In this edition of Know Your Role, I will discuss another element of storytelling in a game that is very significant. I have already discussed the tole of the hero, the one who sets the wheels in motion for the action that takes place in a game, and while the hero is in most cases the most important character role in the story, one simply can't forget how important the role of the innocent bystander is.
There are often times when we glance past these kinds of characters, bystanders who just get in the way of the action between our hero and his oppressors, and sometimes we don't think much of these characters because for one thing we won't get to play as these characters and we only get to see certain bystander characters in designated levels for only so long a time. However, the innocent bystander can do his or her part in driving the plot in ways that the hero isn't necessarily required to do. The hero can show signs of weakness at points, and it would preferred that the hero does, but with a bystander, showing weakness in a game is almost always a common thing to do.
The key word we have to keep in mind would be "innocent". These bystanders are innocent, serving as victims of circumstance because they cannot help in any way to change the situation that has been pressed upon them by the villain and his forces. These are the kinds of characters that wander around in levels seeking help, and this directly plays into game missions that the hero has to complete. The hero has to be motivated in order to have the title of hero, so we bring in bystanders to inform the hero via cutscene dialogue what needs to be done in order to give the bystanders and their home lands relief. Some dialogue from bystanders may be inconsequential, random and purely emotion driven. Other dialogue from bystanders will be informative, challenging the player to do the task that the hero is required to do and instructing the player on how to go about performing the mission.
Innocent bystanders can be referred to as Non-Playable Characters (NPC) because they can't be controlled by the player unless the player is given freedom to pick up and carry a bystander in gameplay. Bystanders are not only in levels just to be part of the decor. Some bystanders are given the job to emotionally drive the story of the game, to make the hero aware of what is happening and to make the player care. In some cases a bystander can be more emotionally charged than a hero simply because of what has happened to that character, that character's family and friends, or that character's home. The villain will use the bystander as an example of what can happen if the hero is too reckless in his approach to succeed. Sadly, some stories in games call for some bystanders to perish because of the unprecedented despicable actions of the villain, the lack of action or the wrong actions taken by the hero, or a combination of each.
The basic description of an NPC bystander character is that he or she is used as a bridge for the hero to progress in the game's story. The bystander is the one used to create the core conflicts of the game. Without conflict, where is the motivation for the hero to go after the supposed villain? If the stakes are not established nor raised then it becomes more difficult to expand the character of the hero. We almost immediately exclude storyline possibilities without the help of the bystander role. We do need to keep it perspective and make sure that the bystander characters don't come across as much too weak to help themselves, but we also need to make sure that the bystanders stay true to their roles. When trouble develops, the bystanders will be the ones caught in the eye of the tornado, so to speak.
In some video game genres the lines between bystanders and actual playable characters can be blurred, especially if we are dealing with the Role-Playing Game genre. In an RPG balance is required between numerous characters and the main focus is commonly spread out between RPG characters, so the responsibilities of certain characters in this genre can relate to both that of a hero and that of a bystander. It is monkey wrenches like these that occasionally get thrown in that we have to keep an eye on.
Game writers are responsible for creating a believable story that is suitable for the environment of a video game, and the handling of the characters in the game must be careful. Even if the writer is presented with a character that he or she may not initially like, it is still the job of the writer to make that character work, to make that character relatable to gamers and to give that character at least some redeemable qualities. The majority of emotional investment from a gamer obviously won't go to bystander characters most of the time, but the little things of a game do matter and when one looks back at a game and refreshes his or her memory of that game, one will be reminded of how interesting some lesser known innocent bystander characters actually were.
In closing, the innocent bystander is a building block for a game story. The bystander is a building block that shouldn't be ignored nor neglected. The innocent bystander character should be treated with care and it should be given a purpose that will help drive home the point of the story. The bystander basically tells us "Hey! This is what you have to deal with! This is why the bad guy is bad! You should take this seriously because of (blank) and (blank)!" Game development teams have nothing to lose from establishing a well liked innocent bystander character because the possibility of that same character becoming a playable hero character down the road could emerge, and if that possibility does emerge then it would be wise to capitalize on such an opportunity. Sometimes character development stems from the changing of roles and if a character starts out as a bystander but develops out of that shell, then that character becomes something to invest in.
It's amazing what the little things can deliver to your doorstep.