The lights are on
The idea of perspective is complex when it comes to video games. More often than not, the player sees the story through the eyes of one main character. Although the upcoming Grand Theft Auto V will have one of the highest profile instances of character switching, this concept has been around in video games for a while, and is being used more frequently than ever.
Throwing in another playable character, or even the same character as a child, can offer more depth to the plot because it highlights a different angle of the story. Here’s a look at some of the best uses of this storytelling method.
[SPOILER WARNING: This article has spoilers for Shadow of the Colossus, Chrono Cross, Heavy Rain, Red Dead Redemption, and Mass Effect 2. While other titles’ stories are mentioned throughout, the reveals are early in the game or are not likely to negatively alter the experience playing the game or appreciating the story.]
Children and Other Powerless Characters
Switching up the player’s experience doesn’t have to mean a different character entirely is used. A fresh look can mean adding in a child’s viewpoint as well. This can even enhance the experience when characters are constantly switching.
Heavy Rain has the player constantly switching between characters trying to find the Origami Killer, but there is one switch in particular that is used heartbreakingly to tell the story.
The perspective switches to a young boy trying to save his brother, John, who has become trapped in a pipe rapidly filling with water as heavy rain begins to fall. The player must navigate the boy to his father for help.
The father is too drunk to save his son. Out of options, the boy returns to his trapped brother and explains to John that their father won’t be coming. The water overtakes John and he drowns.
The young boy that the player controls is Scott Shelby. The trauma of witnessing his brother’s death later leads to him becoming the Origami Killer.
If the information had been simply relayed to the player through a cutscene, the effect would not have been as strong as it is experiencing the trauma while playing as young Scott. Scott is already a hard-to-understand character because of his unforgivable actions. But his homicidal drive to find a father willing to sacrifice everything for his son would be a far larger stretch of the imagination to accept without seeing what leads up to it.
A younger version of a character can be used to show backstory rather than tell it. One of the more rewarding aspects of Uncharted 3 is seeing the origin of Nate and Sully. The pair has been together since the start of the series— though Sully has always seemed more like a buddy than a father figure. The switch in the third installment to the story, however, adds more dimension to the relationship through flashbacks.
By playing Nathan Drake as a teenager, the player is able to see him in a more vulnerable state. Not only is he not able to take on assailants, he is shown as a lonely orphan rather than a hardened treasure hunter.
Controlling Joker in Mass Effect 2 for a brief period is another instance of conveying vulnerability through a perspective shift. Although he is not a child, Joker is unable to physically take on enemies because of a rare bone condition. The only reason he is able to get through the Normandy to EDI’s core is because Collectors are too distracted by capturing and killing other crew members to take notice of him. Although his actions in giving EDI control of the ship lead the Normandy to safety, it’s not a pleasant victory.
Part of the joy in gaming is the fake power trip possible through fiction and an unlimited amount of do-overs. But there are some titles that want to the player to feel powerless. Feeling knocked down helps to empathize with the character and the situation. Feeling the suspense of playing a character who cannot fight back adds uncertainty to the player’s experience.
For other examples of this trend of playing as a younger or powerless character be sure to check out The Last of Us and The Walking Dead. The upcoming title Among the Sleep is also based entirely around this premise.
In Red Dead Redemption, John Marston tries to turn around years of mistakes as an outlaw by tracking down former comrades for the government. When those he worked for turn against him, he gives up his own life for the sake of his family by walking into a rain of bullets. Becoming an honest man is impossible for John after his bloody past. He never had a chance to return to a peaceful life as a family man, and only found redemption for his past in his death.
After John Marston’s death, there is a playable epilogue portion in which the player gains control of his son, Jack. Jack wants to avenge his father’s death for his own redemption. While Jack is an odd switch after spending hours playing as his father, it is vital to getting retribution for John.
While it has a far stronger presence in Red Dead Redemption, death as a means to a new character is used most consistently in the Karateka remake. The player must save the captured Mariko. But every time the player dies, a new character takes over. Rather than the classic, figurative idea of having a certain amount of “lives,” each character is a literal “life” that the player must treat as precious if they want the perfect ending. For example, if the player can make it through without dying, then Mariko will be saved by her true love. But if the true love is defeated while playing, someone else will take his place. That hero may not be who Mariko is hoping for.
Unlike in other switched perspectives where characters can die (for example, the aforementioned Heavy Rain) it is possible to play through the short title without switching to another character even once. The deaths have even more impact to the outcome as a result. The title is so short that the player is not likely to have a different perspective while switching from suitor to suitor. However, the men’s differing reasons for why they are seeking to save Mariko add more dimension to their deaths.
Death of a playable character doesn’t have to mean the story ends. With every closed chapter a new one opens, offering a new take on the world for the player.
Next Page: Transformation and other avenues to new playable characters...
Excellent article and thoughts.
It seems like this is becomeing the turret, as in everyone does it and its never bad but rarely great
Swapping characters is awesome. Hope next-gen gives us more of it.
I like character switches they are a pleasant surprise and more of a meaning and insight to the story, and a cool break from the protagonist and see another viewpoint all of the switches mentioned here were awraome and a surprise like young Nate and Shelby but the one that impacted me the most was playing Jack Marston after his father's death getting some redemption for himsrlf and his dad it was emotional, awesome and badass! Alao in L.A. Noire SPOILER ALERT you also switch from Cole Phelps to his "friend" Jack Kelso after Phelps's downfall as a detective and I liked that switch because it tells another viewpoint of the story, and working in another job and also kind of seeing Cole as a loser or an antagonist a little
*in case you havent completely read the article...SPOILER* Red Deads ending was heartbreaking and refreshing at the same time. I loved Johns charactor and was totaly enjoying going his journey with him. The horse back ride to Mexico was my favorite part. His death was totally unexpected and I was kinda mad. But at the same time it wasnt those same ole fairy tale endings either. Which was a nice change. I finally got around to playing a 2nd playthrough, but, it will have to wait. Playing the Last of Us and lovin it!
Red Dead's was epic
It always fells good to switch from the main character at least once. And if it helps the story like AC3 then I am down. But it is nice to keep some secrets like Mass Effect 2 when you play as Joker.
Jak 2 and 3. Enemies seemed so much more deadly when you were going through a floating machine factory or running through tomb from a spider that seems so much bigger then it really is when playing as Daxter.
So we're not going to mention Metal Gear Solid 2, the single most famous example of this? It's the exact same schtick RDR pulls nearly a decade later.
I love character switches, especially when they enhance the story. My favorite instances would have to be in Halo 2, Mass Effect 2, and RDR.
Another of David Cage's games where the character switching is great is in Indigo Prophecy. For anyone who hasn't played it, it's basically the Heavy Rain of last generation with a more supernatural angle.
heavy rain is an amazing game!!
... yes you do play as dormin, you just can't accomplish anything.