Video Game Characters Suck!

…I really think they do. After 30 odd years of the art form, the most memorable characters are a fat plumber, a blue hedgehog and a lemon tart with a big slice taken out.  Even the best characters of the modern age, Master Chief and Chell, are mute.  Think about the protagonist from a video game and then put them in a movie.  It’s not like Max Payne, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li and Hitman are even watchable movies, unless you want to play some sort of drinking game. Arguably the best video game adaptations of all time have been Prince of Persia, the Tomb Raider films and the Resident Evil movies, and the lead character of Alice in those movies isn’t even in the games.

You could look at the films and say they have been handled wrongly, and they have. It’s just not like they had a lot to work with to start off with. Come on, until Duke Nukem Forever the guy was thought of as one of the best video game characters.  One of his best lines “I came here to kick ass and chew gum, and I’m all out of gum” is a straight lift from “Rowdy” Roddy Piper in They Live.  When one of your best characters needs to take subtlety lessons from the male wrestling lead of Hell Comes to Frogtown, maybe we should admit that video games are in their infancy, storytelling wise.

Look at the birth of cinema; that started as a silent medium, which is why Sonic, Mario and Pacman still endure. Mario as the fat man that keeps falling down is funny.  We all know that his Donkey Kong sprite was given a moustache because of the limited amount you could do with a small number of pixels, but in the Super Mario Brothers days, his look of shock as he bumped into a mushroom and then went up before falling off the screen is pure Oliver Hardy.  In fact, playing the Mario Brothers mini game in Super Mario 3, more amusement was had in the slapstick of jumping off Luigi’s head than in anything else.  The Chain Chomp is pure angry dog slapstick… even the angry sun in Mario 3 has links to George Méliès Le Voyage Dans La Lune and SunnyVoyage. Hell, even in the Sonic games, the ‘dum, dum’ of death is almost like a comic ‘Wah, wah, way”. By the time you get to Sonic 2, a whole stream of amusement comes from the fact that Tails seems desperate to commit suicide at any opportunity.  Even the central idea behind Pac Man, where the underdog turns round and has revenge on his pursuers is not a million miles away from Chaplin… and Angry Birds is not far away from the world of Buster Keaton either.

In the modern age, the most successful characters also seem to be mute.  Master Chief and Chell don’t say a word, but their narratives are some of the most compelling of the modern era.  They’re also both immersive first person games, where you can more readily identify with the main character because you’re not being someone else.  Technically, Halo ODST was right up there with the rest of the Halo series, and in terms of acting talent, it had Nathan Frickin’ Fillion in it  but it felt less of an immersive experience than the mute experience of Master Chief and the well realised dialogue of the Arbiter and Cortana.

On the other part of things, we have Chell.  In the Portal commentaries, it’s been spoken about how Chell was going to say one word at the end, but it was scrapped. Another interesting thing is that they played around with the idea of GLaDOS (and Wheatley) talking during the tests, but found that too distracting.  Rather than cut scenes, there was exposition away from the action, and humour not something that wrenched you away from the immersive experience.  I want to get into the story of games, but even I find myself pressing the skip button through cut scenes where it’s available (by the way, with the silent Atlas and Peabody, the Laurel and Hardy thing has been done very well too). The video games that people went to to prove to Roger Ebert that video games could be an art form were Shadow of the Colossus and Ico, guess what… silent protagonists.

So! Do we need to have everyone silent? Not necessarily, but if you have a game that works with a silent protagonist, chances are that it will work OK with one that talks too. Rockstar are pretty good at this, with Red Dead Redemption and GTA IV trying for some rounded characterisation.  LA Noire goes even further, by pushing characterisation, but relinquishing control.  Guybrush Threepwood is a great video game character, but the nature of adventure games mean that the choices that they make are more linear, and more akin to a novel.  Heavy Rain also has good characters, but limits the nature of the choices that the player can make.  Alan Wake was also a good attempt, and would have been better if it didn’t feel like it was ripping off evry Stephen King book ever written and Alan’s characterisation wasn’t a little thin, but at least it was making an effort. Again, think about Alan Wake as a TV series, how many episodes would you watch? Even the Mass Effect games and Dragon Age are action games linked together by adventure game sections that are generic enough that your character can be a man or a woman and it has very little effect on the outcome.

The main problem with video games characters is the ‘Mary Sue’ factor. In fan fiction a ‘Mary Sue’ character (named after a Star Trek short story) is a character who is just too good at everything.  They don’t have any real flaws, and they tend to be the best at everything they put their minds to.  That’s the whole basis for a load of characters these days, a single soldier destined to take on armies, or galaxies of armies.  In the first game, Duke Nukem was an ironic take on the already outdated 80’s musclebound stereotype, in the remake he just became that stereotype, so perfect at everything that even his own ego could heal his wounds! One of the nice narrative surprises (Spoiler Alert) is that your character gets killed during the Airport Hostage mission… it would be better if you cared about the character at all. You can have someone that is exceptional, but they can’t be the best.  That’s not interesting.  No matter how cool Boba Fett is, he would suck as the main character in a film. Even Han Solo wouldn’t be that great, he’s great as a side character, or as part of an ensemble but you need to start with your everyman, your simple farm boy.  You need fallibility, and you need a character arc. The best realised video game character so far, probably Nathan Drake in the Uncharted series. He trusts the wrong people, goes after the wrong girl, falls off things and you love him the more because of it.  But we need to do better than someone just saying “how about a modern day Indiana Jones”?

