Player Character Influence
It’s the way a player interacts with the game, and it’s the way they are brought into the story where relevant. It goes beyond the discussions of silent protagonists and full characterisation, and includes customisation and choice.
Imagine a game you love, and the remember the player character. Maybe you were able to customise every item of clothing, every colour, every inch of their face or body. Maybe you were able to choose the dialogue or significant story developments in the game.
Maybe you weren’t.
Think about that character and then about how different the game would have been if you changed those features. What if Red gave speeches on the ethics of training Pokemon? What if Sora said nothing at all? What if the X-Com commander could side with Exalt?
The type of player character should be considered carefully. There are some genres that can function properly with a whole range of player character types, and there some that cannot. For example, silent protagonists are a natural fit for first person shooter (FPS) games because the story is minimal and any dialogue would be unnecessary or distracting.
Strategy games are another genre that focuses less on a player avatar than other types of games. In the case of X-Com: Enemy Unknown, the player is a nameless, faceless character referred to by advisors addressing the screen and calling them “commander”. In Banished, a city building indie game, there is no explicit character, just a mysterious entity that orders construction, demolition and employment.
There is also the case of Crusader Kings 2, which has the player control a string of characters over the span of a single game. The player can influence the character and mould them into an efficient ruler, and control many aspects of their lives, but the character is not the player. For example, chaste characters can reject lovers, lusty characters cannot; and certain law changes such as absolute cognitive succession (no gender discrimination) are restricted to certain cultures. Or on the more extreme side, characters that have the ‘lunatic’ or ‘paranoid’ traits can act in counter-productive ways.
Role-playing games can involve silent, customisable or set characters depending on the object of the game. The Shin Megami Tensei series is about choice and multiple endings, so ‘blank slate’ characters work well to give the player an object to project their choices onto. While games that focus on story without player choice to advance the plot may as well invest in making a set character that does not change with each play through.
And what about customisation? Many games now offer male and female avatars, and others offer skin, hair and eye colour as well. The Sims series has been pushed by fans to improve customisation of models and expand on the possible choices, but it’s a life simulator, and that’s realistic for the genre.
Massive Multiplayer Online (MMO) games also offer customisation, with different races, genders, and often pallet swaps as well. It’s as much an obvious choice as in The Sims – you want to be distinguished from the other players.
So think about it when you play. Imagine the game with a different kind of player character, and how different your experience of it would be.