This post is a response to Quietschisto’s “Video Games don’t make me love my Wife enough” on RNG. It’s a great rant on the common video game trope of the missing/kidnapped/dead wife as a plot hook – and you should definitely check it out! I wrote a novel of a comment, but still felt like I had some more to say, particularly on the root of the issue Quietschisto is discussing – specifically, lazy writing and character work in games. I can accept this in older games, when technology, writing, and character work wasn’t nearly as important as it is today. In the old Super Mario games, saving Princess Peach was a perfectly acceptable reason to pilot Mario all around the Mushroom Kingdom. Nowadays, however, video games are continuously evolving: better graphics, better stories, more in-depth characters, and vast, open-to-explore settings are pretty standard fare. So why then do many still fall back on the stale, tired trope of “your significant other needs your help” as a call to adventure? Especially when the game does no legwork to get you invested in this absent character, or in the relationship of two (or more) characters that is central to the narrative – telling the player that these things are important to the protagonist simply isn’t enough.
Forewarning: This post is going to have a lot of ranting about popular characters/games – if you disagree with my opinions, that’s great, good and completely valid. Because, these are just that – my own personal opinions.
For me, the main issue stems from these video games abusing a core tenet of writing: the concept of “show, don’t tell.” If a game walks me through a bunch of missions with a certain character, or we see them interacting with our hero in a series of flashbacks, this builds the character up in our minds; we see them, and the bond they share with the protagonist, and it allows us as players to get emotionally invested in both the character, and their relationship with the hero. This is how you build characters, and how you create a deeper emotional attachment to the narrative itself. However, it is all too common in games to skip the “show” and jump straight to the easier “tell.” Instead of showing me my wife, and organically depicting why I should care about her, the game can just tell me to do so. Perfect, right? Is it considered character development to have our male lead simply think “Gosh, I miss my beautiful, intelligent, caring, self-sacrificing, [insert adjective here] wife.”? Well shit, thank you for that. Now I’m feeling much more motivated to run out and save her. And it doesn’t have to be just a “wife” character – it can be a friend, family member, or mentor. This is even more insidious when a child is involved, because it’s an even cheaper way of getting a reaction from the audience – of course no one wants an innocent child to be harmed, so regardless of character development, it’s an easy plot hook. Though this can be used effectively (re: Silent Hill) it’s still cheap. Let’s look at some of these tropes in action from popular games.
I’m going to use some examples from my initial comment on Quietschisto’s post, so you’ll have to forgive me rehashing them here: let’s start with the opening for The Last of Us. This introduction utilizes the tactic I just discussed, to great effect – we see Joel’s pre-teen daughter, Sarah, killed right off the bat. This obviously has a profound effect on Joel’s character, and serves to tug on the heartstrings of the audience. While I acknowledge that this is a dramatic, heartwrenching scene that aptly sets the tone for the harshness of the world, it’s also an extremely cheap way of getting the player invested in Joel as a character. We immediately sympathize with his loss, and understand the attachment he feels toward Ellie, as a substitute for the daughter he lost. Aside from this loss Joel is… a pretty bland character (feel free to boo and hiss in the comments below). He has the same gruff, macho persona as nearly every other action hero, and honestly, he’s quite dull. His relationship with Ellie (which is built upon the foundation of Sarah’s loss) is the only reason his character stands out at all. By using the death of a child (who isn’t important herself – it’s her impact on Joel that matters here) in the introduction, The Last of Us can avoid a lot of grunt work in building his character, because they utilize a cheap hook to make him immediately sympathetic.
Moving on to a slightly different example that probably best exemplifies the lazy, “you should care about this character because I told you so” writing trope: Resident Evil 7. The protagonist, Ethan, is lured out to the Baker farmhouse when he receives a message from his wife that has been missing for years. On the off-chance of finding her, Ethan (of course) sets out to unravel the mystery of her disappearance. A lot of horror writing relies on this trope, because it’s an easy answer to the question: “Why doesn’t the main character just get out of this objectively terrible situation?” Well, because you can’t leave your family member behind, of course! But that’s an entirely different issue for another day. This scenario in Resident Evil 7 is exactly the trope we talked about in the beginning of this write-up: Ethan cares about Mia, but I don’t. The stakes get even higher: there comes a point in the game where you have a significant choice to make. With one cure for the strange virus that has infected the Baker family, you can choose to cure either Zoe, the girl you’ve just met, who has been helping you survive her deranged family, or Mia, your estranged wife.
