With so many atrocities being committed in this world, we can sometimes feel helpless to bring balance to all of the turmoil. Though in our personal lives it’s rarely more spectacular than holding the door open for someone or assisting an elderly person carry their groceries, we’ve all experienced the desire at one time or another to be the hero.
In gaming, we can vicariously live out these fantasies, taking back what is rightfully ours from those who would oppress us. In the infancy of the industry, player avatars were a means to an end, represented as little more than ‘slightly larger misshapen blob’ or ‘ambiguously naked yellow man’, but today’s titles have characters who are nuanced, amiable, fallible, courageous, vengeful, and practically everything that we are as human beings.
With that being said, it leads one to ask: what is it exactly that makes a good protagonist, and how much can it affect our enjoyment of a game?
They need not be stoic archetypes, though there is certainly room for those, too. Arthur from the classic Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins series is a singularly focused man with an endless supply of lances and questionably constructed armor. His charm lies in his simplicity and consistency, and he need not stray from that. Conversely, newer series with more of a reliance on storytelling and cinematics have a unique set of requirements; Maxine from Life is Strange is a multifaceted and self-doubting young woman who must come to grips with the devastating choices she has to make. We grow to care for her, and through this the people around her, because we can associate with her.
Above all else, though, a primary consistency is that the protagonist must be likable. There have been instances in which failing to evoke the interests of the audience has seen an entire video game narrative fall utterly flat. Watch Dogs’ Aiden Pearce springs to mind, a character whose misunderstood-good-guy demeanor and tragic back-story ticks all the boxes of a winning narrative formula. He has a family, and they seem to care about him – why, he’s just a tough fella trying to get by in this big, scary world with his guns and his hacking and his heart of gold. That should be enough… except it isn’t. Aiden never really evolves much beyond his disposition as a tragic anti-hero. He’s decidedly boring: a one-dimensional wet fish whose plight is about as inspiring as watching paint dry. Beyond the fact that the plot is entirely predictable, it’s the fact that Aiden Pearce is so unlikeable and stiff that loses the audience long before even the most exciting moments of Watch Dogs ever have a chance to impress. Pearce was so universally disliked that his ultimate fate was termination, axed in favor of a more light-hearted and whimsical character in Watch Dogs’ sequel.
In hindsight, that was a very good decision, because as history has demonstrated, tampering with a character’s qualities isn’t necessarily a better option. Samus Aran had become a progressive figure in gaming and one of Nintendo’s biggest stars by balancing her unwavering resolve with the moral quandaries of her missions. She erred, for to err is human, but she quickly righted mistakes and oversights by being resourceful and indomitable.
By attempting to flesh out her backstory and personality in Metroid: Other M, Team NINJA did the character a great disservice with their divisive interpretation. She was submissive, panicky and practically unrecognizable. By amplifying her humanity in ways that showed more weakness than she had displayed previously, the Samus of Other M became an unwelcome facsimile.
To this end, a good protagonist ought to meet our expectations, based on the franchise they reside in and the role they play in their story. Uncharted’s Nathan Drake faces seemingly insurmountable odds in gameplay, so too does his character reflect that – he is hardy, witty, lucky and intelligent. His animations and impeccable vocal portrayal by Nolan North lend to his mystique and make his story compelling. He represents everything that we would like to be, taking risks, solving riddles, and doing it all with a sense of levity.
It would seem, however, some characters’ shelf life is finite, no matter how you handle them. Enter Duke Nukem, immature, testosterone-loaded leading man of his unique and sometimes puerile series of shooting games. “Damn, those alien bastards are gonna pay for shooting up my ride,” he mutters in the opening seconds of his 1996 entry, Duke Nukem 3D, before offloading rounds of bullets into hordes of enemies. For a character whose previous exploits had been more subdued platforming shooters, it was a revelation. His perverse depravity caught on at the exact right time — when vulgar heroes like Boogerman were at the peak of their popularity.
Such was not the case when Duke Nukem Forever brought the character back after years of being stuck in development hell. What was it we actually liked about Duke, again? That he was the personification of machismo? Had the game released earlier in its development cycle, around say 2002 when titles like BMX XXX were doing the rounds (a game so excessively exploitative, it was torn apart by censorship), it likely would have been better received. Just as the gameplay hadn’t moved past its mid-90s heyday, nor had Duke himself, coming across like a sleazy old man who hangs around at a bar trying to pick up younger women.
Many modern FPS protagonists aren’t exactly Shakespearean in their complexity, but they at least have redeeming qualities. Or they take a backseat by being completely devoid of dialogue like the principal character of the Doom series. The silent marine is perfect for the franchise because we want to immerse ourselves in his situation, not be inundated with elements of his personality. What is his name? Nobody knows. What does he sound like? Nobody cares. His violent annihilation of all that lies in his path speaks volumes about his emotions. He certainly has a temper and has found an effective way of expressing it.
In much the same vein, Half-Life’s Dr. Gordon Freeman or Portal’s Chell haven’t got a word to say, yet the story that surrounds them and the way they handle themselves suggest an entirely different interpretation from that of the Doomguy.
In this sense, a game’s world and tone can dictate how relatable a protagonist is. The Legend of Zelda’s Link is valiant, determined and clever – we know this because we have seen him showcase all of these characteristics. The narrative builds his temperament around him, rather than through him. We have come to love his familiar grunts and shouts, but would stand aghast if he were ever to utter a word beyond that: just one single “excuuuse me, princess” would be enough to shatter entire psyches.
Could it be inferred that too many modern protagonists toe the line of anti-hero? That we have strayed from the noble, instead, fascinated by this insatiable thirst to give in to the temptations of our id? It’s possible. As FMV became more prevalent, we flocked to characters with a questionable moral compass. Men like Kratos and Agent 47, brutal and unforgiving, whose unapologetic acts of cruelty fed into our own morbid desires. There seems to be less of a place for the cookie cutter, squeaky clean stereotypical leads, and it is for this reason that Tekken’s Kazuya Mishima remains infinitely more intriguing than his son, Jin.
Narrowing down the exact elements of an effective hero is an inexact science, but we have had many successful examples to draw from over the years. Mario and Master Chief are equally as iconic and treasured characters on different ends of the spectrum. They work because they suit our needs.
Ultimately, as long as they fulfill that requirement, a good protagonist can be any combination of attributes. When we associate with them, are intrigued by their actions, or care about their story, we are engaged and satisfied. If not, we may walk away with a distinct feeling of indifference, and this is obviously not the feeling that games are meant to evoke. The strength of the hero may not be the crux of a title, but it can most certainly make an otherwise solid game feel average, and a good game become great.