It is difficult for games to create truly memorable characters. Because the characters who populate our worlds can behave in many different ways, based on the design of the game and the role they play within it, it’s an awkward challenge to establish that character as strongly as if their actions were set in stone, or in text, or in pigment, for eternity– immortal.
I suppose this might not be true of all games, but bear with me here.
Part of this issue is because, as I’ve noted elsewhere, we rarely actually pursue the expressive power of artificial intelligence. This is becoming a bit less the case as time goes on and as games like Dwarf Fortress begin to emerge and really play with our ideas of how deep a simulation can go, but for the overwhelming majority of game AIs are usually simple problem solving engines rather than expressive entities. That said, even if we really get into the simulation aspect, even if we establish a set of desires and of fears, a tendency towards anger or depression, a social calendar, a sleep cycle, a hunger index, however we establish the basic parameters of the personality and behavior, there’s still a pretty big gap between that and a character.
It’s the little habits that make a character come alive. The nervous tics, the customary facial expressions, the characteristic gait– these are not easy to generate systematically, and as far as I know no one has really tried. The thing is, making these quirks feel real and not affected in fictional characters is difficult even for seasoned writers, and even more so for the actors who portray the characters– I do not expect this to be a problem that machines can solve any time soon.
And yet, we can surmise a contact point between these two aspects, the system of wants and needs and fears and tendencies that could be used to determine larger behavior alongside the array of habits and quirks that color a person’s behavior and make them identifiably themselves. Could we use the latter to skin the former, and by so doing create a cast of ‘actors’ which could behave in a wide range of scenarios?
An interesting if fairly primitive test case might be found in the Left 4 Dead games. The behavior of the characters is controlled by either a player or an AI, and can be fairly arbitrary. However, on top of this is laid a bunch of pre-recorded voice lines which establish the characters, their general behavior and outlook on life, and how they regard each other. These play based on the action that’s going on at the moment– and, while it’s certainly easy to break the illusion and make the characters behave ridiculously, within the confines of normal gameplay the lines the characters say usually fit in fairly well, and the overall experience is made far more memorable than if it was a party of mute badasses.
So, if we were then to take this a step further and use these motion captured 3d models and pre-recorded voice lines to skin an AI with overarching desires, fears, etcetera, I think we might be surprised at the kinds of compelling stories which emerge– even if they don’t quite match up, perhaps especially when they don’t quite match up. If a character is established as a bold devil-may-care risk taker through her voice lines, would it not be an interesting bit of tension if she actually tended towards cowardice in a fight? Or perhaps she’d be fine in a fight, but fire freaks her out and she always runs from it? In a more traditional narrative it would be imperative to justify this behavior somehow, but if the game doesn’t have any allowance for that kind of in-depth exploration of character then it’s likely that players will begin to craft their own hypotheses for these characters’ behavior…
Which is fine. Mysteries are more powerful than the facts behind them, aren’t they? There may have to be some adjustment as people learn to stop expecting answers to every mystery (a lesson I’d imagine that, after the implosion of countless ad-hoc scripted television dramas, people should be receptive to), but with the end result that we’d be approaching compelling, and potentially ‘immortal’, characters which still behave with free agency within a game space.
But we still wouldn’t be there.
You see, each character in a story has a purpose. A story is an idea, often a very complex idea, and each character within it is some facet of this idea. This role for the character provides an iron backbone, a point of reference, and it is between these points and braces that the heart of the story is suspended.
I suppose this might not be true of all stories, but bear with me here.
This is the part that is difficult to synthesize by any methodology. When your characters form the bones of your story, you can’t just place them arbitrarily, or let them move as they will. The more a character continues to exist and act, the less strongly they can exist as an icon, the less strongly they can serve as the back bone of a story. This is why, if they last for too long, television series tend to end up missing their own point: A character’s role within a story can only be riffed upon for so long before she begins to stray, and when you dislocate a character from her role your message might become twisted, and the idea which drove you to create the piece in the first place might come out as something malformed and monstrous.
It’s no single one of these three things that makes a character live forever in our minds, but all three together; their wants, fears, and ambitions string parallel to our own and give us a touch of their yearning; their tics, quirks, and tastes make them seem real, give them weight in a world made of words; their destiny, their tragedy, make them part of something greater than themselves, and gives them an aspect of the divine.
What makes these characters immortal is that they do not change. What makes these characters immortal is that they are frozen in stone. What makes these characters immortal is that they are dead and memorialized–
–something which our game characters can never completely be, for as long as someone is able to start our games anew and observe this character once more, making new choices for new reasons.
Perhaps we should aim for ‘eternally mortal’ instead?