A few weeks ago, Kate Finegan from Kotaku contacted me for an interview, asking questions about videogame characters. Instead of responding to her questions one by one, I found it easier to address her questions in the form of a short essay, which she then quoted in her piece. I was glad to have contributed to such a fine article, so I encourage you to go and read it.
Kate sent me many questions, so my response was rather wide. Since only a few ideas made it to the article, here goes the original response that I sent to Kate. Thanks to her for letting me post it here.
(Some of the questions were framed in the context of game archetypes, which seemed to be the original idea for the article. The final version only focused on player characters.)
"The first problem is thinking of game characters in terms of archetypes. It's the Hollywood screenwriting school of thinking about characters, which reproduces characters in terms of a specific formula, based on a specific series of traits: the funny sidekick, the wise mentor, the vengeful villain, the lady in distress. It's character creation with a cookie cutter, and although it can be a way to get started, it does not really get us very far, particularly in games. Putting labels on different types of characters, which are similar to Hollywood movies, does not really help us understand videogame characters better. Limiting the understanding of character to just the visual design, although fundamental part of characterization, is not the most essential thing in videogames. In games, characters are defined by their actions, what they actually do.
Rather than archetypes, characters have different functions: the hero (which is the character the player usually controls, and has to face all the challenges), the villain (the character that the player opposes), the helper (the character that provides the player with information or with items through the game), the lady in distress (which usually fulfills the same function as an object that the player may have to recover). For each of these functions, there may be subtypes: there may be more than one player character (parties in RPGs, changing player characters); the villain can be the boss, mini-bosses, or different ranks of enemies; the helper can be a mentor in the game that guides you in the game (a personified tutorial), or a merchant that sells you items (as in Metal Gear Solid 4 or Resident Evil 4). There may be hybrid types: the player can obtain items from an enemy after defeating him; by rescuing a character may grant the player another item or power up. This structure seems very similar to that of folktales, which Vladimir Propp described in the 1930s; others like mentioning Joseph Campbell because he's American and inspired George Lucas and the structure of Star Wars. The astounding thing is the range of games that it applies to: from Super Mario, Zelda, Grand Theft Auto, you name it. They all are variations on the quest, one of the most basic structures in which humans understand storytelling. The structure also applies to Star Wars, Harry Potter, and many other Hollywood movies.
By thinking about character in terms of what they do, it is easier to make them part of the game design. They are agents that have a function in the game design: they provide power-ups, points, moves in certain levels, have different hit points, you name it. The problem of thinking of character in terms of function and action is that they are really shallow. They don't have much personality or psychological depth. They "do" stuff, but usually their motivations are really shallow and pedestrian, many of them borrowed, again, from Hollywood movies. ("They killed my family!" "They kidnapped the princess!" "It's my job!"). What's worse videogame characters have a very limited range of things they do: jump, shoot, squash, strafe, pick up. In videogame design, the "verbs" of the game tell you what the core mechanics of a game are; those can also be the actions that define your player character. Since the range of verbs is so limited, it also means that player characters are relatively shallow. It also means that, unfortunately, they often can be interchangeable.
It's sad to see that visually, the design of characters has not really changed much, in spite of the improvements in graphics capabilities. God of War's Kratos reminds me of a painted version of the protagonist of the Barbarian games in the 80s, or a more stylized version of the protagonist of Altered Beast, whose body kept growing while the head remained the same size. The super-buff military protagonist of Gears of War has a relative in the 80s, in the game Navy Moves The fact that a lot of videogames have very similar-looking protagonists evidences that not only they are shallow, they are also not very original.
That's one of the reasons I like adventure games and RPGs: the range of verbs is usually larger, dialogue is essential to gameplay (most times), by having more actions the characters have more nuance. I replayed Monkey Island 2: Lechuck's Revenge recently, and I realized that one of the fun things of the game is that Guybrush is defined by what he does. He's a pirate (and not a very brave one), so a lot of what he does is finding different ways to cheat.
There's another problem: it's not the same to create the character which the player controls than non-player characters. In the case of the player character, writers must leave room for the player. Some games allow for different play styles (particularly Western RPGs), and as such that makes the player character even more undefined--the player completes the character. That's why Gordon Freeman is silent: it doesn't remind the player that she's controlling someone different. If you've played Thief, you can hear the thoughts of Garrett, which can feel weird (but it's trying to define the character better, and give hints about the game).
There are different ways of defining the player character too. While Western RPGs (particularly based on D&D systems) let you define your character, your name and your stats, Japanese RPGs come with ready characters, where you may be able to change the name of the main character. Even then, we still refer to the name of the player characters given in the game--even if one goes through Final Fantasy VIIhaving called your character Mike, we keep referring to Cloud. Note how in Japanese RPGs you don't usually change the looks of your player character either. What's more, while in many Western RPGs you can choose what you want to say from a menu, and that has an effect / consequence (I'm mainly thinking of Bioware's games, for example), in Japanese games, the dialogue is mostly canned, and even when you can choose what to say, the outcome is still the same (or it forces you to say something).
The "But thou must!" moment in the original Dragon Quest is a famous instance: after rescuing the princess, she asks the player character: "Dost thou love me?" If the player chooses "no" she responds: "But thou must!" and asks the question again; the conversation won't end until the player says yes. Letting the player choose what to say is giving her the opportunity to define the player character; on the other hand, by not letting the player fill in the gaps, the character is more defined, inviting the player to identify with him/her similar to how the audience empathizes with the protagonist of a movie. I think this tendency to have more filled out characters, even if they're still relatively shallow, versus the customizable / closer to blank slate characters is one of the main differences between JRPGs and Western RPGs. (As an aside, I think it's also the reason why FPSs don't do so well in Japan, since you don't see who you are in the game.)
As a final thought, the process of character creation is something that we're figuring out in games. (I'm talking about this as an academic; although I've worked in a couple of games, my knowledge of how AAA titles handle storytelling is from attending conferences and talking to developers.) There seems to be a disconnect between what the player character does (which is defined mostly by game design) and who (s)he is (which is defined a lot by the visual designer, and rather less by the writing). Part of the problem is that game writers, who define character not only through the story but mostly through what they say, come late in the design process, and have to "slap on" an interesting character on top of mechanics which are usually conventional or do not lend themselves to much interesting character development.
Part of the problem here is bringing together game design, visual design and writing to create compelling characters, beyond their "looking cool"; the other main problem is how much room the player character has to appropriate and define the player she controls. There are no solutions yet, just different ways to approach them, and I believe games can do much better."