The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Avatar


“The short story has never had a hero…. Always in the short story there is this sense of outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society, superimposed sometimes on symbolic figures whom they caricature and echo…. There is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not often find in the novel -- an intense awareness of human loneliness.”                                                                                           -- Frank O’Connor

O’Connor was talking about the short stories of Joyce, Hemingway and others, but his words, written in 1962, eerily conjure up an image of one of the most familiar types of character you get to play in videogames.

Like Skyrim. I played Skyrim for a while when it first came out, and something I discovered that I hadn’t expected was how lonely I felt doing it. How long it took to get from one inhabited place to another, at least in the early stages of the game. How rare it was to meet with another person (well, another NPC), and how distant and unfulfilling the conversation was (I couldn’t express how I was feeling, and anyhow no one seemed to care). There were long stretches of not much happening, and the game often asked me to do things I had absolutely no interest in doing. But at least the scenery was nice to look at. And sometimes being alone on a path somewhere was kind of enjoyable. A bit like really hiking in the mountains and getting away from it all.

I abandoned the game eventually. Partly because I began to realize how huge it was, and how many hours of what life is left to me on this earth I would have to spend to get anywhere in it. But also because the characters bored me.

What do you think of when you think about your favourite stories? For me, the characters are almost always the most memorable. I believe that video games are only at the beginnings of the possibilities of the form, and that they will expand and evolve in ways I can’t even imagine, but it does seem that for many games, the trend is towards becoming more and more like engrossing stories. Eventually these story-like games may branch away from game-like games and become a new genre, a new art form, of their own -- something more like interactive cinema than games. In order to tell really good stories, these sorts of games will have to work on pacing, and on developing rich, surprising and engaging characters.

To do this, games will have to expand the kinds of characters that inhabit them, and the kinds of stories that can happen to those characters. One good start is for games to acknowledge the heterogenous, multicultural world we live in. To get beyond racial and gender typecasting. To imagine characters and tell stories other than those designed to appeal to emotionally-stunted man-boys.

E.M. Forster’s distinction between round and flat characters seems apt here. Flat characters are the stock characters we’re all familiar with. Bad girl. Action hero. Hardboiled detective. Killbot. They’re useful to storytellers because they’re immediately recognizable. The audience knows them from a thousand other stories, and knows what to expect of them. Most videogame stories run on an engine made of the easy, familiar scripts that come attached to flat characters. O’Connor’s outlawed figure on the fringes of society has, in videogames (and action movies) become another of these stock characters, and possibly the most popular of them all.

The essence of the round character is that you can’t anticipate how she’s going to behave. You have to learn about this kind of character as you go along. Round characters have depth and complexity. They surprise us (and often themselves). With the greatest round characters in fiction, you have a sense of someone existing moment by moment, as we do in life, responding to changing circumstances with wit, imagination and will. 

This is the territory that games as stories will have to explore, and if they do, it will take them, and us, to places we've never seen before in a game, and to people we've never imagined meeting there. People like us.

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