The Pig Witch is Everything That's Wrong with Game CharactersComplications Ensue
Complications Ensue:
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Saturday, February 27, 2021

I played God of War a while ago. I freed a dragon and got to Alfheim. Maybe about 6-8 hours of it.

If you loved Zelda: BOTW, you will love this game. It has spectacular environments and lots of game mechanics for you to master. The world is neatly arranged so you can go around killing things and upgrading your gear. And, like Zelda, it does not have much of a story.

A story, in my book(s), is:

a. a character we care about
b. who has an opportunity, problem or goal
c. who faces obstacles and/or antagonists and/or their own flaws
d. who has something to lose (jeopardy)
e. and something to gain (stakes)

The player character, Kratos, is a monosyllabic father who seems terribly angry about something. What? I dunno. But if I had to guess, it's that he's angry at his wife for dying, or that he doesn't like being a father terribly much.

But I suspect he is just an angry person.

There's nothing wrong with that. It's "care about" not "like." We can care about an angry person.

But what's his goal? He wants to put his wife's ashes at the top of a mountain, because she asked him to. What happens if he doesn't? I dunno. What does he get if he does? I dunno. So we're missing jeopardy and stakes.

But it's the pig witch who really pissed me off. She is a warm, sweet, kind magical woman with powers, whose best friend is a pig. Atreus, Kratos's son, nearly kills it with an arrow. She enlists your help healing it.

Is she mad about that? No, she blames herself.

From then on, the pig witch does all sorts of big magic to help you get to the top of the mountain. Why? Because (a) Atreus reminds her of when she was young and (b) because she likes him. Or him and Kratos. Hard to say.

Atreus doesn't really have enough of a character for him to remind a witch of her when she was young, and it seems very unlikely that someone who became a powerful witch was anything like the arrow-happy hunter Atreus is. Certainly there's no reason for the pig witch to like these two manly men who tried to kill her friend. But these aren't real reasons. These are excuses chosen because they don't require any narrative work: they don't affect the story in any way.

The pig witch does not seem to have any agency of her own. She is really just there to explain things and to help. She is a mashup of those two well-worn tropes, Moishe the Explainer (who needs no explaining) and the "Magical Negro," the person of color who is only in the movie to help the white dude achieve his full potential.

What frustrates me is that she could have been so much more. She could have been part of the story.

She could have been the person who derails your quest because she's powerful and furious you tried to kill her pig, and now you have to do X, Y and Z or she'll kick your ass.

Or, better, she could have been an angry woman herself, with an agenda. "Why are you helping us?" "Because there is a god I want you to kill."

She could have had a personality. A sorceress who lives in the woods, whose best friend is a pig, is probably not a warm, affectionate, understanding person. She is probably an introvert. She probably does not like people. She is maybe not very good around people. Maybe she tends to say the wrong thing. Possibly somewhere on the autism spectrum.

What's wrong about game characters is usually that they are only to service the playthrough. They do not have any reason to be where they are other than to help or hinder the player. They were doing nothing yesterday, and tomorrow, if you haven't already killed them, they will be doing nothing.

The ones who fight you often have no particular reason to fight you except you crossed an invisible boundary that triggers them. The ones who help you have no particular reason to like you, except that the game is sucking up to you, the gamer.

By contrast, look at WITCHER 3. Everyone you meet has a life. They had problems before you showed up. After you leave, they might have one less problem, if their problem was a monster and you killed it. But the odds are they still have all the other problems.

If they help you, it's because you serve their goals in some way.

Or look at HORIZON ZERO DAWN. Before the Big Bad came along threatening all life, your world had multiple nations, some of which were recently at war, some of which are still at war. Even the robot dinosaurs you're hunting were doing something you came along, and the survivors will be doing something after you leave.

In real life, everyone is the hero of their own story. In a game, that should be true as much as possible.

Sure, we have quest givers and helpers in We Happy Few. I try to make sure that they are not only there to give you a quest or some help. The nice lady who saves you from the mob at the beginning of the Garden District is not doing it because you remind her of someone. She is doing it because she wants your socks.

It is always a bit of a struggle to maintain this. It would have been less work for the animators if the lady didn't expect payment. The LD think in game terms -- we need someone to tell the player the rules of the Garden District -- not, usually, in narrative terms. So they are not always happy when I nix an elegant gameplay solution because it makes no sense within the game world.

I can't even guarantee that you'll sell more copies if you do. God of War has great reviews and ratings. So did Zelda.

But if you want to make an immersive game that gives people emotions (other than "flow"), then why not create characters who have human drives? Who want things from the player? Who don't start off liking you, especially if you shoot an arrow into their friend?


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