Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Behind the Mask

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 15, 2010

While I may lose a few geek points by this admission, I was never a huge comic book fan. There were a couple of titles I collected (particularly those written by Chris Claremont), and a few others I followed as I could afford them or read friends’ copies. I’ve gotten into passionate arguments over Marvel vs. DC, played a lot of the Champions RPG (then pen-and-paper version, not the MMO), read and been greatly educated by Scott McCloud’s excellent book Understanding Comics, read some collections of older works, and have at least a passing understanding of the history of the medium in the U.S.

So I can’t give up all my geek cred. I just recognize that I’m no authority on the subject. So I hope those scholars on the subject can tolerate my unschooled

So that being said, my appreciation for comics came largely during the 1980s, when certain trends became popular. I’ve read many of the older comics, and they’ve done little for me. And during the 90s, it seemed like the trend became too extreme, and the themes too dark and gritty. But during the era I got into them, the superhero comics I preferred tended to focus almost as much attention on the “secret identity” of the heroes than their super-powered exploits once their masks were donned.

Perhaps they were taking cues from the popularity of Spider-Man, which lavished attention on the unlikely persona of Peter Parker. Parker was very much an unheroic nerd who represented his target audience on many levels. He was picked-on when not ignored entirely, felt like a loser, but was secretly more awesome than any of his peers could imagine. Once the mask was on, however, he was the wise-cracking, quick-thinking, death-defying hero who put it all on the line to do what was right in spite of an inner monologue expressing his own self-doubt.  Peter Parker wasn’t just an act, like Superman’s Clark Kent. No, Spider-Man was Peter Parker. And it was the banal problems of his “real life” that made Spider-Man so special. At least to me.

That was why I enjoyed reading the titles I did. I think I was more interested in the stories of their “off-duty” lives while lounging around Xavier’s school or whatnot than their terrific near-magical battles against evil. But of course, it was the latter that made the former interesting. It’s probably the same reason I enjoy some Urban Fantasy today.  I love seeing the mundane against the backdrop of the fantastic.

But more than that, I realized not much later, that this was really how character was developed. Superheroes battling stereotypical evil in the gold and silver age of comics was all well and good, but it was also very one-dimensional. And boring, in the long run. Being faster than a speeding bullet and stronger than a locomotive might be good enough for a pre-adolescent for a short time. But it’s not enough for an audience with more life experience to really care.

The movies have figured this out. Mostly. Even as far back as the late 1970s when the blockbuster Superman II was mainly about the conflict between Clark Kent’s love life versus his assumed duty. Ditto for Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. The recent Iron Man movies were all about what could drive a hedonistic playboy to assume – and fight to maintain – that kind of responsibility that nobody in their right mind would want to have. Best of them all (IMO, of course) was Pixar’s The Incredibles, which explored the theme of family relationships in the heat of a blast furnace. This made the movies about humans who happened to be heroes, not heroes who were incidentally also humans.

Call it the maturing of the genre, if you want. Maybe it is. A twelve-year-old might call it adding more “boring parts.” But it has made comic-book superhero fiction  — still typically associated with an unsophisticated pre-adolescent male audience —  richer and better. And certainly more popular on the silver screen.

So let’s talk games.

The press and fans are always buzzing about having better story in games. There’s a fundamental problem with the protagonist in games being controlled by a player who is not so concerned about plot and character development as simply winning. But even taking that out of the equation, we’re still kinda stuck in the Silver Age comic book era as far as plot is concerned.

We’re fortunately taking some very interesting strides beyond this point, but for the most part games retreat to what they do best – which is to focus on the highly interactive action-y parts. The on-duty stuff. Maybe we get some cut-scenes to reveal more about the character behind the mask, but there’s usually not much.

