(SPOILER ALERT: There are spoilers of the current season of Lost, Justified, and Treme in this entry, as well as spoilers from older seasons of Dexter. If you're not current on these shows (or even a week or two behind), but care about spoilers, avoid this entry until you are current. There are no more warnings after this point.)
Son of a bitch!
For no reason other than being unemployed (still!), I've found myself watching a lot of television shows on top of my usual gaming habits. While this may seem like a rather mundane way to begin an essay, this is actually somewhat outside of my realm of normal behavior. I'm by no means opposed
to television - in fact, I quite like it. For several years, however, I chose not to watch because "I have other stuff I could be doing."
Well, that's not the case right now, and I'm glad it isn't; there are some mighty fine shows on TV right now. Primarily, my TV time is focused on three shows: Lost, Justified, and Treme. These three shows are vastly different in significant ways, but share a few common themes that separate them from the majority of other shows I've seen lately (although I hear Breaking Bad is good, and I'll certainly be ready for Mad Men's return).
Of course, this isn't about TV shows. If I wanted to review them, I could do it pretty quickly. In fact, I will: good but inconsistent, took a few episodes but is really flying high right now, absolutely fantastic on all levels, but might get bland quicker than I'd like (fans of The Wire are currently yelling at me about how wrong I am).
Now that that's out of the way, let's get to my real point - one of the biggest things these shows all do is develop their characters. One of the most important things you can do when telling a story - yes, even a non-fiction story - is to present it to the audience in a way where they develop a bond with the story's key players. This goes beyond the words that come out of their mouth, but the way they react to things, the small mannerisms that are a core part of who they are, and countless other things that need to be taken into consideration (although not necessarily obsessed about).
The two main writers of Lost, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse have spoken about how they feel that Lost is first and foremost about the characters. While that may not be true in practice, it's a good ideal to stick by. Looking at the characters still currently relevant on Lost, most of them possess enough qualities to make them seem "human" in a way where the audience cares about what happens to some or all of them.
Certainly, I found myself moved by Jin and Sun's unfortunate fate, and I've found myself the most curious about what will happen to Hurley in the long run. I want nothing more than for Kate's Lost career to end with a bullet in her head, but I know a few people who do still like her. Desmond, of course, is awesome, as is Lapidus, who totally isn't dead.
Justified is a bit more top-heavy in its character development, putting the majority of the focus on Raylan Givens (although not all of it), who is played brilliantly by Timothy Olyphant. Raylan started off the series coming across as some kind of Superman character who always was three steps ahead of the people he was chasing, but as the season has progressed, we've discovered the things that can reduce him down to the level of mere mortal. There was a good moment in this week's episode - one where Raylan was without his signature hat the entire hour - where he reached for his hat upon entering a building, only to realize that he didn't actually have it on. Those minor details are a good way to develop character, even if the entire audience isn't going to notice them.
People do lots of dumb s*** because it's easy.
Treme is a bit of an outlier, in that there's no real central plot. Each of the main characters has their own personal conflicts (and in a city like New Orleans after the storm, conflict was not in short supply), but they rarely overlap into a more major theme - outside of New Orleans itself, of course. Rather than tell a traditionally focused story like a crime drama in Justified, or a whatever-the-hell-they're-doing in Lost, Treme's whole existence is seemingly based on characters and characters alone.
No other show I've seen (and before you ask: no, I have not see The Wire, yes, I know it is awesome, yes, I plan on watching it eventually) is capable of staying compelling with as weak of a key conflict as Treme. The best way I can describe it for someone who hasn't seen it is that it basically is several "side story" level stories from any other show matched together. You've got Antoine, a struggling musician trying to make ends meat while sleeping around town, Janette, with a mostly flooded house and a restaurant she can't really keep up with, Creighton, a professor in a school that he doesn't seem too thrilled about who is suddenly becoming a Youtube celebrity, and several other interesting characters.
