Speaking to GameInformer, here's what he had to honk: "The whole system that I came up with, and that we’re developing, is based upon the fact that to make an interesting character, you have to have a character who has a bunch of passions, wants, and needs.
"The player now has the ability to facilitate those wants or needs or go against those wants or needs or ignore those wants or needs."
It's difficult to know how that's going to play out - as "Le Vine" describes it, such a system feels dangerously close to something like as emotionally disconnected as Heavy Rain or Fable. Plus, I'm hesitant, given that Bioshock Infinite was a collection of interesting concepts on paper, but - even when they tried to force Elizabeth down our throats (She's a really rounded character, honest!) - I still felt oddly detached from the gameworld. It was so abstract and unfamiliar that there was never any way to separate from it being a game. I didn't care.
But... I'm all for a game that tries to facilitate greater emotional engagement with our games. Ever since The Last of Us, I've realised how important emotional investment in a game's characters is to me. But - and this is what I hope Le Von bears in mind - characters, without storytelling, are nothing.
There's an ever greater move towards building character in games. The indie games scene is now where a lot of that is to be found - character-building often seems secondary when it comes to AAA titles (despite it being the reason why blockbuster movies such as Avengers, or the Pixar films, do so well). Spectacle without character is a hollow feast.
Yet titles such as, say, Gone Home - while revolving around the exploration of the life of a well-realised character - effectively casts the player in the role of a ghost. It's all very disembodied. Similarly, the Telltale Games adventures are well written, but those games are barely one step up from the interactive movies of old: even with branching narratives, it feels like they lack a road in for an individual's emotions. They're essentially a passive experience.
People talk a lot about the supposedly ground-breaking storytelling of Dragon Age: Inquisition, but for my money - much as there is plenty to like - the storytelling in that game is just horrible.
There's tons of backstory, tons of information, but it's stuff that - were you dealing with a movie - would never make it to the screen. The characters don't feel real to me, the acting is terrible, the dialogue mostly clunky (with some exceptions), and the way the story is told, and the characters portrayed, it feels archaic. It's done in a way that is old-fashioned, and that gets in the way of that emotional connection I so wanted to feel with that world. When you're dealing with fantasy it's all the more important to nail down a way into the characters for the player.
Often when it comes to writing characters, even in, say, big BBC1 dramas, simple is the way to go. Yet I've worked on kids TV shows that have had 50-page documents full of richly researched backstory and character notes - Kenny-Boy's passions, wants and needs. And believe me... as a writer, you hardly ever refer back to it.
However, I've also worked on some major productions where the character bios were just bare sketches. The unspoken reality of writing and character creation is that, often, starting from a base of an archetype, and a few one-word character traits, allows for greater depth, and greater viewer engagement. Depth and backstory is often used to cover up a lack of experience or confidence; you're doing too much work for your audience.
So what is it that The Last of Us - and the Left Behind mini adventure - get so right?
Most obviously, great writing and great performances, but the games' format (which Naughty Dog perfected over the course of several Uncharted games) uses the gameplay to facilitate great storytelling; the action is underpinned by the characters' emotional drivers. There's something at stake for the characters with every story beat.
How much more compelling is the lightsabre fight in The Empire Strikes Back - a boy seeking revenge on the man who killed his father and his mentor (only to find out that his enemy and father are one and the same) versus the sterile, no-emotional stakes, three-way fight in The Phantom Menace? "Oh no! Quinn-Gon Jinn has been stabbed!"... Who cares? The story, the characters, never earned that moment. Great movie action - and now, great video game action - is always underpinned by emotion.
And yet, The Last of Us games borrow from cinema while never forgetting that they're games. The Tomb Raider reboot did the same (though, arguably, it was more influenced by Uncharted than anything else), and you can see the last big signpost on this path way back in Half-Life 2.
But those games also succeed in engaging the player through familiarity: The Last of Us begins in a familiar-looking, ordinary location that we can all relate to (a house - not a sci-fi house, or a Hobbit hole, or a space bird's nest), with a regular, blue collar guy who just wants to protect his daughter (and later, by extension, the girl he eventually comes to accept as a surrogate daughter).
There's a technique screenwriters use called the "Save The Cat" moment: at some point in the first few pages of almost any screenplay, the main character - however reprehensible they are - will do something heroic and human. It grants the audience permission to go on an emotional journey with them, and want to see them redeemed, or succeed.
You see it even in Grand Theft Auto V where, fairly early on, Franklin is shown to be someone who loves his dog, and Michael is trying to put his past behind him while raising kids who seemingly hate him. That said, the "story" of GTA V is a whole other article altogether (perhaps tellingly, the first thing I did when firing up the next gen version of Grand Theft Auto V was accidentally kick a cat to death...).
Saving his daughter is Joel's Save The Cat moment in The Last of us, and we go with it. It might be formulaic, but - frankly - there isn't anything like that in Dragon Age: Inquisition, or Bioshock, or Bioshock Infinite. They're just too abstract and weird and unfamiliar, and that isn't what I want anymore from games that aim to tell a story.
The GameInformer article states that: "The characters Levine created for BioShock are not defined by one trait. They are complex people with varied motivations, exhibiting authentic diversity, even within the fantastical setting of an underwater metropolis."
That might be the case, but who were we meant to be rooting for, other than the disembodied avatar we, as players, were inhabiting? In both the Bioshock games there have been some interesting narrative techniques, some important themes, and some brilliant world-building, but if Levine wants us to care, then he needs to step up his game (literally) for whatever he's attempting next.
When it comes to how he realises a character, Latrine goes on to state, somewhat obviously, that: "The first thing you think about is, ‘Who is this character, and what does he want, and what’s in his way?’ That’s how you develop a character. If you start from, ‘This is a black dude’ or ‘This is a Jewish dude,’ you’re kind of missing the point. I try not to look at characters as their skin color, race, sex, creed, or their gender. I think that’s an inauthentic way of thinking about character, because that’s not what defines people. What defines people is their experience.”
Which is true, of course, and pretty much the baby steps of Character Creation, but more importantly you have to think about how you make that character matter to the player. Character is shown through action, and in video games that's more important than anywhere.