Characters in video games are changing. In fact, characters in fiction are changing, to provide more multi-faceted human beings with their own personalities, flaws, strengths and weaknesses. While some are content to simply play as a mute, faceless errand boy, or an unbelievable power fantasy, I'd like something more. I want real people with emotions that I can relate to.
Playing with Power
All too often games ask us to slip into the shoes of some overpowered protagonist. You know the type. The unstoppable badass who wins every fight, is always in the right, and gets the girl every time. In other words, a power fantasy.
These types of characters are typically infallible, in one way or the other. Instead of trying to find ourselves in these characters, we escape our reality and pretend like we're something we're not. This isn't necessarily a terrible thing in and of itself, but it's something I'd like to see less of.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying people like Niko Bellic, Dante, and Chris Redfield are bad characters. All I want is a wider variety of heroes. When these unstoppable steamrollers get into a fight, you already know how its going to turn out. In many ways, this character archetype (handsome, muscular, short dark hair, military background, etc.) reminds me a lot of the heroes from 1980's action films portrayed by Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. I understand the appeal. Everyone wants to be like Prince Adam, right? Most people play games to escape reality, right?
The thing is, these characters are hard to believe in. They're engineered to make the player feel better, to feel more like a badass. They aren't really all that believable, and I feel it takes away from the drama. What's the point of cheering for the hero if we know they're always going to win? Take Commander Shepard for example. When someone opposes Commander Shepard, it's almost comical. Don't they know Shepard is the single most powerful entity in the universe?
I don't really empathise with these characters' struggle, because we don't share anything in common. If these characters could stop for one moment and simply be human, I could appreciate the experience far more.
Silent But Deadly
Like overpowered protagonists, I can see the appeal for silent heroes as well. By giving the player character absolutely no personality at all, the player can slip in, as if they really were the hero. To many, this might seem like the easiest way for players to project unto their characters, and in some ways, they're right. It is the easiest way to facilitate immersion; it's just not the best.
Unfortunately, having a silent protagonist can also break immersion. These silent, faceless nobodies don't ever vocalise, even when an actual person would. They show no emotion, no reaction, and having nothing to say, ever. They are simply killing machines with no voice, and are thus difficult to empathise with. They have no human traits or emotions; they're simply vacuums. This is why it kind of bugs me that Gordon Freeman has won so many awards for "greatest character". I don't hate him, and the only real reason I think he should be excluded from "best of" lists is for one simple reason: he isn't a real character. He has no personality, arc, or character traits to speak of. The extent of his character is his job, and you wouldn't even be able to deduce that he was a scientist if they never told us his job. To say Half-Life is a good game wouldn't be doing it justice, but it's not an amazing game because it has a silent protagonist. What makes it so special is its sense of immersion and believable atmosphere. Yes, it's an amazing title-a classic to be sure-but that doesn't mean it's protagonist is automatically a great character. Gordon doesn't contribute to this sense of immersion. He lessens it.
Another egregious example of this is Isaac Clarke in Dead Space. Despite everything he goes through, and all the things he sees, he has nothing to say, really? Who wouldn't have something, anything to say at that point? It's simply not normal for any rational human being to stay quiet in these situations, and Isaac's silence is a real immersion-breaker.
The gravitas of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare's famous nuke scene is lessened somewhat when you realise that nothing was really lost. Paul Jackson (whose name I had to look up, by the way) didn't have a personality, or even a face. We don't know if he'll be missed by his wife and children, if he even has some. He's nothing but a vacuum devoid of life, and seeing him go means absolutely nothing to me. How can I care about a character that doesn't speak, take action, or show emotion? This scene could have been a lot more powerful if we lost something we actually cared about. In fact, a lot of death scenes in Call of Duty are bereft of any real impact due to a severe lack of characterisation.
By now, I'd say there isn't a lot of room for silent protagonists. Simply put, they're a cop-out. Silent protagonists aren't characters; they're cameramen.
From Zero to Hero
For further reading, be sure to read my blog on Walking Dead Wiki, "The Character-Driven Dead". Be aware that this article does contain spoilers for the first season of The Walking Dead: The Video Game.
So what's the solution? Instead of burly, overpowered protagonists, we should be moving toward more grounded, believable, relatable, flawed, and even humble characters. These are the underdogs of gaming, the heroes that no one believed in. Instead of silent, faceless characters, or OP superheroes, having a believable and relatable protagonist is far more rewarding in the long run.
Having a believable, well defined character complete with their own personality and backstory give me a much better proxy than an overrated cameraman armed to the teeth. The best examples of these I can think of are Ethan Mars (Heavy Rain), Jason Brody (Far Cry 3), and Lee Everett (The Walking Dead: The Game). All of these protagonists are very average people, like us. They're not used to violence, and they have zero military training; they are completely unprepared for the situations in which they are thrust. Despite this, they rise above their circumstances, like the John McClane of video games. This, to me, makes for a much better "power fantasy" than any beefed up super soldier can provide. It's uplifting to see these heroes overcome their environment and circumstances through willpower, resourcefulness, and blind dumb luck. It's a better power fantasy because it makes me think, "Hey, I could do that!". It's inspiring to see ordinary people thrown into extraordinary situations, to then become heroes. Sure, Jason Brody ends up becoming Rambo by the end of Far Cry 3, but he doesn't start out that way. He starts out as a goofball straight out of high school who ends up being caught by pirates on a remote island. The entire game is about his descent into madness. It's about how he goes from being a wimp to a badass. In other words, he develops on an actual story arc.
Despite its sloppy writing, Heavy Rain did manage to invest me long enough to care about the outcome of its plot. This was because I rather liked the setup and the characters. The protagonists you play as are very average people. Scott Shelby is an old, overweight asmhatic. Madison is a journalist constantly thrown into danger, forced to rely on her cunning and intuition to survive.
This goes double for the protagonist, Ethan Mars. Ethan's just an architect; his profession has no bearing on what he'll have to do to save his son. He isn't prepared for running from the cops or driving against traffic. He's a normal person with a sole motivation: saving his son. At the very least, you can empathise with his motivation.
What makes this work is how relatable these characters are. Having a well-defined character doesn't weaken my sense of immersion, it strengthens it. When I was playing The Walking Dead: The Game, I always felt like I was the main character, Lee Everett. This isn't because he's undefined, but rather because he fits into that world. His reactions are genuine, and his failures are your failures. The situations he faces aren't impossible to imagine; like you, he's an ordinary person thrown into an extraordinary situation, and is forced to deal with the consequences of his actions.
To me, this makes Lee Everett the coolest character of them all. He is a badass by the end of the first season, but that's only because he worked for it. He isn't half-demon, or a cyborg, or the chosen one, or a super soldier with years of off-screen training. There's nothing wrong with any of those things, don't get me wrong, but Lee is by far the best character I've been able to play as in a video game, because he was well-defined and yet still managed to be relatable. No matter your choices, he's still a human being with his own flaws and personality. Because of this, he's a much better avatar than Gordon Freeman ever could be.
In the end, I wish more characters were like this. I understand that there will always be the need for characters like Dante, Niko Bellic, Marcus Fenix, Chris Redfield, and the like. In fact, I'm not saying these aren't good characters. There's nothing inherently wrong with them, and I don't want them to go away. All I'm asking for is a bit more variety in a creative medium lacking creativity. I'm just tired of seeing this trend of boring, clichéd heroes. I want something more relatable. I want to play as a real person, like you and me.