A deep and rewarding single player experience is something that is highly sought after in these days of multiplayer monopoly. There are elements that come together to create the ideal campaign that are, in recent years, being neglected for wider appeal. One of the more important elements is that of the character. A journey rarely involves one person anymore, and these characters, if done well, add much more to the story than set pieces. These characters can be good, bad, or somewhere in the gray area and can add their own piece to any well-oiled single player experience.
One of the more simple-to-implement characters is the bad ass. He doesn’t really need to be a deep or personal character, only an effective fighter. One of the better examples of this is Master Chief of Halo lore. He reveals very little about his personality. You don’t even learn his first name until the end of the third installment. Few care about this, considering he is literally a one man army that almost single-handedly destroyed a collective coalition of alien races. Tactical shooters also feature these highly effective operatives, but focus more on teamwork and seat-of-the-pants decision-making, leaving little room for individuality to show itself outside of the conversations between fighting sections. This might, however, be a good thing since these characters’ personalities are usually stereotypical or overdone.
Characters can be likeable for other reasons outside of their usefulness on the battlefield. The ones that make you laugh can be as helpful as the guy with the sniper rifle when it comes to story contribution. Your squadmates in the game Battlefield: Bad Company aren’t necessarily effective outside of the occasional rocket or suppressive fire. The real purpose is to make your journey filled with more shenanigans than your average Super Troopers viewing. From Haggard’s love of everything southern and high explosive, to Sweetwater’s pessimistic take on every situation, the hilarity of these events made the campaign worth playing through a few times, despite the shallow plot.
Relatable characters can also stand tall in a game’s cast. I recently have started to play Dragon Age: Origins and have been having a blast with the whole experience. One of the characters that I have found interesting is the companion known as Morrigan. She approaches things in a very pragmatic and socially distant way unless it is something that she feels strongly about. I find myself agreeing with these points since she’s using a very simplified and, often, more rewarding style of thinking. To hear what her opinion is on the situations that arise, I have a tendency to pick her over some of the more combat effective teammates and usually end up bringing a “good guy” teammate to keep myself objective. When your decisions have weight, it’s always best to get all the perspectives possible to make the “best” decisions.
Another common use of character creation is forcing you to rely on them. Probably one of the best examples is Army of Two. Say what you will about lackluster story and vulgarity-filled dialogue, this is a game that makes you work together. Objectives require two people to operate, machine gun positions are invulnerable from the front and must be flanked, and enemies focus on the team member causing the most ruckus allowing a stealthy teammate to sneak unimpeded. One of my favorite uses of gameplay mechanics are in the “back to back” sections. During these, teammates stand back to back – since that’s where your armor is weakest – and turn in slow motion to take out charging targets in tandem. I don’t trust something like that to an AI with an itchy trigger finger and a loud mouth. A less direct way of forcing characters on you is making them into mission controllers. They’re that mysterious voice over your radio or that guy who’s sitting back at base keeping you on objective and helping you out along the way. They hack doors, keep you informed, and, from time to time, help keep your character’s sanity in check.
Other characters get their shine from how they develop over time. The Mass Effect series lets you watch as your team develops in front of your eyes. Keep in mind that, in the coming sentences, not all these events happen since your decisions in Mass Effect shape how they develop. One of the characters you meet along the way is a Citadel Security officer by the name of Garrus Vakarian. He is getting stonewalled by the very service he devoted his life to, and is tired of it. You and he share common goals, so he decides to join the ranks of your crew. His demeanor is less than serious, but he is experienced in the workings of the galaxy. After talking to him a while, he reveals to you that he came along because he wanted to see what the galaxy was like outside of Palavan (his homeworld) and the Citadel. After the events of the first game, Garrus is disgusted by what he sees throughout your adventures and decides to strike out on his own and make a difference. He starts his own team to take on the criminals on the lawless space station ‘Omega’. After pissing enough people off, one of his teammates betrays Garrus under duress, leading him away from an ambush. Garrus and his entire team are engulfed by vengeance and self-loathing. You help him find peace by finding his traitorous teammate and navigating Garrus through the situation. After this, Garrus gets back to his sarcastic and awesome self. By the time you meet up with him in ME3, he has been given his own task force and has even achieved an undisclosed rank higher than general. Seeing Garrus transform from the disgruntled C-Sec officer, to vigilante, to leader of his people is an amazing experience to watch happen as you are playing the game.
Good guys aren’t the only members of the awesome characters club. Without the same care being taken into making the bad guys, the story itself could suffer. Generally, the villains are sorted into two categories: good-bad and bad-bad. The good-bad guy is doing the wrong things, but for the right reasons. A good example of this is the Templars from the Assassin’s Creed series. While the Assassins promote freedom to help the people prepare themselves, Templars want people under their rule so they can be better prepared. Both want to secure the future of mankind, but they go about it in different ways. On the other side of the bad coin, the bad-bad guys just cause general chaos. They hurt people for pleasure, or to advance their own sick and twisted ideas of justice, or just to get ahead. Developers use this to give the players motivation to take them down before it’s too late. The villains say they’re doing it in the name of “progress” or something along the lines of “this is just how the world works”. But past tragedies affecting them are of little concern to a player who just witnessed the horrifying acts committed by this monster in the here-and-now. Before the events of Ace Combat 5, a country called Belka detonated seven nuclear weapons on their borders to keep armies, fighting a war that the Belkins started themselves, from advancing deeper into the country. The act, which ended the war, cost countless Belkin lives and was seen by the world as a tragedy. This mattered little when, years later, rogue Belkin forces caused the two armies responsible for their destruction to enter into full scale war with each other. In the process, they used chemical weapons on schools, kidnapped the peaceful president, and attempted to nuke every major city on both sides. These actions cannot be dismissed because of past discretions that the country’s own government and military made.
Characters above the rank and file of gaming norm keep the games we like interesting and more enjoyable to play at the same time. They are believable, lovable, and reliable to the extent that we need them to be. From RPGs to shooters and everywhere in between, there will always be a need for good characters.
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