Pawns as People: Why Do We Care?

There is an old saying for gamers that says “You either die a hero or get bored enough to become the villain.” (Parodying the Dark Knight line from Harvey Dent) Basically, this means that you play through the game, do the quests, save the people, and become a big hero.

Then, after the main quest and side quests are over… what else is there to do but go nuts and slaughter everyone you come across?

Now I’ve been around a lot of gaming websites and I’ve seen some crazy things. In RimWorld for example, you can turn humans into hats. You can kill raiders and other humans, butcher them, turn their human leather into clothing, and then sell that clothing to other colonies… Your colony will literally depend on dead people to keep it alive and prosperous!

If that has your jaw dropping, don’t even get me started on the Dwarf Fortress Mermaid farm… that was so evil that the developer of the game had to go into the code and make mermaid bones less valuable to stop the exploitation of the creatures.

So yeah, some gamers really do become the villain, and that’s okay.

But I’ve never seemed too. I’ve always been the good guy in games, and any time I want to do an evil run I had to tell myself I was going to become evil before I started playing. So I gave myself permission to be bad, otherwise, I’d just default to being the good guy.

Recently, two things happened to make me really think about why that was. First, one of my friends sent me a message about my previous article “Can Survival be its own Story?” saying this:

“It’s really interesting the way you see games and the characters in them. Often times the characters are extensions of the people who created them. You can learn a lot about yourself and those who created those characters just with the interaction. Your empathy for these fictional characters shows a very high level of intelligence and it shows in your writing.”

While his praise got me thinking, I recently began asking myself: “Why do I care about a bunch of nameless characters?”

This isn’t an article about why some gamers play the good guy and some gamers play the bad guy, but instead an analysis of why I care about characters in games. I’m a very sensitive and emphatic guy, but caring about a bunch of fake game worlds and characters that are essentially lines of code is a little silly when I think about it.

However, I’ll be taking the above video and my own experiences in video games, and trying to answer the question as best as I can.

So let’s get started.

The First Aspect: Customization.

Many games that have large groups of characters often allow players to rename them and use some customization options. XCOM 2 for example, allows us to customize a soldier's name, clothing, armor, facial features, accessories, and so on. RimWorld lets us customize our starting colonists, and there are several mods that enhance the experience by giving even more say in who they are and how they are equipped. The Fallout games allow us to pick our character’s starting skills and stats, etc.

I’ll admit, I spend a ton of time on the customization of my characters, mostly for Roleplaying reasons. Whether I want to make them look like someone I know, or give them a look suited to the backstory I create in my head, I take my customization very seriously, and this is the first step towards attachment.

Think about anything you’ve created with your own hands. It can be a book, poem, piece of art… whatever. It might be the worst example of it’s kind out there in the world, but you are attached to it for no other reason than the fact that you made it.

The gaming characters I customize are the exact same way, where I helped to create them. I can look on them with pride and know I was the one who made them look the way they do. But then again, I could just hit the ‘randomize’ button and get customized characters automatically, so that’s only part of it, bringing us to the next stage:

The Second Aspect: Evolution

Gaming characters evolve over time, and nowhere is this more shown off than in the Mass Effect series. I’ll be going into detail later in another article about Mass Effect’s character evolution specifically, but for now, here is the basic rundown:

Your Commander Shepard (the protagonist of all three games) is customized at the beginning of the first game, with the option of importing save files to keep that same character going for the next two games. My own personal Shepard went through an evolution through the games, going from a goody two shoes to a fierce papa bear with a badass streak. He wore his heart on his sleeve in the first game, began to hide it away in the second, and had it completely sheltered in the third game.

The reason he made all of these choices and became much tougher of a man was because of how he dealt with the war that was being waged on his doorstep.

For other games that aren’t all about one character, but rather many, evolution takes on the role of the character and changes it in many different ways. Characters level up, gain new abilities, and have different roles in the lineup of the game.

Eventually, they become that role in your mind and you associate them with it. In XCOM, I know that Patrica Vasquez is my Sectoid slashing ranger with cloaking abilities. In Rimworld, I see Mia the diplomat, and Four Eyes the huntress. In Halcyon 6, I know that Layla is my chief medical officer who’s always around to heal and buff her friends.

