself uninteresting or is it only as interesting as the player is interested in expressly being in that role? When I think back on games that feature a highly customizable avatar, I tend to forget that character’s role in the story over the memory of some major events or decisions I took place in throughout the game. I often come away from games like these with the sense of feeling very interested in my role at the time of play and much less so looking back. This is in hard contrast to how I feel when playing a preset avatar who can be altered only slightly or not at all.
Two recent and prominent examples of avatars that cannot be truly changed are Booker DeWitt in Irrational Games’ Bioshock Infinite and Joel in Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us. These two characters, despite some forks in the road where the player may make some decisions at a few key points in the plot of either game, are portrayed and experienced solely as those characters as they were crafted by their respective creators. In similar fashion to how a linear game treats the player to a tailored experience while an open world game gives the player freedom to find significance on their own, the experiences the player has while controlling these characters will be largely the same time after time. Though provided some choices, players are not able to make choices in some of the most affecting scenes people still talk about when discussing either of these games. And it is here that I feel my connection to the avatar of games like these much stronger after the events of the entire game have concluded, and all the actions that I took place in but did not have say in can be assessed in terms of what it means for the player character. While not exactly disengaged during my first play through of such a game, often times the events and their significance are not wholly known to the player until the story’s conclusion and so I tend to feel uncertainty towards the motives and characterization of much of the cast including the player character. The avatar’s significance and my opinion of him are left floating from point to point, and I often feel more strongly about the final assessment of these characters than I do while in transit with them given that my role alongside them is much more the position of an observer. Finally, this brings me to an odd mechanic only possible in video games. A mechanic that has lost some popular support but is still in use today: the silent protagonist.
The foremost example in my gaming experience is Link in Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda series, where his noncommunicative nature becomes more apparent in the later entries of the series. Link’s use as a silent player character is one I find mixes my reactions from the above two styles. Though Link is the canonical name, it can be changed and the change is reflected in dialogue in the game. His appearance and gender are set, as is his quest. Few, if any, options are afforded to the player to make a significant choice throughout the game despite the common occurrence of a dialogue ‘option’ where the player is given a choice to refuse a request by key characters. Refusing often loops the conversation over with the non-player character simply repeating their request. But this, in conjunction with character’s reactions to unseen responses by Link, are designed to give a sense of choice and interpretation to the player. Alongside Nintendo’s, now glaring, omission of voice acting in the series, many aspects of the game are designed to give the player the ability to see and hear the world for themselves while keeping the structure and tailored experience. As a result I feel that Link is a well known character throughout video games, yet no two people experience him quite the same way. He is both a set and inflexible character and a representation of the player that controls him, not merely a vehicle. Other games have come and gone that feature a silent avatar, perhaps famously Grand Theft Auto 3, but none left today that execute it in this way. Indeed, Nintendo’s effort might be the only one left.
So what have I done, readers? Have I highlighted something important in how the player reacts and engages with the avatar of a game or is this all so plainly obvious? Is there a player character you did or did not like because of how they were presented? And which do you prefer, a customizable character or a preset one? Perhaps silence is golden? Hurl forth your opinions in the comments!