Consider a truly alien protagonist.

12 12 2011

Rowan brought something interesting to mind today and instead of plaguing his wall with my weird usage of bullet points and semi-colons I’m going to plague mine. From that article, abridged by me a bit:

“BioWare apparently said a few months ago they felt that an alien’s story would be too different from the human centered stories they had developed…. [T]hey didn’t think people would be able to relate to an alien protagonist.”

This isn’t as weird as it first appears, but it might taken some cranking to see why. Consider fantasy and sci-fi films you’ve seen and books you’ve read. Let’s start with books. I can think of a few notable authors (Le Guin, Aasimov, Tolkien) who at times put forward characters who – while having human traits – really did seem to exude alien qualities. I admit it’s been many years since I read The Left Hand of Darkness and The Gods Themselves, but I remember well that each of them posed truly alien characters as being central to the plot line; the aliens had customs and habits that differed wildly from anything in human experience…things the authors presented in a clear attempt to make them seem alien.

Now let’s consider films that do the same thing. Enemy Mine gave us an alien protagonist…but also a human protagonist. E.T. gave us an alien…and also an Eliot. If the protagonist is purely an alien, it’s actually a very, very human-like alien like Superman or Klatu (from the original). If aliens are in fact monsters, they visually represent what they really are. What is this pattern, we’re seeing here?

Alien protagonists can work in books because you have text and time: appropriate vectors for the author to explain to the reader what’s going on. Why is the alien doing this thing that is weird to us but normal for them? (There’s more to it, of course, i.e. that the ritual or practice probably exists to fit some theme for the story, but I’ll eschew that for now.) The writer can explain it directly to the reader. Movies are very limited on time and even more limited on text. (Try to imagine a movie where the sub-titles quickly flashed by to explain what was going on constantly.) When the weird-but-normal ritual is explained to the protagonist, it’s explained to the viewer too.

Now let’s consider TOR. TOR is an MMO and – were it a LOTRO-style scene – it could leverage ample text and time to explain to the player why a weird-but-normal thing is happening to their character. However, TOR wants to be more cinematic (hence the thousands of hours of spoken dialog) and so they couldn’t really leverage text…they’d need to ascribe to the “human to explain things to” vector. Your companion, perhaps?

But then, as your companion has things explained to him or her in the way they’d normally be explained directly to the player (who is the protagonist in games, by definition) then why isn’t the companion the alien and the player the human?

That is what’s happening here, as it turns out. There are alien companions (we’ve all seen them by now) but all of the playable races are currently very human-like in appearance and speech.

It’s a fact of filmography that viewers relate better to more human characters than alien ones; it’s why truly alien protagonists are so very rare and why they always share their spotlight with an actual human whom things get explained to. Points of tension and excitement in stories revolve around emotions and experiences that we real people can relate to. To top it all off, where you might be thinking “I really want the strange and exotic total-alien protagonist experience!”, this is the sad part where I tell you that you are the minority and the market they’re gunning for (the one whose existence helped convince investors to fund this giant) is not you.

I won’t be the least bit surprised if Wookies and Trandoshans are part of an expansion, but that they won’t be available at release doesn’t surprise me a bit. They’ve been boasting for quite a while now re: their obtuse amount of recorded dialog. Do you think they’d risk criticism that “YEA WELL A LOT OF THAT DUMB DIALOG IS A GUY MAKIN WOOKIE NOISES FOR HOURS ON END”? No, young padawan. No, they would not.

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4 responses

12 12 2011
rowan

Hey, thanks for the shout-out. You bring up some interesting points. I certainly hope they add some more alien races in the expansions. It would still be intriguing to play a Rodian or Wookie.

13 12 2011
thade

Thank you and cheers. 🙂

Bioware takes their story-writing very, very seriously. It’s not just a wrapper for the game; it’s a vector by which the game works at all. Hence, I expect this kind of stuff is on their minds. That said, adding Wookie and Trandoshan would likely be very easy insofar as audio-work, so I do see that happening eventually. Maybe they’ll surprise me with either the volume of audio or the kinds of races they give us.

I think “playable Hutt” is along the lines of Blizzard’s “playable two-headed ogre” but you never know. 😉

13 12 2011
rowan

LOL I remember that! Ja, I don’t see “playable Hutt” really being viable, but some bipedal aliens would be.

13 12 2011
thade

Definitely. The list of doable aliens is pretty staggering, should they get over the non-human protagonist wall they’ve erected.

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