They become custom people based on not just who they were at the start, but also who they’ve evolved to be, because of the third thing on the list.

Next Up: Hardship

Games are tough places to live in and oftentimes, they give us “the test first and the lesson later.” People die, things fall apart, and situations spiral out of control. The characters and we as players are forced to take on that hardship and make something great out of it.

We watch our characters level up and grow as the game goes on, able to grow from characters who feared every laser shot and new battle event, to curb stomping warriors who can go up against incredible threats and hold their own. I’ve watched characters claw themselves back from disaster to become more than even I thought they would be.

One of those characters was from my RimWorld Campaign, a woman named Irina. She started out as simply the lover of another colonist named Hercules and just came upon my colony and wanted to join. Over time, I found that she was very good with animals, and had bonded with two lynxes who eventually had a baby she also cared for.

She was the animal tamer of the colony, bringing us animals to use as livestock, haulers, and companions. However, she always seemed to get attacked every time a mad animal came calling and was the first one in the hospital with animal-related injuries. This led to her story, where I saw her as someone who had the worst luck with animals, but who also desperately wanted to tame them and make them her friends.

Then her sister was slain by a Boomrat, and her lover died by an angry bear. Irina shattered the creature’s jaw with one bolt from her charge lance but was unable to get Hercules to a medical bed in time. Then an army of boars got angry and attacked the colony, killing most of the colonists and predictably, knocking Irina down. Although she was bleeding and damaged, she got herself back up to save the two non-combatant colonists from the last boar and ended up living long enough to blast off from the RimWorld.

The hardships helped me get attached to her, helped me remember her and the rest of the crew, both living and dead, from that campaign. The crew became a family, and they are forever seared into my mind.

Hardships and how we get through them is part of the story, it’s part of what makes us remember the story. Think about a book or a movie character that you are attached too, chances are the first thing you remember isn’t who they are as people, but rather what they went through. Gaming characters are the same way.

The Fourth Aspect: A Large Investment

There’s another quote that says “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” Now I’ve played a lot of RTS games (Command and Conquer series, Supreme Commander 2, Warcraft 3, Total War series) and have commanded hordes of soldiers, vehicles, creatures, and robots. While I remember the push, the tactics, and the strikes and counter strikes that led me to either victory or defeat, I can’t say I remember the individual units that fought and died in droves for me.

The battles are very vague and focused on the big picture, and aside from some of the named “Hero units” everyone else is just another gun on the battlefield.

It’s probably because, in most base building games, armies take a lot less time to build.

Three or four barracks (or genre-based equivalent) can replenish losses rather quickly, but a well-trained soldier in XCOM or RimWorld or Halcyon 6 is a large chunk of time and experience down the drain. Most ships and soldiers don’t come custom-built and trained and losing one of your finest warriors can be a real blow to the war effort. Especially when it’s to something dumb.

But it’s those battles and risks that make such incredible stories to begin with. The story is nothing without some type of struggle, as any good author (and I like to think I’m one) will tell you. Every battle, every event that characters have to respond to, every choice your characters have to make adds more to the story.

These stories form attachments, as our minds connect the dots between those events and characters, and that’s why we see pawns as people. That’s why I care. Every time the characters in games go through something heartwarming, hellish, or nail biting, I’m feeling the exact same emotions they are. Both of us are experiencing the same story, and neither of us knows how it will end.

I talk, and will keep talking, about my love of emergent stories in video games. In all of the games where I form a personal attachment to my pawns, there’s at least some degree of emergent storytelling involved.

Because if you ask 10 different people to tell you about the journeys of their Commander Shepards from Mass Effect, or the journeys of their pawns in RimWorld, or the fate of their galaxy in Halcyon 6… you will get ten different answers, even though all the players experienced the same game and the same overarching story.

That’s why I can never let myself become the villain in games, I just care too darn much about the pawns and the stories they can tell me, and I’m glad that’s the way I am.