Aug 18, 2019

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The Protagonistís Family - Usually A Bad Idea

Abstract

Some RPGs use characters from the protagonistís past, like family, as part of their story. Mass Effect Andromeda or Fallout 4 would be examples in which the characterís family plays a role in the gameís main story. In this article I will explain why I have come to believe that this might actually not be a good idea.

Why do games involve the family of the hero?

Developers always look for ways to make their games and stories more engaging, more captivating and emotional. After all, that is why we play them, right?

Family is a plot device that everyone understands without the need for long (and thus expensive) explanations. It immediately gives you people with whom the protagonist has a (usually positive) relationship. You donít have to explain how they know each other or what they went through or why they like each other. Theyíre family.

So when your father gets murdered, your brother ends up in a coma, or your child is kidnapped, thatís a simple - one might even say cheap - way to get the playerís blood pumping and engage them in the story.

Or so the developers seem to believe.

Whatís the problem?

The problem is that I do not actually know these characters. The game throws a bunch of people I never met at me and tells me: ďHereís your family. Now love them!Ē And then Iím supposed to feel something when bad things happen to them.

But Iíve never met them. I do not share a long, and usually colourful history (family isnít always sunshine and rainbows) with them. My character may have known them for his or her whole life. But to me as the player, these people are strangers.

This creates a disconnect. A divergence between the characterís knowledge and emotions and the playerís knowledge and emotions. One that directly affects the game, if these people are an actual part of the story and require me to interact with them.

This boils down to basically two problems:

Investing emotions

So first, it sabotages the emotional engagement that theyíre supposed to bring to the table. How am I supposed to see someone as my beloved brother or mother that Iíve literally just met? If you want me to emotionally invest in your characters, you have to do the actual work and flesh these characters out.

Give me the opportunity to know them. Let me experience real stories together with them. And once youíve done that, thereís no longer a narrative need to make these people my family. I am already emotionally invested in them. Even if theyíre ďonlyĒ friends I picked up along the way.

Making decisions

And second, how can I decide what my character would do in any given case if I donít know what he or she knows? People treat their sisters or fathers differently. Depending on how their family works (or not).

If the family is part of the story, the game will eventually expect me to make choices regarding these people. Even if it is only a simple dialogue response (e.g. friendly vs. confrontational vs. obedient). But how can I make that choice?

I donít know the full story. How could I? The ďfull storyĒ is the entire life of my character up to the point where I take control of him or her. Thatís way too much information fit into a game, even if I was willing to learn it all.

And so am standing there, hovering over the different dialogue options in an awkward silence that drags on and on. Because I donít know which option to pick.

Yeah, sure. I can just take off my roleplaying hat for a second and click on something. This may not even a problem for some people. Particularly if they do not actually care about roleplaying and are just in it for the ďkillzĒ. But for me, it is a bad design choice.

Exceptions

While currently no example comes to mind, I am willing to grant that there may be exceptions. Perhaps there is a scenario in which it really makes sense to involve the characterís family in the story. But donít just assume that your game is the exception because itís yours and obviously oh so very unique.

Remember: Itís easy to go wrong by bringing the protagonistís family into the plot. And itís really, really hard to go wrong with the no-family strategy. I mean: How many RPGs can you name where youíd say: ďGee, you know what this story has been missing all along? Family for my character! It would be so much better that way!Ē

Familial Extensions

By the way: When Iím talking about family, I basically mean everyone who is like family - blood-relative or not. Hence, this may also extent to old childhood friends, fiancees or spouses, close former colleagues or classmates, etc.

Conclusion

Donít force the player to engage with people from their protagonistís past over a longer period of time in your game. Unless youíre really, really, really sure you know what youíre doing.

Itís ok if the protagonist has a past. And a few mentions of that wonít kill anyone. But if you absolutely have to dig it up and make it a not insignificant part of the game, then you better go through work of actually bringing the player up to speed on it.

Otherwise, itís better to let the player and the protagonist begin their journey together. So that theyíre both on the same page when it comes to the people who surround them and whom they will have to make decisions for.

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