Note: This article contains spoilers for Deus Ex: Human Revolution. You have been warned.
Aliens kidnapped your family. Mobsters killed your girlfriend. The evil wizard blew up your village. Every gamer is familiar with these well-worn plot starters, meant to give motivation for the player character's involvement in the game's story. While these “dead girlfriend” plots worked just fine in the 16-bit era and are still fine for games that are low on plot and high on action, we're now in an era in which many games strive to have more complex, interesting plots and create characters that gamers will care about.
These motivational but mostly absent characters are bad enough in movie and on television. Everybody knows that characters in action movies and crime procedurals had better not fall in love or have families, as tragedy will always follow. At least in the movies, though, the main character is portrayed by a professional actor who can attempt to convince us that his or her (though it's usually his) deep personal tragedy is the impetus for the journey of rescue or revenge. In video games, the player is the lead actor. If the player isn't attached to the dead or missing characters that drive the plot, then the story has failed before it even began.
Games are much better off when they focus on interpersonal relationships that are built over the course of the game itself. If developers want to create a character that players actually care about, that relationship needs to be built actively by the player, not described as so much background material.
As an example, I'd like to talk about two characters from Deus Ex: Human Revolution, in which the player character is Adam Jensen, an operative for a tech company who becomes embroiled in a global conspiracy. Jensen's story starts off with an attack on his company in which his ex-girlfriend, Megan Reed, is presumably killed. Solving the mystery behind Reed's death is supposed to be a motivating factor for Jensen, but the player is never really given a chance to get to know her. Even when it appears that she may have betrayed Jensen, it's hard to have much of an emotional reaction. The player is never attached to her as a character in the first place, so any betrayal doesn't lead to a sense of shock or loss.
One of the other major characters in the game is Faridah Malik, Jensen's pilot and friend. In a game in which just about everyone has shadowy motives, Malik is a straightforward, likeable character. Jensen has the opportunity to chat with her and help her out various times during his adventure. Toward the later part of the game, Jensen and Malik's helicopter is shot down. Jensen has the chance to save the copter from being blown up while Malik works to get it off the ground again, but he can fail at doing so or simply choose to escape, dooming her to execution at the hands of a villain. Save Malik and she'll help out later on in the game, but fail to protect her and the player will later find her corpse.
Many players attempt to play Deus Ex: Human Revolution non-lethally, and those players face a conundrum when the copter is shot down. While it's possible to protect Malik without killing anybody, it's quite difficult to do so. Instead, numerous players report that they felt immediately compelled to drop the non-lethal playthrough during this scene in order to protect their faithful pilot. Malik isn't a love interest for Jensen, yet players care more about her than they do Jensen's actual love interest simply because they've been given the chance to get to know her.
This situation shows how Malik's presence as a likeable character throughout the game not only causes players to feel more attached to her than they do to a character like Megan Reed. In fact, it shows how it makes some feel strongly enough about her to actually abandon one of their gameplay goals in order to save her life. That kind of emotional reaction is what game developers are shooting for when creating a cinematic game, and it requires a character that the player, rather than simply the playable character, knows and loves.
Of course, there are limits to a player's attachment to a character. Malik works as somebody that the player wants to protect because she's likeable and competent. Gamers know all too well that their protective feelings wear thin quickly when they're saddled with a hapless, helpless companion who must be shielded and assisted at all times—a problem often seen when developers want the player to care about a female character. Annoying escort characters certainly produce more of an emotional reaction from players than absent loved ones, but that emotion is usually annoyance or frustration.
This is simply one example of how present characters produce far more emotional reactions from players than those who are absent or killed off early in the game in order to create a tragedy that supposedly drives the main character. The “dead girlfriend” character background should be dropped from as many game stories as possible and replaced with stories that allow the player to be actively involved with the people and places about whom they're supposed to care. Whether these are stalwart battle companions or simply characters who are involved in the more peaceful segments of a game's story, I think we can all agree that in video gaming, absence simply doesn't make the heart grow fonder.
Date: January 24, 2013