One of the longest, deepest arguments my spouse and I have ever had (and we've known each other since 1997) took place during the first week of Portal 2's release. It happened in slow motion over three days and was, frankly, exhausting. And what caused this argument?
In its purest form, the fight was over Chell's moral compass and consistency as a character. Yes, really.
But first, a little background. I follow #AltDevBlogADay on Twitter. It's true, I don't understand most of the heavily technical posts or discussions (a coder I am not), but I do find it fascinating to see what industry and development trends designers are talking about. And every now and then, a true gem comes along that I do understand….
Animator Mike Jungbluth recently shared a post titled What does your game believe in? It's a fairly lengthy piece, but here are a couple crucial excerpts:
From the characters that we control, the world they live in, and how the player interacts with each, if the core beliefs are consistent and persistent, that will be felt on an incredibly deep level. In fact, you could even call it the heart and soul of a game. That sort of special X-factor that helps to make a game feel more alive than even a bigger-budget game sitting next to it on the shelf.
But like having beliefs in real life, it is a double-edge sword. As soon as those beliefs are called into question, your entire reality can become questionable. The deeper or more core to the person or world the belief, the further everything can come crashing down the moment they are betrayed.
Beyond just model sheets and reference for movements, really think about what drives the character forward. What has lead them to the point they are at when the game starts, and where do they draw the line in their world as to what they believe in? Do their beliefs change or grow as the game progresses?
Do they mind getting their hands dirty or are they reluctant to do so? Both can allow for the same overall gameplay and creation of assets, but being aware of what they believe can make what happens before, during, and after all the more meaningful when the animations or dialog matches those beliefs. This goes for not only the character but the player. In fact, going a step further, this is how we can even begin to color the player’s beliefs, and make them question their own values versus those of the characters in the game.
One thing I love about this article is that, without using the exact words, it basically translates into: "Hey, people, write real, fully fleshed-out, plausible characters in your games!" That's a piece of advice I can most certainly get behind.
It's worth noting that both times that I have attended a panel on female characters in gaming (in 2009 and again in 2010, both at PAX East), the conversation around character writing quickly lapses into a festival of complaints. Our female characters are badly written and one-dimensional, the cry goes — but someone quickly adds, "And so are the men." And it's often true.
As the full text of the article cited above points out, Uncharted's Nathan Drake has all of the depth and consistency of a washcloth. I love the Uncharted franchise, but that's kind of in spite of itself. Drake is a fun character, but Jungbluth is completely correct to observe that cut-scene Drake and player-driven Drake basically have two completely different sets of beliefs and priorities, and I find that sort of writing jarring.
Which brings me, finally, back to Portal 2. A series of events in the game create [spoiler alert!] a situation where your arch-nemesis, the AI GLaDOS, resides within the not-very-sinister confines of a potato battery. The beginning of chapter 6 separates Chell and GLaDOS, but at the end of chapter 6 you and your 1.1 volts of spudly evil reunite, and in order to progress from chapter 6 to chapter 7, the player has to pick up and then carry the potato/bad guy.
And what about this angered my spouse so? In his own words:
The overarching plot of Portal 1 is really Chell vs. GLaDOS. In Portal 2, GLaDOS is pretty bitter about it and continues to try to kill Chell in myriad ways.
But then GLaDOS is rendered helpless and stashed in a potato. When you find the potato in 70s Aperture Science, she asks you to take her with you to replace Wheatley before he destroys the facility.
My problem: Why in God's name would anyone want to do that?
It makes no sense. Here's the malevolent AI who wants you dead, and she's asking you to help her. The only evidence that you have at that point that Wheatley might destroy Aperture are some distant rumbling sounds. GLaDOS is a proven schemer and liar, so you have little reason to trust her. She's exceedingly likely to betray you at the first opportunity. So why save her? Why bring her back to power? Why would Chell choose to trust her mortal enemy based on GLaDOS's word alone?
And even if she's right, what's the worst that happens? Aperture is destroyed, preventing anyone else from falling prey to its malevolent experiments. That doesn't sound so bad to me.
All I wanted to do when I found the potato was destroy it. Hurl it into the abyss. Mash it into a side dish and put gravy on it. But the game wouldn't let me. The game forced me as a player to act completely contrary to how I felt anyone would normally act. And I hated it for that.
I didn't have an issue with this plot development myself and neither did many (most?) players. But the other gamer in my household encountered the phenomenon that Jungbluth was writing about head-on — a character-motivation dissonance so stark that his preference was to walk away from the PC rather than to complete one of the most acclaimed games of 2011.
All of this serves to remind us that good writing in games needs to be front and center, not secondary. As this industry, entertainment medium, and art form matures, the real crux of it all is what stories we're telling and how successfully we're telling them. Narrative and characterization must work in harmony, or else we'll find yet another reason to put down that controller (or mouse and keyboard, as the case may be).