Games like Half-Life 2 and Skyrim have shown that the best way to immerse yourself in a game world is by attaching the player to an unrestrained avatar. Gordon Freeman is you, you are Gordon Freeman, and you experience the story through him rather than the other way around. It’s the same with your character in Skyrim and to a similar degree, your Commander Shepard. That’s not to say that main characters with defined personalities aren’t effective, but there are certain problems that emerge when they are handled poorly.
The main problem is the notion that the player can make their own definition of who these people are. Take GTA IV for instance. At various points in the story, you could choose to let a man live or die, choose who to kill and who to save, and other things that directly affect the narrative at hand. This is totally fine, except GTA IV has a defined personality in its main character: Niko Bellic. You aren’t Niko Bellic, you’re just controlling him.
If there is one situation that highlights this issue best, it’s the choice between killing Playboy X or Dwayne. In the game, the narrative points out that the obvious choice is letting Dwayne live; Niko likes him, he’s sympathetic, he has doubts, issues, he’s a real person in a world inhabited by Brucies. Playboy X is none of these things. He’s selfish, callous, stupid, and unlikable. Niko would kill Playboy X and let Dwayne live and the game knows this. So why leave the choice up to you?
I killed Dwayne the first time I played it to see how the narrative would accommodate this awkward choice. Easy answer: it doesn’t. Not only does Niko abandon all sympathy for Dwayne immediately and just kill him without a second thought, the game then has Niko regret the decision later anyways. So why did he do it? Because you made him, you jerk.
He didn’t have a reason to and the narrative didn’t give you one, so why did the choice even exist? All it does is hurt the story, and with Niko’s self-reflection and regret of the situation, it hurts you, because it’s your fault. This isn’t dramatic, it’s poor writing.
Narratively, this idea has rarely been explored in videogames; exploring the metafictional idea that you, the player, are a separate entity from the character on screen, and examining the relationship between the two. Half-Life 2 touches on the idea, after all, the fact that your character is called “Freeman” implies his separation from the narrative ties that bind characters like Nathan Drake. Not only that, but it points out the sheer amount of interactivity that exists in videogames; you are the free man and Freeman is your avatar of freedom. The fact that the game is about a rebel uprising, a fight for freedom, cements this notion.
No More Heroes also explored this relationship, with Travis Touchdown being a representation of videogame bloodlust, and with his masturbation of his own sword, he basically shows himself to be the avatar for the lust of violence by videogames. You aren’t Travis Touchdown, and even he knows this, so the game continuously makes comment on Travis’s lack of morality by pointing out that he knows he is a fictional character; if there is no consequence, his violent tendencies, as sadistic and perverted as they are, are meaningless and only serve to make us feel the sting of enjoying it as much as him.
If we look at a character like Nathan Drake or John Marston though, we see very well-written, likable, but completely sociopathic characters whose personalities are only hurt by your involvement with their story. In the cutscenes, John Marston is a well-spoken tough guy with a heart and family. He wants redemption. Instead, you as a player have him kill thousands of people to satisfy the needs of dickhead NPCs. The John Marston the story presents and the one you play are completely different characters and it hurts the narrative and our ability to understand and relate to it. The same with Nathan Drake, who is a charming vagabond in the narrative but a maniac killer in the gameplay.
This cognitive dissonance is present in many games and it is solved most easily by letting the narrative allow itself to unfold naturally instead of asking what you would want as a player. A story that is well-written enough knows what you want and would play to or deny your expectations to create dramatic affect. If we are given the choice to usurp the narrative by inserting ourselves into a world that we don’t inhabit, the narrative often becomes less effective.
It all comes down to writing characters in a manner that complements gameplay. For instance, Nathan Drake would be a much more effective character if he didn’t kill so many damn people. If you’re going to make a game about killing a ton of people, make him a maniac or a soldier or something that would relate to the gameplay. Furthermore, this dissonance could be further solved by simply allowing the narrative to unfold linearly.
Linearity has become a dirty word and it really shouldn’t be. GTA IV would be much more dramatically effective if the moral choice system was eliminated. It sounds counter-intuitive given the medium’s interactive nature, but a lot of games would be improved by allowing us to “view” the story through the appropriate character instead of being able to affect its outcome.