Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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New England Gamer
November 2009

A Little Character Goes A Long Way

It's ironic that I've spent so much time playing Dragon Age: Origins over the past few weeks. I had very little interest in the game up until the moment of purchase. I had heard of it, read a few previews and such but to an extent I had worked actively to keep myself from wanting it. I have a substantial backlog of games, and the last thing I needed was a long, epic RPG to tie me up for another few hundred hours while the rest of my unfinished games collected more dust. Things in life don't always turn out as you plan however, for one day shortly after the game's release, I found myself in GameStop with ninety dollars worth of store credit burning a hole in my pocket. Long story short, I bought Dragon Age: Origins.

I could praise the game on a number of levels. I love its grittiness. Its gameplay is challenging and fun. It boasts a huge and deep fantasy world. What has struck me the most about the game though, is the strength of its characterization. Dragon Age: Origins features a story that is pretty generic (ultimate evil threatens the world, good guys have to save it) but its characters are incredibly diverse, offering the sort of depth one could only wish more developers would aspire to. For me this culminates most of all in the character of Alistair.

You meet Alistair at the game's opening, and though you pick up many other allies throughout the game, he still serves as your principal companion. In many ways, Alistair is the quintessential fantasy hero. He's brave and strong. He fights your enemy with near unparalleled selflessness. Yet, despite these elements shared with any breadth of fantasy heroes, Alistair can be very untypical. He's socially awkward. Not in the dark, brooding loner sort of way. No, Alistair simply has a knack for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. He stutters, he gets flustered, and when the topic of romance comes up, he blushes and sweats. More than anything though, he is vulnerable. Throughout the game you come upon moments where he is riddled with self-doubt. Though he never wavers in his resolve to do what must be done for the safety of the world, things do get to him and over the course of the game he changes. This is a sort of characterization that doesn't show up in video games often. Generally speaking, most video game characters are static creations, given their role (angsty loner, comic relief, foul-mouthed soldier) early on and rarely changing their stripes.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, which I admire for its seamless integration of story and gameplay is an example of this. Nathan Drake never really grows as a character. He's likable for certain, but from the get-go he's your quintessential thief with a heart and he remains that throughout the game. Contrast this with say, Final Fantasy VIII, whose main character, Squall, starts the game as little more than a brooding stereotype, but over the course of his experiences and interactions with people, grows into a caring young man.

Comparing game's like Uncharted 2 and Final Fantasy VIII, may seem a bit silly. Where Uncharted 2 is basically an interactive thrill ride, moving you from set-piece to set-piece at almost breakneck speed, Final Fantasy VIII is almost an interactive novel. Just the sheer length of it (40+ hours) allows it a lot more time to gradually shift its main character's outlook on the world. That said, despite their differing styles and length, I can't help but think that true character development should be a bigger part of games like Uncharted 2. I'm not going to argue that we should have no straightforward action titles. What would the world be like without mindless explosions, after all? But there is a place for action-oriented games with characters whose depth runs a bit further than their cast type. They've been done before (Heavenly Sword, Grand Theft Auto IV, Metal Gear Solid series), but they need to be done more often.

Sometimes at the end of a game, I want to remember more than just the one-liners or an incredible set-piece. I'd appreciate something a bit more subtle; an enjoyment of the characters that I met along the way. I want to see them not just make it through their experiences but also grow, for better or worse, as a result. Some might think that silly. Games are just fun things you play and you can only expect so much from a game, right? I think we can and should demand more from them. A little character after all, shouldn't be too much to ask.

Read more by Stewart Shearer

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