Monday, 23 April 2012

I just know if I start talking about character depth, this will be a long post.

     The characters are, essentially, the heart of any story. And in games, a media that combines just about every narrative platform and therefore immersing you in the story from every angle, the characters must be that bit stronger than in any other type of media. You’re not reading a book, where aesthetics and voices are left to your imagination, nor are you watching a film, where your only task is to watch the drama unfold with no involvement in the story at all. In a game, you have to connect with the character you play as- you don’t necessarily have to sympathise with them, or be on their side, but there needs to be a connection there. If the protagonist is a general all-round genuine jerk, you may not agree with him, but a well-written game will still have you understand why he does what he does, and feel some degree of empathy toward him. The same isn’t quite so essential in, say, film; you’re taking a backseat in the story. You can hate whoever you want to hate and sympathise with whoever you like and it won’t have such an impact on your immersion in the story. That isn’t to say that only games get this effect down-pat, of course.

     Anyway, characterisation is constructed from a number of ingredients; aesthetics, the characters outward appearance, script, the personality the writers have assigned and the mannerisms they may be given, and acting, the way the actor or, in this case, voice actor, translates concept into form.

     The harmony of these elements is what creates a realistic, believable character. The way a characters personality and voice match or contrast their appearance creates the depth of their personality on a whole other level than it could be written or drawn or acted out. A hench bodybuilder-looking tank-type character gives off an entirely different aura when he has a falsetto or child-like voice and is terrified of his own shadow, for example.

     I’m going to bring a few case studies into this, just to show some examples of perfect characterisation, and the difference between how it can be achieved in-game as opposed to other media. The first has to be (don’t hate me for bringing an anime into this) One Piece- visually, nothing beats One Piece in terms of character diversity. Manga and anime is pretty well-known for having cliché characters who all have the same face. OP couldn’t be more opposite, taking just about every cliché in the book and tearing it to shreds in some way or another (if a story features a character associated with gothic culture, for example, they will always, without a doubt, be a total badass, right? Only in OP would the guy with the ability to manipulate shadows, who lives in a haunted castle with a mad scientist creating an army of zombies for him, be a fat guy with a high, annoying voice). Then there’s the fact that when Oda bases a character on a real person, the resemblance can be somewhat genius.
     As for acting, the voice actors chosen are simply perfect (the godawful dubs are excluded) a running theme in One Piece is to give characters a voice that completely contrasts their appearance and/or personality- usually the voice is chosen to fit the personality but contrast the appearance, but sometimes all three clash. But in a way that works well- this is usually done in the case of villainous characters, in a way that instils our immediate hatred of them before we even learn their nature.
     But what makes OP amazing is the amount of depth in every character. Everybody in One Piece has at least one hindering weakness, be it a general lack of intelligence, a ridiculous lack of any sense of direction, or being honestly, hinderingly, pathetically wimpy (the character in question wins about 3 fights in the whole series, ALL of which through trickery and lies, and NONE of which without making a determined attempt to run like hell first). But the real crowning feature, and the core point I was getting at before, is how you connect with the world of One Piece through the main characters. And this is built up and pulled off as an art form. Throughout the series, no matter what happens, Luffy, with Main Protagonist Power, will always show up to save the day, against all odds, always knowing what to do and, most importantly, what to say to put those around him on the right track. In this way, such faith in him is built up in the viewer that when finally, Luffy is completely helpless to save his crew and watches his own brother die to save him, it actually comes as a shock to the viewer- when Luffy breaks down, the entire feel of the show takes a whole new direction for a while.

     Then there’s the PS2 game Ico, possibly the polar opposite of One Piece. The game is about Ico, a boy with horns exiled from his town and locked in a labyrinth, and Yorda, a girl who speaks a strange foreign language and is also locked in the labyrinth, for reasons unknown. Ico must guide Yorda out of the labyrinth with him, a task made increasingly difficult by numerous shadow-beings hunting Yorda (and the fact that Yorda is kind of a huge wuss).This is literally the only setup we receive, and very little is revealed throughout the game. In fact, the only way we know Ico was exiled because of his horns is because it says so in the manual. This is bordering on an avatar/actor scenario; an ‘actor’ being a character the player actually plays as, and an avatar being simply an incarnation of the player oneself in the game world. In order for an actor-type character to be effective, they have to have a lot of just that: character. They must be accessible for us as an audience. Yet, in this situation, Ico is certainly an actor-type character, yet we know very little about him, even his personality. But somehow you do connect with Ico- possibly through Yorda. That is, rather than connecting with either one character, you feel for the bond between Ico and Yorda, who despite having just met and not even speaking the same language, neither understanding why the other is sealed in the same situation, develop a strong bond and the need to protect one another. Just watch the cutscene of when they first meet, at the start of the game (skip to 9:05).
     There is little to say about voice-acting since the whole game contains all of about 5 lines of speech, none of which is in any real language (aside from Yorda’s mysterious language, subtitles to which are only unlocked after completing the game once, Ico speaks a fictional language that apparently was derived from a combination of Japanese and Pig-Latin). And in these few lines of speech, it’s impossible to gauge either characters personality. However, it’s easy to pick up on Ico’s strong will and willingness to protect Yorda no matter what, and Yorda’s complete kind gentleness without the use of script at all. This is partly visual- both are complete opposites in appearance, Ico looking scruffy and boyish while Yorda’s skin and dress are both such a pale white she practically glows all the time. But it’s also partly down to the life-like animation; there’s something endearing about the way Yorda shakes her head and backs up if Ico calls her down from a ledge that’s too high to jump, for example. And so much detail is put into the AI; when you step outside, if there’s a bunch of birds nearby, Yorda will playfully run toward them and watch them fly away, sometimes turning to Ico and pointing at the birds (it’s adorable). You grow to somehow know both characters personalities despite almost without words at all.

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