Sunday, March 18, 2012

Character Agency

One of the most basic and fundamental aspects of writing a character is making them feel like a person, and not simply a collection of traits. The most direct way to accomplish this is to get into their mindset and have them make decisions that make sense for their personalities. Their values, ego, and understanding of the world and its rules should all come together to form a coherent decision-making process, and the various aspects of their character should reflect that process. Characters should possess a sense of agency and ego, which is to say that they should be making decisions "themselves" based on their own desires and ideas. This concept forms the foundation of my objections to artificial character designs and to overly-orchestrated events. Now I'm going to direct it towards character writing and actions as part of constructing a logical world - to create a setting where things make sense, rather than being the most convenient or appealing for the audience.

Childrens' brains respond to pain in others.
We, the audience, connect with characters based on things like empathy, sympathy, and pathos. We respond to their pain and agony as well as their happiness and success. When a work has successfully engaged us, we laud the heroic and gregarious, despise the wretched and wicked, cheer victories and mourn defeats. The things that we use to judge and interact with people in real life are used by fiction writers to evoke those strong emotions and thus create a connection or bond between the audience and the work. The most well-written characters have depth and logic to them, allowing us to understand their perspective even if we disagree with it. The complex web of cause-and-effect  helps us, the audience, stop thinking of them as "characters" and start thinking of them as "people". To truly connect with them, to evoke that empathy, we need to be able to let ourselves fall into the intentional delusion that these are real people who are worthy of an emotional response, and to make that happen characters need to behave, act, and display emotions like real people do.

The problem with a poorly written character is that the reasons we like characters are based on those emotional responses, which rely on the suspension of disbelief with regards to them being not real. The value of those emotional responses comes from our social instincts and mechanisms. Praise feels good in real life not just because you've received praise, but because someone has praised you. It adds to your self-worth because your character and your life have been supported by someone else, and while not everyone cares about that, it's a pretty general part of societal interaction. The idea of other people having a consciousness of their own is central to things like empathy; it feels good to help someone because there is "someone" to help. You can't just go through the motions and expect the same reaction when you haven't actually done anything, can you?

Part of the reason that this is accepted is because of a willing, even forced, suspension of disbelief. People want the outcome of a shallow, sycophantic relationship because it feels good even though it doesn't actually mean anything. "Romance" in video games is nothing like romance in real life because you're almost always choosing 1 of 3 preset answers and you know one of them is the right one. There's no real potential for failure or even incompatibility because they have to make it easy for the player to "win" the "game" of romantic dialogue. Yet some people enjoy them anyways because it's "easier". There's no fear of rejection or potential loss of self-esteem; if a character is marked as being a romance option, there is a guaranteed way to make him or her fall in love with you, and all you have to do is find the right things to say to make it happen. In real life, this would be an abhorrent mindset to propagate because it reduces other human beings into, essentially, "goals" to achieve. Oh wait, that's already a thing and it is totally awful. The idea of romance being "choose the right options and get guaranteed results" is so ridiculous that its appeal is questionable at best and offensive at worst. Game romances try to mask their shallowness with prose, but it's obvious that the characters are all so easy to impress that their only useful purpose as part of a narrative is to indulge and tittilate  the player.

While it's easy to pick on romances for being cliche and hackneyed and over-simplified, the truth is that there's a lot of bad characters out there who basically give their protagonists a free pass for everything they do. This, too, is part of indulgence: why would the player hang out with anyone but yes-men who make them feel good about anything? Why would they brook discontent or disagreement when they could far more easily find characters who are willing to tell them how great they are, how smart they are, how capable they are, how important they are, etc.? Sometimes it's just out of programming convenience, but fantasies are fantasies, after all - you can't honestly say that most of these characters aren't just there to make the player feel good with empty praise.

What I'd like to do with this article is examine the ways in which characters are written to either be subservient or independent - to kowtow to the player-character, or to express their own egos and their own agency. I'm also going to look at why the former is generally bad for a work and the latter is generally good.

