During a conversation in a slack channel focused on all the feelings we feel when we play BioWare games, a question of identity and relatedness came up. We started talking about why BioWare games stand out on this count.
For me, they do, and I think they always will. The only other games where I’m close to feeling any kund of connection with my player character I can generate them myself, or they have some form of dialogue options to make me feel that I’m not completely locked into conversation. The only game where I’ve felt a connection to the protagonist despite it being a linear story was The Order|1886, where Galahad still did pretty much what I would have had the game starred anyone such as Shepard or Hawke.
Games I absolutely can’t stand from an identification perspective are games like GTA V which is both ethically and politically so far off my map that sometimes I get so disgusted I have to turn off the game just to catch my breath. Not only is a man like Trevor is a man like Trevor morally reprehensible, he also spouts views and engages in acts that I find actively disgusting or vile. His view on women, how willing he is to resort to torture despite knowing it doesn’t work, his psychopatic outlook on life. I share nothing with Trevor, not even as an exercise in escapism does Trevor work for me.
For me to enjoy a game, I need to feel in control. For me to feel in control, there can be no dissonance between how I would want to act and how the character acts in the game. Unfortunately for me, that excludes a whole bunch of games. I’m not very good at imagining myself as a man. Unfortunately for me, that’s what most games asks of women – that we set aside ourselves and go live in a man’s body for a while. I don’t enjoy it, it’s not fun for me, in particular when I have to do it with a character like Trevor.
Identification, representation is important, and it is important even if we’re not aware of it being important to us. To see oneself mirrored as a hero in a game – it’s like breathing a sigh of relief.
Part of the emotional investment in games comes from being able to identify with the protagonist. Through the conversation choices in games like Dragon Age, The Banner Saga or any of the Telltale Games the player can – if not completely decide how to react – at least steer the conversation in a direction they like. That, in combination with following a character through multiple games, like Shepard in Mass Effect, creates a feeling of “I know this person, this is my hero”. In Mass Effect with Shepard there is also the interesting juxtaposition between power and powerlessness. The story is so overwhelmingly “save the world”-ish that the force she’s going up against and the treatment she receives from the Council who are supposed to be on her side creates an interesting underdog situation.
Shepard is probably one of the most elite soldiers in the Mass Effect universe, but the council treats her as a political tool, the alliance treats her as a scapegoat and the rest of the world is just too paralysed or apathetic to act. For me, this makes Shepard both sympathetic and venerable. An underdog despite her elite status.
The only other character I’ve felt come even close to this level of identification is Hawke, but for completely different reasons.
Hawke’s story is less about a grand scale of destruction or the end of the world as we know it. If Hawke fails, only her family and friends will be the ones to suffer. Hawke’s is a personal journey over a much smaller time frame in a much smaller universe – the city of Kirkwall. Dragon Age II is cleverly divided in to three acts, which is something you could argue Mass Effect to be as well, although over a longer period of time. The thing that both games have in common is that the character develops.
For Hawke, this is really a journey that starts and ends with her family. Her father is dead when the journey begins, only her mother and twin siblings Carver and Bethany remain. One of the twins are lost as the group attempts to flee to Kirkwall, where they expect to be met and treated as nobility, only to discover that Hawke’s uncle has lost everything gambling.
For Hawke this becomes the start of the journey to redeem her family name – primarily for the sake of her mother. And she does. Hawke regains all the lost glory of her mother’s family name, but in her triumph she also loses the family she fought for. All the while the chaos of Kirkwall rages around her. Dragon Age II is an intimate game with a set of small scale events that nevertheless manages to change the whole of Thedas. In the middle stands Hawke, just trying to get by while the world falls apart around her. This struggle is one of the reasons why I’m sympathetic towards her.
Cue almost any other computer game hero ever and you’ll get a short vignette where the bad guys kill a family you as a player barely know and you’re expected to care about them enough to get your revenge, when in fact the people you’re supposed to care about feel very much like props. In addition to that, the character has been cast in the same mould as pretty much every hero in a game ever – stoic in the face of losing his family and set upon revenge. Always the hero, never the human being.
When Hawke’s mother dies, she mourns, maybe not that long, but she does. As a player you can decide. Revenge or forgiveness? That is the choice that makes me feel closer to her. A hero that feels something is a hero I can identify with.