Player character identification in video games is one of those topics which academia seemingly loves. There are reams and reams of papers dedicated to the subject. I’m never scared to dumb things down here at Dirty Feed, however, so let’s ludicrously simplify things. How I identify with a player character comes in two forms: they’re either not me… or they are me.
In Final Fantasy IX, I am Zidane, a cheeky chappy with a ludicrous tail who discovers he is an Angel of Death. In I-0, I am Tracy Valencia, with all the added anatomy and latent lesbian tendencies that part requires. On the other hand, in a game like Angband, I’m creating a character from scratch, not taking the role of a pre-existing character with their own story – and I tend to think of that character as an extension of myself.
With a life simulation game like Animal Crossing, it’s even more clear-cut. Sure, the world is absolute fantasy, full of talking animals: but I’m still called John. I can wear the kind of clothes I wear in real life, furnish my house like I would if I had endless money and wasn’t a lazy bastard. I’m not playing a part: that character running around on the screen is me.
And in the game – between running around talking to friendly animals, fishing, and whacking friendly animals on the head with my fishing net – you get letters. Sometimes from your animal friends, sometimes from the real person you’re sharing the town with… and sometimes from “Mom”.1
Herein lies the problem: what if your real-life “Mom” is dead? Or you never knew yours in the first place?
I don’t want to speak for everyone, of course; some people may not mind it at all, or view their player character in a completely different way. I don’t even speak for myself, in fact: my mother is perfectly alive and healthy. But I know someone who no longer has a mum, and each time the game sends one of these letters, it also sends an extra little bit of pain their way. Pain that’s not necessary; pain that adds nothing. A bit like tapping you on the shoulder, and saying “Remember your mum’s dead?” Indeed, all it does is detract from the game – because it breaks the reality that the person running around on that screen is you.
They can’t be the only person who feels that way. If my mother was dead, I would feel exactly the same.
The answer? The character creation process is one possible way out. At the start of the game, you answer various questions posed by the friendly cat Rover (or the terrifying Kapp’n – terrifying if you know your Japanese mythology) to determine aspects of your character, and the town you’re moving to. It’s a brilliant way of letting you create your own character, without breaking the reality of the game. Why not just add an extra question during that process? You could always be asked to nominate a person you’re closest to, which would determine who you received letters from: a brother, a cousin, an uncle… or maybe a distant friend.
Not a perfect solution, of course: asking such a question could be awkward, though good writing would hopefully mask a lot of it. It also wouldn’t help solve a situation, say, where you nominate an uncle to send you letters… and then the uncle dies in real life. But it would at least be a hell of a lot better than the situation as it currently stands.
Animal Crossing has been going now since 2001, and been released for five different consoles – through the N64, GameCube, DS, Wii, and now the 3DS. You’d think they’d have figured out something by now.
Don’t ask me why they didn’t localise “Mom” to “Mum” for the UK release. I have no idea. ↩