Alyx Vance: "Everything You Do Is Right"
The video blog Errant Signal did a great job with its Half-Life 2 analysis in showing how Alyx Vance, largely lauded as being a progressive female character for a video game, has basically no real sense of agency or character on her own. She's there to support the player, and that's almost her entire role. Yes, she has little bits of character development here and there, but compared to what she should be given her circumstances, she's basically an empty husk. Her decisions never waver, her resolve never sways, her values and ego never get in the way of "do what Gordon says". She is not a person, she is a follower. She exists to tell the player character how great he is, to riff off him, and to do everything he says. The little things they changed - her visual design, her personality - don't affect the overall issue that Alyx Vance exists as an empty puppet to laud the player without regard for their actions or their capabilities.

Half the problem with the setup is that Gordon is a silent protagonist. This is a concept that works well in Half-Life's scenario, where "survival" is the only goal and your actions speak louder than your words. There's no assumptions made about your character or your values; even the scientists who ask you to go to Xen acknowledge that you have no reason to do this except securing your own safety. The scenario becomes an utterly embarrassing one in HL2 where everyone's talking at Gordon, making assumptions about his personality, and responding to him like he's an actual person - and he doesn't say anything back. Despite the praise for his at-the-time unorthodox background, Gordon is a non-character; in the initial release of HL1, it was pretty difficult to even find out what he looked like (later releases put him right on the cover). Yet despite this, Alyx has to fall in love with him, because that's what the developers think (or know) the player wants to happen. How can this be the product of believable decision-making? How can this ostensibly empowered female character fall in love with a person based on nothing more than "he kills a bunch of combine" and have that be okay? She doesn't act like a person any more than a cliche two-dimensional love interest does; she's there to support Gordon. She has no agency, or at least no justifiable/explainable agency.

The funny thing about Alyx is that she's sort of treated as this icon of feminist empowerment - she's not "slutty" or "loose" or whatever other terms people use when they want to express disgust at scantily-clad or libidinous women. She's spunky, tomboyish, modestly-dressed and modestly-endowed. However, as I've made clear in the past, the actual problem with sexist characters isn't what they are, it's why they are. Sexy female characters aren't bad because they're "unrealistic", they're bad because the reason they're sexy is because the author and audience want to objectify them (unless you're trying to say that women who dress sexily are evil, in which case you're pretty awful yourself). The reasoning behind Alyx's design is easily identified as "player gratification", which is the same reason that people hate sexy, sycophantic sidekicks to begin with. People hate those types of characters because they (and by extension, other women) are painted as only existing to praise and support a man, without any ego or values of their own. These characters don't feel or act like people, which becomes reprehensible when you connect it to the idea that that's what women should be, or even are.

Yet Alyx changes a few minor details, and suddenly she's okay, even praiseworthy. The core formula remains intact, but instead of a busty airhead, it's a smart, cute, attainable young woman who dresses nicely and makes awkwardly adorable little comments like "zombine lol'. It appeals to a different audience by assuaging their guilt about whether or not such a character is sexist: "no, it's okay, even though she praises everything you do she doesn't dress like a whore!" The dressing is different, but the concept is the same. I could even draw a comparison to Gordon's status as a character - he's a supposed scientist who does everything that standard cliche space marines do and never has to do anything related to science, but people love him because he's "so different" than the generic military protagonist. The standards are so low for new content that he gets away with it, even though you could put a marine in his place and have the game remain exactly the same.

And they did.

Fenris: "I Don't Mind If You Represent Everything That I Hate"
Here's another solid example of a character who feels less like a person and more like a thrall: Dragon Age 2's Fenris. DA2 didn't have deep characters, but it had reliable characters (in terms of adhering to their single gimmick trait). Fenris is an elf who hates mages. That's it, that's his character, that's everything important about him and his decision-making process. Whenever he opens his mouth he's reminding you that he hates mages. When it's time for the player to make a choice, Fenris pipes up to remind you that he hates mages, and he supports a course of action that would see mages dead. His entire character and story are based around him hating mages, just hating them so much that his otherwise generic design is essentially held together by that single aspect of his personality.