On its surface level, this choice is laughable: I mean, of course you’re going to choose Mia. Why would you pick the girl you just met over your wife? But if you take a step back, and look objectively at both characters, the game gives you no incentive to choose Mia over Zoe. Her character is completely two-dimensional (in fact, when you first find her, she attacks you) and aside from feeling bad for her, there’s no reason to like her. If the game hadn’t told you she was your wife, and you hadn’t survived the Baker hellhole to rescue her, there would be no reason to pick her. Zoe would be the better choice, given her (in some ways worse) situation, and the fact that she’s helped you thus far. This is the literal pinnacle of lazy writing.
Despite its myriad of other issues, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a fantastic example of a game that allows you to get invested in characters on their own merit. You simply spend so much time with the members of your gang, and Arthur Morgan, the protagonist, that it’s easy to get to know them. Through their actions, conversations with each other, and missions that you complete with them, they each develop their own personality and allow the player to understand them as individuals. Not all of them are likeable, but they are unique, and feel fairly realistic. Ultimately, this makes it extremely easy for the audience to connect with the game emotionally – to the characters, and to their story. It’s why players cry when Arthur dies, or feel deflated when the gang falls apart. In spite of its pacing – largely a result of its open-world design – the game has a phenomenal set of characters that players care about. Many games would benefit from taking this approach – of letting players see characters grow, and choosing whether to identify with them or not based on the things we’re presented, rather than what we’re told about them. Being told what to feel about a character is not only lazy, it’s manipulative.
The problem with “manipulative” writing is that it treats the audience like they’re stupid. Like players can’t be trusted to negotiate these characters and relationships on their own, and need the heavy, guiding hand of the writers to tell them who they should like, and who they should not. It’s aggravating when the writers tell me who I should like and why, while (conveniently) having narrative events support these assertions. Of course, some degree of nuance is often built in to make characters more three-dimensional (everyone loves a sympathetic villain these days) but more often than not, they’re paper people in a paper story. Flat and fairly transparent. I’ll get into this writing style with Life is Strange, and then a more recent example from Ghost of Tsushima, which I’ve been playing for the past few weeks. I’ll be putting a spoiler warning before the Ghost section, for people who haven’t completed it yet.
Life is Strange has a strong plot – it’s fundamentally a mystery, with some fun superpowers thrown into the mix. However, the characters are arguably the main pull of this game; if you aren’t invested in them, the game feels slow, and almost boring. Our two protagonists are Max and Chloe: even if Max is a little too bland, a little too vanilla to get excited about, Chloe is a secondary character for players to latch onto. She’s loud, strong-willed, and voiced exceptionally well by Ashly Burch. A lot of players adore her. I, however, found her character grating, and disliked her immensely. Enter David, the step-father, stage right. See, the game really wants you to dislike David. Because we’re supposed to identify with Chloe, and see things from her perspective, we’re supposed to hate David as much as she does. But here’s the catch: the game doesn’t do anything beyond this to make David unlikeable. It tries to warp narrative events around to make David seem creepy, and overbearing but he just… isn’t, not really. He’s hard on Chloe because she’s acting out, and being a brat. Maybe I’m just old and grumpy, but I didn’t dislike David at all, despite the games (poor) writing doing its best to make me feel that way. He doesn’t treat Joyce (Chloe’s mother) poorly, nor is he unreasonable. If David is really the awful asshole the game wants me to believe he is, then SHOW ME, don’t tell me to dislike him just because Chloe does.
