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How Video Games Get to Cheat with Character Goals

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And maybe how they can't

Characters need goals. They’re basically the whole reason a character exists in a story. It’s the thing they want to attain or achieve more than anything in the world. It’s the same in video games as it is in movies or novels, but it works a little differently.

Spoilers for "Uncharted: Drake's Fortune," "Uncharted 4: A Thieve's End," "Shadow of the Colossus," "Gravity Rush" and "Red Dead Redemption"

Writers in traditional mediums need to come up with a goal, a reason why your character wants it or to achieve it, and to show their capacity to do so. They’re leaving their day to day routine to go on an adventure that could change their lives forever. So the protagonist gets an inciting event, something that makes them want to go on that adventure. It provides a reason why they’re doing what they do. Sometimes in video games, developers forget to add a reason why someone would do the things you do in a game.

In “Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune,” Nathan Drake wants to find Sir Francis Drake’s missing treasure. Why? Does he need money, does he have a desire to connect with his ostensible ancestor, and find a family? We’re never told. He finds treasure, pirates attack, go!

It’s not like in “Uncharted 4: A Thieves’ End,” where Nathan is still trying to find treasure, but it’s to help his brother Sam. But people still talk fondly about “Drake’s Fortune’s” story and characters.

In some cases, games can get away with a character not having an inciting incident. That’s because an underlying motivation for why a main protagonist is doing something is nice to have, but not always necessary. As long as the controllable protagonist has a goal, no matter what their reason, it aligns with the player’s inherent goal; “Beat the game.” You want to get to the end, see what’s there, maybe brag about how you beat it. That’s your goal. In Blake Snyder’s book on screenwriting, “Save the Cat!,” he talks about how a character needs to have a goal we can understand on a “primal” level. What could be more primal than “win?”

Protagonists in other media need strong motivation, because we’re taking in their journey passively, the way we might listen to a friend or family member tell us a story. If we’re going to sit and watch/read, their actions have to be at least plausible. But in a video game, you’re taking part in the story to some degree; it doesn’t happen without you. Sometimes the inciting incident happens when you start up the game.

The player is leaving your daily life temporarily to go on this adventure. You go find treasure, save a princess, save a universe, with no real threat to yourself. These would be dangerous at best or deadly at worst if you were to attempt them, if they were even possible. To borrow an old adage, “if it was easy, everyone would do it.” Well, with games, it’s much easier. If someone said “do you want to be a treasure hunter for a while? You get to fight pirates, get the girl, be handsome and intelligent, and never die.” We’d nearly all say “hell yeah, get me a wetsuit!” When you take control of a character, you make their goal your own. You want to win, and making them achieve their goal is HOW you win.

Savvy developers can use this to subvert expectations. A game like “Shadow of the Colossus” uses the well-known trope of “save the princess” for an effective twist.

In “Shadow,” our hero Wander is told if he kills the colossi, the voice in the sky will restore his beloved. You’re given a goal of “defeat the otherworldly monsters, save a princess,” and you assume this is a good thing. Princess typically need to be saved and monsters are generally bad. When people give themselves a goal, they assume they’re doing the right thing. It’s part of the storytelling principle, “The Lie the Character Believes.” The character believes something about themselves or their world to be true, and pursues their goal because of it. When we take on that goal, we also take on the lie. In Wander’s case, the lie is “if I go against every rule and warning and slay these beasts, everything will be alright.”

The twist comes with the reveal that this goal is actually a way to unleash a monster. The souls of all the slain colossi posses Wander and use his body to resurrect the entity he’s been speaking, who turns out is a demon. Oops! Wander and the demon are quickly defeated by a spell and the game ends soon after.

It’s pretty tragic, but the ending still feels satisfying. Even though Wander dies, he achieved his goal. He (and you) were still able to slay all the colossi. It works out poorly for Wander, but it still felt good to slay that final giant monster. Because the “downer” of the tragic ending happens outside of your control, it doesn’t feel like you “lost.”

As long as developers establish your goal and give you a chance to achieve it, the player gets a satisfying “win.” They can put whatever they want after that. “Colossus” can have the protagonist possessed by a demon. You got your quest, you pulled it off, and now you see how it plays out.

I started thinking about protagonist goals when I started playing “Gravity Rush.” I got a PS Vita recently and wanted to try out the titles everyone says are the best on the system. I initially found the mix of gyro and touch with traditional controls a bit awkward, and as many gamers do, I found my attention drifting to the variety of other games I could play. But as a sucker for a good story, I can sometimes power through a game that’s weird to handle if I’m invested in the story (After all, I’m a big Metal Gear Solid fan). Getting behind “Rush’s” protagonist Kat was a bit tricky for me however. She has goals, but at the outset, they’re to find out “who I am.” But that’s a very amorphous goal.

Self-discovery is a common theme in many stories, but it’s usually because the protagonist found something, met someone, overcame someone/something (that pesky inciting incident again). "Rush" doesn’t get to use that quasi-shortcut that a game like “Uncharted” does, because “find out who Kat is” doesn’t have that same universal ring as “find ancient treasure.”

For example, in Destructoid’s review, Jim Sterling said Kat was “adorable” but the story was not “sensible enough to be worth fighting for.” Even IGN’s Gregg Miller, who liked Kat and the game, said that “her character is never explained.”

Developers have to be careful, because if a protagonist is largely there to act as an avatar, or the way the player interacts with the world, without a defined goal or empathic characteristics, they risk becoming a utility with a personality. Which might be a good way to describe Microsoft’s infamous Clippy, the paperclip that helped you type a resume.

Now just because a player and a protagonist have their goals merge doesn’t mean that a player’s patience is limitless. The section of Rockstar’s “Red Dead Redemption” where protagonist John Marston goes to Mexico is as well-regarded as the rest of the game, but considered to be a bit long. Marston’s goal is to recover the members of his old gang, in exchange for his family, being held by a federal law-enforcement organization. So he pursues them across old forts, onto Native American land, and into Mexico, where he ends up involved in a revolution. He goes back and forth across the country, helping out both the established government and the rebels, with Rockstar using the journey to make a point about the human aspect of overthrowing a tyrannical government.

Which is all well and good, but Marston’s supposed to be chasing after outlaws.

A player’s goal of winning can be aligned to whatever goal the protagonist has, but we still need a pretty good “why.”

It gets back to Snyder saying we need to understand goals at a primal level. If your task is to collect gang members to get your family back, of course you go straight to the closest one, as Marston does in the game’s intro. It’s hard to draw a direct line from “playing both sides in a foreign revolution” to “get my family back.” It’s like a IF statement in a program; “IF I capture this criminal and give him to the authorities, they’ll release my family.” But the other one is “IF I help the current regime until they betray me, then IF I help out the rebels overthrow them in a timely manner, then if I capture the criminals with their help and give them to the authorities blah blah blah.” That’s three times the “Ifs!” The player’s goal is still “win,” but the “how” is much more complicated, the enemy of primal.

That’s the exception to the “cheat code.” Just because we’ve elected to go on the adventure doesn’t mean our patience is endless. Take care to not distract us from the main goal, or you will have players asking “wait, why am I doing this?”

Protagonists in stories need to have a clearly defined goal, and a reason why they’re going after it. In video games, because you become the character, the protagonist having a “reason why” they’re going on an adventure is nice to have but not always necessary. You’ve already made the choice to go on the adventure when you load the game up. Developers can use this to subvert expectations and tell interesting stories, as long as they don’t neglect the protagonist’s goal or overestimate the player’s patience.

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About UncannyKyleone of us since 10:47 AM on 02.02.2022