You know who else you can have in your party? Mages. You can even have a blood mage in your party, who other mages think are too dangerous to be around. You can BE a mage yourself. Bizarrely, Fenris doesn't care about those mages. Oh, sure, he'll whine a bit, but a character who's meant to be a dangerous mage-hating vigilante seems content to throw out sarcastic quips and bellyache. Though that's not totally fair because there is a scene at the end where Fenris can turn on you if your trust with him isn't high enough - but that's one scene. That's one whole scene in this entire game where he'll be like "Hey wait, I hate mages, and you're siding with the mages! I should probably murder you to death instead of tolerating our totally opposed agendas."

It's never really made clear why he's willing to put his mage-killing death spree on hold for the player-character. Yeah, the PC vaguely helps him, but that's not really enough to justify what's basically servitude. I mean, do you see what's happening here? Fenris is recognizing his role as "Not The PC". He's saying "well, I have my own agenda, but you're the PC, and thus (for no reason) you're the boss." He doesn't owe a blood-debt to Hawke, he doesn't have some implicit reason to trust Hawke, and he doesn't really have any justification for not pursuing his own agenda. Hawke's just a guy or gal who did a job for him and now they're palling around, and that's enough for this blood-crazed mage-hating murderer to be like "eh maybe I don't feel like murdering mages today".

Contrast this with games that acknowledge that the PC is basically "just a regular person" and in which party members have their own agendas. These characters possess agency and opinions beyond "worship player-character, kill all their enemies", and they join up with you because they think you'll help advance their cause or their agenda. When the player is obviously taking actions that are counter-productive to what they want to accomplish, they do something about it. Here's some examples:

In Baldur's Gate, Dynaheir and Edwin were diametrically opposed, and would attack each other unless you specifically arranged a scenario in which it was too difficult for them to do so. Their hatred of each other was almost always more important than their trust for you, because they knew each other better than they knew you. Why would you not try to kill your mortal enemy just because some guy you met half an hour ago was like "hold on I think we should all be friends"? Similar setups occur with Viconia & Keldorn in BG2 and with Alistair and Loghain in Dragon Age: Origins. They're so unwilling to tolerate each other that they do the logical thing and either leave or attack.

In Fallout: New Vegas, Boone will not support or accept the Legion, ever. If you support the Legion, or act against the NCR, he will leave, or he will attack you. Since his defining backstory-related character traits are his hatred of the Legion for taking away his wife and unborn child, this makes perfect sense for him. He's willing to trust your judgment with certain other affairs that he's less invested in, but his hatred of the Legion is so important to him that the idea of him being okay with helping them just doesn't make sense - so it's not allowed in the game. FO3 had similar concepts, but it was based around the karma system and not at all about factional loyalty (which didn't really exist in FO3).

In Jagged Alliance 2, every mercenary had characters that they liked and disliked. While they were all fairly professional about it (after all, it's their jobs), they still obviously had their differences with their fellow soldiers. If you treated mercenaries poorly (getting a lot of them killed and not recovering their bodies), mercenaries would abandon you or refuse to work for you. In Jagged Alliance - Back In Action, relationship issues were escalated to outright refusal to work with hated characters.

Now, obviously, even these characters are kind of limited. Programming and dialogue restrictions mean that they're not totally perfect or flawless, but the idea of them actually making decisions based on their own values first and protagonist-centric loyalty second (if at all) is simultaneously incredibly basic and yet at the same time impressive for video-game writing. Something that I brought up during my analysis of Final Fantasy XI was the idea that the different races in the game's setting banded together into two distinct groups because of shared principles, yet they had internal conflict and strife that helped to separate them and maintain that they were their own sovereign entities. Character conflicts do the same thing: they remind you that this is a person who has voluntarily agreed to accompany you, not a servant or a slave or a thrall.

Binary Domain: Justifying Leadership & Collaboration
When I picked up Sega's third-person-shooter Binary Domain, one of the first things I noticed was the concept of "trust levels". You're playing an American operative who's part of a multi-national strike force aiming to arrest a Japanese roboticist who represents a threat to the world at large. It's stated early and often that the different groups involved have different stakes and different goals, and your relationship with the other characters starts off somewhat abrasive. While you're the de-facto leader (because you're the PC, of course), other characters are quick to reassert their own authority and decision-making, and constantly trying to establish dominance is likely to displease or anger them, which leads to them being less willing to follow your decisions. Instead, you have to focus on your shared goal, try to bond with them as people, and generally impress them with sound strategic thinking in order to get them to trust you enough to take your suggestions and accept you as a leader. While this doesn't pan out as much as it feels like it ought to, there are parts in the game where characters will do things differently depending on whether or not you've proven yourself to be a trustworthy individual, or even just proven to be a good friend.