Spoilers for Ghost of Tsushima ahoy! I’m starting with Yuna, who is a likeable character in her own right – she’s brave, and extremely intelligent. Throughout the game, you learn more about her backstory, and how difficult her life has been. The initial crux of Yuna’s character arc comes when she needs the protagonist, Jin Sakai, to help her rescue her brother, Taka. Her brother is a blacksmith – not a warrior. According to Yuna, he’s more on the cowardly side, a bit of a softie. Taka is extremely close with Yuna; they depend on each other, and are best friends. He’s treated like a child, and begins to worry his sister when he starts looking up to Jin and romanticizing his exploits as the Ghost. Of course, we’re told all of these things, not shown. As soon as the story sets this up – did I mention Taka is a sympathetic, younger-brother, who is definitely not a warrior? – I start wondering when Taka is going to die. Everything about this character, from his personality, to his relationship with Yuna and Jin, is designed to evoke sympathy from the player when he (inevitably) dies. And conveniently, Taka’s death also gives Yuna a reason to stay on Tsushima Island.
This writing is so heavy-handed, and such a blatant ploy to make me emotional, my eyes almost rolled out of my head. The game hasn’t actually done any legwork to get me invested in Taka as a character (I think he is present in about 3 or 4 tales) and everything I know about him has been told to me, rather than shown. It’s even more annoying because his death is used as more of a “motivational” stepping stone, rather than a device to make me feel bad for him as a person. Because Taka has died, Yuna (of course) needs revenge – she won’t leave Tsushima for the mainland, which was her initial plan, and she’ll stick around to help our protagonist kill the Khan. I can’t express how much this narrative convenience irritates me. I felt more sadness when my horse was killed than I did at Taka’s demise. RIP Kage – you really were the best horse. I wanted to talk about how Ryuzo is treated by the narrative here, but this post is getting quite long, so I’ll save that for my full review of the game.
I guess it’s time to wind down, now that I’ve been ranting for about 2000 words. I also feel like I’ve meandered a bit past my original point. My main gripes here stem from the lost potential that I see when looking at this kind of writing in video games; they have so much room to get players invested in stories and characters, especially when they have runtimes that exceed 30 or 40 hours. Of course, some structural limitations can make this more challenging – particularly in open-world titles. As Quietschisto pointed out in a comment on his original post “if you’re constantly exploring and dillydalling, you sometimes forget that a minor character even existed.” Looking at you, Breath of the Wild. Linear games have a much easier time working in memorable characters, but open-world games can achieve this as well, as Red Dead Redemption 2 did. Its high time writing in video games moved away from these tired tropes, and utilized the full potential of the medium for players to experience well-rounded, fleshed out characters. In neglecting these building blocks of writing, not only do the characters suffer, but the overall narrative can fall completely flat. The game will have no impact, and be entirely forgettable. The power of stories ultimately exists in the value that the audience (in this case, the players) ascribes to them. If there is no reason to be attached to narrative or character, then what’s the point?
Most games just want an excuse to jumpstart the adventure, and that’s fine, but there are countless creative ways to do so. Not every D&D quest needs to start with the heroes meeting in a tavern. Even games that are heralded as “generation-defining” and generally considered to be well-written can fall into this trap. The Witcher 3, to some extent, relies on this trope, when it presents the missing princess, Ciri, as a catalyst to get the story moving. Nor do I need the writing to feel like the developers are leaning over my shoulder, attempting to guide my thoughts and feelings on plot points and certain characters. If you show me a well-executed character, I am very capable of making my own judgement on their merit, thank you very much. I’m tired of manipulative, shallow writing. Not every game needs a terrible plot hook that attempts to get me invested in a relationship that I’ve been given no reason to buy in to. And then, throughout the course of a 30+ hour adventure, continues to give me zero reason to care about the missing/estranged/kidnapped significant other. Sorry, who? Oh, my princess is in another castle, you say? Good, she can stay there. I’m gonna go pick some flowers, maybe explore a cave or something.
A final thank you to Quietschisto for his original post – don’t forget to check it out!
