Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Mary Sue Gamer

Spouse and friend were gleefully sharing this today:

And it started me thinking about something that's been bothering me for ages.  You see it most often in fantasy-world RPGs, but it happens all the damn time: the player character of a game is a total Mary Sue [wiki / TVTropes].

In an RPG, you do just that: play a role.  But there's a school of thought that you project that role onto yourself, and yourself into that role.  Some games are designed this way: in a Fallout title, you are in first person as the Lone Wanderer or the Courier, and your character really is an empty shell filled with your own values and ideas.  And in a Mass Effect, you get to customize Shepard, both in appearance and in back story, and so to an extent occupy that persona as well.

Then there's the other sort of game, one with a pre-defined character with a narrative arc not really of your choosing.  You see it a lot in an FPS or an adventure game: Half-Life, Deus Ex, Uncharted, Heavy Rain, The Longest Journey -- all of these and many more are someone's stories, pre-told, that you help them through with occasional decisions.

That's just background.  We mainly all know this stuff.

But where it's starting to bother me is where your player character, whether of your creation or not, is Destined to fill the Super Awesome Role of Mega Good.  Someone needs saving?  Your job!  A planet needs rescuing?  Your job!  Timmy fell down the well?  Your job!  Rescue the princess?  Your job!

The more epic the scope of the story, the worse this gets.  And that makes sense, to a degree: if you're going to save the kingdom, the world, or the universe itself... you're going to need to be pretty badass.  So the skills, the weapons, the powers... yours, all yours.  And you look ripped (or ripped AND busty) and everyone gives you money and you're just such a nice person that you even stop to rescue that cat from that tree.

Unless of course the game has an Evil option, in which case you're just such a horrible person that you even stop to slice down that tree with a poor innocent cat in it.

It's as if a huge category of games operate on the Superman model: you're just that awesome because you were born that way.  A smaller number operate on the Batman model: you're just that awesome because you had money and willpower and worked hard for a million years.

But I'm becoming a bigger fan of the third way: you're not all that awesome, actually, but with luck and timing and cleverness and help, you can still make a difference to the NPCs who need your help.

Really, I think these days I'm not all about saving the world.  The Longest Journey lampshaded the Heroic Awesome Savior issue with April Ryan, but I'm not sure that's satisfying anymore.  For all the flaws Heavy Rain has in concept and in execution, I find Ethan Mars a lot more workable than any epic hero of gaming I've yet met.


  1. I think a lot of the Mary Sue complex has to do with video games still primarily being used as an escapist medium. There are plenty of people who daydream about going off and being Superman (or Superwoman, you know, whichever), but not an awful lot of people dream about being a Deadbeat Dad.

    There's also some discussion to be had about western vs. eastern philosophies playing into it. You see a lot more Flawless Hero characters in Western games, while in Eastern JRPGs the leads tend to be flawed, sometimes severely so. Cloud in Final Fantasy 7 is downright mentally unbalanced.

  2. I agree and disagree.

    There's definitely a place and a time for pure escapism and wish fulfillment. Goodness knows we all like to indulge from time to time and I'm no exception. But that has its place in a certain percentage of games and a certain type of gaming.

    If games are going to present us with serious stories that we're meant to take seriously, though, they're going to have to do better from time to time. And it's not just about creating flaws in your player character; it's also about having things in the [game] world that are just Not Their Problem. Maybe NPCs should have issues that, say, the local constabulary solve, instead of the PC. Or there should be occasional problems without solutions, or people who it would be nice to help, but we just can't do that right now.

    I suddenly find myself thinking of a show like 24. Not all scenes are Jack Bauer's at all times, you know?

    As for JRPGs... well, I'll let that one go, as I don't enjoy most of them. ;) But I do feel like the general group dynamic changes things up, where even if you have a lead hero, his foils, other personality aspects, and flaws are built right into the story in the accompanying party members. That forces a different shape to characterization than the western-style games I'm thinking of do.

  3. I'm going to bring up tabletop gaming, because I know it better, and because the examples of small-scale heroics in video games are few and far between enough that it's a pretty small sample size.

    For 5 years I GMed a game of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, second edition. The game is pretty notorious for giving players fairly weak characters; the midlevel monsters in the beastiary could wipe the floor with even the highest power PC in a one on one fight, all things being equal, and most characters never get to the higher power levels (the advancement system is involved and fairly freeform, but the bars to entry are high for the best builds). 10 goblins could also kill almost any playable character, 15 definitely could.

