Boring game characters? Write your own backstory
I replayed XCOM: Enemy Unknown recently, where you recruit lifeless characters and equip them to fight aliens in a pseudo-realistic game of chess. In the game, characters are nothing more than lifeless puppets that you dress up in armour, then toss a dangerous weapon in their arms, and send them out into the battlefield. I like to add more to it than that, and I imagine these to be real people, with real hopes, dreams, histories and families. When one of them dies, say my character Otto Nagasaki, who was shot in the back by a hiding Muton, the game just marks his status to “dead” but to me it’s more than that, I’ll howl in pity and sob as I think of his grieving family. How is his wife going to cope without him? How can she now take care of her two children AND her father with degenerative Alzheimers? Damn you Otto for not being more careful at work!
But the drama is negated as soon as you realise you can just reload from a previous save point and everything’s fine again. Otto will now survive, and go home to his family at the end of the day. It takes all the drama out of it, but at least I can continue Otto’s life story in my head. Maybe he’ll take the weekend off, safe from the threat of alien invaders. Maybe go to the park, or take his kids to the cinema. But he’ll be called back to work suddenly and dramatically when another UFO is spotted in the sky.
If you don’t play XCOM like this, and imagine real life stories for each of your characters, it’s pretty boring. I like getting emotionally invested.
Another game where you get emotionally invested is Heavy Rain (which is a few years old now, but I’ve been replaying recently), where characters can die at multiple points in the game, but the game continues without them, directing you towards one of the many different endings. I liked this, I really liked it. It was like I was building my own story, my own movie where I was completely in control of the characters.
The only problem is the characters weren’t mine. It felt like I had control, but I didn’t I was following pre-determined paths thought up by the game’s developers. Hey, it’s fine, I feel like I’ve got a lot of choice. But I still feel like I’m on rails, with only a few junctions to change direction before the end of the road.
That’s why I love play-by-post games so much, which are my all time favourite of games. Sure, there’s no visual elements, but you’ve got complete control of characters, events, and the entire world. That’s pretty rare in the world of gaming.