A foggy night with a pale moonlight shimmers among still water. Murmuring in the distance interrupts the tranquil silence. A ripple in the water catches your eye and you trace it back to where you think it came. The camera closes in on your face as you try to make out what could be ruining the tranquility of the scene.
Introducing your character into a story is important to give a grounding for who the player will control and their significance to the story. Will I be analyzing my character or the story around them? Will I be able to impose any free will through them? Are they reliable, are their perceptions to be trusted?
You not only establish a rapport with the character but you establish the ground rules for interaction with them.
Take Half-Life for instance.
The only information about your character is your name and occupation. Gordon Freeman, Theoretical Physicist. You’re not only the silent protagonist, but you aren’t given a face. At least you aren’t shown it during the game.
The implicits of this dynamic is that this story isn’t about you, but about Black Mesa the facility that you work for. The story doesn’t even need you, specifically, in it until the end of the game and in subsequent releases where people and things interact with you explicitly. People and things do interact with you in Half-Life but they could’ve used any survivor, not specifically needing Gordon Freeman.
An open field, thickened with trees in one direction, a helicopter with a chimney of smoke blanketing the sky in another. A group of military come to explore the crash when a rustling is heard in the brush a short distance away. One of the militants falls into the brush as screams surround the field. The rest begin running into the night, firing their guns wildly in the direction of the screams as they spot the lights of a mansion in the distance. The few of you remaining make it to the door of the mansion, and here the player decides who their character will be.
Resident Evil lets you pick who you want to play with and changes the story somewhat depending on who you pick and how you progress through the game. Didn’t save one of your teammates? You get a different ending. Picked Jill instead of Chris? Different ending, different story.
The story of the game is coupled heavily between your character and the story of the zombie infested mansion that you explore. Picking your character not only changes your type of gameplay and how you explore the mansion but the outcome of what happens in the mansion.
This becomes moot when there is a decided canon to the story in subsequent games but for the moment as you’re playing the game, there is an urgency to your decisions between who you want to play as and how it affects the outcome of the story.
Dragon Age: Inquisition
An emerald explosion engulfs a stormy mountain top. The silhouette of a lone figure is seen the cloudy remains. The camera pans in closer to make out the silhouettes face. The face is pale, hair tied to fit a traditional warrior’s helmet, tattoos across her brow. Her face changes, now dark skinned, long braided hair with scars plastering her face. What?
I understand that character creation is important to Bioware games, but introducing us to a character after a significant event already occurs? You’ve already built intrigue into your story with the explosion and the smokey introduction so why are you detouring our curiosity with a pick your model face maker? It not only detracts from the story at hand, but the flow of creation is disrupted.
The beginning of the game is literally explosion -> Pick a class/race -> Smokey Scene -> SEE a character to control -> Design a look. Why would I want to be detracted from the story not once but twice when the story has already started?
There is an emphasis here that the character and your choices through your character will shape the story around you, but the rapport is thrown away when you introduce the pained face of one character and then tell me to change who she is altogether. The full story feels disingenuous when a character who we expect changes into another. Unreliable Protagonist, rising.
Like a new actor playing the character of another actor. It feels weird because we already associate a character with how they look and their mannerisms which were developed by the original actor. When their role gets replaced, it feels out of place. You can say cognitive dissonance is in play because we already expect a certain image of the character and diverting from that image throws off our perception of that character.
Maybe my gripe is a bit extreme because we don’t really see the original incarnation of the character do anything yet, so our imprint of them isn’t significant, but I think it was an odd choice in introduction. The flow between choice and story was clunky and why use a place holder for our character when it could just as easily have been our final creation taking up the whole story. Pick our character, then give us the story. Make it be their story, not just someone’s story.