If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it upwards of a thousand times: the secret narrative weapon of video games is the ability to put the player into the story. They’re seeing, hearing, and living the adventure before them, in a way that no other medium can match.
Since the first time a sentient piece of fungus told players their monarchal love interest was, in fact, in a different fortified structure, game developers have used in-game character relationships as boosts to keep players going. Sometimes you’re saving a loved one, avenging a loved one, redeeming a loved one from the sins that she unknowingly committed because you were actually the one who sinned and thus made her an accessory (Dante’s Inferno is a weird, weird game…), so on and so forth. Almost always, that “loved one” is a significant other. Not every time, mind you, and we’ll get to that, but that’s definitely the most common convention.
The thing about this particular type of connection is that the suspension of disbelief can only go so far. The majority of the players out there aren’t trying to save/avenge/redeem/whatever their digital objects of affection because they are emotionally in love with these characters. The players are doing it because they know their character is; and players want their protagonist to get their own happily ever after.
Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying we can’t be emotionally invested or attached to a fictional character or their relationships. Quite the contrary. I jumped through so many hoops in Dragon Age: Origins for my Warden to end up happily ever after with Morrigan that it was ridiculous… but that’s just it. I did it for my WARDEN, not me. If it was actually me in that world, I don’t think Morrigan and I would have lasted too long. She doesn’t exactly have the personality that would win Mom and Dad over.
But because of the narrative that I chose to pursue with my character, it was a perfect match. All of BioWare’s games demand that same level of commitment when you’re trying to pursue a successful, and lasting, romantic attachment to a character… but in the end, it’s the romantic attachment of one character to another character. You’re setting up your happily ever after for your Warden, or your Inquisitor, or Shepard…not yourself. That’s how it should be. If you’re actually, deeply in love with a video game character, and you’re not the main character of the movie Her, please seek help.
Side note: In editing this blog post, Nerissa and I realized we have referenced a BioWare game in pretty much every other post we’ve written. We are not just a BioWare fan club, we promise. That being said. BioWare, if you guys are reading this and you’d like to pay us to be a BioWare fan club, we are 100% down. Anyway, back on track.
The thing is, most game developers that aren’t BioWare, or even CD Projekt Red in the latest Witcher titles, have realized they’re never going to truly rope in a player beyond a certain emotional point without a ton of extra work. So as opposed to trying to craft a rich, meaningfully romantic narrative around the characters, many developers often default to a tried and true, albeit extremely lazy and overdone, trope:
It’s sex. If the image above didn’t convey that clearly enough, I’m talking about sex.
Now, I’m not saying there isn’t a place in games for sex and sex appeal. I’ll even admit using that picture of Ivy from Soul Calibur is a little below-the-belt considering she’s just a side character in a fighting game series, not even a romantic interest like we’ve been discussing… but come on, can you blame me for using that picture to make this point? Looking at that, you really have to wonder who’s the better fighter: Ivy, or the poor strap that’s hanging on for dear life.
The trait of our industry I’m cheekily poking fun at is the particularly bad habit of using sex as nothing more than (usually very objectifying) eye candy, or in the case of romantic interests: an incredibly lazy way of getting you interested in the characters ending up together. Unlike the comparatively few games out there that work to make you like the characters themselves, far too many are just hoping they can entice you with the potential prospect of some flashed skin or awkwardly animated character models playing poke the polygons.
And when it comes to romantic relationships, that’s about as far as players can get with games. You either care about the relationship for the sake of the characters, or you have some very lustful expectations for their immediate future. But what about non-romantic relationships. What about something like… oh, I don’t know, parenthood? Can a game make you feel some genuine emotions typically involved with that? I will argue that yes, it can.
I am not a father. I plan to be, and that’s a journey I’m sure my wife and I will be taking in the next few years or so, but I am not a dad yet. But I’ll be darned if there aren’t a few games I’ve played, particularly two, that very smartly tapped into the emotional part of my brain that has that already in me.
SPOILER WARNING: Just to warn you, I am going to spoil the living DAYLIGHTS out of the Last of Us and the BioShock series. So if you haven’t played these masterpieces, would you kindly exit out of this window, proceed to your nearest console or PC, and get to work. If you have played these games, I just made you chuckle.
Within the first half hour, The Last of Us makes it very clear we are not in for a happy ride. You get front row seats to the apocalypse, see a ton of civilians meet their very scary demise, and what was that last one… oh yeah.
The death of Joel’s daughter, Sarah, is probably the most gut-wrenchingly painful video game intro I’ve ever played. If you have a heart, you will cry. If you don’t have a heart, well that’s a pretty big medical red flag, and you should seek help.
The scene sets the tone for the rest of the game, and in particular, the emotional state Joel is in for a good part of it. He’s devastated, he’s hardened, and couldn’t care less about the fate of the world. But a little bit later into the game, he’s charged with taking care of a young teen named Ellie, and the relationship they form is one of the most meaningful and realistic in video game history. Joel comes to terms with Sarah’s death, and the father in him finds new life in taking care of Ellie.
The two girls couldn’t be any different. In the short time we have with Sarah, she seems sweet. She’s innocent, kind, and sentimental. Ellie, on the other hand, swears like a sailor, is short-tempered, and will stab anyone who wants to harm her right in the heart. But in the time we spend with her, we see that Ellie does have a softer side. She’s vulnerable, and she does need someone to be there for her, and that person ends up being Joel.
