Call me power-crazy, call me easily flattered, call me a control freak, but when a game calls me Commander it seems to grip me until the end.
X-COM, Mass Effect, and Command and Conquer, even Elite: Dangerous, I consider all of these games and their series influential in my gaming history, and they all share something in common. They all call me commander.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy games of all flavours, but unlike the JRPG sub-genre -which commonly sets you out as a peasant, pauper, exile, or amnesiac super-soldier- the strategy genre and certainly most Western RPGs, especially in this modern day of heavier voice-acting, aren’t afraid to portray you as a title.
There’s reasons for it, of course, a lot more than the mere psychology of the thing. Calling a player by a title is vastly easier than loading a massive database of names in, although Bethesda did try this out with Fallout 4, and Codemasters have had a cool nickname system (Chief!) in all of the Racedriver; Grid series. It also evades the matter of pronouns and gender – it’s a lot easier in Dragon Age: Origins to have somebody say “Like the Warden here,” than it is record all of the varying alternatives.
But, enough with that. There’s a reason I’m focusing this on being ‘The Commander,’ and that’s due to the fact that the name imparts an illusion of experience on the player, one that actually matches the role you’ll be playing in the game. Mass Effect’s Shepard is already an experienced veteran, and as it turns out is already the best of the best. Commander is the perfect rank for this kind of veteran; in some instances it illustrates somebody more like a general, pushing orders forward from the backlines; while it still has an air of ground-troop to it, because afterall they’re not the TOP rank. Even when they are.
That first example though, the commander who sends orders forth; still commanding, but not from the front. That’s the role of the player in Advance Wars, X-COM, and Command and Conquer. The deaths are still on your head, you’re not flinging off directions to various underlings like a ruler in a grand-strategy title, there are still ground troops that each have a value to them – be that a deep, sincere human value like in X-COM, a tactical value in Advance Wars, or simply a resource value in C&C.
Command and Conquer was the first game to do it to me, call me commander as if it was my name, my actual title. As you insert the disk the little auto-run from CD box pops up and then disappears, then the whole screen is taken over by an installation screen (We don’t have those anymore!) which is made to look like an terminal interface. A voice, E.V.A, emerges from the installation screen, and talks you through the whole thing. From that point onward, you are of rank, receiving briefings face-to-face. As GDI you have Carter dialing in from the shoreline, or the frontline, and calling you directly by your rank, your direct boss General Shepherd calls you by it to, heck, everyone does.
At the start the series’ third series the boot-up cuts right to the point as E.V.A rattles out “Welcome Back Commander,” as your monitor is once again commandeered by the game’s interface.
X-COM Enemy Unknown, and it’s sequel completely pull off the same thing as well, everything is designed to look like an interface, an extension of yourself as you sit at a computer yourself. Characters talk direct to you as their superior, staring straight at the camera like NOD’s Seth did just before you get your promotion back in those early C&C briefings.
So, I suppose, at least with the strategy titles that I’ve mentioned, and of course Elite: Dangerous, it’s more than just the fact they’re calling you by your title. It’s also that direct interface, the immersion that comes when the two of them couple together.
In that way, other titles like Jagged Alliance 2, Uplink, and Superhot (which remains one of the most innovative shooters I’ve played in years) do manage to build similar appeal, and obviously I’d also like to mention Battle Brothers, which never shows your character as you’re off on a cart on the back-lines, however has you answer in the first person.
Being addressed directly, having an immersive interface, and being put in a position of power is, for sure, a killer mix.
Are there any traits or gimmicks in games that seem to immediately consume you?