Candied, crushed sago't gulaman
“Watch what you say to me
you see me and you know I’m tooled up
you don’t want to see me cut the fool, brah.”
–T.I., Watch what you say to me
I’ve spent the last few months teaching Creative Writing for Video Games at a particular College. At the beginning of every semester, I make it a point to ask students what they like and don’t like about video games so I can gauge the class’ general understanding and exposure to the medium.
Every semester, I get a fair handful of “I don’t like fetch quests and escort missions.” Other times, I get “Tutorial stages are unnecessary and long.” One time, a student said she didn’t like it when non-playable characters (NPCs) talk down to her.
“Talk down to the hero, you mean,” I said.
“Talk down to me,” she insisted. “I’m the hero. I make the decisions in the game. The character on screen is just a character I play.”
Fair point. In any game, the player is the hero. Outside of being the central character, the hero can be identified through two general criteria: if the character makes critical decisions that influence the game world, and if the character has a character journey.
Video games are unique as a medium because of its interactivity. Unlike other media such as TV or literature, the video game audience actively participates in the unfolding of the game story. Players don’t just watch the hero overcome obstacles. We guide the hero through those obstacles. We are the hero.
The hero. Not just the central character. Often times, the video game hero is above average, with special skills and characteristics, or he is hand-picked by destiny to save the world. This makes sense because video game players enjoy vicarious thrills. If the choice is between playing as Kratos, a warrior who can slay gods, or playing as Joe Shmoe, telephone salesman, I know who I’ll choose any day.
I am the game hero. The fate of the world rests on my shoulders. I alone can wield the ultimate weapon and defeat unimaginable odds. I choose who should be spared and who should be put to the blade. So why on earth are all these NPCs constantly talking shit at me?
From a game designer’s view point, this is easy enough to understand. By default, the hero starts out as the dumbest character in the game simply because the player does not know this game world yet. Before becoming the hero of destiny, the player first has to learn about the game world’s rules and mechanics. The simplest way to do this is to have NPCs explain everything to the hero.
This tactic, however, can be annoying the longer the game insists on explaining everything to the hero.
Certainly, game developers are aware of this conundrum. Players need information but if the information is readily given, this either diminishes the game’s challenge or it can hamper the gaming experience. Players want to play the game, not sit through hours of instruction and backstory.
(In this same manner, games with obligatory 30-minute opening cut scenes have fallen out of fashion. Recognizing this fact has forced game designers to rethink the way games present backstory. Instead of cut scenes and endless text scrolling, games like Bioshock have scattered audio recordings that provide bite-sized backstories that players can collect and piece together if they want. The narrative then is no longer obligatory for gamers who don’t want to be bogged down by the story, while serving as incentive for gamers who follow the story.)
Many games have tried to explore other avenues of presenting players with information.
In games where the hero is mute, NPCs simply tell the hero what to do. Sometimes, when the hero has a voice, the hero character calls out the NPCs that constantly order him around. Other times, NPCs will chastise the hero for not knowing certain things, and then proceed on explaining, whether or not the player wants to hear it.
I am currently ten hours into Ni No Kuni and I’ve run headlong into this problem. It’s a wonderful game if it were not for all this unnecessary and annoying dialogue. It’s come to a point where I have to stop playing every 20 minutes because of the amount of horseshit these NPCs are saying to my character.
In Ni No Kuni, I am destined to be this powerful wizard who can sling fireballs at a whim. Yet everyone just assumes I’m slow in the head. The NPCs literally say these things to my face. I could raze all these kingdoms to the ground if I wanted, yet NPCs insist on calling me names like “dummy” and telling me how much they hate having to explain things to me. It doesn’t help either that my character often responds with a witty “Huh?”
This annoys me because the hero character is portrayed as someone who can’t figure things out on his own. This tactic can be insulting to players too, because we’re the hero, and we’re not dumb.
