Expectations of Characters Limit Gameplay: "The Last of Us"
For generations, gamers have been on countless quests to rescue and protect [insert female character name here]. This story trope is still commonly used in many mainstream games as motivation for the (presumably) male player, though we sometimes see slight variations. More recently, the industry has observed a shift where games commonly feature a child who is protected by a father figure whom is controlled by the player. One such game, which was released towards the beginning of this trend, is The Last Of Us, in which the playable character is Joel and the protected younger member of the duo is Ellie.
I remember being impressed by Ellie when seeing initial gameplay demos. Seeing her helping the player get out of dangerous situations by chucking a brick at an enemy made me hopeful that she wasn’t going to be a damsel/child in distress whose sole purpose in the game is to be protected. For the most part, the final release didn’t let me down in this aspect. Ellie is strong, both physically and mentally, and really feels like an authentic character who grew up in this world of infection and violence.
Although Ellie isn’t the main playable characters of The Last Of Us, I would argue that she’s the true protagonist of the game. Joel (the avatar) is pulled into a plot that is set in motion by Ellie’s existence and progressed by their combined actions and decisions. It was strange to me initially, and still is after playing the game, that Ellie wasn’t the primary avatar in the game. There is an argument to be made here about the commercial viability of leading ladies, which has been a long debated topic in AAA game publications, but I instead want to discuss the idea that because the game forces a certain play-style on the user, a certain avatar becomes necessary according to the preconceived ideas we have as players about what different types of characters and bodies are capable of achieving .
This idea is entirely reliant on the assumption that a game is intending to be “realistic”. I put this word in quotes here because “realistic” in this context translates more directly to “expected”. Games are not real and therefore are reliant on depicting what a player expects in order to be seen as realistic representations of the real world. As a quick example of this, let’s look at two horror games. One, a recent indie release, is Krillbite Studio’s Among The Sleep. The other is Bethesda’s new horror thriller The Evil Within. In one you play as a two year old child and in the other the avatar is a dapper looking middle-aged man. One is more of a sneaking and exploration game and in the other you shoot and kill monsters. Would switching these two avatars into each other’s games be really ridiculous? Yes, but this is only because it goes against what we as players expect those characters to be able to do and it therefore surprises and removes us from being immersed in the game.
Let’s be clear that I’m not saying a woman isn’t strong enough to be a realistic avatar of a violent game, but unfortunately it goes against what is expected by the majority of players which is largely because of the widespread absence of female leading characters in games. Even their presence has become “unexpected” and is something we as players take notice of. But let’s take Ellie as an example of designing an expected character which still facilitates interesting gameplay. Joel and Ellie can accomplish the same goals (let’s use getting out of a grapple as an example) but do so in different ways, which use their body type and their expected abilities, to their advantage. While Joel muscles his way out of grapples, Ellie does more of a ‘duck and slide’ sort of motion to wiggle out of her captor’s grip, which is believable to players because she’s smaller in stature. I think this a good design decision which allows different bodies and persons to realistically exist within a narrative.
While it is important for developers to create experiences that are immersive and believable, it is also vital to the creation of more interesting narratives that we challenge common character stereotypes. Our prior expectations are formulated by examples we’ve seen previously. If games featured more diverse characters and bodies, this expectation to see a strong young man as the protagonist and actor would be lessened therefore giving creators more freedom with their character and gameplay combinations. It’s a self-serving cycle that contributes to the overall quality of the products being created, which is something we should all expect. In the end, games are works of fiction and are limitless in possibilities. Adhering to what is expected becomes monotonous and I challenge developers to question their own designs, opting for the diversity of characters and settings which strengthen our medium in turn.