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[This blog entry originally appeared on Game Design Aspect of the Month for the topic, Emotive Games.]
A few months ago, I was fortunate to go to a lecture given by script consultant Dara Marks, author of Inside Story. She spoke of the counterpoint to the Hero's journey, which would be the Heroine's Journey. (Note: This is just terminology and not meant to suggest that female characters cannot follow the Hero's Journey and vice versa!) Dara Marks conveyed that the best stories have the yin and yang of both journeys. Masculine-type stories, often following the Hero's Journey, tend to be external, life-and-death conquests whereas feminine stories celebrate inner connectedness, compassion, and acceptance. Without enough yin, masculine stories can feel hollow (yet action-packed). Feminine stories without yang can get bogged down.
Marks' framework for the Heroine's Journey has a Call of Action, Midpoint, and Final Pursuit, just like the Hero's Journey. It's definitely not just adding a love subplot into the midst of the story. The Heroine is propelled into action after suffering a deep, emotional wound and is only redeemed through her courage and the help of others, resulting in a new perspective on love and self-acceptance.
It struck me that in the realm of video games, our blockbusters are mostly masculine stories. It may be because of the medium. We need to externalize our inner demons -- show not tell -- and can't afford an extended monologue. Or if there is a monologue, (it's been done in The Darkness), which could be a technique to telling the internal story, at least make it interesting. There are diaries, but truly, do people really leave their diaries scattered about? Perhaps we simply need to get better at showing the entire story: external and internal.
For other games, it simply doesn't matter because the player-character is a blank slate to be filled in by the player. Appearance, actions, thoughts, back stories: all controlled by the player. That's a different type of game, so let's stick to the games where the player has a pre-assigned role.
Here is another issue: the blurry line between player and player-character.
I absolutely detest in an action game when a player-character declares that I, the player, had an epiphany about some story element, especially when I haven't felt any change in my feelings or thinking. I don't suddenly care about something just because the character I'm controlling tells me I should care. Some writers make a distinction between player and player-character. The player-character has its own life and therefore, is free to go about having epiphanies and actions that run counter to the player's desires.
However, the identification between avatar and player is so strong that hardly anyone says "Samus did this; Samus did that" but "I beat the boss; I got to the last level." It doesn't matter that the character isn't a blank slate. I've been struggling through all these levels and doing all the work while controlling this player-character, so, yes, I got a little... attached. When something doesn't jive between player-character and player, it feels disconcerting and jarring. Perhaps that's why some players chose not to play the ending of Prince of Persia rather than go through the player-character's mission to destroy all the lands.
There are probably better ways at conveying emotional truths than straight out telling the audience (or leaving written evidence). Screenwriters handle this all the time, but in a video game, we can't have too many cut scenes (or it would be a film!). Slower, less action-packed games that explore character growth could succeed, as well. I wonder, since we are adept at those masculine, action-packed games, can we find the feminine there too?
Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.