What this does for me, as a player, is remind me that these characters are meant to be people. They're not mindless subordinates who'll do whatever I say, they're supposed to be characters with their own values, agendas, and most importantly their own egos. They aren't just going to accept everything I say as the gospel and act on it immediately, they're going to have their own priorities and viewpoints about what they do. If I build up their trust, that affects their judgment: "What do I think is best" versus "Well, this guy has proven that he's intelligent and capable, maybe I should listen to him". They weigh their options and, if you've  proven yourself, they decide that you're the best. It's not a pre-made statement, and it's not totally ironclad either - if you start acting like a jerk, making mistakes, and shooting them in the back, their opinions will drop back down.

A crucial part of this is that Binary Domain's story is based a shared goal: every operative wants to accomplish the mission for the safety of the world (or their own nation, at least). Issues of ego or trust come from individual issues, but their goal is ultimately the same even if they disagree in their methods and perspectives. The game has provided a target for you to work towards together. Mass Effect 2 was the same way - you were recruiting the best of the best to take down the Collectors, and your shared motivation was "survival as a race" even though the mission in question was most likely suicide. In games like Baldur's Gate, where you're really on your own personal quest and nobody else has a reason to care about it, there has to be some indication that your party members recognize this. They have their own reasons to help you, but it's because you're a friend or an employer, not necessarily because they care about what you're doing.

Reminder: that's my brother plotting to kill my baby daughter.
Crusader Kings 2: A Wrench In The Works
So far I've talked about agency from a storytelling perspective, with a focus on making characters who feel like real people, who can be empathized with, etc. But what about from a gameplay perspective? What about the concept that managing people with their own desires makes for a much more complex game than one in which everyone absolutely obeys every order you give?

One of the things I loved about Crusader Kings 2 in comparison to many other games is that every vassal has their own opinion of you and of each other. There's very little absolute obedience: your authority as a ruler is held in place by your legal bindings and by your relationship with the people you rule over. If your vassals hate you enough, they'll rebel - and you draw most of your troops from their lands, so for each one that rebels your ability to fight them is reduced. Different politics, cultures, and goals all come into play to form a network of interpersonal relationships, from the simplest personality traits ("I'm brave, and I despise you for being a coward") to the loftiest ambitions ("I could be next in line for the throne, but you're in my way"). In some cases, past friendship will be enough to keep things smooth even when troubles arise; in others, a lord will decide that his own ambitions are too important to let your relationship stand in the way. There are no guarantees that people will behave one way or another, only influences.

What I love about this concept is that it makes the game feel more alive. It's not just me and a few other computer players, it's a world full of people each exerting their own political force upon the world. Every character's actions change the game, and while many characters' actions are going to be inconsequential in the long run, their tiny ripples can still have effects much later on. Diplomacy and social interaction turn from a largely irrelevant sideshow, providing entertaining diversion from the main game, to an actual tangible part of the game mechanics. Whether you attempt to make everyone happy, accomplish a specific goal, or try to roleplay your character is going to have an effect on the game world and on your overall success.

Let's set up a hypothetical game concept. You're playing as a character leading a party of adventurers on a quest. Each character has their own reason for being on the quest; you're the de-facto leader, but by no means are you guaranteed to hold that spot. Every action you take on this quest, and every decision you make, is going to have ramifications in the eyes of your companions. Their differing priorities will guarantee that you can't make them all happy all of the time, and in addition your actions will have effects on the world.  Do you burn down a village just to ensure that there are no witnesses to an event? Do you go out of your way to rescue a convoy even though it could compromise your mission? Do you abandon a party member to ensure the success of the operation? Even if a party member seems to be on your side, can you really trust them? Suddenly what you do in gameplay affects the narrative, and at the same time the choices you make as part of the narrative make the game easier or harder.

