Limited, or even nonexistent, character development was once the norm for video game protagonists. Iconic characters could often have the full range of their identities summarized in three words or less. Red, plumber, mustache. Blue, rodent, fast. Doomed space marine. Hell, in the latter case the character did not even have a name. His profession was his name and his dilemma (trapped on a lunar base overrun with demons) was his identity. There was little more to know about the character, and what we did learn was presented through a few sentences of scrolling text between acts.
This simplistic approach to character development is beginning to seem quaint. Contemporary titles are placing an increasing amount of focus on presenting thoroughly fleshed out, complicated player characters. A particularly ambitious example is Modern Warfare 2, which contains not one, but five player characters and devotes significant time to adding depth and detail to each of them. In this atmosphere, the undeveloped protagonists of past generations may seem to have much in common with blurry sprites and midi music. It may seem like a compromise with technology that, while retaining some nostalgic value, is largely irrelevant in modern games. After all, in games that can support elaborate cinema scenes and hours of recorded dialogue, why would you want a nearly faceless or voiceless protagonist like the Doom marine?
There are a few reasons, actually. These reasons are rooted in the fundamental differences between video games and other forms of artistic entertainment, like books and movies. It’s certainly true that in literature or film your ability to relate to a protagonist is generally directed related to how well developed the character is. This is exactly because the most we can ever hope to do is relate. We have no control over that character’s choices or destiny. We can only hope to understand the character, not to change them. With this in mind, a wise author or director will include details and nuances that will encourage the audience to empathize with a character, and to understand why they act how they do.
But video games are different. The audience does have control over the character. They do make choices, and—if the game is not totally linear—they can hope to influence their destiny. The character is not so much an individual as a proxy for the player. And this is where considerable focus on character development can become problematic. A development team is pursuit of a well rounded character may opt for a more linear story, pursuing character clarity and depth over player choice. The much maligned quick time event may be the ultimate example of a design strategy that places cinematic drama over flexible gameplay, but other more subtle omissions, such as removing options that seem “out of character” or replacing open game elements with sequential cinematics, are also possible outcomes.
Counter-intuitive as it may sound, development may also make player characters less relatable. Each detail and decision that is forced on a player outside of their control erodes that player’s ability to view the character as a proxy for themselves, potentially alienating them from the character. The player may still be able to sympathize with the character, but they may not be able to imagine that they are the character. And the latter, not the former, is electronic gaming’s ultimate goal. This is why having a wealth of options for character choice and creation (as in most Western RPGs) or having a character be a tabula rasa, like the Doom marine, or an everyman in an extraordinary situation, like Gordon Freeman or Mario, might actually be better than a protagonist with considerable dialogue and backstory. (Of course, there is a very real downside to having an everyman character in an increasingly diverse gaming community where such a character may be more stereotype than reflection, but that’s a topic for a different article.)
Of course, there is also the sad fact that attempted back stories and complex personalities are often bungled, leaving us with shrill ethnic caricatures and hedgehog-human make-out sessions. But even in a hypothetical world where all game scripts are Nobel caliber, I’m not convinced that the undeveloped protagonist would be obsolete. The very real advantages of being both more flexible and relatable cannot (and should not) be overlooked in favor of drama. Doomguy may not have had much to say outside of a few rough grunts, but those grunts sure felt real. (And they were certainly superior to an endlessly repeated cycle of regurgitated phrases.) That reality came, because, after hours of guiding him through claustrophobic corridors and seeing the world exclusively through his eyes, you were grunting at every hit too. The player and the character became inseparable. They were developing together, and that is the variety of character development that game designers should value.