Response post to “Video Games Are Better Without Characters”

Somehow this is starting to bite the part of my brain that’s telling me to criticize on this article.  Honestly it’s articles like this that make me endear pure cynicism and want me to push the boundaries to a point where I want to tell people where to fly.

So here’s the source article, without further ado:

First off, the first image on the screen still depicts characters, goomba.  It was a stale representation of the topic, and still points out issues to address before firing the interest.  I’m not sure if this was done out of sarcasm, but I’m quite sure that image was a warning to come that I’d be sure to get ticked off.  It felt as if there were going to be nitpicks about the topic, and I was sure to get pretty much on the hand of taking it out.  Hence this post.

So this article goes out of the way as hailing SimCity (I’ll use SimCity 2000 as an example, since I have the game with me) as a Goal-less, sandbox game that allows you to do what you want.  There are still issues and limitations to what you can or can’t do, according to income, moral happiness of the Sims that live in your city, certain rules, regulations and unwritten requirements that are in the game.

Generally I wouldn’t be against this hailing, but you’re missing a point here:  Sims are people, living in a city, those who commit crimes, who half-ass their jobs if they’re not satisfied at the way they are living, who do jobs on your architecture, electricity, water, statutory needs, taxes, and so forth.  The reason why it was called SimCity is because it’s a city simulator.  Still, your newspaper created character and built knowledge on how your city was performing, your statistics were built on your progress, and all it leads to is a goal that pushes forward to creating more money for you to build more and be more.

What happens when you run out of space to build something?  You then run out of things to do.  This is where disasters come in, the option to create requirements for yourself, and the option which you can create new cities, to rebuild that love of the game.

Still, there’s character in the game.  Character which is built from the people LIVING in the city you build, character from people being unhappy to moving out to creating bigger and better spaces.  It builds on YOUR character to prioritize and create a better place for your people.  This is where my argument is going.  The people in the game are characters, no less.  Without character or people in the game, the game would become a sandbox, and lose its aesthetic charm which many people hail as the greatness in the game.

Let’s take Tetris, the all-time game which builds on structural integrity.  The objective is simple:  Clear lines by placing tetrominoes  in place.  The game is lost when the player field fills up to the top.  There is nowadays a competitive mode, which players can play against each other to win or lose.  The game doesn’t require characters because it’s a simple concept.  It can be optional to create a storyline, and it would keep its structural integrity by creating characters who understand  the dynamic of the game.

This is where PuyoPuyo Tetris shines.  It creates characters which are unique in their own sense to create an environment which is not only fun, but also adds depth to each and every situation.  How does the story begin?  The story begins when a problem is stated, in which everyone works together to create a solution.  You’ll find that the characters were created in a lighthearted fashion, with care to a younger audience.  Did it help boost the game in a sense?  Yes, it did.  It helped that people understood why the crossover game even happened in the first place, in a friendly environment with enough tension to build a story.

Puyo Puyo itself has an interesting story.  Without characters and the core around it, it loses its environment, it loses everything around it, it loses its way it builds up on characteristics, and yet, somehow, it feels shallow without the characters adding fun remarks, or having their duels occurring.  The MSX and the Famicom versions highlight this issue, where without characters, the game has very little charm to it.  Add characters, and even a little bit of a story, and the world colors up, quite literally, becoming a cult-classic.  Without the extra depth characters and their relevant AI create, the game loses its charm and becomes just another puzzler which gets lost in time.

So where’s the line, you ask?

The line is drawn when there’s a difference of how the game works.  A conceptual game does not require characters because it builds using the concepts around it, making a clear requirement visible.  Bejewelled is an example here:  Simple game, match 3 to clear gems, score points and reach the next level, game over occurs when there’s no more moves left or when time has run out, and the game can occur endlessly.

So there are questions that need to be asked before you can say that a game requires or doesn’t require characters:

1) What is the genre of the game you are developing?  Some genres are heavily dependent on characters, which provide the necessary depth for the game in order to progress.  Sometimes interactions are necessary, sometimes they are even required.  A true example is an RPG, which requires characters to build the world around it, and to give enough depth in order to create the necessary atmosphere and allow for role-playing.

2) Does the game require any communication between any actions (ie text boxes, speech, or any queues of emotion)?  This can be anything, from platformers, to even puzzlers.

3) Does the game work with or without characters?  Generally this can be a very wide conversation, but a very valid one.  We can take Panel De Pon for example, or Pokemon Puzzle Challenge.  Both games can work with or without characters, but because the game adds depth with characters, it’s better to have characters than not.

4)  Will you have opponents in the game?  This is the biggest argument I can throw against the top image.  Enemies, opponents and adversaries are all characters too, from the smallest Goomba (Mario), Met (Mega Man), or even Robot (Could be Mega Man or Sonic), to Bowser, Dr. Wily, or even Eggman count in this wide spectrum.

I think the biggest question here is NOT whether video games are better without characters, but whether video games are better without bad character design?  Generally, in a game, it’s easy to spot when there’s bad character design because it’s all set in motion by one set action, and not a dynamic personality.  I’m honestly a little mish-mash about character design, but it begs the question of why story writing has been hap-haphazardly thrown into games without much thought or insight.  It takes a lot of time and effort to put in a great story, and not one which generally makes the game look bad as a whole.

I’m wide open here for debate, just remember the rule:  Speak in a sensible manner, make sure you’re not saying anything offensive, and I’ll allow you to put your side of the debate, just like I have mine.  Failure to these terms can cause comments to be closed, and blocking to take place.  Take care.