How about a normal loser kid who by accident finds an alien artifact, but has no idea how to use it properly? How about an ethical female spy who wants a chance to complete the objective by non lethal means before the army gets called in? Or if you are going to rip off stuff from movies, how about a comedy game where a couple of slackers fend off the zombie hordes with cricket bats! Or just stick me in a game! I do comedy, I can rap, I can do poetry, I get angry, I can wield a sword! I could be the most memorable game character of all time… or possibly just the worst…



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5 responses to “Video Game Characters Suck!”

  1. Leon avatar

    While a lot of this is true, I do think we have some good characters around!

    Take Big Boss from Metal Gear Solid. He often gets hurt, makes mistakes and remains very human even though he’s an exceptional fighter who does ridiculous things. He makes mistakes, and is a very conflicted character, and there’s a good sense of morals that are more than just good vs evil. He ends up becoming a bad guy, but we see his journey and can understand how he makes the choices he does. Plus, David Hayter’s voice acting is awesome 🙂

    Another example I can think of is Frank West. I never thought I would ever call him a good character, as I hated him when I first played the games. But that’s what’s so good, in my eyes – he’s the kind of annoying journalist I love to hate, yet he’s the most “human” character I’ve seen in a zombie game. He doesn’t have amazing fighting skills or a perfect personality, yet he goes out of his way to help people and also try and uncover the truth.

    But I think a character is more of a facilitator, as part of the game’s genre. Characters like Master Chief and Chell are more just a way of making you the protagonist – I think the real star of Portal is GLaDOS, and I feel that Chell’s appearance and such are being expanded on more because the fans want to know more about her. It makes me wonder if the same would have happened, had they never had to give her a character model for players to wonder about (for reflections and seeing her back when going through portals).

    Then we have characters such as Gene (God Hand) and Travis Touchdown (No More Heroes). These more tongue in cheek characters aren’t really meant to be taken seriously, and are more the equivalent of a character in a comedy movie – we know it’s not believable, but we take it for face value as that’s the style.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m always happy to see more developed characters in the gaming industry! I just think that different types of characters are good for different kinds of games.

    PS. I think your qualities you described are very similar to those of Deadpool… jus’ sayin 😛

  2. Mark P avatar

    I’d argue that Max Payne fits the bill perfectly, but you seem to have ruled him out entirely because of a shit silver screen adaption (apparently – I can’t say I’ve seen it).

  3. Arkayla avatar

    Nathan Drake is pretty damn awesome, mainly because he reminds me very much of Malcolm Reynolds (played of course by the mentioned Nathan Frickin’ Fillion) who is one of the coolest characters ever created.

  4. dean avatar

    Hey Fran, what a great article. I love your comparison of Mario and Sonic to silent slapstick movies. So much truth to that.

    I think you touch on the fact that the reason that protagonists aren’t so fleshed out in games is because they are there to facilitate the player – the player’s avatar, a vessel for their own personality and choices.

    However i like a good protagonist and storyline, and like you i’d love to see more interesting characters in games (things are definitely improving, and Nathan Drake is a prime example). I think its going to be very interesting what Crystal Dynamics are about to do with Lara Croft: They are planning to take one of the most iconic characters in gaming, someone who is perfect in every way, and take her back to the beginning, introducing flaws and vulnerability. If handled well the new Tomb Raider game could be a very important milestone in characterisation in games.

    Also an interesting point: It tends to be third person games that attempt to give you a developed, rounded character, whilst first person games just drop you into someone’s head. I guess this is why i prefer the former.

  5. Bruno "daiphoenix" avatar
    Bruno “daiphoenix”

    Hum, I have to disagree and nitpick with some of the side points made here.
    First, like Mark P mentioned already, Max Payne was a great character, very human, with it’s flaws (more apparent in the second game), and you shouldn’t look at the (shitty) movie adaptation to infer anything about the video game character. :p

    Second, whilst Chell is indeed a silent protagonist, Master Chief is not. Yes, he speaks little, and when he speaks it’s often shorts sentences, but he does speak. In fact, whilst he never speaks during the gameplay, in most cutscenes were he appears, he does speak. I’m making this nitpick to contrast with a true silent protagonist: Gordon Freeman. You see, I think that for a heavily story driven game, even an FPS, like Halo, Half-Life, Gears of War, etc., it’s generally a bad idea to have a silent protagonist, especially if the protagonist is supposed to be someone important, and not just a nameless soldier/person (like F.E.A.R. or Doom). This was apparent to me in HL2. They wanted to keep the tradition from HL1 of Freeman being silent, but the game had evolved to a more story driven game, and with more character interaction, and more dialog. How could they have all this with a silent protagonist? Well, they added Alyx Vance, and she accompanies you for like 75% of the HL2 games. She’s the one that has to speak to other characters, to tell what happened, or to speak to you, to tell you what’s happening, etc. They couldn’t have done the game without a side-kick like this. She’s present in nearly every important storyline conversation because Gordon is… mute! And eventually that starts to seem a bit silly and forced, especially when you contrast with other games.

    My point is that I think 100% silent protagonists only work with few games, with a certain style: where you rarely encounter any other character to have a conversation with. Portal is one example, Shadow of the Colossus another. But it doesn’t work that well with other kinds of games.

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