I’ve been playing The Witcher on Steam. (I know, I just gave away my copy of The Witcher 2 and I used to rant about how stupid PC gaming is. I’m weird.) It’s a fine game, and it’s got me thinking about playing characters whose backstories are pre-ordained.
My favorite RPGs are Dragon Age: Origins, Fallout 3 + NV, and of course Skyrim. In all of these, the player can determine her/his character’s backstory. (We can do this a bit with Mass Effect, but the constraints are pretty limited.) It’s a blank slate, so we can be whatever we want to be.
We also get to choose — in those games and many others — what our character looks like. This may seem like a minor aesthetic detail, but it’s actually quite significant. When we project a life into a body and select that body’s physical manifestation, the corporeal elements reflect vividly the life s/he has lived.
You Have My Permission To Exist
Therefore it’s a bit odd to play a character like Geralt of Rivia who — amnesia and minor early-game options notwithstanding — has a prepackaged life history to which the player must adapt. We have to enter into another person’s life and take on all of her/his memories, experiences, and perspectives.
This is not unheard of, naturally. When we watch a movie or read a novel, we experience the story through a character’s eyes, usually learning about her/his backstory along the way. (Lightning birthmark, moisture farmer, chillin’ in the Shire, what have you.) We’re willing to go along for the ride, so long as the protagonist is an everyman or everywoman, taking us into an accessible vessel.
But this is one of those times when all the bleating about “But games are different because we are the main character” actually rings true. I am not a moisture farmer, and I have no desire to be. If I’m going to save the galaxy, I want to do it from the POV of a wise Jedi educator who is interrupted from his padawan-training duties to trek out across the cosmos. I want an origin that’s similar to my own. (Or at least I want some say in which twists and turns the person took to reach the starting line.)
How Do We Be Others?
Stepping into the shoes of a person who is handed off from someone/somewhere else is a daunting proposition. We’re uncomfortable at first: How should this person relate to the rest of the world? Is s/he mean or nice? And why?
Sometimes we’re given some urging — John Marston is trying to atone for his past and live right to save his family in Red Dead Redemption, so he’s trying to get onto the straight and narrow. Other times the person’s path has led to a momentous event that leaves the door totally open for either mischief or heroism (I’m thinking about Cole from Infamous).
My preference leans toward a blank-slate character like the ones I can sculpt in Bethesda’s recent titles. I like having total control over where my person comes from and why s/he is the way s/he is. At the same time, I’m intrigued by the necessary challenge of sublimating that impulse (and the standard set of individuals I tend to call forth when I have access to the fresh paper) and taking the reins of a horse I didn’t break.
What do you think? Which prescribed character did you most easily become? Or had the most fun playing as? And why?