There is one character, however, who seems to have polarized the show's fans. Davis comes across as a holier-than-thou, too smart to realize how dumb he is personality that just doesn't resonate with most people. It always feels like he's a bit too unaware of what's going on around him, and while people like that do exist, they're not usually popular characters in stories, especially when portrayed as an important part of the story. From this week's episode, it looks like we're still having the layers of Davis peeled back, and we were showed a bit of how Davis manages to get through life (his ability to persuade is incredible).
Of course, having good characters isn't necessary for a show to be compelling. A show like Dexter gets by having bland, one-dimensional characters that take cop drama archetypes to a bit of an extreme. It succeeds largely due to the suspense it creates through the plot, rather than any character not named Dexter Morgan developing in any meaningful way (unless you count what seemed like an interesting subplot for Doakes until they killed him off in season 2).
Naturally, I mention all of this to give a frame of reference to discuss character development in video games, a part of the narrative process that seems to be completely ignored in the majority of games. The most popular example with my friends is Final Fantasy 8, where everyone not named Squall is more or less meaningless to the game, and the only development Squall experiences is going from "emo kid who doesn't want to be bothered" to "emo kid who doesn't want to be bothered, except by Rinoa" (I'm overgeneralizing, but not much).
Excuse me, I'm looking for some sailors.
The list of good or great narrative-heavy games with terrible character development is staggering. One of my personal favorites from days gone by, Shenmue, is full of characters that were seemingly cut out of construction paper, be it Ryo (the protagonist!), Lan Di, Nozomi, or whoever else. They're all one-trick ponies with no real reason to become attached to them (except for Ryo, who is an inconsistent zero-trick pony who you are forced to control for the majority of the game). As I've discussed in the past, this issue is augmented by the fact that the series was never completed.
As far as games that are moreso praised for their writing (and that I've actually played, sorry Heavy Rain and Half-Life, I'll leave you two to the comments), a game like Bioshock gets by through the means of not really creating a protagonist. Usually in games where you follow a plot, you're never given any motivation for walking into those obvious traps, other than "you have to or the game won't finish." I won't spend time discussing how Bioshock gets around this, as that has been discussed many times by many people. The game succeeds by being moreso about the antagonists of the game, and while they aren't necessarily the most interesting characters in the world, the real interest comes through discovering the methods they screw around with the nameless, faceless, voiceless protagonist.
Mass Effect (and really, most Bioware games of the same nature) is a bit of a mixed bag. You can develop Shepard in a few different ways (good thing!), even though it ultimately has no bearing on the rest of the story (not-so-good thing!).
The people around him/her are inconsistent, as well. For checkmarks in the "good" column, I'd commend a character like Mordin, who we discover throughout the course of ME2 is a lot more interesting than just a doctor who is good with a gun. Not to mention he's a great
singer. For characters that crossed over from the first game to its sequel, I'd surprisingly give kudos to Wrex. While he seems like a very typical meathead for the most part (which is mostly true of his species), there's enough going on under the surface that gives him a decent amount of depth. Meeting him in Mass Effect 2 and discovering his forward-thinking ways to help unite and save his people was refreshing, given that my main memory of him from the first game is his single-word greeting of Shepard.
Most (not all, but I'm not discussing everyone for the sake of brevity) of the cast outside of that isn't so wonderful. I feel like Ashley could have been a more interesting character, but she never really gets beyond just being an annoying xenophobe in either game. Jacob is pretty one-dimensional in a similar way that Doakes was for most of his run on Dexter. I happen to enjoy those characters to an extent, but if he shows up in the third game, I hope they do a bit more with him.
I wanted to end the body of this essay with an example of a game that has good character development across the board for the key players, but I really can't think of any game that really hits a home run. Even the games that rely heavily on archetypes seem to mess it up somewhere, usually by not spending enough time on it, presumably for the reason that most developers assume that to develop a character, you have to be in a conversation that doesn't actually use the main mechanics of the game itself (be it the combat system, the puzzles, or whatever the "core gameplay" is). It's a shame, because I don't feel like this would be a difficult task to complete. Writers have been creating compelling characters for thousands of years.
I'd love to hear if any of you have examples of games with good (not even great!) character development. I definitely haven't played every critically popular game that relies heavily on story, so hopefully you guys can fill in some of the blanks for me.