The mechanics of a game shape our perception of its characters. Samus, of the Metroid series, was perceived as stoic and resourceful, largely because the design of Metroid demanded resourcefulness of its players and had no real way to express personality or character. When Other M came out, an entry in the series that focused more on plot and less on scavenging in a hostile world, many people felt that Samus was out of character – particularly outside of Japan, where supplemental materials like comics had built additional characterization that made the adjustment less jarring.
It’s an inversion of role-playing, where the role gets built around play rather than the play built around the role. The way the character moves, accelerates, jumps – or the way the character interacts with NPCs, rescues or threatens or kills – or the way the character solves puzzles, pushes blocks or finds secret passages – these come to define the character, much the same as the ways the character chooses to dress or speak. Because these mechanics themselves emerge from the personality of the designers, the level designers and gameplay programmers and artists and musicians, the thumbprint is unique and difficult to replicate. Each game has a unique personality, and to a substantial degree the personality of the protagonist is just the personality of the game, anthropomorphized, in a way that no amount of supplemental storytelling materials or promotional tie-ins can mitigate.
It raises an interesting question: How do we express character within games, and is it possible to change the way a game plays while leaving the personality of its protagonist intact? The difficulty this hints at, the intimate tie between the a way a game can be experienced and the protagonist who is expressed, may hint at why so many adapted properties, games-of-movies and games-of-tv-shows and games-of-comics, feel so unsatisfying. And perhaps, as well, this is why it feels so strange when the sequel to a game doesn’t adhere closely to the design of its predecessor: A feeling, when playing, that not only is this game not quite the game you played before, but neither is this character the character that you thought you knew.
It’s not necessarily a problem. With the current trend of rebooting old series, the characterization brought in by new mechanics can be exciting and invigorating in its own right. In the original Prince of Persia games, there’s very little explicit characterization – however, because of the realistic action and animation and the extremely lethal gameplay, the protagonist ends up mostly coming off as a hapless victim to be guided to safety by the player. Conversely, in the ‘Sands of Time’ reboot, the newfound focus on beautiful acrobatic maneuvers and on negating the lethality of mistakes through more forgiving game design dovetailed into the character of a relaxed, affable, and confident prince. However, when the sequel to that game decided to focus more on combat, the prince became less affable and more angry – in each case, the characterization was clearly led by game design decisions, but came to manifest as a character the player could relate to, as the obstacles and achievements of the player were manifested through those the protagonist faced within the story.
Your character is a character long before she begins to look like one – before design, before graphics, before sound or writing, when she’s just a cube or capsule sliding around in a testing environment, even then she begins to take form as a personality, just by the little numeric changes you make to define her motion.