An alternative way of letting the player learn about the game world without framing the hero as a dumbass is through the overused amnesia trope. See, the game hero isn’t dumb. He just… forgot things. This gambit affords the game a tutorial stage where NPCs “remind” the hero of how things work.
(Unfortunately, the amnesia trope is far overused. As with any cliché, it’s an unimaginative way of filling the players in.)
All these avenues, however, remain problematic. Whether or not the hero character is aware that NPCs are ordering him around, the hero is still severely diminished. When NPCs constantly tell the hero what to do, he is not a hero but the game world’s errand boy.
This problem with dialogue diminishing the hero’s status can lead to what my students consistently consider as the least enjoyable aspect of video games: fetch quests.
In Dead Island, players can choose between four characters– the only four people in the entire island who are somehow immune from the horrific zombie outbreak. Logic dictates that the four playable characters should be protected at all costs. They’re they only chance humanity has of ever finding a cure.
Instead, NPCs order the playable characters to roam the island searching for bottles of wine and missing teddy bears to comfort terrified tourists and young children cowering inside their hotel rooms. The NPCs do this throughout the entire game.
Eventually, I gave up on the Dead Island because I couldn’t find a compelling enough reason to finish it. These playable characters are not heroes, and their actions and choices do little to influence the game world. Playing the game no longer felt good, it felt like a chore. I couldn’t invest in the characters’ fates, so I quit.
This, I believe, is a defining aspect of video games. If the players are the hero, then games ought to make the players care for the hero and the fate of his world. If games insist on making players feel dumb and disempowered, then why on earth would we want to play these game?
There is a need then to further rethink the way video games present information. Just by tweaking phrasing and dialogue, the central character can stop being the game world’s bitch and become the badass he was always meant to be.
There is a world of difference between the proactive and the reactive hero. For decades, the video game hero generally just reacts to whatever NPCs tell him to do. Players are reduced to simply following instructions, jumping when he needs to, and throwing fireballs when he needs to.
But the proactive hero empowers the player. This hero doesn’t get told the information he needs, he demands it– sometimes in spectacular fashion.
When Batman needs to know where Mister Freeze is in Arkham City, Oracle doesn’t just pop in on his intercom and tell him where to go. Instead, Batman swoops in from the darkness and strings mooks up from over gargoyles until they tell him where Mister Freeze is.
Similarly, police investigator Cole Phelps doesn’t take orders from just anyone in L.A. Noire. He tracks down leads and badgers suspects until they break, just to get that critical information he needs.
This small difference can have uncanny implications. It is fun to play as Batman or Cole Phelps, because those guys are hardcore. They’re alpha dudes– they know what they want and they can get it. But it is not as much fun to play as CJ in GTA: San Andreas who, despite his street cred, still gets ordered to deliver burgers to corner store thugs.
This isn’t just nitpicking on video game dialogue– this is about letting the hero be a hero. It shouldn’t be too much to ask for modern video games to keep their characters in character.
A mob boss wouldn’t take orders from a common bartender. The hero who is fated to save the world shouldn’t have to keep getting shit on by hapless NPCs who couldn’t even rid their town of wandering monsters.
If game designers can pour years into making sure the graphics and environments are up to par with players’ expectations, it shouldn’t be too much to ask for better dialogue. Especially if a bit of dialogue tweaking can spell the difference between a game hero and a chump.
 To this day, I’m not certain I was qualified to handle those classes. On the basis that I hold a degree in Creative Writing, and that I play video games, I beat out several teaching applicants who couldn’t tell the difference between Link and Zelda.
 In Poetics, Aristotle points out that characters that start off downtrodden (like fools and beggars) will, by the end of the story, become triumphant. Likewise, characters that revel in their social superiority (like kings and gods) will most probably become fools and beggars. After thousands of years of human history, this is still the same character trajectory used in many soap operas.
 Which is not to say the Adventures of Joe Shmoe, Telephone Salesman couldn’t be an interesting game…
 Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed GTA: San Andreas. But I won’t deny going on murder sprees when these younguns refuse to respect my authority.