The One Dimensional Man

Back in the day I loved the cult title Skies of Arcadia for the Dreamcast. Those were the days… innocent times when I skipped merrily through the evergreen fields of Glasgow dreaming of lollypops and rainbows instead of now when I wander soullessly through bleak grey cityscapes before going home and eating a lollypop whilst browsing obscene images on my laptop. As for rainbows, there are no rainbows because there is no sunshine. Anyway, the game was a real favourite of mine combining classing JRPG battles with huge flying pirate ship fights and a great cel shaded style. The gameplay really appealed to me as it didn’t require as much stat management or grinding as other JRPGs, it flowed at a great pace as a result and was best for me who to this day finds epic RPGs from Japan to be some of the most boring games out there. Despite this I took a good two years to get to the credits, the reason for this was the lead character… Vyse.

vyseI hate him, I hate his smile, his hair, his voice and everything that makes him unique. He’s your standard smart ass smarmy little sod who gaming, on occasion, likes to spew up thinking that we’ll find them “cheeky”. Every second line is a quip, he always knows best and he takes little seriously. I sat playing it just fuming at him, every word he said brought out rage like never before and  it sucked the joy out the game. I had to take runs at it, days I felt patient I played it and it pretty much defeated the purpose of the RPG which is getting swept away with the story. Now compare that to let’s say Gordon Freeman, a man who by circumstance is left fighting a totalitarian state and who is made the figure head for all that is good in the world. He isn’t a well rounded character but you like him, he’s thrust into a role he never asked for but knows that he must do it and do it well…  we all have experience of that even if it doesn’t involve striders and gravity guns.

Looking around though, the likeable game characters are few and far between. Is Marcus a guy you’d have a beer with? Or Kilik from Soul Calibur or Jack from Dead or Alive? Looking at men in gaming it seems to be either monobrowed idiots, cheeky geniuses or brash American all action heroes… where’s the sympathetic character we can grow to like or even just the plain good human being? It’s almost as if gaming is now inhabited solely by characters from comic books, so one dimensional that you simply cannot find it in your heart to actually like this parody of humanity as they are just a collection of catchphrases and violence. It really is just a symptom of the falling standards of writing in games that we have such poor characterisation but it’s sad when the protagonist in a medium you control is generally someone unlikeable.

Guybrush Threepwood, hero of the common man!

There are two exceptions which I view as rays of hope. The first is the hopeless hero, Guybrush Threepwood and as a Brit I can’t help but like his type. Nate from Uncharted is the most successful recent entry into the category and it’s essentially a lead who isn’t an intelligent, fearless badass. They are a clutz, a bad shot, useless with women and usually found dangling off a precipice waiting for their sidekick to save them. As such they are amazingly identifiable just because they are human, they err and I hear that erring is something humans do on occasion. The problem is that there isn’t a great deal of them to the point where it’s a joke when your lead isn’t a super marine these days, to the extent where the Tales of Monkey Island series has given Guybrush a fan who is disillusioned that he isn’t a fearless pirate but in fact pretty bog standard in a world where all heroes must be perfect… sound familiar?

The last exception is my favourite and it’s the Bethesda model: make your own character. This is the best because it takes characterisation away from the clumsy hands of developers and let’s you make your own character with their own back story and even looks. No more strapping eight foot marines, 6ft tall skinny balding man for me! You get so much more invested with your creation as a result because there is no hate or annoyance, their motives are malleable and in the case of titles like Mass Effect you can even control what they say and how others view them. It doesn’t solve the problem that male game characters (or indeed characters in general) are poorly written in games, but it makes gaming that bit easier. Solving it can only be done through the old problem of improving writing and trying to move away from the cliches of cinema today and moving closer to literature, until we do that the male lead will always be a tosser and ultimately this will make playing as them that bit less fulfilling.

Or perhaps I’m the unlikeable sod who’s only happy when he feels like he’s superior to the bumbling main character or when the main character can be made to look like him. Nah, must be shoddy writing… must be.







3 responses to “The One Dimensional Man”

  1. Kat avatar

    Unlikeable sod? You? Nooo, never.

  2. Ramsden avatar

    I’d suggest that the nature of the medium doesn’t always make a character black and white. Mass Effect is a good example. All of Commander Shepard’s character is pre-written, with masses of exposition and character development, but in a single play-through what you see largely depends on what you want to see. Shepard can be likeable, or very unsympathetic, and his/her heroics can come across in very different lights across repeated campaign plays. That’s a tremendous achievement, and the result no doubt of a lot of thought, care, attention and effort on Bioware’s part. The fact that Shepard isn’t voiceless and simply a handy mute, personality-scarce catalyst for allowing the player to view the game world also gives Mass Effect the advantage to my view over Gordon Freeman, or the totally customisable player characters in the Bethesda titles like Fallout 3 and Oblivion. That’s how characters in games should be; capable of being whatever you want whilst benefiting from the best aspects of character writing and voice artist performance giving the player character humanity and the potential for being more than just one-dimensional despite the flexibility.

    On a side-note, I think after playing the Brutal Legend demo (and I can’t wait for the full game) that you can soon add Eddie Riggs to your list of exceptions… of course, he does share a creator with Guybrush, so that’s not a massive surprise perhaps.

  3. Lorna avatar

    You think male game characters have it bad? 😉

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