    In the campaign, the PC's repeatedly neraly died by being knifed in alleys by street urchins. They also helped one of their number make a fairly happy marriage, save a town from cultists and finally expose the corrupt dealings a nearby lord so that he was brought to (something like) justice. Now I was the GM, so I only know from talking to the PCs, but their accomplishments felt more earned than if they had been plopped in the middle of a save-the-world scenario by Destiny or Prophecy. And they got a lot out of their own small, personal stories, and these were not overcrowded by the overall plot, because the plot wasn't out of scale with the characters and their own concerns. In short, it wasn't epic in the least, but it was a satisfying experience for all of us, that felt very 'to scale.'

  4. That's a really interesting point about the smaller-scale heroics being available in tabletop gaming. I think it's pretty rare to find that in modern video games. More often, it's about saving the world / universe from some kind of Ultimate Problem. (And an Ultimate Nemesis of course requires an Ultimate Hero.)

    Heavy Rain is what I keep coming back to, and I suppose in the world of player-created narratives you've also got games like The Sims where small victories are indeed the goal.

    I wonder if that "player-created" is really the key...

  5. As WAKnight has mentioned, tabletop appears to have it all over computer rpg's in this regard. Champions introduced the idea of limitations as part of a character build, and the RPG industry has adopted that trope and expanded on it for something like 30 years now. Gurps, L5R, Exalted and all the White Wolf games, for example, let you build awesomely powerful characters, but who have gigantic gaping flaws. And the people who play them (a smallish cult, it must be said) love those flaws and find joy in their expression.

    However, Dungeons and Dragons hasn't really got with the program. But the question is, when will this reach computer games? When will you be able to take psychological/social limitations as part of your character build. Faction systems are something of a social limitation: they will try to kill me in Freeport, etc., but it seems kind of weak.

  6. When will you be able to take psychological/social limitations as part of your character build. Faction systems are something of a social limitation: they will try to kill me in Freeport, etc., but it seems kind of weak.

    Yeah, the pure, naked mechanics of faction systems are really starting to annoy me these days. About the most I can tolerate is a Fallout: New Vegas style reputation system: different groups treat you different based on your past actions and dialogue, and you have an overall good or negative karma based on some major decisions. Still fairly transparent, but not any more so than reality would be. (Because let's face it, dropping radioactive waste on someone's brother would make that someone ill-disposed towards you!)

    I feel like a lot of games have started with some kind of skill / deficit build -- low Charisma, etc -- but that it ends up not mattering pretty damn fast, which is disappointing.

  7. I'm not sure your point encompasses Deus Ex. The entire game was built on the possibilities of choice. There were only three endings but you had a ton of ways of getting there. Since I've been a Thief fan for a very long time, I played JC as a stealth character who once he's almost done with the mission goes back and stealth-kills everyone just in case he has to make an escape. My buddy played JC in a very different way and got a completely different experience out of it. Your point holds if you use Thief, however. The Longest Journey, while it's in my top games of all time, does suffer from that problem of pre-told stories, is still enjoyable. I don't know what exactly TLJ lampshaded but it's been ages and I'm sure there were things. If you want actual consequences for choice, I recommend Blade Runner instead. I fucking lived that game when I was in high school. I've yet to play Heavy Rain or Alan Wake but I'm told I'll love both of those.

    I don't see how Shepard in ME2 is not practically pre-defined. Sure, you get to change his appearance and his backgroung but that's a matter of small import in terms of the storyline. A game like Shadow of the Colossus, how would you classify it? There's only one ending, the missions are clear and there's no customizing anything. Basically, what I'm asking is why is customization necessary to relate to a character? Or is the epic focus the issue here?

  8. Two separate issues being conflated here: one is with characters being either open or pre-defined; the other is with the definition of the roles.

    I'll argue you can create a successful game in many, MANY different ways, and not all of them are going to require any player investment in character. You don't add Charisma points to Mario or balance the Int of your horse in Shadow of the Colossus. You don't pick and choose lifestyles on behalf of Nathan Drake or Lara Croft.

    But the issue I have with the definition of the role is in games where you're specifically encouraged to adopt a role: to BE the Lone Wanderer or [X] Shepard or some other persona. My frustration is in fact more with the requirement that games take you on the Save The World arc of A+ Heroism rather than being willing to exist on a smaller scale. There are very few games out there where you save the kid / the day / the small village / the community garden when compared to games where you save the kingdom / world / solar system / universe / all of creation. Foes keep getting larger, spiritually and physically, and Super Duper Heroes are required to go fight them. Then those heroes, on retiring to their ship / inn, are asked to go do a hundred small things as well, because they're Just That Awesome.

    The lampshading I referred to in TLJ takes place while April is moving through Arcadia, methodically assisting each of the disparate peoples with their prophesied tasks. April, observant modern girl that she is, calls attention directly to the fact that she's performing the role of Epic, Journey-Taking Hero, conveniently being in all the right places at all the right times to [defeat evil wizards / bring peoples together / etc].