[In this opinion piece, writer Tom Cross examines how The Longest Journey and The Witcher create more interesting, fully-realized protagonists through the use of diaries.]
To most people a “journal” is a pretty simple thing. It’s a bit like a diary, but it can range from anything to a travelogue to a collection of rambling thoughts.
To people who play video games, a journal is always one thing: it’s where your quests are written down, and if you’re playing an ambitious game, it’s where you can make your own notes concerning your adventures.
This “Journal” is especially endemic to RPG’s, where it allows harried players to keep track of who they’ve accepted quests from, how many rats they’ve killed, and what kind of loot or experience they can expect as a reward.
Even when games like Baldur’s Gate II
feature slightly more involved quest and journal entries (that are written in the first person, perhaps), they’re still just elaborate explanations of plot points or quests.
As a result, it’s interesting to see games that treat these “journal entries” a bit like you or I might think of such things: as a places to record how your avatar feels about the things that have taken place in game.
This really only works for games that feature protagonists with strong convictions or very thoroughly constructed personalities. Otherwise, who really cares what they think about the events transpiring around them?
Witching Toward Your Past
might not seem like the best place to employ such a journal. After all, the writing on display in The Witcher
might be pretty good, but the Witcher (or rather, the actor tasked with voicing him) never quite sells his character.
He sounds bored, or tired, and definitely not the kind of person who’d care about his travels enough to record them. Luckily for us, Geralt is written as a multi-faceted character, one who rediscovers “who he is” by making important decisions and judgments during the game.
Geralt, having lost his memory, comes to the world with his Witcher’s skills, his body, and his friends’ memory of his former self. Thus, he gets to carry out the RPG’s hero’s perpetual task, that of defining who he is. This translates into two kinds of decisions: choosing to help or hurt various factions, or discussing politics, ethics and philosophy with friends and enemies.
The second is by far the more interesting method of self-discovery (although Geralt’s momentous, life-and-death decisions do change the course of the game’s narrative, and the lives of the people in it), as Geralt subtly defines his views on human and nonhuman racism, parenting, relationships and romance, fate, and other interesting topics. Thus, when the dark, ghostly Wild Hunt asks Geralt whether he believes in fate or not, your answer will be logged in your journal.
Geralt’s journal is much like any other RPG character’s journal, albeit told in the first person. Geralt keeps track of his various bounty hunting tasks, his quest to find a fellow Witcher’s killers, and all information relating to these activities (along with a few sidequests). What Geralt also does within these summations is offer up his judgment on the results of his and others’ actions.
When Geralt tells his old friend that he doesn’t believe in something (equal rights for elves and dwarves, say), Geralt will record in his journal that he “now realizes he never liked non-humans” or something to the effect.
This response can be expected whenever Geralt does something that he believes reflects on something integral to his makeup as a Witcher and nonhuman, or as a hunter, or any other number of roles he plays. We’ve all seen characters define themselves after a bout of convenient RPG amnesia, but seldom is the time when we watch them assess these new revelations and changes, and self-consciously record them.
A Bad Week Makes for a Great Diary
Luckily for Geralt, he’s not alone in obsessively recording his changes in fate and temperament. The heroines of Ragnar Tørnquist’s The Longest Journey
series’ also suffer from this illuminating ailment. In the original game, TLJ
, our hero April Ryan is forced to save two worlds from destruction, while attempting to keep her sanity and her life from harm. She enjoys the company of several friendly, amusing cohorts (most noticeably the foul-mouthed Crow), but her most informative and verbose companion is her diary.
Here, April will keep up a running commentary on the misfortunes and successes that she experiences on the road to saving the Balance, and the worlds of magic and technology. It’s always seemed a bit odd to me that the heroes of various games, movies, and books don’t complain more about their sudden status as world-savers or scions of good and evil or whatever they’ve become.
April Ryan’s life hasn’t exactly been a cakewalk. She ran away from home, from an abusive father, a mother who she felt never helped her enough, and a poisonous creative and emotional atmosphere. Even in what she’d hoped would be a heaven away from home, her life is still rocky.
She makes next to no money at her café job, her career as an art student is stagnating, and while she’s made some great friends, she has also encountered some true assholes bastards. I use those words because April uses them with such fluency. This isn’t the kind of swearing you’ll find in F.E.A.R.
, Gears of War
and other “mature” “intense” games. April swears like an adult expressing intensely felt emotions and opinions. She does this in her thoughts and out loud, and amongst her diary entries.
The Longest Journey
is by no means a game with weak or infrequent dialogue. On the contrary, characters can be overly helpful when it comes to explanations, and April’s bickering and arguing with various relatively unimportant characters can last for minutes.
Most of it is very well written, and most of it is convincingly acted. I liked the conversations April has with her friends and enemies, I thought they were realistic, intelligent, and paint a picture of a smart, less than confident woman who has a unique perspective on the strange and mundane occurrences in her life.
All of the Different Aprils
I want to emphasize then, the regard with which I hold the diary entries. Every time a major event occurs in game (or sometimes when April just feels like venting about something), you can visit the journal to find April’s take on it. Here, April were second guess herself, posit answers to long running quandaries and worries, and carefully examine various characters and plot developments.
Even before I read these entries, they intrigued me. After all, a person may react in a certain way to the death of a recently discovered friend and ally, but how does that same person write (and feel) about the same event long after the fact.
April’s immediate reactions to her predicaments are always believable and heartfelt, but it’s even more interesting and worthwhile an experience when you compare these sudden, in the moment reactions with her slightly calmer, more thought out reactions as seen on paper.
This diary allows for a kind of introspection and rumination normally reserved for us gamers, not the avatars we control. Now, when we’re wondering just who Cortez is, how the world of Stark (our mechanical, scientific world) could possibly have been sundered from its magical twin, and how April could possibly enjoy the company of the abrasive Crow, we have a subtle, guiding force in April’s diary.
It’s in the diary that we discover that April doesn’t really think that Cortez and his brother are dead, and that we encounter important, emotionally charged remembrances of her life with her family. Every single journal entry provides another, slightly skewed vision of the game. Without these observations, April and her world would be less tangible, less fleshed out.
Who Wants to Write Their Thoughts Down?
This isn’t exactly a mechanic that can thrive in any setting. Nobody wants to hear Duke Nukem’s take on strippers and Las Vegas. But what if other, less understood and more underwritten characters were given a secret, internal voice? I can’t be the only one who thinks that certain characters could stand to benefit from April’s diary treatment.
What would the Master Chief have to say, if he thought that no one could hear his amusingly stoic thoughts? For that matter, what would my beloved Nathan Drake have to say for himself, steeped in quirk and irony as he already is?
There is no question in my mind that a certain kind of self-awareness only makes video game characters more interesting. It’s not like we don’t all already enjoy these kinds of narratives. Survival horror games have long traded in the diaries of ill-fated scientists and soldiers. Why do we only see the writings of these bit players? The Master Chief’s Log, supplemental, if you please.
[Tom Cross also writes for Gamers' Temple and blogs about video games at shouldntbegaming.wordpress.com. You can contact him at romain47 at gmail dot com.]