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Opinion: Investment In Character And The Mystery Box

Opinion: Investment In Character And The Mystery Box Exclusive

November 3, 2008 | By Julian Widdows

[In this opinion piece, Swordfish Studios game director Julian Widdows (Cold Winter, 50 Cent: Blood On The Sand) looks at the importance of character meaningful interaction in games, citing J.J. Abrams, pointing to Grand Theft Auto IV as a game that does it right and rhapsodizing, "In Niko Bellic, video game characters comes of age."]

Earlier this week, a member of our development team sent around a link to a TED lecture called "The Mystery Box," by legendary film and TV producer J.J. Abrams.

Whatever you think of Abrams, his films (Armageddon, Cloverfield), or TV shows (Alias, Lost), he's a compelling speaker -- excitable, engaging, passionate, he speaks on his field with the conviction you'd expect from such a reliable money maker.

The inspiring moment for me comes 11 minutes in, when he show a clip from Jaws, as Roy Scheider's character is in his dining room with his son and wife. He's having a bad day -- this is Jaws, after all -- and as he sits at the table putting his face in his hands, his son starts copying his actions.

Scheider becomes aware of the copying, plays up to it, father and son snarl at each other, and then Scheider says, "Come here. Give us a kiss."

"Why?" his son asks, to which Scheider replies, "'Cause I need it."

It really is a great moment. Abrams' point is that scenes like that one are what make Jaws work. It's an investment in character -- if it were two hours of what was, even at the time, a pretty poor mechanical rubber shark, the film wouldn't be the classic it is.

Looking at a different film, it's the character of Ripley and the dynamic between her and the crew members that makes Alien(s) so utterly compelling.

The monster's not the narrative, it's just the MacGuffin to put the already well-formed character of Ripley under pressure and show her responding to unthinkably harrowing events. Both Jaws and Alien invest in the most important narrative vehicle of all -- character.

Rockstars Of Character

I finished Grand Theft Auto IV this week. It's a stunning game by any standards and, unusually, one I was totally compelled to complete, even through some of the more frustrating missions.

My takeaway from the whole thing -- the whole, incredible, 10/10 experience -- is that Rockstar's developers are, at this moment in time, the best exponents of game narrative in the industry.

Why? Because while the story's actually very simple -- an immigrant comes to America, seeking revenge on the people who double crossed him and his friends -- the investment in character is off the scale. It's the best of what our industry's capable of: totally compelling, believable characters throughout.

I could talk all night about the lesser roles -- Roman, Little Jacob, the hilarious Real Badman -- but it's the hero Niko Bellic who really shines.

In an Edge interview last month, I saw him described as "evil." That's one way of looking at him, but I think "evil" undersells what Rockstar has done with Niko. Amoral, yes; but evil, I'm not so sure.

Shades of Gray

Late in the game, there's a moment when Nico finally thinks he's found the traitor Florian. Confronting this old friend in a penthouse apartment, you prepare for the confrontation to end all confrontations -- and then Florian steps out from behind the bed, flamboyantly gay as a lord, and innocent to boot.

The relationship that subsequently develops between Nico and Florian is amazingly well-pitched -- funny, yes; camp, yes; but also very cleverly-handled. The high point for me is a scene, just after Niko has taken down a "hater" in the park as a favor to Florian.

In a car ride heading back to Florian's apartment, Niko -- normally a man of few words -- delivers a lengthy monologue about honesty in politics, how Florian shouldn't be dating a politician who simultaneously sells himself on a married family image.

He finishes by saying, and I'm paraphrasing, "I'm sorry, Florian. I don't normally talk this much. But you're my friend. I don't want to see you hurt."

It's a great moment. Later still, Nico is talking to Kate, a nice girl in an Irish-American criminal family, about her dead cop brother following his funeral. She intimates that Nico must be pleased to see another cop dead, to which he responds, "I have nothing against cops. They're just regular guys trying to get by."


What comes through time and time again with Niko is that, although amoral, he's actually highly principled, driven by a deep-seated belief structure centered on family, friends, and honor.

He has a sophistication and complexity that you rarely see in any medium, let alone a video game. In Niko Bellic, video game characters comes of age.

To quote J.J. Abrams: "When people do sequels... they're ripping off the wrong thing. You're not supposed to rip off the shark or the monster. If you're going to rip something off, rip off the character, rip off the stuff that matters."

Wise words.

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