It’s Not All About You: Ditching Gaming’s Domineering Protagonists
Your little avatar might be the center of its world. You, however, are not—and more video games could do with representing this.
A screen from 'Kentucky Route Zero'
In the great film 24 Hour Party People, Factory Records founder Tony Wilson (played by Steve Coogan) says, "I'm a minor character in my own story." The film, he says, isn't really about him. It's about the music and the people who made the music. I always loved this, because for me, life is all about the connections we have with other people, the ways in which we can come together and be more in the intertwining of our stories than we could hope to be alone.
So I grow wearisome and wary of games that tell you that you're the only one who really matters, games that create worlds that clearly exist solely as playgrounds for your whims, with non-player characters whose lives transparently revolve around you. Everything from the way pedestrians in L.A. Noire spend more time loudly commenting about my character than talking about their own lives, to the way the world of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is filled with guilds and factions that are all just waiting for me and me alone to come to their salvation. Yes, there are other characters in these worlds, but the games want you to know that these are your worlds, and that those other characters exist for your sake, not their own.
Of course, game narratives that justify your function as the hero and, by extension, as the world's entire raison d'etre have been around since the simplest stories started making their way into video-game instruction manuals. But over time, I've come to think that a steady diet of games that work to centralize your experience to such a degree that you feel like far and away the most important person in the game's world may not be the healthiest thing for people.
I've encountered more than my fair share of entitlement in the gaming world. When I started writing for GameSpot, there were reader comments emphatically stating that, because the core audience for gaming sites is straight males, women hired by such sites should be chosen to be appealing to them, and because, as a trans woman, I didn't fit the bill, GameSpot was betraying its customers by hiring me.
Of course I don't think that video games alone are responsible for the arrogance some possess that leads them to think that everything should cater to their tastes and desires, but I don't think games help, either. Being the savior of hundreds of doomed worlds and damsels in distress may not exactly help one develop a healthy sense of one's own importance in relation to others.
But more and more, we're seeing games themselves work to encourage players to question their position at the center of a game's universe. The short game Average Maria Individual by Alice Maz puts you in an alternate version of the original Super Mario Bros. and seeks to decentralize the most iconic of all video-game heroes.
A screen from 'Average Maria Individual'
Playing as Alice, your jump is insufficient for overcoming obstacles so you must talk your way past piranha plants and other creatures. As the game's official page puts it, "the only puzzle is don't act like a gamer." Being arrogant and aggressive won't get you anywhere. Act like someone who wants to find the princess not "so I can rescue her" but "to make sure she's OK" and the denizens will be happy to let you pass.
When you meet Mario, he comes across as a psychopath, acting out of sheer ego and self-interest. "I plunge headfirst into danger, I save the princess, and I kill every fucking thing that gets in my way," he says. In response, you can ask, "What about what she wants?" After playing this game, it's a little harder to uncritically accept any simplistic narrative that justifies positioning you as the kind of hero who stomps on, slices, or shoots a thousand living things while completing your heroic quest.
Cardboard Computer's episodic series Kentucky Route Zero, an unconventional heroic quest narrative but a heroic quest narrative nonetheless, is perhaps the best example of a game that works to decentralize its own central character and to create a sense that it is precisely because your story intertwines with other stories that it has any meaning. Ostensibly, you play as Conway, a driver for an antique shop making one last delivery to an elusive address. But constantly, the game shifts you out of Conway to prevent you from identifying with him in the ways that games so often encourage you to identify with playable characters.
A screen from 'Kentucky Route Zero'
Of course, many games let you play as multiple characters, but typically, games foster the sense that you are all of those characters, and that they are all you. Kentucky Route Zero instead fosters the feeling that you are not quite any of its characters. You might swap back and forth between Conway and another character multiple times in one scene, or be controlling Conway's movements while choosing dialogue options for another character. It makes you feel less like you are playing as Conway and more like you are collaborating in the telling of a story about this group of people whose lives intersect with Conway's journey. No one piece of the story and no one person are of paramount importance on their own. It's the ways in which they come together that matter.
Kentucky Route Zero goes one step further in challenging the hero's centrality through its interstitial content, smaller standalone experiences released between the main episodes that build the world and pull the focus away from Conway's journey. The first, Limits & Demonstrations, lets you view some art installations by Lula Chamberlain, a character in the main game. The second, The Entertainment, which can be viewed with the Oculus Rift, is a play performed at the Lower Depths, a bar you visit in act three. When you do go there as Conway, a pair of Rift-like goggles rests on one of the tables, calling attention to your participation not as Conway but as the player. The third (and so far final) Kentucky Route Zero supplement is Here and There Along the Echo, a hotline you can call either using the game's virtual phone or your actual phone to hear a perfectly cast Will Oldham give you poetic information about flora, fauna, and mysterious phenomena in the game's world.
I love that Kentucky Route Zero does so much to make me feel richly invested in its world without making me feel like it's only through my presence there that the world matters. I want to see more and more games do this. Because if my story is the only one that matters, then nothing matters, since it's only through our connections with one another that the meaning in our stories can reveal itself.
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