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I Don't Need a Hero - It's time we did something new with computer game characters
In my review of Sleeping Dogs, I complain that the game's version of Hong Kong was singularly geared towards nourishing the player. Missions and sub-missions are laid out on the map as colourful beacons; food stalls that provide stat boosts are everywhere; pedestrians make remarks about your appearance and your stature.
The player is the centre of the game's universe; inexplicable ramps and street brawls facilitate a constantly fun experience and non-player characters (NPCs) chatter about your actions.
It creates a claustrophobic, lifeless game-scape. Blatantly player-orientated scenarios - like flashing signs telling you which direction to turn and empty clothes shops where you are the only customer - are not marks of a believable city.
It leaves an impression that the player and his goals are mapped out first; topography, atmosphere and other characters come second to the hero's trajectory.
And so it goes in most games, and films. A single figure which the audience relates to (passively, in the case of films or vicariously, via control-pads, in the case of games) is the centre point of the literature at large. Batman, Shepard from Mass Effect; the Courier in Fallout: New Vegas; men; and sometimes women like these are orbited by the rest of their game.
NPCs and situations only unfold in the presence of the hero, and generally contribute to his or her story in some way.
The best games are exceptions to this rule. Skyrim and Grand Theft Auto IV appear as much bigger machines. The player feels like a cog, not the motor. In design terms, it's only an illusion.
Missions and locations are still purpose-built to be stimulating in one way or another. But the breadth and depth of Liberty City alludes to a world beyond the player's perception and outside the hero's control. The internet news will report on your bigger shootouts, but there's a mayoral race, a spiralling economy and hundreds of dating website profiles on which you have little to no impact.
Not the hero
You are not the hero, thank God - games have too many heroes. Time after time we're shot full of the same emotions: Pride, empowerment, swagger, cool. Our characters are handsome and noble; savvy and useful. Even the so-called "anti-heroes" of gaming are basically clear cut; for all of Grand Theft Auto IV's good work, Niko Bellic is still a courageous, chiselled badass.
It makes for repetitive storytelling and repeat gameplay scenarios. We'll kill all the bad guys, rescue the princess and everything will be OK in the end. But how about games that don't allow that? Games where frustration and powerlessness, not gratification and fulfilment, are the emotional payoff?
Games like Amnesia, and Slender, where your only option when faced with adversity is to run away and hope it won't catch you; games where, by their very mechanics, you're playing a coward, not a hero. How about some different emotions, for a change?
On the heels of Arkham Asylum, a friend came to me with an idea for a new Batman game. You play a nameless, faceless muscle-for-hire, working his way from criminal gang to criminal gang on the streets of Gotham City. Under instruction from The Joker, Two-Face, Scarecrow et al, you and a bunch of other goons rob banks, kidnap politicians and blow up bridges. But there's always a threat hanging over you: The Batman.
He can't be beaten, fought or shot; most of the time he can't even be seen. The lights would go out, there would be a quick scuffle and you'd find yourself dangling upside down on the end of some Bat-rope.
The Batman would be like Left 4 Dead's Witch, or Resident Evil's Nemesis, a random occurrence that will easily overpower you. But unlike those other two, you will have played as Batman before; every time he appeared, you'd be reminded that power has been wrested away from you.
You recognise who's in charge here, and it's not you; the hero is this other guy, and he's kicking your ass. The game would be dominated by your feeling vulnerable and the emotional turmoil would be a lot more interesting.
And the fans would hate it: They want to be the hero. Hideo Kojima raised hell in Metal Gear Solid 2 by dunking players into the role of rookie soldier Raiden, instead of franchise frontman Snake. The idea was to make players feel exposed, by forcing them to watch the hero from the outside, and making them control somebody whose skills paled in comparison.
But by and large, neither gamers nor the game industry will tolerate that sort of thing; generally speaking, players are 17-25 year old males and big publishers are happy to make money off their adolescent power fantasies. Negative emotions don't exist in games anymore.
With the market saturated and lucrative like it is, developers daren't tangle with their customers' happiness over fears they could easily migrate to a competitor that will. Horror has become action-horror; games have become pleasure trips.
No, the triple-A market won't change any time soon, but One Chance, Amnesia and Slender have proved that it's more fun than ever to be scared, that losing can feel like winning. It's time to move past black and white morality, and easy to like characters; for all our developments in graphics and animation, computer game leading men are still hopelessly one dimensional.
I want to play something that makes me feel guilty, or weak, and as somebody just as emotional as I am. When I interviewed Jenova Chen for Gamasutra, he talked about removing the character's arms in Journey to disempower players, to make them forget about weapons and fighting. He wanted to make games for adults:
"Empowerment distracts you...we cut the [character's] arms, because if you have arms, you think about picking up some kind of weapon and hitting something... computer games so far are not good enough for adults. For adults to enjoy something, they need to have intellectual stimulation, something that's related to real life."
Satisfaction, happiness and achievement are all a part of life. But so are fear, confusion, vulnerability and powerlessness. I don't want to play as the hero anymore; I can't wait for games to grow up, too.