So a few months after everyone else plowed through it, I (finally) started playing The Witcher 3 -- and believe it or not, I actually like it. I like the exploration, I like the combat, I suspect I have the potential to develop a Gwent addiction, and I even like Geralt. Because even if his gravelly voice says otherwise, he’s not your standard tough guy antihero; seriously, you have no idea how much it means to me to have a character who shows a full range of emotions. You will never know.
But even if I like Geralt, I have to admit I like Yennefer more. She’s just plain cooler -- a witch with some serious magical chops, for sure, but there’s more to her than that. She’s got the smarts, the sass, and underneath her bluster she’s someone that actually cares about things. I admit I don’t know the full extent of her relationship with Geralt, but at least I know firsthand that there is a relationship. It means something to them, and by proxy it means something to me. It should go without saying, but I wish I could stop playing as a witcher so I could go full blast with a straight-up witch. Or sorceress, I guess.
And that got me thinking -- which is my M.O., of course, but whatever. No time for semantics.
Even if a lot of AAA fare would lead you to believe we’re heading back to the Stone Age, I’d still argue that games are evolving in the end. As are the people that play them. There’s been a lot of outcry for change, and even if said outcry has led to some heat and turbulence, it’s going to be good in the long run. “Yo, let’s have more female protagonists!” Or “Hey, how about some more diversity?” Seriously, having those on tap can only be a good thing.
To be fair, I don’t think that a game (or any story, really) should be slammed just because it has the usual straight white male protagonist. The issue is one of quality, I’d say; what makes people cringe is when the lead is boring or generic or just plain bad. Straight white males can have personalities, weaknesses, and character arcs, which is good, obviously. But those that don’t only act as a reminder of what could have been -- and by the same token, a character of a different gender, race, and/or orientation can take a center role (or a prominent one, at least) and still be terrible despite their classifications. If I had to guess, I’d say that there’s a reason why Joel from The Last of Us set the world on fire, while Nilin from Remember Me didn’t.
Whatever the case, I think the important thing to remember is that there are possibilities that can be explored. The technology’s been there for years now, so -- barring the budgets greater than the GDP of entire countries -- the limits that once shackled developers to the ground have unlocked one by one. Granted they’ve been replaced by market demands and the puppeteering of executives from the shadows, but you get the idea. To quote a Gundam Build Fighters opening: There are no limits. There are no absolutes.
So with that in mind, I have to make an assertion. Yes, it would be amazing to have more characters of different races, genders, and orientations -- whether they’re in starring roles or simply a part of the main cast. (And again, the unspoken rule is that they have to be high-quality.) But if we’re going to expand the limits of what a video game character can be, then why do we have to stop there? Even if we don’t have a suite of powers or a sizable armory, normal people here on planet Earth are still incredibly diverse besides their basic classifications. Why not go even further than that with games?
It’s true that games are defined by their mechanics and systems -- i.e. their gameplay -- more than pretty much everything else. So on one hand, having incredibly in-depth, well-written characters isn’t an absolute requirement, or even something that every gamer on the planet needs. It’d certainly be appreciable, but I recognize that games have made it this far with iconic characters like Mario, who have barely said a full paragraph in the thirty-plus years of their existence.
Here’s the thing, though: games don’t necessarily need characters that are part of or bring about gripping tales, but they’re part of a medium that can create new experiences simply by letting you, well, experience them. What am I getting at here? Think about it: people have long since poked fun at the space marine archetype because time and time again, it’s just a grizzled soldier with guns. Not good, obviously. But plenty of other games, despite their leads and casts, have put players in control of “guy with guns”. Shooting is a functional mechanic with a good (if not great) chance at satisfaction, but do we need every character in every game to have the common mix of gunplay, stealth kills, and crafting? No, of course not.
Just think about some of the games we’ve gotten in the past. Like this one.
I have mad respect, if not outright love, for Tokyo Jungle. Even if I’ve barely made headway into it, I hold it in high esteem because it’s a game that gives me a suite of mechanics to enjoy. And those mechanics are made possible because I can play as a deer, or a pig, or a tiny dog. It’s an interesting game, because the playable characters are tapped and offer up the potential for interesting design. That’s the optimal scenario, no matter what form it may take.
So let’s play a game, shall we?
Imagine a unique scenario, if you will. You’ve just had a tasty and filling dinner, and you’re about to plop down to play that spiffy new game you’ve got -- when suddenly, a pair of aliens (who know English for some reason) beam down in front of you. They aren’t hostile, though; they’re simply there to conduct an experiment. Using their technology, they’ll willingly and instantly create a game built around a character or characters of your creation -- and since they’ve got their hands on some superior tech, the game they produce will be an optimal, perfect, TENOUTTATEN release that takes your basic idea and brings it to its apotheosis.
But that game hinges solely on a simple question: who do you want to play as?
That’s it. No limits. No absolutes. No requirements. No interference. This is your chance to say whoever or whatever you want to play as; don't bother holding back. Ninja? Pirate? Ninja pirate? Pirate ninja? You can have it, even if it’s just for the sake of a hypothetical question. The important thing is that, if only for a moment, it’s always fun to realize the possibilities that can be explored. Plus you can show off to others, so that’s typically a plus. So very quickly, I’ll get the ball rolling -- with the proper music, of course.
1) More animals!!
I hate having to go here, since I just used an example with Tokyo Jungle -- but I can’t help myself. The animal kingdom is full of amazing creatures, so you know what would be able to tap their majesty, ability, and ferocity? A fighting game where you play as nothing but animals. Imagine the potential: wolves that play like Terry Bogard and Rock Howard. Rush down with a cheetah. Show Zangief what’s up by playing as a grappler bear. It could be a traditional fighter, but there’s nothing stopping a bit of divergence; when habitats and environments get thrown into the mix, it could make for some crazy matches.
2) A god (or goddess) in a pantheon!!
Playing as Palutena in Smash 4 has opened up my eyes to the opportunities inherent in playing as a god or goddess. Well, Okami did that previously, but the idea is still there: what happens when you give players a character that has to show benevolence to downtrodden peoples, or enact some divine intervention to resolve the unresolvable? More to the point, what happens when your actions conflict with the interests of other gods -- and how would that affect the people that have put their faith in you? A game where you can either go to the ground floor and mingle with mortals or enact change from afar might work…but then again, I’m not opposed to a system that would allow for some sick goddess combos against other gods. Cataclysmic as that may be, even if that’s kind of the point.
3) A straight-up detective!!
So Batman: Arkham Knight made me realize how much I want to play as a pure detective. And while L.A. Noire might be what I’m asking for, there’s nothing wrong with asking for more of it, right? I want the chance to solve crimes with sharp wits and hard evidence, not with a surplus of money or by shouting insanely at people. There’s already a good blueprint to follow with the Ace Attorney games or the Forensics section of Trauma Team -- so all it takes are some good characters, nigh-unsolvable mysteries, and a sleuth I’d want to follow to hell and back. Simple demands, without a doubt.
I can think of more guys and ladies I want to play as than just those, but you get the idea. And besides, this post isn’t necessarily about me. I want to give anyone reading this a chance to vent -- to speak out, to get their imaginations going, to commit their ideas to computer screens, or simply keep their fingers in motion to make them perfect for the big piano recital coming up . So let me see your thoughts, your ideas, and everything you have to offer.
Who do you want to play as? Tell all. And above all else, have fun -- and thanks for reading.
And now to wait for the moment when someone gleefully declares they want to play as a free-floating, sentient set of genitalia. This being the internet, I’d be surprised if it didn’t happen.