I overheard a friendly, drunken debate between Sven and Arnvid in the mead hall the other day. They couldn’t agree on what was more important in a game – Sven said it was the characters, while Arnvid advocated for the story and, while drinks were spilled and the odd playful punch was thrown, it all ended quite amicably, not least because they both passed out across the table.
However, it got me thinking. I thought the story being the most important part of a game was a given, but the more I thought about it the less clear it became. My question is this: can you really have a good story without having any good characters to carry it?
The original ‘Watch_Dogs’ game is, in my opinion, a good example of this. I enjoyed playing it because, you know, the hacking theme, the graphics and the gameplay were fantastic. But Aiden Pearce as a protagonist was sadly lacking, even though he had a backstory and a purpose. I felt no connection to him at all, and thus had no investment in his success. Honestly, I couldn’t have cared less if he achieved what he was trying to do, so long as he could mess with technology and get into the odd cop chase I was happy.
‘Red Dead Redemption’ too suffered from this, albeit right at the very end of the game. John Marston is, to this day, one of my favourite characters ever and I was with him all the way on his journey to redeem his terrible past. But once I was forced to play as his whiny twerp of a son, Jack, after the main story had finished, I was out. I hated that guy. Even if there had been a story for him to continue with, I don’t think I would have been able to do it. I suspect that Jack was there ready for the sequel, and that one of the reasons ‘Red Dead Redemption 2’ has taken so long to appear is because the character was so universally disliked that Rockstar had to chuck all their plans out of the window and come up with something else entirely.
Ubisoft must have also listened to the criticisms of Aiden Pearce, because ‘Watch_Dogs 2’ introduced a group of new characters that make the game so much more enjoyable. They are vibrant, passionate and funny with multi-faceted personalities, the absolute opposite of Pearce. Wrench, in particular, has become my spirit animal – he’s crass, hilarious, loves to blow things up and wears a mask with emoticon eyes that display how he’s feeling, but once this is taken away from him by the FBI, his personality completely changes to one of quiet vulnerability. It’s these extra dimensions that really get you behind a character and urge you on to complete the story to see them win out in the end, even if that story is just a succession of missions designed to bring down corrupt companies in order to get to the arch-nemesis, Blume.
Having said that, a good story is always a bonus. In ‘The Talos Principle’, the protagonist is an androgynous robot who doesn’t talk and, if you’re anything like me, you don’t even get to see until the third section because you didn’t realise there was an option to swap to third-person view rather than first. Here, it’s the story that makes you care about the character enough to want to find out what this robot is, why it’s in this mysterious puzzle-filled world and what has happened to cause it to be there. And I cried at the end of it when I found out, seriously. It’s that good.
Obviously, when you don’t give two hoots about the characters or the story, that’s when it all falls down. I never finished playing ‘Grand Theft Auto IV’ for that very reason, and there’s only so much time you can devote to just running around the map and causing random havoc for the laughs. The protagonist had such a huge effect on me that I can’t even remember his name, or that of his annoying cousin who needed babysitting all the time. I got bored with buying him a variety of horrible tracksuits. And I can’t for the life of me recall what his story was. But hey, that’s just me.
And it’s not just video gaming where the characters are important, either. Look at table-top gaming…
The Nerdic Vikings Dungeons & Dragons game has been going since May of last year, and while it’s been a load of fun from the start, the one thing I’ve really started to enjoy about it is the character creation. At the beginning, I played a fighter that came with the ‘Lost Mines of Phandelver’ box set. He was called Spud, but as the other guys kept forgetting that I was playing a bloke, I created a new fighter based on his stats called Sheogorath (his sister) for our new campaign, ‘Tomb of Annihilation’.
And she’s really come to life. I wrote a dark past and a somewhat insane personality for her that was linked to it, learned what she could do with her fighting and Battle Master skills, discussed what was going on with her with Loki, who is our current DM, and painted a little figure of her that I made on the Hero Forge website (beware, it’s addictive!). And when I became a bit disillusioned with the fighter class because of how limited it was in that it can’t use magic, I dismissed the lengthy discussions I’d had with Loki about multiclassing Sheogorath as a Druid and instead decided to focus on how I could expand her fighter skillset using feats and imaginative unarmed attacks, such as kicking enemies in the nuts. Through this, she now has a homebrew feat which grants her an Almiraj animal companion called Stabbybunny – with a challenge rating of zero he’s kind of useless in a battle and needs to be protected so as not to get squished, but he makes her happy and he gives me more role-playing scope!
In order to get this inspiration for Sheogorath I started watching Critical Role on YouTube, where a bunch of fabulous ‘nerdy-ass’ voice actors play Dungeons and Dragons each week as Vox Machina, a group of heroes who will eventually save the world from an evil God. And it was here that I realised why characters are so important.
I watched them battle against Vecna the Ascended in the final episode of their first campaign, and something happened that went largely unnoticed at the time, but that made me cry.
A little backstory for clarification: Liam O’Brien’s character, Vax, was killed and he could only return to life by making a bargain with the Raven Queen. She allowed him to live again until he killed Vecna, upon which she would return to claim his soul. During the battle against Vecna, Sam Riegel’s character, Scanlan, had held onto a 9th-level spell slot so he could use it to cast the Wish spell afterwards and thus save Vax from his fate.
Late in the battle Vecna, injured and on the verge of defeat, attempts to teleport away. If he achieves this, Vox Machina have lost. Sam looks up at Matt Mercer, the DM, and asks if he has a reaction, to which Matt replies that he would. Sam is clearly torn over this, but then uses Scanlan’s level 9 spell slot to cast Counterspell against Vecna’s level 7 Teleportation, automatically succeeding and keeping Vecna there for Vox Machina to finally defeat. Everyone cheers, except for Matt who looks completely stunned (and, I think, must have known as DM what Scanlan was planning to do with his 9th-level spell slot) and Sam, who holds his head in his hands. It’s only when Sam apologises to Liam that Liam (and after that Laura Bailey and Marisha Ray) realise what Scanlan was trying to do for Vax and what he has given up. Liam forgives Sam, and Sam spends the next few minutes quietly crying.
And this is why the characters are important, regardless of the great story they’re involved in – without that investment that the actors have in their own characters, those of their friends, and their achievements, relationships and successes, that moment could never have happened. As characters, Vax and Scanlon aren’t real, and yet the emotions they engender absolutely are.
A story in any game may be interesting, engaging and exciting, but in the end it’s the characters that give it that extra sparkle and make it memorable, so I must heartily agree with Sven when he wakes up with an inevitable hangover. Embrace the characters you meet and identify with, and embrace your own character! You never know when it could lead you to an amazing experience…