The Tropes of Motivating Video Game Characters
A brief eulogy appears on the screen. It’s a little oddly worded, but it doesn’t seem like anything to worry about. A voice, presumably through a phone, tells you that you can only travel into the country as a US citizen. Any further travel into the country’s beautiful mountains is unwise due to political unrest.
The screen opens and you’re holding an urn, outside the van are snowy white mountains. You’re already there. All at once, the van is stopped by some kind of border control. It’s clearly not going well. Gunfire sounds, and some of the guards fall dead. Those who are left shoot at you, and you’re dragged out of the van as a helicopter lands.
A man in pink trousers gets out and promptly kills someone in front of you. As the player, you’re somewhere between terrified and extremely entertained. This, as you may have guessed, is the beginning of Far Cry 4. If you’re a seasoned player, you probably don’t care much about the ashes so much as seeing Pagan Min again. Watching that villain work is like watching moving art.
As a more inexperienced gamer, you’re probably well and truly petrified by the time the Golden Path sees fit to rescue you. You’re glad to leave Pagan Min behind, but quickly realize the Golden Path may only have a better disguise than bright pink clothes.
Ubisoft isn’t the best at motivating its main characters to do whatever it is the game needs them to do. Heck, Far Cry 3 and 4 are probably the only times they got it right. However, they and almost all AAA games use the same tropes to motivate the main character/player. These tropes can be described as harm to children (death, abuse, kidnapping, etc.) and extreme violence.
**Minor spoilers ahead for The Last of Us**
Even the most critically acclaimed games fall into one of these tropes. The Last of Us, for example, is one of the most heartfelt game stories in the history of games, and it uses children to gain sympathy and motivation from the player. Even BioShock is guilty; it scares your pants off with a splicer before you even start to care about Atlas’ poor trapped family.
But why? Why are children and extreme violence used so often in games to invoke sympathy or motivation? Whether you’re an experienced gamer who understands enough game literacy to know “female figure” equals rescuable love interest and “cute child” means either a shitty escort quest ahead or they’re going to die; or an inexperienced gamer who is just very confused by what looks like very unnecessary violence; you’ll always understand when a game points you at a target and says “feel” or “kill.”
The number one, and probably most obvious, reason these tropes work so well is that the concepts of extreme violence and harm to children are going to make most of the cultures most games are sold to cringe with sympathy. Some cultures, and even the individuals within those cultures, may vary on the degree of sympathy or empathy. For example, if you are a parent and just started The Last of Us, you’re probably a sobbing mess because even the thought of losing your child in that way is awful. But if you are not a parent (depending on your situation), you might look on with a kind of detached empathy, as you understand that children are usually something to be protected.
There are very few cultures that are indifferent to extreme violence and harm to children, so I think it is safe to say that the large publishing companies don’t really take them into account when they’re marketing a game. Thus, these tropes basically guarantee a reaction from the player; they’re going to keep using them. Harm a virtual child in front of a gamer, and it is over for that villain. Watch Pagan Min kill the only person who has been nice to you so far, and it’s time to fight fire with fire.
Some games handle these tropes with the ease of clever writing. BioShock presents us with Rapture and Andrew Ryan long before the splicers. Dishonored unveils a broken city that is as much as character as Emily is. The Witcher 3 presents so many complicated feelings about a missing step-daughter and a lover, that the player doesn’t have much choice but to care (ie, no violence here).
The list goes on. Good games are good, and they know how to handle the tropes of violence or children, or do not use either. But the moment you pick up another Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, Õkami, In BioWare games, or even your average indie game like Firewatch, it is very important to think about these tropes. There are far more clever ways at getting the player to care than extreme violence or harm to children. Our human and cultural understanding are far more complex and broad than these two catalysts.
If I have another princess to rescue, I want it to be disguised as a midlife crisis. Next time I need to gun down zombies, I want to see the complete opposite of Lord of the Flies, not the affirmation of it. And if the world needs saving, I want Nietzsche telling me how superhumans need to take care of the lesser masses.
Tropes are limitations the game industry should be expanding upon at every opportunity. Don’t get stuck in a rut, or someone will start saying video games cause violence in the real world.