“Keepin' It (Kinda) Real”: Characterization and Authenticity in Video Games
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.
Sherlock Holmes: Baffled as Always?
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
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