Editor's note: Too many titles are content rest on their laurels when it comes to character development. Daniel argues that instead of constantly shuffling us from action scene to action scene, developers should spend more time giving us intimate depictions of the characters they present. -James
I opened my Heavy Rain review by noting that one of my favorite parts of the game is something that would be completely boring under normal circumstances. Despite that (or maybe because of it), it’s a thing that is sorely missing in games.
The scene in question occurs right after the prologue. In it, the main character, Ethan Mars, spends an evening with his son. You can let him sit there and watch TV while you have a beer, or you can look at a schedule of tasks and set him to dinner, homework, and bed.
This is exactly the kind of situation that I’ve heard a lot of people say they don’t want to see in games, but I think it’s necessary — when it's done right.
One of Heavy Rain’s biggest assets over the usual game narrative is how it doesn’t hesitate to put players through the mundane parts of everyday life. While an NPC washes up in your apartment, you might fry her some eggs. Maybe mother is resting in bed for a minute, so you put the baby to sleep.
None of this stuff actually adds to the gameplay or the major parts of the storyline. All it does is help better illustrate the characters and their world. By spending a day in his home with his family, you get a better picture of who Ethan is, which hopefully makes it easier for you to connect with him. Try to count how many video games you can name that have protagonists you actually empathized with. Probably not too many.
A lot of people say that they play games purely for escapist reasons — they want to get away from the everyday grind. So why would you want to play a game that’s about nothing more than a regular dude leading a regular life? In my opinion, the lack of down-to-earth settings is one of the problems causing gaming’s lack of appeal to general audiences. Another part of the problem is how developers pace games.
Of course, you wouldn’t want to play a game that’s all “normal stuff” — you need conflict and tension and whatnot. But at the same time, Roger Ebert disparagingly compared Terminator Salvation to a video game because it's all action, all the time.
A perfect example of a game that suffered from this problem is Modern Warfare 2. The biggest criticism of the game is its incomprehensible story that blazes from one battle to the next, with little exposition. I think the game’s plot would’ve come across less poorly if it had just taken a few scenes to slow down. Infinity Ward said they wanted you to care about the characters, but you can’t really do that when you’re too busy shooting stuff all the time.
Actually, one of the more impressive parts of Modern Warfare 2 is the very beginning when you walk around a military camp in Afghanistan. Infinity Ward put considerable detail in to depicting the downtime life of soldiers. The problem is that you can’t interact with any of it. That realization, possibly more than anything else, drives home the fact that in the end, you are little more than a floating gun.
An example of a conventional action game that used life's ins and outs to good effect is Assassin’s Creed 2. The first Assassin’s Creed is an endless cycle of going to places and killing people; the main reason the sequel is a better game is because of everything it adds in between those moments.
The first few missions of Assassin’s Creed 2 involve nothing more than the main character, Ezio, going about life as a careless teenager. Again, right from the beginning, you get a clearer picture of character than you did with Atlair, his counterpart from the original. Recon work precedes every major mission in the game: This gives Ubisoft good space for idle banter between characters while still keeping you busy.
In recent memory, the ultimate example of this kind of carefully-paced exposition is the Persona series. In Persona 3 and 4, you are a high school student who must kill monsters by night, but by day, you are still attending classes and making friends. You spend half of each game doing the latter.
Actually spending time hanging out with or dating your party members — in between slaying monsters — makes character development one of Persona's strong suits. In video games, you have to deal with worlds coming to an end all the time. But when you find out that the entire world is at stake toward the end of Persona 3, you really feel the impact because the game has presented a state of normalcy with which to contrast a dire circumstance.
We spend so much time doing extraordinary stuff in our games that whenever a title presents the opportunity to do something ordinary, it feels oddly fresh. I relish scenarios that let you explore a populated place without killing all its inhabitants.
I understand that a lot of people out there mainly play games to escape from their normal lives, but many people watch movies and read books for the same reason. Neither of those media are 100% escapism, and even a lot of the escapism within them isn’t all action all the time.
I cross-posted this with my 1UP blog: redswirl.1up.com.
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