One of the more compelling dives into consuming media, whether it be books, movies, or video games, is watching your main characters grow and develop through character arcs. However, video game stories and narratives often times miss these character arcs in favor of creating expansive worlds and stories over great and compelling characters. I’m not saying there are no video games that have great character arcs; Arthur Morgan in Red Dead Redemption 2 is one of the best examples in recent memory of a great story where the character was the centerpiece, as well as both Elle and Abby in The Last of Us 2. There are many bad examples of character arcs, however there are also a few great examples of video game protagonists that resonate with players.
Most video game characters follow a “flat character arc” style of storytelling, where they neither improve or decline in their skills, talents, traits or even their moral compasses. These characters can be often depicted as “stubborn” and views the world around them as broken and needing fixing by them, having already made up their minds very early on in the story. Lara Croft is a prime example of this, and it became immensely apparent in Shadow of the Tomb Raider where her ideologies oftentimes caused immense destruction and pain among everyone around her, as did Nathan Drake’s character in the Uncharted series. Aloy in the Horizon series is another prime example. Even though her motives to improve the world are just and pure, she is very selfish and arrogant to those around her willing to help. These characters begin their stories with the truth already in their hearts, unwavered and leaving no room for development or learning, which was hugely apparent in Tales of Arise with the two main characters Shionne and Alphen.
In traditional writing, whether it be in novels or film, we typically see dramatic narrative structure for characters, particularly in the main protagonists. The main character is presented with a problem within the “first act” that needs to be solved, and experiences an often traumatic event that calls them to action, and affects their worldview. Similar to Kratos in God of War Ragnarok, his world view changed when Thor and Odin came to his home and threatened war on him and his son, and thus calling him into action to possibly stop Ragnarok. As the viewer, or player in this case, you begin to ask yourself “How can this be done? It seems almost impossible.”
The second act deals with the bulk of the video game, where combat, quest building, and skill development take center stage. You and your character/s learn the world that surrounds you, and you develop skills that will help aid you in your quest. Not only this, the main protagonist can interact with others within the setting and learn more about the world around them through other people’s viewpoints. Geralt’s interactions with the non playable characters (NPCs) in the towns he visited in The Witcher 3 shaped his viewpoint of the plights of the people, and the politics of its leaders and criminals. Not only is the character learning about the world around them, you as the player are as well. Video games tend to lean more into this second act primarily, and almost leaving the first act behind completely to allow the players to jump right into the action right away.
The third act follows a “climax” event that can shake the main character to their very core, and give them a renewed sense of purpose in their quest. Oftentimes the question they’ve been seeking an answer to has been revealed before them, or a turning point that can alter their perception of the world, and how they view themselves as an individual. In the original Final Fantasy VII, (MAJOR SPOILER AHEAD) Cloud’s life turns completely upside down when the character or person he thought he was was not rooted in reality, but a projection of someone he met in his journey before the main game’s events. Lost, confused, depressed, and demoralized, this climax event would help shape his life moving forward and allow him to not only accept his past mistakes and imperfections, but also allow himself to become revitalized with renewed vigor in order to complete the main quest. This can be the most important act of any story, where the world “changes” the character.
Video games can oftentimes be designed with gameplay and world building first, while character development takes a back seat. It can oftentimes be difficult to identify or sympathize with a flat character arc in a video game protagonist, like Lara Croft, Aloy, Nathan Drake, as well as Link in the Legend of Zelda series (who’s hampered by being voiceless), who by most accounts follows no discernable character arc. Jin Sakai’s arc in The Ghost of Tsushima follows a great dramatic narrative structure, where a traumatic event in the beginning of the game changes his world view, followed by a world building second act that allows him to grow as a character and learn about the new world he is living in, which leads downhill after a climactic event that shakes everything he once thought he knew to the final third act where he meets his goal with renewed purpose. A great, well developed character who is shaped by the world around them, instead of the other way around, can make for a well crafted story that resonates with players long after the end credits roll.
What are some great character arcs in video games you’ve found that have resonated with you? Let us know in the comments, or head over to our Discord group at the link here, or use the QR code at the bottom of the page.
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