I’ve been racking my brain to find one big reason I just couldn’t make Skyrim my game of the year this year, picking Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Yeah, combat can get repetitive, and the quests aren’t terribly deep very often, but it was something more than that.
What I’ve realized now after playing games like Mass Effect, Deus Ex or even Saints Row, I no long can appreciate the long-held tradition of the mute protagonist portrayed, especially if the game is in first person.
As more and more games are having their lead characters fully voice acted, it becomes almost jarring when you play a game and your character is literally a blank slate. You may think that the ability to customize appearance, as in Skyrim, might be enough to make you relate to your character as your own, but without a voice, without a backstory and gameplay almost always in first person view, you don’t relate to your character nearly as well as you would in other games.
If you spend hours tweaking someone’s facial features to perfection, you damn sure want to be able to see it often in the game.
I’ve found a combination of three things makes for the most relatable leads in games that truly feel like an extension of yourself
1) They speak
2) You’ve customized their appearance
3) You can see them constantly in the game.
Combining the first two, the ability to make your character look the way you want, be it their race, gender or even eyebrow thickness, and combining that with an actual personality and backstory, you have a character that really feels like you own them, or often, are them. Mass Effect is far and away the best example of this, but even in a game like Saints Row, I felt connection to my created character despite the game being absolutely absurd on every level and a similar title like Grand Theft Auto IV having much better writing and voice acting. Here, the lead was my own.
The third item is something we don’t think about often, but really is true when you stop and ponder it for a minute. The idea of “first person” gameplay is that the game is putting YOU in the shoes of the hero. Therefore, by definition, you should be able to relate to the hero more, right? Not for me.
Everything is so one sided. Cutscenes exist for a reason, and you can’t have a good dramatic narrative with one person always talking into a void.
Rather, I find that third person games actually make me connect with my character more. We not only see them as real people in cutscenes, but in every moment of the game, you’re watching them. Call it exposure theory if you like, but the more you see them, the more you’re used to them and grow to like them. In custom character games, you can also see your creation at all times, making your work put into their appearance seem worth it.
But then look at Skyrim in comparison. You probably spent a decent amount of time crafting your character, but after those initial moments, how often did you ever see them? Unless you’re playing the game in third person (which is far, far more difficult and cumbersome) you almost NEVER see your character. Even in the equipment screen now, where you load them up with badass armor, you still don’t have an outside view of what they look like. And with not one cutscene in the game, the only time you can truly see your character is when you zoom out to third person, put away your weapon, and swing the camera in an arc around you. And really, how often do you do that?
This fact combined with the complete lack of voice, personality and backstory of your character is the majority of the reason that Skyrim fails from a story perspective. It obviously would have taken an insane amount of work to voice the other 50% of every conversation in the game, or create 12 different histories for each character race, but when you look to a company like Bioware who would do just that, you can see why their stories are always top notch, even if their gameplay doesn’t always match.
Whatever your Shepard looks like, he’s your Shepard.
The mute protagonist is starting to feel like a relic, and if you never see or hear him the whole game, it’s like he barely even exists. We need characters to start in games, not empty boxes, and I hope we’ll have less awkward silences in the future.