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Beyond Skin Deep

Courtesy Eidos Interactive

The characters we create are, ideally, more than their looks. Sure, we spend time putting together a certain look for a character. I know when Guild Wars 2 is booted up on my machine, I’ll be spending quite a bit of time in its character creator, customizing eye colors and cheekbone height and whatnot. But there’s a lot more to it than that. Good writers know that a character that draws in the audience has to do more than just look good or sound good. There has to be something beyond skin deep.

Take, for example, Adam Jensen. I know there has been some response to this character, including some to this very review, saying that Adam subscribes to too many ‘badass’ tropes to be taken seriously as a character. The long black coat, the gravelly voice, the shades implanted directly in his skull, and so on. Considering his look is based on a real person, a member of Eidos’ own team, one could even argue that it verges on author insertion, if not the dreaded Mary Sue stereotype.

However, scratch Adam’s surface and you find depth underneath. He doesn’t just spill out of the title screen like Neo expunged from the Matrix. Even before he’s augmented, Adam has conflicts both internal and external. He wrestles with his feelings, voices opinions and demonstrates a sense of professionalism about his work. After his brush with death, under all the shiny augmentations and badass powers and abilities, he still has all of that baggage and plenty more besides. Thus the gameplay becomes more than just “go here and shoot these guys” as you would get in a Halo or a Call of Duty. Even outside of dialog, you as Adam are making choices. Do you succumb to the expedient means of dispatch to clear out the opposition, or do you approach your objective quietly with a minimum loss of human life?

I bring this up because I think it’s important a character be faced with choices. Do they confront the bullies or try to leave quietly to avoid getting involved? Do they destroy the evil life-form in an act of genocide to save other lives, or simply seal the facility to slow the monstrosities down? There are some stories out there that present the paths of their protagonists as strictly linear, while others allow their character to make wrong choices and struggle to overcome obstacles they have themselves created.

Regardless of how our characters look or sound, they are defined by the choices they make. Therefore, a character who makes no choices or allows decisions to be made for them lacks definition, and the whole story suffers when that happens. To strengthen your story, empower your characters in the decisions they make. That way, when the audience sees them, they’ll see something that goes beyond skin deep.

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