I’ve harped plenty on the Persona games, but that’s in part because they did find a way to break the mold. A sizable chunk of those games involved what you did during the off hours. Building character, literally. Although the relationships with other characters developed along a fairly linear script (with some greater deviation allowed in Persona 4 – relationships with members of the opposite sex of the same age groups didn’t automatically turn romantic, for example), there were choices to be made of what relationships to pursue, what skills to improve, and what activities to engage in.

The brilliance of these games was that this “boring stuff” was tied directly into the core game mechanics. Relationships gave you strength and new options. Bonds of friendship with your teammates gave them strength, new powers, and a willingness to literally take a bullet for you. While your avatar  remained something of a “silent hero” who was a blank slate for you to project whatever character you wanted to see, this really made the other characters in the game come alive.

We talk about games giving us the power to make important decisions with consequences. But maybe we need to see more of the unimportant decisions – with consequences of their own. I’d like to see the characters when they aren’t busy saving the world or being kidnapped or cursing the hero for putting a crimp in their plans for world domination. Better stories may begin with better characters, and that may involve seeing them when their guard is down and their masks are off.

Filed Under: Design, Geek Life - Comments: 3 Comments to Read

  • Robyrt said,

    This is exactly how I feel about comic books – I much prefer the ’80s Claremont style of shoehorning character development into the most improbable of plots over the fairy-tale ’60s style or the antihero-centric ’90s. Dragon Age also attempts to tie character development to power level, but the effects gained are so minor compared to Persona that it feels like an afterthought.

    http://geoffklock.blogspot.com has been running a series of long-winded literary analyses on every single Claremont-penned issue of X-Men during the 70s and 80s. It brought back a lot of good memories for me.

  • McTeddy said,

    One major problem with using character relationships in mechanics is that it leads to a mechanical friendship. This leads to a person thinking “Do I need the shield boost or the attack bonus… Sorry Phil… I like my swords sharp.”

    This is one of the biggest problems I find in getting attached to modern characters. In an old game I grew to like people because of their character and personality. Dev’s didn’t have to tell me to make friends, I did it because I chose to. To this day I consider Locke Cole of Final Fantasy 3/6 to be one of my closest friends (Despite him not being real). Hell, I still have something of a crush of Aya Brae of parasite eve.

    In a pre-written story, the characters will act as the characters are meant to. In the newfound “freedom” games, they act according to your mechanical choices of how they should act. I don’t choose “Don’t worry, I’ll protect you” answer because I care and want to protect her, I choose it because I want the “Got Laid” achievement.

    I agree that the key to stronger characters is to show the character behind the mask, but it should be an optional thing for players want more. Allow me to walk about my fort and talk to my new friends because I WANT to meet them, not because I want the bonus I get from it.

    Peter Molyneux preached about how much I’d love my Dog in Fable 2 because it was tied so much into the mechanics. Instead he became my stupid used condom detecting machine that wouldn’t shut up. I remember cheering when Mr Baddy had his way. PEACE AND QUIET AT LAST!

    Let me see the characters for who they are and let me decide whether to become attached. Trying to force it through mechanics leads me to look at these people in the wrong light.

  • Whiner said,

    I don’t choose “Don’t worry, I’ll protect you” answer because I care and want to protect her, I choose it because I want the “Got Laid” achievement.

    You can force your way through to get the points, but at the same time, many Dragon Age players report finding it quite difficult to make choices that go against character, because they are getting emotionally involved.

    I think it helps in DA’s case that there are multiple options at every point and quite often many of them will ‘work’ for your purposes, so you’re still engaging your own vision of your character’s personality in interactions, instead of picking between blatantly obvious “please this character / annoy this character” branches (which is sometimes too common in VNs)

    One thing I’m trying to do in Magical Diary is not lock you into success-or-failure with any datable character until quite late in the game. I want to give the player a lot of freedom to get to know the various characters at their own pace, instead of worrying about making the ‘right’ choice at every juncture to earn points with them. Then later, there should be a big obvious choice about whether or not you WANT to pursue this character romantically. Probably. We’ll see.