This concept requires a necessary level of difficulty, as well, because there need to be actual stakes. Games like Mass Effect seem afraid to have "wrong choices": you can just shoot your way past any enemy because nobody wants the game to stop after 30+ hours because they messed up. In order to make the gameplay and narrative connect, the stakes need to be equal in both. There's no point making a "hard decision" when you can come out of either one just as easily - failure needs to be a very real possibility to turn decision-making from an abstract "pick your movie" concept to an actual element of gameplay.

With Crusader Kings 2, that was part of the game. A rebellion at the wrong time could totally lose the game for you - your weakness would be exploited by your neighbors if you had bad relations with them, and your country would be forcibly taken from you through invasion. Every decision mattered because every one could be a game-loser. With linear or semi-linear narratives, the game has an end-point, and you (as the player) are almost financially obliged to reach it if you want to: I paid the money, I deserve to see all the movies. CK2, on the other hand, is "see how far you can get": each playthrough of the game is a short, self-contained story, and you're not guaranteed to succeed by any means. The always-present option of total failure tempers and influences your decisions because now those decisions can actually mean something.

This is the same thing I've said a thousand times before: write characters like they're people. Make them take actions that people would take, make them dress like people would dress, make them respond like people would respond. "People" covers such a wide and broad spectrum of possibilities that it's a cheap, shallow excuse to say that the results of those decisions are "boring" or "uninteresting". People are great. Real life, as it turns out, is full of people. People are interesting to interact with, and that interaction produces all sorts of emotions - positive and negative. The unreliability of that interaction is what makes it interesting, and you know that when you've legitimately earned someone's respect, that's something to be proud of.

There's no point talking to a doll. Dolls aren't people. If you pull a doll's string and the doll says you're great, that doesn't mean anything. Of course, even a well-written fictional character is still a "doll" in some respect, but there's a huge difference between a believable character offering a personality-justified opinion in response to your actions and a barely-developed character praising you for some generic action that you had to take anyways. The more like a "person" a character is, the more legitimate their words should feel.


  1. I clicked on this b/c I saw fMRI images in my google reader.

    1. I was looking for a way to illustrate empathy response to images of pain. One pic I found distinguished different reactions based on real photos versus cartoon images, which would have been great for my "blood, gore, and tone" article, but oh well.

  2. I like Alyx, though there were times when I was wondering if she was ever going to say anything negative.

    Sometimes I feel "judging" characters are more personable than actual teammates. I get more upset at the characters in Rhythm Heaven because, more often than not, you're evaluated as "Just OK" at the end of each stage. You can miss a single note in a song and still be evaluated as "Just OK." I think it makes it that much sweeter when your flawless victory comes around and you get the "Great!" message.

    1. A lot of people like Alyx. That's why I wrote this: because those people like Alyx for the exact reason that the designers wanted them to. She's a sycophant who has enough dressing-up to be acceptable. If you gave her a pair of huge tits everyone would be like "this character is fucking bullshit". That's honestly all it would take.

    2. also rhythm heaven is full of sycophant characters like that terrible sexist reporter who's always like WOAH YOU GO BIG GUY what is this the 1950s

      Actually wait no, even though I was being sarcastic the reporter will make little unhappy faces if you fuck up so she's unironically more critical of the wrestler than Alyx Vance is of Gordon.

  3. There's nothing that makes me feel like I have less character agency than only being able to choose between Good and Evil (occasionally with greedy) as my options for literally every choice in the game.

    1. And everyone treats you the same apart from a single line after you make the choice. Really "fleshes out" the experience imo.

  4. 'Her decisions never waver, her resolve never sways, her values and ego never get in the way of "do what Gordon says". She is not a person, she is a follower.'

    I recently re-played HL2 and, because Gordon is a silent protagonist, Alyx came across as the person telling Gordon what to do. The entire game, Gordon is told what to do and where to go.

  5. Some nice stuff in your article I really feel speechless, because event staffing is quit pretty article. Beside this it is also a long after reading lasting article. Thanks for giving me such type of useful information..


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