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How to Do the Faceless Hero Right

So here's the deal,

The faceless hero is a protagonist you've no doubt played, they've been around for a while now, popularized most notably by the Master Chief and Gordon Freeman. Obviously the objective of this kind of character is to allow the player to more easily immerse theirself into the game, to allow them to literally put them into their character's shows.

The main problem with this though is that without a choice system, it's difficult to build a narrative around this kind of character; if the player has no input on the story and the character they play is simply a vessel for that player, there really isn't any room there to insert a plot. Take the Master Chief for example; criticize his lack of personality and any Halo player worth his salt will quickly refer you to the books, where his character is "much more fleshed out."

I don't really view this as a point for the character though; if you can't work a character into a plot within its original medium, they're simply not that great a character. If I said that Anakin Skywalker wasn't a whiny angsty power hungry bitch, it would be hard to justify grounding my argument outside the movies to anyone that's not a "hardcore" Star Wars fan who's read into the extended universe. The point is, the fact that the most interesting parts of the Chief's character take place outside the games says a lot about how undeveloped he is, when he very possibly could be.

I'll give you an example. There's a Joe Sacco graphic novel called Palestine; it's an account of true events told through a comic strip from the point of view of Sacco on his 3 month long trip through Palestine. The point of the book is to give readers insight into the point of view of the less-frequently-sided-with-than-the-Israelis Palestinians. Just like a lot of games, it's a one-sided and some what small-scale viewpoint of a much larger conflict, but it's told through a character with their own opinions and allegiances. Even in Halo this is the case; the Chief is the prototypical faceless hero, and he has his own emotions and views.

Just like in Halo, though, in Palestine, Sacco encourages us to form our own opinions, because as a journalist, that is his primary goal with the book. It's even in the art style, as Sacco's character's eyes have no pupils, all but begging the reader to insert theirs. The immersion is seamless; it instantly becomes I think that's awful, that looks terrifying to me. So while we have enough of a character here to satisfy the need for a functioning protagonist, their influence is small enough to allow us to create a very nearly unpersuaded view of our own.

Another example of a successful faceless hero is in the Digital Anvil space sim Freelancer. In the game, you play as Edison Trent, the eponymous freelancer thrust into the middle of a literally galaxy-wide conflict. Just like Sacco and Chief, his influence on the story is minor, he (along with the player) are essentially dragged along for the ride, in fact it almost feels like you're being led around on a leash. I still haven't decided how I feel about that, but I digress. The point is that in Freelancer, you're given freedom. Not so much choice as freedom, I think that's an important distinction. Choice is more of an instance by instance thing, where as freedom is a kind of sandbox game feel, and that's definitely what Freelancer is.

Imaging an average of 2 - 3 planets and 3 space stations for each of these systems, big fuckin place

You are given the complete freedom to progress through the game as you wish; with the exception of one example I'll mention later, you can drop in and out of the story as you please, work for any of the dozens of factions, fly any kind of ship you want excluding capitol (capital?) ships, be a smuggler, a pirate, a member of the navy or police of any of the 4 nations, endlessly customize your ship's weapons and auxiliaries, the list goes on.

What freelancer does really well is that it gives the universe tons of back story, so you don't come in without a context, but it introduces you to the character which is very much yours at a point in his life where everything is fresh. You develop relationships and allegiances at the same pace that Trent does, so they feel like your friends, your opinions, and most prominently, your ship.

The semi-unrelated point I said I'd come back to is that even with all this freedom, it does not suffer from the same condition as COUNTLESS RPGs do in that when the story gets focused near the end, you lose the ability to refuse the missions, because there's urgency, something is threatening life as we know it, so no, you're not allowed to go kill a couple razorbats or direwolves to get some more money and level up just once more, there's shit needs doin!

I can't tell you how many times I've used this image over the past 4 months. ugh

The final element of a good faceless hero is epitomized in Bioshock. While it's true that Jack doesn't have much of a character of his own, the firs tperson viewpoint of the game really emphasizes the fact that things are happening to you. That is a very important je ne sais quoi for a faceless hero; while they need their own character, the goal of of this type of character is immersion, so the goings on in the game still need to feel like their occurring to the player, not the character. This is one of those very difficult to define qualities of a game that is really achieved through competent design, as well as strong atmosphere. Another game that did this well was the game I swore I wouldn't mention by name in a faceless hero article because it's SOOOOOO cliche (imagine an accent agu over the e there).

Unfortunately, this POV is an easy one to mess up. While great gameplay wise, the chief as a character isn't really that great in the games, and the books shouldn't be able to compensate for that. Nomad in Crysis also flopped as a character, as did Bioshock's Jack, even though he did one thing very right. It seems then that there are really 3 main requirements to making the right faceless hero; They need a face that's not too big, it has to grow with yours, and it has to feel like yours, through freedom or otherwise. At the end of the day though the main thing is this: it's a light touch that crafts the face, a small chisel, not a hammer.

~ Om nom nom nom...
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About Om Nom On Soulsone of us since 4:57 PM on 02.27.2010

So here's me,

My real name is Max and I'm a diehard Browncoat. I also have an encyclopedic knowledge of the Star Wars universe left over from a childhood obsession, as well as an actual Star Wars encyclopedia, but that's another matter.

I like to sleep, but keep odd hours, I like food A LOT, I like TV on occasion, I'm not a huge fan of any music except symphonic, and apparently I have bad music taste, even at 20 I can barely grow enough facial hair to justify shaving more than twice a week, I love to write, I kinda read, I hate a couple of the people in my J-school program, HBO is perfect, LOST is actually alright, I'm a total gearhead, Avatar was a terrible movie but an incredible experience, How to Train Your Dragon was very, VERY awesome, and all I want at this moment is a 1:1 stuffed Appa.

Guess what this last paragraph used to be for? My two cents on the games/art debate. Guess what's here now? NOTHING, and that's the way I likes it.

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