“Keepin’ It (Kinda) Real”: Characterization and Authenticity in Video Games

[3 June 2009]

By G. Christopher Williams

PopMatters Multimedia Editor

Sherlock Holmes: Baffled as Always?

I was recently revisiting Frogwares’ adventure game, Sherlock Holmes: The Awakening.  Very early in the game as I was just growing accustomed to taking on the role of the most brilliant deductive mind to ever penetrate the fogs and mystery of Victorian England, I stopped to ask a policeman the way to a bookstore about three blocks away from 221 B Baker Street.  While I had just left the environs of my flat containing all of the familiar odds and ends associated with Holmes, like his trusty violin and oft used tobacco pipe, it was a decidedly disconcerting moment in my brief life as the most observant detective in literary fiction to discover that Holmes apparently had never noted the location of a shop less than a half mile from his own home.

This was not the Sherlock Holmes that I had read about in Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories and novels… He would have noticed such a thing.

Instead, I was facing a bit of awkwardly considered dialogue that served as a help to a player playing the role of Holmes that was unfamiliar with the game world that he had just been introduced to.  I was reminded that I was not Sherlock Holmes and that I was merely being introduced to a game location in a relatively obvious kind of way. 

This experience reminded me of my frustrations with another game set in London, 2002’s The Getaway.  Developer Team SOHO had bragged prior to the game’s release about the authenticity that the game aspired to by removing typically “intrusive” game mechanisms from the screen.  The Getaway, as a Grand Theft Auto-style sandbox game, would do away with interface elements like an omnipresent map or radar screen showing the player’s current location and other elements like a character’s health bar.  Largely, the developer argued, such elements detracted from the realism of the game by obscuring the direct experience of the game’s world.

Navigating the “familiar” streets of London in The Getaway

Such a desire for versimilitude seemed all well and good until I began watching the story unfold.  Being introduced to my new “self,” one Mark Hammond a former London gangster, through a horrific cutscene in which Hammond’s motivation for re-entering the life of a criminal were established, I found myself plopped down on an unfamiliar London street.  Hopping in a car, I very quickly became lost in what the publishers claimed was a very accurate representation of London’s streets.  Given that I had never been to London (and, of course, lacking a map of the area), I was not terribly surprised at the feeling of overwhelming uncertainty about where I was.  But I was surprised that I was also struck by an overwhelming uncertainty about who I was.  What bothered me was that I was supposed to be inhabiting the persona of a man who had lived in London for his entire adult life.  Like the moment in Sherlock Holmes: The Awakening, I realized that I was not the character that I was supposed to be; I was not Mark Hammond, Londoner.  Realistically, Hammond would know his way around these streets, and ironically, Team SOHO, by removing an “unrealistic” element like a HUD that provided a map of the London streets, had made Hammond an unrealistic character, an inauthentic version of a man from London.

Maintaing consistency in the way that an audience apprehends a character is of absolute necessity in creating authentic characters in fiction, and games that intend to tell stories need to pay attention to some different issues than prior storytellers have had to concern themselves with in regards to such consistency.  Not only should a video game character’s attitudes and behaviors remain consistent with their personality and intellect (Holmes as an investigator known for his superhuman observational abilities should know where a book shop right around the corner from his flat is), but the mechanics of the game have to maintain this consistency as well (an old London gangster should know basically where he is in the town that he grew up in).  If this calls for seemingly intrusive elements like HUDs and the like, so be it.  While something like a health bar seems like an unusual element to hang in mid-air to the left of my vision (as it does as I look at the screen as a player), it is far less realistic for me as a character to not know that I am very badly hurt. 

What Team SOHO seemed to forget when attempting to create a “realistic” vision of a London gangster is that since the player is limited in ways that he or she can perceive the world when inhabiting their role (sure, I can see and hear London, but I am unequipped with a memory of its streets or – blessedly—the tactile sensations that indicate when I am bleeding).  While gaming seems to offer bigger and better ways for its audience to experience the world, certain perceptual and epistemic experiences still seem beyond the scope of technology to represent.  Oddly enough, sometimes old school gaming often seemed to have been more aware of these limitations in representation and more subtle in their means of representing them than some more recent games.

Mario feels SUPER

Remember how Mario became “Super” when he ate the magic mushroom?  His size on screen clearly conveyed to the player that Mario was at his peak and could fearlessly take on any walking mushroom or flying turtle that might cross his path.  He was BIGGER than them.  He was at no risk of death from them in his visually evident “pumped up” form.  However, after taking a hit and shrinking down to plain, old Mario, suddenly Mario’s vulnerability became clear.  He was just a little plumber confronted by gargantuan (in respect to his current smaller stature) fungi and aeronautically gifted reptiles.  That is not to say that Super Mario Bros. is an example of pure realism (did I mention the mushrooms with the feet?), but it is a game that remains authentic in representing how a character feels about himself.  Curiously enough, this “unrealistic” visual becomes emblematic of Mario’s real sense of self in relation to his enemies.  Something less than real has established the authenticity of the character’s sense of the world and sense of himself.  That’s a character that I can believe in.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/keepin-it-kinda-real-characterization-and-authenticity-in-video-games/