Sometimes it's better to be able to tweak an existing character, than build your own.
By Brendan Keogh on April 30, 2013 at 2:52 pm
You know what I love? Acting. I love games that encourage me to treat the world like a stage and my playable character like a role to perform. I love not using my character as a mere tool to do what I want to do, but doing what I think my character would do.
When a game makes me feel like I should act out the role of the character, it gets me out of the mindset that I should play in the ‘perfect’ or ‘most efficient’ way, and instead makes me feel like I should play in the way that best strengthens my own version of the story.
Not many games are able to make me play like this. Most playable characters, even the most well-rounded ones, are designed in a way so that by just doing what I want to do, they act how they should act. An easy example: Master Chief is a superhuman cyborg soldier because that is exactly how the player of Halo is going to act within the game’s mechanics.
But some characters have a broader spectrum of ability and ways to be enacted that encourage me to perform them in certain ways.
This is probably most explicit in role-playing games like Skyrim that allow the player to heavily customise the character to be how they want them to be. My wood elf assassin that I take with me through every Elder Scrolls game has a clear skillset and ideological leaning. I make certain choices in those games based on not what I would do, but on what I believe that character would do.
But in these games, the character is still someone I created nearly from scratch. The games I find really interesting are those that give me an already well-rounded character, but one with just that little bit left open for me to decide how they would act.
The game that has most recently got me thinking about this is the latest Tomb Raider. Lara Croft is clearly her own character with a long history that has been developing for decades before I even press the ‘New Game’ button. In the most recent game, the story and mechanics are clearly trying to convey a sense of gritty survival against all odds. There is a desperation in Lara’s movements, in the way she moves around each battlefield.
For the opening hours of the game, the only weapons I had were the bow and the pistol. It created this tension where I would get confident with the bow, stealthily taking down enemies without being seen. But then I would screw up—like the novice that Lara is. Then I would change to the loud, messy, imprecise pistol, blasting away frantically in a panic. At first I would carefully aim for headshots, as I would in any shooter, but it just felt wrong. I didn’t feel like in this story that the character Lara Croft would carefully, calmly aim for the head. So instead I would perform her how I think the character would act: being scared, wasting ammo.
Later in the game, I obtained a machine gun. In the next room, time slows down as I am asked to gun down about seven men with my new tool. It felt so wrong. The machine gun was too powerful. It was out of character with the way I wanted to enact Lara as a character in this story. So I put the machine gun aside, and refused to use it ever again, forcing myself to stick to the bow and the pistol (and, later in the game, the loud, messy shotgun).
The game gave me the Lara Croft that the designers thought would fit the story, much like the script writer of a film or theatre play already has ideas for a character before the actor comes along. But then, like any actor, I brought with me my own ideas of how this character should be acted. When I entered the world — when I got on the stage — I brought my own ideas to the story. By choosing what weapons my Lara Croft would use, I created my own performance.
And that’s why I love acting in a game. It’s not about finishing the game as efficiently or perfectly as possible. It is about letting a story pick you up and carry you along so that you care about nothing other than participating in that story. Tomb Raider lets me feel that. The story might be fairly cliché and typical, but by being able to perform Lara Croft the way I want the character to be acted, that cliché and typical story feels just a little bit more personal, and a little bit more meaningful. Like something I helped to bring to life.