Editorial: The Avatar

SEXISM!!1!
It should go without saying that Mario is the preeminent player character.

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.

RACISMMMM!!!
Bioshock Infinite is a very tailored experience and its player character is therefore portrayed only a certain way.

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.

Try this at home, kids. A large bird will catch you every time. I promise.
Everyone knows who Link is, and yet he’s not the same for everyone.

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!

13 comments

  1. The silent protagonist is a design concept I have grappled with since my very first Zelda game. It bugs me the most in Dragon Quest games, where the usually solid narrative could be fleshed out so much more if the main character would just open his mouth for once. I get that the hero is supposed to be an avatar of myself, but from the moment I press start he is on a collision course with destiny that I cannot alter very much. He should say something about it, dammit!

    My favorite renaming of Link is when you steal an item from the shop in Link’s Awakening and he is referred to as THIEF by everyone for the rest of the game. *Sigh* I’ll admit it…my character’s name was always eventually THIEF. I just could not resist the early bow and arrow :)

    Also, good editorial man. Got me thinking about some stuff.

  2. Thanks, man! This topic came to me like a flash of lightning while in bed. I might consider going into silent protagonists more, at a later time, if I can put enough together for a full piece.

  3. It has always seemed to me that WRPGs tend to lean towards the ‘the character is you–you are the character’ style of gameplay far more than JRPGs do. Perhaps this has to do with how the two styles of RPG have evolved.

    In the English-speaking world, Dungeons & Dragons and other such role-playing experiences have remained central to the theory of RPG design, and in those games one plays a character of one’s own devising, placing themselves in the central role, and acting in accordance with how that character ‘ought’ to act.

    In JRPGs, that doesn’t seem to be the case. There is far less room for choosing what one does–the focus seems to be on participating in a story, already written. Most action choices take place solely in combat, or in the order in which optional quests are undertaken. Lightning can’t choose to kill Hope (however much he deserves it) in Final Fantasy XIII, nor can Vanille pip off and leave the party to become the queen of Pulse, as she of right OUGHT TO BE, thus transforming the game from a story about redemption into a story of IMPERIAL DOMINATION, with the world BECOME SUBJECT to the WHIM and AUTHORITY and BEAUTY of that UNPARALLELED GODDESS, that VISION OF PERFECTION, OERBA DIA VANILLE!

    Ahem, sorry. But you get my point.

  4. I used to find silent protagonists hugely offputting, and found it difficult to enjoy most of the games in which they feature for the longest time – but then somewhere along the way something clicked [suddenly it seems] and now I hardly even notice that they lack a voice [though obviously they make less of an impression].

    I think it may have something to do with my priorities of narrative in games changing. A few years back I’d look at a SP and see nothing but a void which the rest of the party had to awkwardly negotiate, whereas now I am able to sort of discern an implied personality by the characteristics projected upon the SP by the way s/he is treated by the rest of the game’s characters.

    I still think that a voiced protagonist is hugely preferable [unless s/he’s a douche like Snow].

  5. Word for word, I am on the same page as Julian on this.

  6. Heroes these days aren’t like the heroes of old. Conversational skills and the ability to pull one-liners out of thin air are a required part of the package nowadays.

    I, like Silicon Noob, prefer voiced protagonists, but I prefer it to be done with just text and not an actual voice. The voices I create in my head for characters are invariably better than any voice actor

    Nice editorial, Mel.

  7. I’m with you on that, Jahan. Games like P4 and FFXII do wonders with voice acting, but far more often Japanese games are completely ruined by mediocre voice tracks. I’d gladly forgo the former to be shot of the latter.

  8. The Baten Kaitos games gives you the option of specifically turning off the voice acting. For a console game at that time that option was rare but VERY welcomed for this particular game. I didn’t leave the first town before my choice became painfully clear.

  9. IMO you’d have to go all the way back to RE1 on the PS1 to find worse VA than Baten Kaitos – which is quite surprising given Monolith’s extensive use of VA in the Xenosaga games.

    I guess Baten Kaitos just had a super low budget which forced them to use mediocre actors, though IMO they would have been far better served to just cut VA from the English version of the game.

  10. The option to turn off the voice acting is quite honestly the reason I was able to play that game at all.

  11. Well, if anyone recalls, the early trailer for that game used a completely different set of voice actors who all delivered their lines MUCH better. Then when the game came out, everyone was voiced differently and sounded like they were literally phoning it in.

    THIS was the original trailer: (notice the pretty good VAs)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B_yyzAwJAIE

    And THIS is the set of VAs the game shipped with: (MY EARS!)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AaMPzch0L28

    The delivery of the old woman and Lyude in particular are horrendous.

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