The great thing is, because of the way Naughty Dog constructs it, you don’t just want to protect Ellie because Joel does… you just want to protect her. Period. See, Naughty Dog gets you invested in Ellie through Joel, but unlike the romantic relationships we talked about earlier, the buck doesn’t stop with that. She might be leaning on Joel for support (and vice versa), but she’s leaning on you, the player too. You care about this girl, and that’s the genius. You care. Not you as Joel – you. After the hell she has been through, and the hell you have been put through AS Joel with Sarah’s death, when this girl puts her faith in you, by the end of the game you are willing to, almost literally, go to war to ensure that she comes out okay. Joel is still the representation of you in the game, yes, but you aren’t just doing what you do for Joel. You’re doing it for Ellie, because Ellie deserves it. The devotion Joel develops for Ellie as the story progresses is funneled so smoothly to us that we barely even notice it, but by the end of the game you cannot help but feel an obligation to take care of her… no matter the cost.
And by the end of the game, after an ending I can only describe as “overwhelmingly thought-provoking” without getting completely off topic, I realized what Naughty Dog had done. They had tapped into my emotions by making me feel very, very real feelings for a fictional character. They tapped into an emotion all of us should have: wanting to protect an innocent life. In particular an innocent life that is looking to us for protection. In this case, our kid. It didn’t matter if Ellie was “real” or not, because of the way the narrative was constructed. When we were playing that game, our priority was protecting her. It was to help her keep going. And that’s awesome.
Ellie tapped into the parental side of me that I imagine I’ll experience mostly in the first two decades or so of my children’s lives: he need to protect them, to shelter them, from the dangers and darkness in the world. What BioShock did though… what they tapped into was the side of parenting that I think is probably the scariest part of all: not being able to protect your children, because it’s time they faced the world on their own.
The whole BioShock franchise has so many themes and metaphors for parents and parenting, it could give the Andy Griffith Show a run for its money. In the first game, you play as a protagonist who has been unknowingly brainwashed since birth to go on a rampaging Terminator-esque killing spree to take out none other than, surprise, your own father.
BioShock 2, though a lot of people give it flack, has a phenomenal final act that deals with, amongst other things, a young child who wants nothing more than to feel loved by a parental figure… and then also proceeds to go on a vengeful spree of destruction. But this time we’re totally cool with it and it’s justified – we’re not just along for the ride because we’re brainwashed. It’s complicated.
Finally though, the real kicker for this franchise is Infinite. And particularly, in my opinion, the gem of all video game companion characters: Elizabeth Comstock.
Now, I told you I was going to have spoilers here, so I’m going to spill this right out the gate: Elizabeth is your protagonist, Booker’s, daughter, but neither you nor he know it until the very end of the game. See, Booker had gambling debts, and like any upstanding citizen, to pay them off he sold his infant daughter to some scientists who came knocking on his door saying they’d make all his problems go away if they could have the girl. Turns out, these particular scientists were from a parallel universe, where Booker is actually regarded as a Prophet and is looking for a successor, so who better than his own flesh and blood… sort of. Anyway, Booker decides that selling children really isn’t the most morally pure option, and tries to save his daughter, but doesn’t succeed. The beginning of the game is decades later, when Booker has been so eaten apart with guilt he’s repressed this event entirely. However, when he and Elizabeth’s paths cross again, he’s almost immediately drawn to care for her and protect her. And, like with Joel, we feel the exact same emotions. But here’s the kicker with Elizabeth… we can’t. At least not for long. Elizabeth is a grown woman, and no matter how hard we try to keep the bubbly innocence she has when we first meet her intact, a world of despair and death very quickly takes its toll on her. Gone is the sweet girl who was excited to see the sights of the world. Gone is the girl who laughed as she danced with complete strangers on a pier. Very quickly, a world of violence and corruption turns Elizabeth into a hardened, stone-faced woman who loses faith in the world she used to dream about living in… and it’s absolutely heart-wrenching to watch unfold.
I won’t completely destroy the ending of Infinite, or the absolute must-play conclusion of Elizabeth’s story in the Burial at Sea DLC’s, but I’ll give away enough to make my point. No matter what we do to try to make Elizabeth okay again, no matter what we do to protect her, to take care of her, to try and let her live a happy, care-free life… it doesn’t work. The ending of Elizabeth’s tale left me completely speechless, and numb inside. Because, like with Ellie, I wanted to protect this daughter figure. I knew it was my job to watch out for her, but in the end, I couldn’t. And it was devastating.
As I said with Last of Us, though, that’s the genius. Anyone who plans to be a parent knows it won’t always (or… you know ever) be easy. At the end of the day, there’s going to be a time when they’re driving off to college, and we’re waving from the front door. The same door we waited for their bus, the same door where we watched them head out for their first date, and the same door we can only hope and pray we’ll be able to greet them at for many decades to come. Watching Elizabeth’s choices beyond my control was extremely tough, but also incredibly real. Because like a real kid, at some point… you have to let them go. You have to let them make a choice, and you did your best to ensure they’ll make the right ones, and be okay. Sometimes they will… and sometimes they won’t.
Video games are a way to throw someone into a story. To make them experience it firsthand. We all know they aren’t real, we all know that when we turn off the TV the characters don’t know it, but stories have a way of getting in your head. Fictional characters can touch us so much because we relate to what they’re enduring, even if it’s just a metaphor for things that have happened or will happen to us, or our loved ones. If there are any kinds of stories I want us at Wyvern to be known for in the years to come, it’s ones that can grip you like these can. Ones that use fiction to speak to your heart. Ones make you recall emotions that you have felt, or will feel, in your real life. So hug your loved ones tighter, and watch out for them… be they Ellie, Elizabeth, or the much, much more important figures in your life that they represent.
–Jonathan Wine, Creative Director, Wyvern Interactive 2017
NOTE: The images used in this blog post are not the property or creations of Wyvern Interactive, LLC. These depict characters from other games and companies who own them in their own right. We do not claim any rights over these characters, companies, or their affiliates.