17 thoughts on “On Writing: Why Should I Care About My Video Game Wife? (a response)”
I can’t believe that was over 2000 words. I normally don’t have the patience to sit through articles that are that long (hence my own short and snappy style of writing).
Excellent points made across the board. Big fan of the inclusion of a positive example to assist in argument. I find far too often people will get so fixated on “this bad” and forget to include “this good” for a full look at the topic.
Are there any other examples aside from Red Dead 2 that standout in your mind as positive examples of establishing characters through their presentation within a game?
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A few examples that spring to my mind: GLaDOS and Wheatley from Portal, most of the cast of Alan Wake, Delilah from Firewatch (who you only get to know via radio. I wanted to put that in my article, but ended up scrapping it). Also, Morgan LeFlay from Monkey Island (which I’ll mention in a separate comment)
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I tend to ramble on for waaay too long, so most of my write-ups are 2000+ words. I’m glad it held your attention!
I think writing about bad examples is easier, because it’s easier to explain why things are terrible (and let’s be honest, it’s fun sometimes to rip bad writing apart). Writing about good examples is a bit more challenging, because beyond “well it appealed to me personally/it resonated with me/I really liked it” a lot of people (myself included) have trouble articulating WHY exactly they felt it was good, or really well-written.
Spider-Man is an example that comes to mind, because I feel like it went the extra mile in building supporting characters in MJ and Miles. We could have just had some throwaway lines from Peter, or a couple scenes of them to establish their personalities, but instead, we get blocks of gameplay where we switch to their perspective. Granted, a lot of people didn’t like these stealth sections, but I thought they were important in getting players more attached to them, and also building them up beyond a couple dialogue lines, and interactions with Peter. Kind of sad, but that’s the only example I can think of off the top of my head…
A lot of the games I’ve been playing lately put emphasis on action, rather than story/characters, so I haven’t thought about this topic in a while. But as games trend toward more in-depth storytelling, I think this is going to become a lot more important. Especially in games where the structure (i.e. open world) makes it harder to work in memorable characters.
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Really nice write-up! I’ll put a link in my post shortly!
While reading I thought of another example of this topic: Tales from Monkey Island (the Telltale Game). All of the Monkey Games pretty much play with this trope on purpose by having Guybrush be the bumbling idiot who thinks he’s saving Elaine, only for her to have everything under control.
But we never got to really interact with Elaine. She had a few scenes, but that was about it. For the most part, it was all fine, since we play Monkey Island for dumb pirate jokes, not intricate character development. But in Tales of Monkey Island, Guybrush is hunted down by the pirate hunter Morgan LeFlay, and you get to spend a lot of time with her. The two clearly form a bond with each other (and therefore with the player). In the end, there’s no choice between Elaine and Morgan, but I (and a lot of other people) vastly would have preferred Morgan to keep on playing a bigger role…
Eh, it’s not quite the same, but I think it’s still worth mentioning here 🙂
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And that’s a great example! I try to ask myself why, in some games, I can get invested in certain characters while others I can’t, but there’s no simple answer. I think “dark” games have an easier time of this, because having a character that is a friendly face in an otherwise hostile world already makes them quite likeable. Like Cortana in the first Halo game (she’s literally the only other ‘person’ you interact with regularly) or Solaire in Dark Souls. Despite their small roles, or short amount of screen time, they’re memorable and easy to get attached to.
On the other hand, I’ve played some JRPGs, or other lengthy titles where I spend dozens of hours with the same characters, but don’t end up liking any of them. I played Octopath Traveler for 80+ hours (according to my Switch) but I didn’t get particularly attached to a single character in that game. They all felt very flat to me, but I know a lot of people would disagree. Different elements resonate with different people. It’s an interesting topic to think about!
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When it comes to the topic of characters, there’s at least as much subjectivity involved as objectivity. Sometimes, we don’t care for characters for whatever reasons, and it’s not even the game’s fault. Still, we’re likely to think that the characters are bland.
