Some of my favorite games are story-heavy, with compelling characters and worlds. That’s why it hurts so much to see games with established characters, usually from media that isn’t easily adapted to video games. This was my biggest criticism of “The Walking Dead: Michonne,” and for good reason. Using established characters from other media in your video game is lazy and ultimately hurts a game more than it helps.
I alluded to the reasons why this is a problem in my “Walking Dead” review, but a more complete example might highlight why this trend makes me furious. Telltale’s “Game of Thrones” game was a great time in the “Game of Thrones” universe, mostly because it used the show’s existing characters, but made the original characters the stars of the show. The developers wisely made characters like Cersei and Tyrion part of the supporting cast, which made their appearances all the more meaningful.
In the later episodes, however, the developers decided to take one character from the show, Ramsey Snow, and made him one of the main antagonists for an extended sequence. On the show, Ramsey is a devious and menacing villain, but in the game, he’s more like an extremely frustrating force of nature. Most of the game revolves around negotiating with people who either hate you or are infinitely more powerful, but Ramsey is neither compelling nor particularly interesting. He can’t be reasoned with because that would break from his character in the show, so the player’s only choice is whether they get to kowtow to him or get the smack beaten out of the player character. The sole thing to look forward to when Ramsey is on screen is getting your butt kicked, either physically or diplomatically.
If Ramsey were an original villain created for the game, then players could build up resentment and fear of the character, but of course, Ramsey is a major character in the show, so there’s no way he’ll ever be killed or placed in any serious danger. This is the inherent flaw with trying to co-opt a character that exists outside the game. Ramsey breaks the player’s immersion, and just like in “Michonne,” the player is given a choice that they know is meaningless, namely whether to attempt to slit Ramsey’s throat. One guess as to whether that succeeds.
Ironically, in Telltale’s case, the original characters are far more compelling and interesting than the characters they take from other shows or games. In my review of the final episode of “Tales From the Borderlands,” I wrote a lengthy description of how I went into the final battle with a squad of original losers, spurning the vault hunting superheroes that I had seen a hundred times before. Taking existing characters puts the developer in a box from which they cannot escape, because the writers are basically obligated to include the characters, but can’t do anything interesting with them because doing anything too bold with the character would break with the character’s development on the show.
When developers include a character that they didn’t write, they also face the issue of damaging the character itself. The more screen time an established character gets, the bigger the risk. In Telltale’s “Game of Thrones,” there’s an absolutely bizarre scene with Tyrion, a character famous for his subterfuge and knowledge, where the player character engages in a conversation about committing treason within earshot of a royal guard. The scene has no real purpose, as it’s just an excuse to put Tyrion on screen more, but it makes Tyrion look like a moron, doing no service to the show or to the game.
Video games are capable of telling incredible stories and portraying awesome characters. I wish developers understood this, because the way they keep appropriating characters from other media you’d think they were ashamed. Original characters are almost always more interesting than the ones we’ve seen before, and open up more possibilities for the developer than any established hero or villain.
Edward Pankowski is life editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.