Characters can save every story

I think we can all agree that the Mass Effect games were just freaking awesome. Really, everything was neat: the graphics, the sound, the dialogue, combat (at least in part two and three), the ship…alright, not everything was awesome. Some lines were cheesy, some weapons redundant and the whole story was just so cliché and boring.

Wow, wow! Calm down! This is my blog, and on it I can say that the story of ME wasn’t that great. Really, don’t be so shocked and take a closer look at it. If you just look at the plot, it’s nothing special or new. It’s a typical tale of a hero who rises to the challenge of saving the galaxy, facing all kinds of really big threats (like over-enthusiastic fan boys). The narrative doesn’t do anything refreshing or daring, and is filled with material from a first-year college course on cinematography. So why do I praise these games then? Well, it’s because of the characters and how they make the story damn awesome!

You gotta have personality
The Mass Effect games are not the only video games who tell a story we have heard so often, so we can’t blame BioWare that much for being unimaginative. However, what makes every re-telling of the archetypical plots we know since generations new are the members of the cast. They are the once who bring a story to life and have us connect with it. As humans, we have an easier time relating with someone we know, or who might be even like us. Game designers know this, and for that reason, RPG’s include a multitude of different characters, so that every player will have at least one character he can sympathise with. Once we are hooked to the story through the character, the plot starts to matter for us, no matter how cliché it is.

Let me use Mass Effect one more time to illustrate this. In the first installment, we get two know two members of our crew pretty well: Kaidan Alenko and Ashley Williams. If you take the time talk with them, you will start to value them for what they are. Kaidan is a biotic (which is a fancy term for having kickass psychic powers) who is still traumatized by the way he has learned to harness his powers, and Ash hails from a military family, trying to achieve more than her father. If you have a bit of a heart, these two crew members start to grow on you, and I chose to always have one of them with me during missions.

Now, at a certain point in the game, you will be deployed on the planet Virmire to hunt down the big bad guy named Saren. To make a long story short, it all goes south, and in order to save the day you have to blow up a massive nuke. The problem is that both Kaidan and Ash are still on the surface, and once the explosives are hot, you only have time enough to save one of them. The other one will perish, torn to little pieces. And who has to make the call? You.

…Damn.

Believe me when I tell you that making this choice had me all teary-eyed and covered in goosebumps. I liked both Kaidan and Ash, but I had to let one of them go! In the end, I chose to leave Kaidan behind. I know the saying “bro’s before ho’s”, but Ash just seemed that little bit more important to me (she also kicked more ass). Still, thinking about Virmire and the horrible thing that happened there brings back those emotions. Damn it, Chin, it’s just a video game! Man up!

The point I’m trying to make is that it were those characters that made that part of the story so powerful. The whole setup of a mission gone wrong was to be expected, but how it would hit me on a personal level caught me off my guard. This shows how making your characters interesting and relatable can draw a player further into the story.

Feelings for a character sheet
The same thing counts for tabletop RPG’s. I have to admit, when it comes to writing plots for my campaigns, I’m anything but creative. I steal from movies and books, and give it all a coating of my personal touch. However, what I do care about are good characters, both PC’s and NPC’s. From my years of GM’ing, I have found out that players care more about cool, believable characters than about an awesome plot. You want proof? Well, let me tell you about that one session then, about five years ago.

It was the fourth session in an Exalted campaign. I was the Storyteller for a group of three Solars, and one of them was Moana (pronounced like Moh-ana, not Moan-a), a brave Twilight sorcerer who had left her family behind the day she Exalted. This tiny element from her background was something that came up several times, but it never seemed to play an important role. Her player referred to it, both in-character and out-of-character. Everyone was aware of it, but no one thought it would play a big role. Yeah, I’m sloppy when it comes to integrating character backgrounds in the plot, so it felt like just another dangling plot hook. That is, until that fateful moment…

The characters had made their way to the city of Gem, which had been claimed by the undead. It was in this city where Moana’s parents lived, so as soon as they had entered it, the sorcerer decided to look for them. Her comrades helped her, out-of-character expecting them to be alive. But I had other plans. I had them find Moana’s old home, and in the ruins of it, she found the dead bodies of her parents, ravaged by the undead. I started to play “Sadness and Sorrow“, while narrating the full tragedy of the scene. As I did, I felt how I started to feel sad myself, and when I looked into the eyes of Moana’s player, I swear I could see tears swelling up. The two other players were silent, just like some real person had died. We all needed a few moments after this scene to get back into play.

Moments like these show just how important characters are. We need them as a way to get hooked to the story, and once we are, we care about it so much more. In the end, we don’t care so much about if the good guys will win, but we will want to know what choices these individuals make, and where their path will lead. The plot becomes nothing but a backdrop, on which the cast plays out their dramatic existences. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why good characters can save even the lamest of stories.

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