You may have read recently that The Witcher 3 game director Konrad Tomaszkiewicz issued a challenge. Can you name five characters in Skyrim?
Of course his point was that Skyrim, although a great game, tells a poor story with poor characters. Konrad acknowledges that Skyrim has a vast and exciting world to explore, but points out how few people you want to spend time with in that world. And of course he has good reason to criticize Skyrim. It’s the biggest player in the competitive RPG market, and his upcoming game (Witcher 3) is attempting to match Skyrim in the scope and scale of its world, while keeping the strong characterisation and story of the first two games. We’ll need to wait to find out if his team can acheive this ambitious goal.
His question is more interesting than it first seems though. Despite being designed to rile up Skyrim fans (and garner some publicity), it also makes us question just how good characterisation is in the games we play. What will happen when we turn that same spotlight back on CD Projekt’s Witcher games? From those games, I can remember “Witcher-guy” and a red haired girl called Triss (who may have stuck in my mind simply because she got naked, and I am shallow).
I am sure he is partially right and most gamers could name more Witcher characters than Skyrim ones (if they played both games for the same amount of time), but if even his own, self-proclaimed “Well written characters” don’t stick in my mind, are they really any good? Is videogame writing so bad that none of the characters are memorable, beyond their most basic traits? Is Master Chief just a helmet, Marcus Phoenix just a bandana and Dr Freeman just a beard and some glasses? Or is there something about the interactive medium that deprecates the value of characterisation because of the interactive nature of the medium?
That’s a lot of questions, and I don’t have answers. What I can do though is the most basic, qualitative experiment I can think of. I’m going to name as many characters as I can from big budget games that I’ve played and finished. I will do this without the aid of the internet. All I have to rely on is my memory. How well will I do? I have no idea. The games will be suggested by the CDT Facebook group.
My prediction? I will struggle to name five characters for most of the games. Why? Because of poor memory. Because I play a lot of games. Because I don’t listen to the cut scenes and instead make myself a coffee. All possibilities! But its also possible that my (presumed) failure will point to something else. It will tell us that Konrad Tomaszkiewicz is right, and games characters are simply forgettable.
And no games developers, this doesn’t mean that the best way to make your character memorable is to have NPC’s say their name over and over. Well…. actually that would probably work. But you shouldn’t do it! It will make them memorable for the wrong reasons.
Anyway, lets test me! I’m only going to give myself a minute for each game. I encourage you to try this yourself. I am sure you will all do much better than me, but I would ask that you do it without the aid of the Internets. It’s easy to say “I know that!”, but when challenged on the spot, could you really name five characters (without looking anything them up) in one minute for these games? Lets find out!
*Oh, and we are going with game series rather than just specific games. Is that unfair? Does it make game series with more entries more likely to have memorable characters? I guess we just take it into account. For example, if there are sixty five games in the “Badge of Duty: Operations of Warfare Fighter” series and you can’t remember any of the characters, that’s probably a bad thing.
Anthony suggested I start with Halo. I played all the Halo games (except ODST, which I know you all think is the best!). I always thought Halo had a good story with poor storytelling. The sci-fi nonsense is great, but I could never get invested in that story while actually playing the game. Rather, I would read about the story on Wikipedia after I was done with the campaign. Was this because of the poor characters? Maybe. Lets see how many I can get!
Now’s your turn! Try to remember five characters from Halo:
Here’s how I managed:
Wow, I did pretty good! Its worth noting that few of these characters are (strictly speaking) human. Also, several of them feature prominently in Halo 2, the worst game of the series! Still, I did alright. Halo does have some great fiction, but I think I remember these characters from reading that fiction online, rather than in the game.
Far Cry (series)
Oh, good challenge here! Anthony chose this entry, perhaps because I chose Far Cry 3 as the best game of 2012. I didn’t finish Far Cry 1 (and didn’t like it) and I played very little of Far Cry 2, so I’ll have to leverage my Far Cry 3 knowledge to succeed here. Did the best game of 2012 have forgettable characters?
