Thursday, April 20, 2006

A Screen Away

Corvus asked us about friendship and games. Games that we have made friends around, and games that we have made friends in. So I started to think about games where I've formed friendships with the characters. I stopped trying to think along these lines a couple of days ago when I realised that I wasn't getting anywhere. I couldn't think of a single game. Which I thought was odd.

One of my favourite genres is the Adventure Game, hearkening back all the way to the good old point-and-click heyday when LucasArts and Sierra walked the land as gods. These games have produced some of the best narrative experiences in gaming to date. They are stories (however one dimensional), and all stories have well developed characters. So I went through my list of favourite adventure games, looking for a friend.

But the more I thought about the games, the more I realized that the NPCs in these games were not really my friends. They had relationships in the game world, but none of these were with me. They existed between the characters regardless of my control. I could walk and talk as Manuel Calavera, but Glottis was not my friend – he was Manny's. The budding romance between George and Nico was theirs, not mine. It is Kate Walker who forms the odd attachment to Oscar, not me. The characters are the ones interacting and, despite my nominal control over the narrative lead, I'm not involved.

These games didn't provide the answer I was looking for. Perhaps it's because they provide too fixed of a character as an avatar. While I can suspend disbelief enough to follow the story the game weaves, and enjoy it, it stops at actually believing that I am the character. Adventure games failed to provide the sort of in-game friendship that I was searching for. I tried a different genre.

I began to look at CRPGs for characters that stood out as friends. With the depth of story, and the ability to create and define my own character, there was sure to be a match. But again I fell short. In some CRPGs, you are given an avatar as fixed and story driven as any adventure game. Think of any recent Final Fantasy. Even in Bioware's spectrum of CRPGs there was not one NPC I could call my friend. I knew their moods, trusted their abilities, and even learned their stories. But they never knew me, only my in-game face. The lovable rogue Tomi Undergallows became a close companion to Grastin Willowbark, not Duncan Munro. No matter the quality of the dialog tree, it was never my words that reached to them.

I've never befriended an in-game character. I think it is because I've never been the one to talk to them. I'm always going through an intermediary. I select what to say, or where to go, or what to do. I'm in control, but only to a point. Somewhere along the line the selections I make are translated into words I would not say, or things I would not do. They may be close, but they are not quite mine.

Friendships are made up of shared history and common connections. You get to know someone, and as you do you begin to understand them and relate to them. And they get to know you too. I've met a lot of characters in games, learned their pasts, and gotten to know them quite well. But their inability to reciprocate produces a barrier to real friendship. Too often I'll look at the dialog options given and simply select the one that will produce the result I want, to the best effect. I'm clinical and calculating in a way I would never be to someone close to me, because I know that the character on the other side of the screen will never see me anyway.

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