Let’s talk for a while about player characters and player projection and all that jazz.
(But first, some mood music.)
So far I’ve dealt with lots of games with very defined characters. Lee Everett, Booker DeWitt, Joel — they each have very specific and pre-defined personalities. If their characterization were wishy-washy, their games wouldn’t work in the first place, because the narrative of all three games pivots around their complicated pasts and present emotional journeys
Animal Crossing goes in a different direction. Players are meant to create a character for themselves (although, as I talked about, this is frustratingly limited by the lack of a skin color option). Whether the player chooses to create a self-insert character or painstakingly recreating every detail of The Lord of the Rings and calling themselves Sauron is up to them. The game doesn’t have any fixed narrative, leaving room for customization.
Lots of journalistic ink (and blogging ink, and commenting ink…) has been used up about story heavy games that allow the player to create their own avatar. Obviously, this is common in WRPGS. The Mass Effect series is particularly well-known for having popular male and female player character options.
Even without more in-depth customization options, it’s become common for games to start with a gender choice. Typically, gender has little or no effect on gameplay in these games. Think Pokemon. TV Tropes has a great list of games that do this. (I’m so sorry for linking to TV Tropes all the time.)
I think this is a great trend. Although I love story heavy games with a defined protagonist (seriously, I gobble them up like the most melt-in-your-mouth candy imaginable), many games don’t need a set protagonist at all. Half-Life wouldn’t have been materially changed if the player had an option to play the game as a woman. (Although the ships sailed now, since Gordon Freeman has become such an iconic character. In the same vein, I’m not particularly eager to see a female version of Link — although gender has no bearing on the story of the Zelda series. Rather than changing well-loved male characters, I’d like all new games with female character or a gender choice. I wouldn’t scoff at a game with a playable Princess Zelda, though.)
The obvious limitation with this discussion is that there are more than two options of people in the world. We don’t start life with a dialog box asking us if we’re male or female. Hopefully, as we move into the future, more and more games will have the option to choose other very basic identifiers like skin color.
But someone will always be left out. After all, we live in a society that assumes two genders, so if you don’t fit into that binary in any way you’re left out to dry. Often gender choices in games have no impact on the game EXCEPT when it comes to romantic options, which leaves cisgender gay gamers in a tough spot. Do they play as their gender or do they play as a gender that allows them to court the man or woman of their choice?
It might not seem like a big deal. “Oh no, you can’t get virtual married to a character you like!” But this isn’t something that straight gamers have to put up with, and romantic options can have a big effect on player immersion. I’ve mentioned my sort of guilty pleasure for the Harvest Moon games before, and I can still remember how much it sucked when I had to play as a male character and get married to a female character to progress. That type of situation is sadly common for many gay gamers, and it doesn’t have to be that way.
But I’m starting to veer off topic. All of the above — a player’s relation to their avatar and the constraints on player choice — are dealt with elegantly in Journey by outright taking the options out.
The red (or white) cloaked player avatar of journey is completely neutral. Not just gender neutral. But age, race, sexuality, hair color, etc. Heck, maybe even species neutral. None of these things are important to the game, so they’re not even a factor.
The blank player character reminds me of a smiley face. At their simplest, smiley faces can have three lines — two eyes and a mouth — but we still recognize a human face. Our brains are so primed for social interaction, that we look for faces everywhere. That’s why people see faces in nature so often.
The Journey traveler has two legs and a head, but no identifiable arms. I’d assume that the two white dots under his cloak are eyes. With these simple signs, the traveler is identifiably humanoid to us.
But we can’t tell anything else. It’s as easy for us to project onto the traveler as it is for us to project happiness or sadness onto the three lines of a smiley face. There are no awkward barriers between the player and their playing avatar, meaning every single player can use the traveler as a self-insert character. (If they choose to, of course. Not everyone likes to project themselves onto a character, and I know many people enjoy making up stories for the traveler[s] as well.)
The very neutralness of the character also facilitates the multiplayer.
In Journey, it’s impossible to fight with your fellow travelers. It’s possible to abandon or be abandoned, but that’s the worst that can happen. I suppose you could bait an enemy toward another player, but, besides terrifying me, the “enemies” in the game can’t kill you.
Really, though, that’s not the behavior I’ve commonly experienced from other players. Generally, people are helpful and stick together. I still remember my first time playing through the game and having a more experienced player guide me through the ruins on the mountain so that I didn’t get caught by one of those giant worm machine things. I had no idea where I was going and was very, very slow, but they stuck with me the entire time anyway. Like many others, I was moved by the care they showed me and felt a closer connection to them through singing notes and flying together than if I’d been able to send them whole sentences.
Taking away differences between player avatars — the cloak designs are negligible — doesn’t mean that there are no differences between players. Each avatar is a representative of their player, and I can’t be the only one to wonder where in the world my partner is from or what they might be like. In the stories people share online about their Journey experiences, I’ve been struck by the language that people use. Other players are often referred to as “they” or “my companion” or “friend” (because this game makes a lot of us sappy).
The Journey player avatar works effectively as an in-game representative of a real life person, because of its simplicity. We can simultaneously project ourselves and other people onto identical avatars. Doing so helped create a multiplayer game with player motivated cooperation — there are no significant benefits to working together — and has fostered a wonderful sense of friendship based on minimal interaction.
Now, I’m not saying that I want every game to emulate Journey. I still want well-written characters, and I love being able to customize my own character. But the neutral protagonist that Journey uses is another possibility that game developers can use. With a truly neutral approach, there is absolutely no barrier between the player and their avatar. Nothing slightly off that interrupts player immersion. For many games that don’t place importance on the protagonist, I would love to see fewer male-default characters and more neutral-human characters.