Now’s your turn! Try to remember five characters from Far Cry:
Here’s how I managed:
Bizarrely, I didn’t think of the best character in the game first, even though he was maybe the best character in games in 2012. He was even on the front of the box!
I remembered the main characters name because of the way everyone said it every time they spotted him. The Dr meanwhile was a favourite of mine, even though he wasn’t a main character. Tellingly, I couldn’t remember the name of any of the female characters though, or at least not the American ones. This is no doubt because they are nothing but plot contrivances. I know that there was a whiny girl who acted like the main characters conscience, but she was so blank that I actually black out when I think about her. Far Cry 3 had some of the most memorable characters of 2012, but some of the least memorable too.
Kevin suggests I try to remember characters from the “Indian Jones on a budget” series of Uncharted games. For this particular series I never warmed to the characters. I could never reconcile the protagonists pithy one-liners and “loveable rascal” persona with the fact that he murdered thousands, THOUSANDS of people. Why was Uncharted a shooting game? I never understood that, but I know that many CDT writers love the series and point to the characters as being exemplary.
Now’s your turn! Try to remember five characters from Uncharted:
Here’s how I managed:
I just didn’t get in to the Uncharted games. I didn’t like the main character and his chummy, jovial humour didn’t click with me. The level on the train in the second game was fantastic, but the story never captured me at all. I remember Elena mainly because a good friend of mine described her as a great female role model for lady gamers. I did really bad here. Did you do better?
I feel in this category I should do quite well. Although the stories in GTA games are always good, it’s the characterisation that really makes them worth playing. There’s been so many GTA games too. Surely five character should be easy…
Now’s your turn! Try to remember five characters from GTA:
Here’s how I managed:
Well that was harder than expected! Of course the main character of GTA 4 was easy. It’s one of my favourite games, and it would be pretty hard to remember the Eastern European avatar of Rockstar’s best (in my opinion) GTA. But the rest? Tougher. I wracked my brains trying to think of the name of your cousin in GTA4, but the problem was that every time he called you he would say, “Hey, its your cousin!”. That’s all that stuck in my head.
If I tried for much longer I could remember more I am sure, but in one minute this was the best I could do. I got the second last character because he had a whole expansion pack named after him. And as for the 80’s crooner at the end … well how could you forget that Easy Lover?
Dragon Age 2
Kevin suggests Dragon Age 2. I really hate Dragon Age 2. A glacial plot combined with gameplay that involved visiting the same dungeon thousands of times over made for one of the dullest RPG campaigns I can remember…. and I don’t remember much of it! I sank perhaps sixty hours into Dragon Age 2, always feeling like the end was close. I quit when I realised that I was only two thirds of the way through. There was an ongoing joke here at CDT about how long I would keep playing a game I hated so much. The answer was too long. Lets see how many characters stuck in my head.
I could include Dragon Age Origins here too, but despite finishing that game I can remember NO ONE from the whole story. If you’re inclined, you can name characters from Dragon Age Origins in your attempt too.
Now’s your turn! Try to remember five characters from Dragon Age 1 and 2:
Here’s how I managed:
Well…. shit. Ok, I know. Look, I know! So my first choice is in Dragon Age Origins, and I spelled his name wrong. As is my second choice. My third choice… well that was tactical. I thought I MIGHT remember a character by that name, but it was also a safe bet that in a fantasy game there would be a character with that name at some point. The last two? Yeah, I was just making shit up.
What does this tell us? Well either Dragon Age has terrible characters (possible), or I hated the game so much I blocked out all memory of it (even more possible).
Well, I’m not sure if you learned anything from all of this. I sure did! I learned that:
1. Games characters are often so dull that your brain erases them from your memory as quickly as it can to prevent you falling into a drooling, soporific vegetable.
2. My memory is so bad that I may be close to becoming a drooling, soporific vegetable.
Whether I am developing alzheimers or not, one thing is sure: games characters can be better. Konrad Tomaszkiewicz has a point, and its good that he laid down this challenge. Lets just hope its a challenge he is up to facing.