There's a small set of recurring suggestions and pointers we get from readers, and the MC's characterization is up there in this regard. I'd like to have a thread about this because we could really use some input on this matter — but in the form of a dialogue where we can exchange ideas back and forth.
So, on one side we have a good number of readers who, quite fairly, would like the MC to be more thoroughly characterized. It's a bit odd, one can argue, that the MC can be so non-descript in the midst of a very solid, palpable cast. And so people somewhat often ask us to give the players more chances to characterize the MC, and others ask us to just inject more character ourselves.
This is very tricky, far more than people imagine.
What I can say is that, to a certain point, I think I could have done a better job in a few places and I'm making conscious effort to make the MC into a more active participant. There were moments when he really remained quiet when he should have interjected and debated more. I'm taking this into account going forward. You can also expect the MC to be more proactive in displaying his affection for Asterion as well.
That said, my self-improvement as a writer can only take things so far.
When we talk about more substantive ways to improve this, we run into a problem: the suggestions we receive are not as simple as most would assume.
For example, people often ask for us to give more options for the MC to characterize himself, talk about his past and so on. That sort of stuff takes up a lot more time than you guys imagine. It bloats the game's length like you wouldn't believe. There were moments back during Build 0.3 when we spent weeks working on the variations for each background — brainstorming, researching, comparing ideas, discarding and coming up with more, refining them, writing, editing...
And beyond the effort and time it takes, my impression in this regard is that it probably wouldn't be enough. The number of options we can give, the variety, just won't be enough to cover things even on a satisfactory level. And I think people would be very disappointed if these were throwaway choices that don't impact things later — but the more options we give, the more impossible it becomes to manage them. So, being very honest, I really have no desire to make a spreadsheet to track all the minuscule data points of what the MC might or might not have done before.
Suffice it to say, if we actually accepted this suggestion I'm very sure you guys would really regret the impact it has on development. It's the sort of thing that people would look back on and say it really wasn't worth it.
The other option is to better characterize the MC ourselves. That means not giving this as a choice to the players.
This will sound like a good idea for some of you. I know some who were delighted at this proposal. But, much like the previous one, there's a catch. In this topic I like to bring up that, back when we released Build 0.4, some people thought it jarring that the MC knows how to bake bread because they, the players, don't. So, being very honest here, I think that just going wild with this idea (to the extent people want) would be outright infuriating for a lot of players. Probably a higher number of them than those who enjoy the extra characterization, if I'm being honest.
So, you see, I do think we are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Maybe it's pessimistic of me, but that's what I think.
...However, there is a third way out. And this is one we've been using since the very start of the game, we just kept quiet about it.
In truth, we actually do have a very firm vision of what the MC is like as a person, and we inserted it into the game from the very start. We just never spelled it out and used a few tools to do it.
For example, the narrator to a large extent has a bit of an acidic streak because it's a reflection of the MC's own attitude. This is a guy who, given the right circumstances, is not afraid of punching very powerful and important people, so it makes sense that he'd have some attitude.
Another thing we do is that the narrator should never tell the player what they should be thinking. You know what you think, after all. But, still, sometimes we want to establish a bit of the MC's thought process, so we phrase it like "One would think that..." or "It is fair to assume..."
We also put in a lot of very specific information about the MC. For starters, the game begins with him traveling and the narration quite clearly states that he's a frequent traveler. He's tired.
And then we get more. When he finds the hotel his first instinct is play detective and go over old documents. He investigates the list of employees and finds a pattern. He pays attention to his surroundings, connects the dots... finds an emaciated minotaur in the cold room and he keeps his calm. He gathers himself and asks questions. He can insist on helping Asterion, or can respect his boundaries. And the game goes on.
We were very deliberate with these moments of the story. We have a number of rules for how the MC should act. Assuming you are treating Asterion well (and avoiding the Ruthless Route), the MC is never lecherous, he doesn't overstep boundaries, he doesn't do things without consent. He is polite but not a doormat, and will stand up to the occasion. He's a bit acidic, he's good at banter, he's well-humored. He's a rather competent person, and even if you do not pick Leader as your background the MC will still be a good, competent one.
In Kota's route you can play detective again. The MC is inquisitive. In Khenbish's you can be a big brother to the boar, and the MC will readily push Khenbish to improve himself, sign the restaurant's menu. The MC lets people have their time under the spotlight. When it comes to Luke he always sets healthy boundaries, but never mistreats the guy. He's tolerant of difficult but well-intentioned people.
The MC does not have an inflated ego. He's aware that Asterion is a force to be reckoned and they work together. He insists on elevating Asterion, and when that stalls he lowers himself. He believes in paying his employees nicely, too, and that's no small virtue when you stop and think about it.
He can crack Argos' puzzles, too. And, even when he learns the truth, he can be humane. He can understand and forgive Argos. If you play your cards right, the MC can even enable Argos and Asterion to patch things up and become friends.
All of this is right there in the game. It's not even subtext. We just don't have the narrator hammering it down, we keep it understated, because this also allows you to fill in the gaps. You get to write a bit of the MC yourself, in your interpretation of things.
To give you an idea, we've considered the idea of having an optional segment later down the road where we'd show what the MC comes across from another character's perspective, and then we'd show just what kind of person he is from an outsider's perspective. I have a treasure trove of ideas for this, and none of them involve adding new aspects to the MC. It's all just bringing up what's already there, like I did just now.
Maybe this shed some light on why I'm not keen on rocking the boat too much with how we present the MC. While we do get complaints about the lack of characterization, I think changing the course would be even more uncomfortable for players — and on some level I think that connecting the dots about the MC is part of the process of interpreting the story. (Though, to be fair, I do think I dropped the ball at some points and I'm working to improve in this regard.)
And with this, I'd like to hear what you guys think. Maybe this long post changed your mind. Or not. Either way I'd like to hear what you think.