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A Dialogue in Crysis
Posted on Tuesday, February 5 2008 @ 05:00:35 PST

I've just finished Crysis, and while it will take a while to get over the stupefyingly gorgeous visuals (I literally went through half the alien spaceship bit before I realized I was gaping, slack-jawed with awe), the writing was borderline comedy. Your character, a ruggedly-voiced nanosuited American one-man-army who'll take no gruff is code-named 'Nomad.' The back-talkin' jockish joker of the crew is named 'Psycho'. The surreptitious leader who has a penchant for voicing what a bad feeling he has about what's going down is named 'Prophet'.

Come on, now. Characters should not be named after their dominant personality trait. By that logic "Bitchington Freeloader" might describe Cortana, the well-endowed AI cheerleader from the consistently terribly-written Halo series....although I suppose "Master Chief" follows along what I've said with Crysis, as does his dialogue, which might as well have been sampled for the voice of Nomad.

Is it so difficult to create characters for a shooter? I suppose part of the appeal of first-person shooters is that the player is ideally become the protagonist, but why do they have to all be trained killing machines with less personality than a door jamb?

Consider Team Fortress 2: yes, it's an online-only shooter, but there are nine playable classes there, with no real backstory aside from some absolutely brilliant trailers, and they've more character than the M.C. or any of Nomad's crotch-tight-suited buddies can muster. I love every little quip they throw out in a fight and the brilliant animation tells a story without exposition. It's design, let alone game design, at its finest.

The character doesn't need to talk, either. Samus and Gordon Freeman are excellent examples of methods of creating an interesting, if mute character. In the Metroid Prime series, you're continually shown Samus' face and the outside of the suit; the feeling of weight from behind the excellently-executed visor HUD forms a great impression of the character, even without the years of Metroid backstory. Freeman's character is constructed another way: from NPC conversation (albeit tragically one-sided). You form a great idea of who Freeman is the second you step off the Tram in Half-Life and walk in to work with all your coworkers greeting you.

Of course, there are games where the anonymity of the character is built-in, to imply that it is you the player in the boots (these are typically war games, especially the goldmine World War II genre) and that is a fine mechanism for an already tedious and overwrought concept. But for modern, character-driven games, it no longer cuts it to let the personality come off half-baked. The technology in Crysis is alone worth the price of admission, but to clear the gap into gaming greatness these developers need to hire some real writing talent.
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