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The relationship factor

800pxbeyond_good_and_evil__jade_p_2 What draws us to characters and makes us care about them? What sustains that engagement and helps it grow deeper?

Video games - like their literature/film brethren (and sometimes not like them at all) - often present characters designed to elicit empathy or identification with their audience. Our willingness to make this imaginative leap can have a significant impact on the ways we experience a game. N'Gai Croal recently described a moment in GTA IV when the designers' presentation of the protagonist directly affected his gameplay and decision making:

...[T]he writers have given our mercurial protagonist a conscience, a fatigue with death and a desire to start afresh. Rockstar managed to convince me that Niko wouldn't do this—so I didn't.

Writers use many tools (tricks?) to create and define this connection between character and audience: backstory, voiceovers, flashbacks, etc., but none of these carry as much weight as the choices and actions a character pursues, especially those related to other characters. In other words, who a character claims to be and where he comes from can be important, but the protagonist's relationships with other characters often reveal the deepest truths.

(Spoilers aplenty to follow)

Michael Corleone's true nature is essentially defined by the decisions he makes regarding his closest friends and family. In many ways, his decision to kill Fredo is the pivotal moment of The Godfather 2. The full extent of Michael's journey (some would say his descent) is most clearly revealed here - painfully so when we recall the young man who once wanted no part of the family business. The final lingering shot of Michael at the end of the film enables us to take stock of the man and examine what we think and how we feel about him in light of this fateful decision. Brilliantly, Coppola inserts one scene in between this one and Fredo's death: a flashback of the family still intact, gathered around a table.

Decidedly more mediocre movies may illustrate the point more effectively. Robert's (Will Smith) relationship with his dog Sam in I Am Legend attaches us to the hero in ways the rest of the film fails to do. Chuck's (Tom Hanks) relationship with the Wilson volleyball in Cast Away helps sustain him (and hold our interest) as well as documenting his psychological survival. Both films amply illustrate that even stories with apparently solo heroes often rely heavily on relationships to help explain their characters and bond us to them.

Transition to video games here. :-)

All of this was brought on by recent gaming experiences that have provoked me to think about video game characters and why some are depicted more vividly than others. I mentioned a few days ago that I was re-playing Beyond Good & Evil, and I continue to be struck by my attachment to Jade. Part of this is clearly attributable to the fact that she's a terrific female protagonist in a medium with so few similar examples.

But the more I think about it, my affection for Jade has less to do with her personality per se than with her devotion to the orphans in her home and, especially, her warm and playful relationship with her Uncle Pey'j. We learn more about Jade via these connections than from any of the investigations or action sequences in the game. The crusty old Pey'j needs Jade to survive, and the fact that they both know this without ever speaking of it adds a subtle dimension to the story. As Pey'j says, "Maybe this old pig can't fly, but he's still got a bounce in his step."

In terms of pure emotional response, I can't think of a moment in any other game that has affected me more than when Jade hears Pey'j being attacked by the soldiers and races to rescue him. The game cuts between shots of Pey'j being brutally beaten and Jade running in slow motion, helplessly hearing him receive each blow, desperately trying to reach him and ultimately failing to do so. The game has successfully earned our empathetic response by this point, so the scene avoids feeling cheap or manipulative...unlike Sam's death in I Am Legend.

I've been thinking about other video game relationships as well: Link and Midna (Zelda: Twilight Princess); Gordon Freeman and Alyx Vance (Half-Life 2); The Nameless One and Morte (Planescape: Torment); Jack and Andrew Ryan (Bioshock) - antagonists, co-adventurers, buddies, will-they-won't-they lovers?, etc.. I think my theory holds up in these cases too, although the natures of these relationships vary wildly. The silent protagonist, for example, may skew things a bit. And what about NPCs? Is this where the "Aeris made me cry" folks jump in?

Does any of this hold water? Do you have similar empathetic experiences with characters in different games? If so, or if not, I'd love to know.

This post is a contribution to Man Bytes Blog's Round Table, a monthly collection of posts revolving around the same topic. Click below to peruse other entries in this month's series.