on May 9, 2008
I like the flaws of the main character in Jade Empire. The character can be male or female, and is named by the player. Let’s assume he’s a male named Bob, because that’s clearly an optimal name for a kung-fu student in ancient quasi-China. Also because I actually named one of my characters Bob at one point.
But the other flaw that Bob has is that he’s a raving egomaniac. He doesn’t act like one or talk like one, but for him to go through his adventure making the assumptions that he does, he must think he’s the most important person in the world. This flaw – which causes him to misunderstand everything he sees around him and most of the things Master Li says – is insidious because he borrows it from the player. The player accepts Bob’s view of the world because Bob is the player character.
Bob sees that he is better than the other students, and assumes it’s because he’s simply the most skilled. Bob sees that he miraculously survives the slaughter of his village, and he assumes it’s because he’s been chosen by fate. People comment on the aberration in his fighting technique and he assumes they’re just unable to comprehend his superhuman kung-fu. He follows a trail of discovery to the imperial palace and thinks it’s destiny. All of these assumptions are wrong. All of them are the thoughts of a man who believes himself to be of extraordinary importance.
Bob is constantly working under the delusion that he’s somehow the center of the world. He believes this for his entire life, and it’s not until he’s dead that he realizes he was never the center of anything. Master Li was. Bob was simply his willing dupe, and his “destiny” was nothing more than a carefully laid trail of breadcrumbs placed by Li. Bob’s entire quest is a mere errand for Master Li, who is only too happy to kill Bob the moment the job is done. Bob gets another chance to make things right, but only because a
minor deity intervenes. Bob is sent back to the living not for the virtue of anything he’s said or done, but simply because there isn’t anyone else left. He’s not the best. He’s just the only one available.
The beauty of the thing is the way the player can be an unwitting egomaniac right along with him. We assume that Bob is the chosen one and the center of the world because he’s our character, and metagame thinking tells us he must be the most important guy or we wouldn’t be playing him. The game takes this expectation and uses it like a blind spot in which to hide the central truths of the story until the big reveal at the start of the third act.
This is a wonderful device. I know that not everyone fell for it. Several people left comments on my original post on the Jade Empire plot twist that they saw Li’s betrayal coming. That’s a shame, as I really enjoyed being blindsided by this development.
Going through the game a second time can be kind of funny, once you’re in on the joke. The conversations all take on a different meaning as you realize your character isn’t the fulcrum on which the world is moved. The comic above isn’t that far from the truth – I just put into words what most players took for granted.
It’s tough to have character flaws in a real RPG game. (Japanese RPGs get away with it (I almost wrote this post about Tidus) and while I love jRPGs, they aren’t really “role playing games” as much as “role watching games”.) Usually the main character is supposedly an empty vessel for the player to fill, and the game designer can’t normally get away with sneaking in any flaws without it feeling contrived, alienating, or railroad-y. I love the way Jade Empire imparted a flaw on the main character by simply borrowing it from the player.
Side note: I wrote this post and did the comic last weekend, before I heard anything about the Mass Effect controversy or launched my series of angry posts aimed at EA / BioWare. It’s just a coincidence that the story of the next BioWare game popped up while I was writing a post revisiting the last one.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.