As soon as we turn on the game, we will play as one of three characters. We may create our own character, or we will simply be presented with a clearly defined character with a clearly defined personality. Or lastly, we will be given a character who does not speak, the mute, such as Gordon Freeman in Half Life and Link in Legend of Zelda. While all of these have their pros and cons, which choice causes us to be more closely connected with the character and the world at large?
At first glance, the avatar may seem the most likely. After all we craft the avatar and make him or her our own. However, there are limits to the avatar. Some of them are simply built into the system. After all, in a game like Dark Souls there aren’t a large variety of options for customizing the character’s appearance(and that appearance will likely be covered most of the time with armor). In addition, if the chosen avatar has a backstory, like in the KOTOR games, then the avatar might feel disjointed. There is a certain degree of cognitive dissonance when you superimpose your expectations on this avatar, and all of a sudden the avatar has a back story of his or her own. Also, I feel at times that the avatar is little more than a puppet dragged along on the adventure. It’s like a marionette we use to experience the adventure without actually getting hurt.
Next we come to the character, the hallmark of the JRPG. When you play Final Fantasy, you expect to play as a certain pre-defined characters with their own personalities. All you do is facilitate these characters to their goals. You have little control over their real moral choices and actions. Connecting to these characters is like connecting to characters in a book, show, or movie. If you empathize with them, or simply like them, you will also connect with them. This also has the opposite effect if you hate the characters. This was my problem with God of War. I found Kratos so despicable, I couldn’t in any way connect with him as a character.
Finally there is the mute. This type is a bit more rare nowadays, a clearly defined character who does not speak. This does not mean the character is without any traits and does not communicate. For example, Link from Wind Waker communicates through his facial expressions which are diverse. One can connect with the mute in a similar way as the avatar. However, the key difference is the unique bond one can form with the mute. The mute does not speak, so one can feel as if they are the character. However, the mute is also a defined character herself or himself, thus one can empathize with the mute. This creates an interesting duality that not many games take advantage of.
Video games are one of the few mediums that can truly allow us to project as much as we would like on the main character without ruining the story, as so often this tactic does in books and movies.