May 5, 2022
Heads up if you’re worried about spoilers for Fallout 3, Fallout 4, Cyberpunk 2077, or The Witcher 3. I’ll spoil them all a little bit, and The Witcher a lot.
People love making choices in games. It’s regularly a major part of the marketing – “your choices matter,” and so on – for reasons that make a lot of sense: it gives you agency as a player, and it makes you feel powerful, and it allows you to shape a narrative around your own preferences. That said, like most things that become darlings of marketing, it can also be a creative decision that gets made by some rot-brained manager who saw a graph going up one time fifteen years ago and decided on a whim that everything needs to be customizable from that point on. Sometimes, certain choices undermine the game as a whole.
One major choice that I think often undermines narratives is having a blank slate protagonist. The game I’m developing (The Salt Keep) is fairly choice-heavy in general, but not in that respect: the protagonist is a fixed character with a defined internal life and history. I opted for that mostly because of my personal preference, but that’s not to say I haven’t played and loved plenty of games with player-created protagonists. It’s just that when I think of the narratives that have stuck with me the most, they’ve almost always been attached to fixed protagonists, and the narratives that have frustrated me the most have almost always been the opposite.
The Big Iron On Your Hip
Take Fallout 3, for example. That’s a game where you define just about everything about your character. Are you a tidy little fascist who does Brotherhood of Steel stuff and follows the rules? Are you some kind of feral raider with a mohawk who kills every shopkeeper to get all their bottle caps even though you don’t really have anything to spend them on? It’s all up to you, your choices matter, shoot everybody if you want, nobody cares. If that was it, I wouldn’t take issue with it. The first thing the game does, though, is set you up on its main quest: find your dad.
Immediately the narrative dilemma hits. No, it’s not my dad. It’s my character’s dad. But who is my character? My character is nobody. My character has no particular relationship with their dad. My character is a series of stats and binary moral dialogue choices that don’t really add up to anything. I personally don’t care about this man – he’s not my dad, after all – but I can’t even connect with him on a narrative level, because my character doesn’t care about him either. Even empathy can’t help you here. The primary narrative push just falls flat immediately.
Then Fallout 4 does almost the exact same thing. They tout how advanced the character creator is in all the previews and marketing, and it really is advanced, you can make quite a character. I’m having a great time as I make a grizzled, gray-haired wretch of a man who I name “Crust” after Rust Cohle from True Detective, and he’s going to be a miserable sniper who lives on Jet and has to get headshots to survive because he’ll die in one hit otherwise. But as soon I start the actual game, I realize that not only is there a fixed voice actor for Crust who sounds like a happy-go-lucky salesman, but there is also a near-identical narrative centered on how I, Crust, really want to get my kidnapped baby back.
It’s not my baby, it’s Crust’s baby, and who is Crust? I don’t know. I had an idea for it, but the game isn’t really going to let me do that. It’s going to take this half-measure so it can maintain some kind of throughline narrative, and all I can think is that if this is the story they wanted to tell, they should have just given me a fixed character and told the story. I would have been absolutely fine with that. If I’m playing a feral raider, why do I start out in this happy home with a wife and child? If I’m paying a grizzled sniper who wakes up each morning and looks at the single bullet he’s been saving for the moment he finally puts a stop to his daily cycle of torment, why am I out in the wasteland sounding like a car salesman and trying to find my baby? You can’t have it both ways. I ended up starting over and trying to create the character it felt like they wanted me to create just to avoid that dissonance.
New Vegas gets around this pretty effectively by having a far less defined throughline narrative. It really is all about the choices you make, and the “story” of New Vegas shifts wildly depending on what you do. If somebody asks you what New Vegas is about, you basically have to answer with “it depends.” The result is that your character is a kind of cipher, just a proxy for you, the player, to wander around the wasteland and listen to Johnny Guitar with the big iron on your hip. The story comes from the NPCs and companions who are defined, and you witness and influence them even though there’s no real pretense of you being anybody in particular. That’s a totally valid (and successful, I think) way of doing things. It’s just not usually my preference.
A Guy Who Hates Portals
If you want a great example of how a fixed character can elevate a narrative, you’d have a hard time finding a better one than The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. You get plenty of choices playing as Geralt, but they generally aren’t broad moral binaries like you’d see in something like Mass Effect or Skyrim. More often they’re either choices where the consequences aren’t immediately apparent, or choices that are more like nudges for Geralt’s dialogue. You can’t make Geralt say anything Geralt wouldn’t say, because he’s not a cipher; he’s Geralt.
I came to the game with absolutely no knowledge of the characters or series. I didn’t play the first two, nor did I even know what they were outside of maybe having heard the name “Witcher” in passing and thinking it sounded kind of stupid. Given the scope of that game’s success, I’d guess that goes for a lot of players. Yet somehow CD Projekt Red managed to invite new players into that narrative and catch them up to speed, and a major part of that is because Geralt is a fixed character with a rich history. When characters from previous games appear, I don’t know who they are, but it’s not alienating for me, because Geralt does. He’s meeting an old friend and clapping them on the back, and I’m invited along. You know who’s important and who’s not because of the way Geralt feels about them. He’s written as a person, and I believe him as one. He exists when I’m not there.
