The Central (Diverse!) Character, a Necessity and an Opportunity
Today we have a Special Edition post, brought on by the good people at GuildMag who have put out the battle call for their third Blog Carnival, on Character Diversity. GuildMag is, essentially, a bunch of epic people who write about the epic world of Guild Wars and Guild Wars 2.
If you’re anyone who’s anyone, you’ve heard about the upcoming next generation MMO, Guild Wars 2. And hey, if you’re no one who’s nobody, that changes now! Guild Wars 2 is a game that is innovating the MMORPG genre, and (among many many wonderful things) offers limitless potential for players to create unique and diverse characters. This player made diversity is incredible in its own right (and something we will discuss on its own in the future!), because it allows Guild Wars 2 the power to tell limitless, infinite, unique stories. That’s freaking epic.
However, there remains one single issue I have with Guild Wars 2; the lack of a well developed, diverse, central character (or characters for that matter). At least from what we have seen so far.
First, before I explain my claim, let’s talk about what a central character is, and why these characters NEED to be diverse. A central character is a character players can rally around, empathize with, and fight for. Games, especially MMORPGs, NEED powerful, central characters. They extend the game’s impact on the player by giving us more than just fun gameplay; they provide emotional depth. This emotional depth, this ability for a game to provide more than entertainment, relies on a game’s ability to present characters that make us actively reflect when we encounter them.
Again, not playable characters, but the characters that players encounter. The characters that have entire, complex, inspiring, and heartbreaking stories unto themselves. Through their stories, players are moved to act, perhaps even in real life, because of the convictions of these fictional people we meet. What’s more, they make the game feel immersive, they provide empathy, and they allow players to help or hinder their cause, rather than just witness it.
It is vital that these characters be diverse and unique, and absolutely not just a bad-ass mage chick and gruff blood-lovin’ warrior type stock characters. Hell, even these characters can become some of the very most engaging central characters to a game, all they need is depth and development.
Now buckle up any Guild Wars 2 fanboys out there, and buckle tight, because the one issue I have with Guild Wars 2, is also the one aspect World of Warcraft outshines it: the depth and development of its central characters.
Why does WoW upstage Guild Wars 2 in this regard? Quantity and Quality. Simple as that. WoW has a plethora of incredibly well developed characters, ranging from your bad-ass mage chick, all the way to your psychopathic undead-elf queen. All characters that, when looked at individually, have incredible depth invested in them, and tell stories that have emotional meaning. Take Thrall, who is essentially Blizzard’s poster child for central character epicness. His story involves slavery under humanity; it shows human kind’s darker nature, and it shows compassion in the face of it. What’s more, his story continues to be developed throughout the entire freaking game (as all the powerful central characters in WoW do I might add, even the gruff blood-lovin’ warrior types! *cough* Varian *cough*). Thrall is a warrior for peace, even when it is humans who don’t want that peace. This is what makes WoW great in my book, because let’s face it, the game is old; outdated even. But the characters in its story are complex, diverse, and invite players to want to know more, to understand and think.
Now, Guild Wars 2 will be more epic than WoW in telling the player’s story, but to really involve players, to make powerful statements about right, wrong, and everything in between, there needs to be a story full of rich, memorable, and compelling central characters. Guild Wars 2 hasn’t even released, so I’m not condemning the game. We have, however, seen the release of two Guild Wars 2 novels already, and neither provided much more than a setting of the GW2 stage.
Of course, this lapse in GW2 character lore is also a grand opportunity. An opportunity I sincerely hope ArenaNet takes full advantage of. Remember that whole thing about “absolutely not just a bad-ass mage chick and gruff blood-lovin’ warrior type stock characters, Hell, even these characters can become some of the very most engaging central characters to a game, all they need is depth and development” thing? Guild Wars 2 could totally pull that off. Let’s look at the two GW2 books, Edge of Destiny and Ghosts of Ascalon. Unfortunately, both books basically felt like long quests where characters got only an occasional pause to note their history and emotions before returning to the action, a lot like how the game itself might play, but leaving a lot to be desired in characters to empathize with. The opportunity here, however, is that the characters from these books can be developed properly, and perhaps even make meaningful statements while they are at it.
Between the books Ghosts and Edge, we have a fair number of characters to work with, some even have a bit of foundation to work from. They just were not realized in full because the main story got in the way of individual character development.
Take Dougal Keane, a forlorn Indiana Jones-like character, and possibly the best developed of the lot (So ArenaNet had better not let him fall to the wayside!). He is white, straight, and male, but his diversity has to be drawn from his familiarity with the death of those around him. Well, a man like that would want to start saving people, no matter what. He could become a very compelling central character if players have to stop him from saving people’s lives, because it threatens some greater plan, and he is vilinized for doing something good, and YOU stopped him.
Better yet, Caith, a sylvari thief who was in love with another female sylvari. A few weeks back I talked about sexuality in games, and this is EXACTLY the sort of opportunity to normalize it, and make a statement through a powerful central character. ArenaNet should explore this character, and her love, in depth. Her ex-lover is also a member of The Nightmare Court, as dark a group as you might expect, yet the story just brushed over all this! This is compelling stuff! Let the player help her find her love, try to redeem her, and fail horribly. Let the player be the one who has to deliver the final blow, even, because Caith’s love is too strong; fully legitimate and heartbreaking love I might add.
The characters in these books need to feel less like a band of adventures that stop to tell their stories around a bonfire every once in a while, and more like unique individuals each fleshed out in their own right. WoW does this excellently with their unending books and characters that develop as the world around them develops in the game.
TL-DR: Games need diverse central characters that have deep meaning and strong conviction. WoW does it really well, GW2 has an opportunity to, but hasn’t developed these characters, not meaningfully.
Ding! You’ve leveled up! Please see your local librarian for training.
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