It’s not easy to draw you into a fantasy world, but good games manage to do just that. How do they manage it?
You’re crouching in the shadows, guards all around you. Nary has a shaft of light crossed your path as you made your way through them. Drops of blood are spilt with caution, and a host of terrible foes have dropped at your feet in utter silence.
Or have they?
This is the absolute beauty of video games, they allow us to perform incredible feats with nothing more than a twitch of our hands. And therein is the intelligence of design. We, the people, feel as if we have sailed through impossible cities, and seen great events transpiring, because of one simple illusion of identification. The identification of ourselves with the protagonists of these stupefying stories; this is the core illusion which heightens our enjoyment in every medium of art and storytelling, be it books, movies, or music.
Therefore, it’s only true that this shall hold for video games as well. And this well-understood truth has been the subject of development since the beginning of video games. That is what we shall investigate, the contrivances video games have used to help us identify with the protagonists.
It’s very well that in the fashion of all stories, we must begin at the beginning. The first game to truly inspire and ignite the minds of people was Pong. A simple game, but one with a very steep sense of personal involvement. It was essentially a sport. And that’s what make games like it so endlessly playable. However, there was no visually independent protagonist.
The next step lay with Space Invaders and Pac-Man. These games had a clear, and visually independent (from the player) protagonist. These games used our sense of personal achievement in the form of high scores to keep us hooked and draw us in. Who knew the amount of respect three letters and a host of numbers could bring? (And the accompanying accusations of cheating as well, which are actually more gratifying than annoying.)
With Mario, came the next sensation in gaming. Here, there was a protagonist who was very much his own plumber. Yet, most people found themselves identifying with this moustachioed man. His determined quest and worthy goal was something that echoed the deep-set nobility that all mankind aspires to. With only two aspects of personality, a dogged determination, and a fanatical affinity for his princess, Mario managed to plumb the depths of our hearts.
Heroes and villains
Two categories emerge in stories with well-defined characters, one encompassing all the characters who are essentially heroes and hence, what we aspire to and identify with. The second is slightly more interesting — the anti-hero. The anti-hero is, funnily enough, easier to relate to than the archetypical heroes. Perhaps it’s because they mirror us in that they are flawed and thus, more human.
Things got very interesting once some bright souls decided to start adapting RPGs from our tables to our screens. Even in the most basic of 2D sprites, if we are involved in the creation of a character, in the course of time, we eventually identify ourselves completely with it. And here again, we could influence the fixed-protagonist games. By employing multiple possible gameplay styles (stealth vs. action) or by allowing us to customise our characters, we create a character that is unique to us and identify ourselves with them even more.
This trend can also be seen in games such as StarCraft, Age of Empires, or even Diablo and its numerous clones. Here, the choices are slightly different, but the end result is the same. StarCraft allows us to choose from a selection of races, MOBAs let you choose from a class of heroes, all this adds up when considering immersion. Interestingly, this same phenomenon occurs in Pokémon, where the protagonist is side-lined, and we identify ourselves with the team that we build. The fact that the protagonist is basically unidentifiable helps us believe that we are them.
All of the above contrivances culminate in the games we see around us today. Consider games such as Fallout or The Elder Scrolls, games that allow us to model our characters after our mental self-pictures. (Don’t deny it. We all know the reason you thought about joining the gym after that marathon Skyrim session. In all fairness the Nord are quite heavily muscled)
Meet the world
Perhaps the ultimate example of this phenomenon lies in the absolute success of multiplayer gaming. By it’s very nature, multiplayer games work on differentiating each player character from another as far as possible. They combine the ability to choose the physical features of a character as well as the gameplay style, boosting the illusion of identification. PvP parts of these games of course accentuate the individuality of each player character and you’ll always pick one that suits your play style.
It’s the purpose of gaming to take the player on a journey. And after all, our travels through innumerable lands ranging from the Mushroom Kingdom, to Tamriel, to Hyrule, and to galaxies far far away, I would believe that games have succeeded and will continue to succeed. Time and time again.