Sadly, I haven’t “encountered” any of the characters you have mentioned in your post or the comments leading to it, so there’s not a lot of common ground to discuss^^
But I know from discussions with a couple of friends that opinions over certain characters can differ extremely, and even if both sides can understand where the other one is coming from (which is not always the case), opinions won’t likely change.
It would probably be a fun thing if people who played a game with great or horrible characters dedicated posts to them, to start a lot of tiny discussions, which would could eventually be summarised into the main points of one giant discussion…or maybe i’m daydreaming.
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That’s actually a super interesting idea! It sounds like a book club, but for games instead. Maybe a blogger event/community collab idea for the future?
I was more thinking about it growing organically, rather than having a date where everyone has to have something to say about some characters 🙂
I’ll definitely keep a closer eye on my games’ characters from now on^^
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Great post! I kinda barged in under your comment on Quietschisto’s post, so I already added my two cents about TLOU and RE7. I watched my wife play through Life is Strange and…I don’t have any particular desire to play myself after being nothing but annoyed with most of the characters.
I haven’t progressed more than a few hours into Ghost of Tsushima, but I was already aware of any spoilers due to looking over at the tv at the wrong moment as my wife was playing. Seeing your horse get killed after spending so many hours bonding has turned into an another annoying trend in video games(RDR2, GoT, TLOU). You are given every opportunity to develop your bond with your horse, or any other character for that matter, only for the game to yank them away later in the game seemingly just to tug at your heartstrings.
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Thank you! I thought your point about Far Cry 3 was interesting actually, because I haven’t played that one. It sounded a lot like the Mia/Zoe choice from RE7, in that the choice that the game wants you to make is pretty obvious… and Life is Strange seems pretty divisive – I think you either love it, or hate it! I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more if I had played it when I was 16.
I couldn’t agree more. I think I might hate the “loyal animal dying” trope even more than the things I mentioned in this post. Especially when there is literally no story purpose to the death – it’s not like your character gets stranded or trapped or anything. In GoT, you get a new horse like 10 minutes later, it’s ridiculous. As you say, it is just to tug on your heartstrings and I hate it.
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you made some excellent points, and as an aspiring writer myself I understand how show vs tell is so important – yet my first drafts can be riddled with telling, passive voice ect. A bit different in stories because I am using words as opposed to a game, when there is cinematography and such. for instance instead of telling my readers “she was sad”, I should go “her bottom lip trembled, as she choked back a hard ball in her throat. Her eyes became glassy, and it felt as if her heart had shattered into a mllion tiny pieces”. — The latter is much better, but was a quick example. Its a good thing to learn though when you want to write, and a rule every writer should follow. That doesnt mean you can through in some tells however, because too much showing can also be too much fr a reader as well. With the tropes and the the whole – save my woman thing- I actually never thought of it, but yes it has been overdone. Although Joels daughter crying worked, and i felt so empatehtic, and sad. it worked, but i understand how you mean “lazy writing”. Sad thing is tropes are everywhere. Books, games ,movies, tv shows. Not very often we see something that’s fresh and original. Like Jordan Peeles Get Out. I never seen a movie quite like it before, so I give him props in this era where everything has pretty much been done before. HAHA you probably wouldn’t like Ori and the blind forest. Its got lovely graphics, but we are pulled into a sad story from the start where the orphan errr spirit creature is found, but then its caregiver dies from starvation. lol, once again the writers make us empathetic from the start. However the graphics and music is very beautiful, and I haven’t played the game enough to get the rest of the story line except for Ori has to save the forest and bring it back to life.
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That’s a good example! And games have it much easier, since they are able to convey things visually. as well as with narration and dialogue. I also really enjoyed Get Out.
I haven’t played Ori, so I’m certainly not an authority, but because of its unconventional presentation, and the fact that the characters aren’t humans in a world that we are obviously familiar with, I think the “tropes” could be more forgivable. The death of a parent/guardian can serve an entirely different purpose (as with the Deku Tree in Ocarina of Time) that relates more closely to personal growth and understanding of the world. I don’t find it as annoying, but I guess that’s kind of cherry-picking…