Alan Wake. Issac Clarke. Nathan Drake. What do these three characters have in common?
They are ordinary guys who are thrust into extraordinary situations that they just happen to luck through time and time again. They aren’t the only ones; dozens of video-game characters — plenty of which are portrayed as average people who are thrown into crazy predicaments — seem to have a divine power watching over their every move.
They can’t die — at least not permanently. They never fail to accomplish their goals. They always win in the end.
Why are video-game characters so perfect in terms of the overall narrative?
Games are rather unique medium in that they allow players to manipulate things as they choose. Unlike movies, television, and books, video games are entirely comprised of interactivity. Because of this, games have a bit of a different agenda. They can’t just tell a story; they have to also be fun and challenging to play.
For a lot of games, part of that challenge comes from the risk of dying and losing some progress, a holdover from the days of arcades and developers wanting as many quarters out of you as they could possibly get. But no matter how many times you perish in nearly every modern game, you get to come back within a few minutes of your death to try again.
It doesn’t make sense. But if the game were to just end when you died, no one would ever have fun. The Prince of Persia: Sands of Time excuse tends to work best, where the whole game is portrayed as someone recounting his story and saying, “No, that isn’t how it went,” if the player happened die. This is the exception, not the rule. Most games just assume players can suspend disbelief and fill in the blanks themselves. True failure is something that is never allowed in video games.
L.A. Noire came along and tried to change some of that. Here was a game that allowed players to fail — at least in some respects — but still continue. Players can miss key evidence, lose suspects during a chase, and even arrest the wrong person for a crime, yet the game will still continue onward. Sure, the overall story doesn’t change — just some small minutiae here and there –but it is a step in the right direction. The characters are that much more believable because the game will let them fail, just like real-life detectives who probably make mistakes every day.
Failure in video games is a tricky beast — one I’m not quite convinced that can be solved. On one end of the spectrum, we have games with Hardcore modes like Diablo 2 and Dead Space 2 that end your game with one death, as if the character was truly real. These modes tend to only be for masochists and achievement hunters.
On the other, we have the 2008 Prince of Persia, where any death through combat or misstep is immediately corrected by Elika’s magic. This stripped the game of a lot of its momentum because there was never any penalty for making a mistake.
Until an acceptable middle ground can be found, we will continue to have game protagonists who are essentially godlike super soldiers who can never die or make a mistake, forever making us feel like inept human beings in comparison.