Not only that, but the main narrative push in The Witcher 3 is actually very similar to the main quests in Fallout 3 and 4. For at least the first half of the game, Geralt is looking for Yennefer, and then Ciri, and if you’re new to the series, you don’t know who either of them are. That’s not a problem, though, because Geralt is so well-defined and the game goes to such lengths to teach you who he is that you want to find Ciri, not because Ciri is important to you, but because it’s abundantly clear how important she is to Geralt.
In the pivotal mid-game moment where Geralt finally does find Ciri, she’s sprawled out in a cabin and the dwarves he met there tell him she’s dead. It’s a scene that in most games wouldn’t work for a variety of reasons: maybe you’ve seen her in the marketing, or in some clips of the game, or maybe the general understanding that you’re nowhere near the end of the game is enough for your metagame brain to understand that she obviously isn’t going to be dead. Yet in this game, the scene does work – it’s emotionally resonant in a way AAA open world games rarely manage to be – because you’ve been with Geralt all this time, and you know how important she is to him, and you know that he believes she’s dead. It doesn’t matter whether you think she’s dead or not, because the game isn’t asking you to feel the loss. It’s asking you to empathize with Geralt, and you know that he feels it.
It only works because Geralt is a fully-defined character with a rich history and inner life. He cares about things and believes in things independent of the player. He’s a fixed character.
Burn Corpo Shit
Despite the strength of Geralt as a fixed character, CD Projekt Red’s next game, Cyberpunk 2077, splits the difference between Bethesda-style blank slate characters and their own previous effort. A robust character creator allows players to choose all the important details of a protagonist named V: whether they’re circumcised or not, and which generic anti-establishment Gen X tattoos you want on their chest, and whether you want them to have the one and only cyberpunk hair style (shaved, but just on one side). Then players choose one of a few different character backgrounds, each written to fit loosely into the same main storyline.
For example, my V was a Nomad, a kind of anti-establishment drifter living outside the norms of Night City society. I could have been a Corpo, playing by the rules and doing dystopian grindset, saddled with the horrifying mentality of a person who is part boss and part cop, but that sounded terrible, so I didn’t do that. My V’s introduction and some of his early relationships reflected his Nomad background, and I was regularly offered dialogue choices that reinforced it.
The dissonance hit almost immediately, though. One of the major recurring mission types in the game tasks the player with helping the Night City Police Department deal with crimes. The gameplay purpose is clear – every crime presents a bunch of nameless bad guys for you to kill and loot, which is fun because you have a katana, and cyber-ankles, and the motorcycle from Akira – but the role in the narrative is perplexing. If I’m a Nomad, why do I want to unilaterally execute criminals on behalf of the police? Maybe if I was a Corpo I could wrap my head around it, but I’m not. The game seems to dodge the question by leaving the crimes vague. I never really talk to any cops about what I’m doing, and nobody seems to care that I’m killing all these people. “Just don’t think about it,” the writers seem to say, but here I am thinking about it.
The same dilemma appears when romance options come into play. I can get to know people, I can get intimate, it’s all up to me! If you think of the romances as opportunities for a player proxy more along the lines of a dating sim – you get closer to the characters that you, the player, relate to – it works well enough. But as a narrative, it feels empty and thin, because the relationships are fundamentally one-sided. Your character is not a defined person, and all the writing has to dance around that. Why do these people like you? If the same person can like you whether you’re a Nomad or a Corpo, two diametrically opposed backgrounds and worldviews, what is it exactly that they like? There’s no way for the game to communicate that in an emotionally resonant way, because there is no real character there. When you think back on the culmination of any one of the romances in the game, it might stick in your head as a series of memorable images and entertaining details, but whatever picture of the relationship you retain will likely have only one person in it, because there is no “you” there.
The narrative even seems to make an attempt at threading this needle by tying Johnny Silverhand so fundamentally to your character. Unlike V, Johnny is fully defined. He has a long, rich history full of old friends, and complicated relationships, and sometimes irrational or contradictory motivations. He is a person in a way that V isn’t, and the central focus of his narrative goes a long way toward patching up the emptiness of V as a character. But it consistently left me feeling like I was taking in a story at odds with itself: the game wants to be about Johnny Silverhand, but it also wants me to feel like I can be whoever I want regardless of the story, and it won’t fully commit to either of these positions.
Leaving Night City
So what does all this mean? Not much, really. I’m not saying any of these are bad games, because I played the ones I’m criticizing for collectively many hundreds of hours, and I’m sure plenty of people had very different experiences, and there have to be endless counter-examples for every argument I’ve made here. But as I see it, player-defined characters are a generally good design aspiration that has been co-opted by marketing cynicism to become an often rigid necessity, sometimes forced onto narratives where they don’t particularly fit.
I’ve made a lot of characters I’ve loved in games, characters I remember well, but when I want to really connect with a story, I don’t want to make up some weirdo to be a proxy for me and hope it meshes with the narrative. I want something that resonates because it’s about specific people, the kind who can’t just be swapped out with whatever dead-eyed, Jet-addicted sniper I roll in the character creator without meaningfully changing anything.
Give me Geralt and Yennefer in a half-boat up on a mountain. Give me Ellie looking at Joel, not knowing what he did. Give me Kiryu and Nishiki whipping out their half-finished back tattoos, or Edgar and Sabin flipping a coin for a kingdom, or even some absolute idiot like Leon S. Kennedy showing up to zombies on his first day of work. That’s the kind of stuff I want to play, and that’s the kind of stuff I want to make.
Also maybe I am saying Fallout 4 was bad. I really didn’t like that game.