Saturday, July 25, 2009

Game Faces

For my first post back in much too long I wanted something profound and fascinating to talk about. Recently it has occurred to me that seeking such a topic has added at least a few months to the delay (same reason it takes me so long to respond to birthday emails from friends I haven't spoken to in a while). Therefore, in the interests of simply getting started again, you're not getting "profound and fascinating," you're getting whatever I'm ready to write now (which is at best "curious and mildly amusing").

I play video games. I particularly like multiplayer games (several players fighting each other) and I especially like cooperative games (several players working together to fight other things). As I’ve mentioned before, it’s a good way for my separated friends to spend time together.

The two most recent games to serve this purpose are Gears of War 2 and Left 4 Dead. Gears of War 2 continues the original Gears story of testosterone fueled warrior-thugs fighting testosterone fueled alien-thugs (who may not actually be aliens). It’s a shameless exercise in bad-assery. Left 4 Dead, on the other hand, skips the testosterone clichés and instead focuses on zombie movie clichés. Indeed, it’s pretty much based on zombie movie clichés, deliberately and proudly so.

But I’m not really interested in comparing the games. I’m more interested in comparing the avatars we use to play the games. Both games do avatars a little differently than other games we’re used to. Most shooter games I’ve played, like Halo, give you a character model and let you choose the colors to adorn it. Other games give you a set of tools to craft an avatar yourself. Most of my friends use those tools to craft cartoon approximations of themselves.

Both Left 4 Dead and Gears of War, however, have already made the avatars for you and all you can do is pick one. This allows them to offer detailed character models that are also dramatically different from each other while still fitting into the story context. Considering that each game is highly dependent on cooperative gameplay, this makes sense. I can pretty much tell at a glance who I’m looking at and know immediately who to yell at for getting in my line of fire (or, more accurately, who I should be apologizing to). In the heat of the battle we’ll use character names if we can’t remember who the human player is behind the mask. “Cole you’ve got incoming on your left!” is much easier to both say and interpret than “Red guy with the yellow skull symbol.”

We do try to be consistent, though, because “Diehl” is even easier to interpret than “Cole.” So we play the same characters whenever the games permit. In Gears of War, Diehl is always Cole, Pennock is always Tai, and I’m always Baird. The goal is to reach a point where I see “Cole” and I think “Diehl.”

Apparently we’re being consistent across games, too. It wasn’t planned, which makes it even more interesting. Now two games does not constitute a trend, but I’m going to treat it as one anyway. In Left 4 Dead, Diehl plays Louis and Pennock plays Francis. For those of you who are not familiar with these characters, let me provide you with some pictures:

Curious. Diehl always plays as a black man, and Pennock always plays as the tattooed guy. I wonder what that says about them? Is it video games as wish-fulfillment? Or could be video-games as a chance to be “other”?

Perhaps I shouldn’t wonder too hard. After all, I play Zoe.