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Games: Bad Characters? Bad Game.

Posted October 23, 2012 by Ciarán O'Brien in Games

Let’s be honest: not a single fuck was given when Dom’s wife died in Gears of War 2. Nobody got misty-eyed when Halo: Reach‘s Noble Team had a ‘Most Glorious Death’ competition. Nobody screamed ‘Duke Nukem, what are you d- No, don’t do it, nooooo!’ and paused for a moment’s silence. In short, nobody cared. This lack of empathy wasn’t down to players being callous arseholes or snuff fetishists (well, maybe apart from the callous arsehole and snuff fetishist gamer demographic). It was down to most of the characters being shallow, boring, thoroughly dislikeable bell-ends.

Dudebro cover-based shooters have much to answer for with regard to filling their dramatis personae with musclebound frat-boys. Their casts possess all the combined charm and personality of a cholera pandemic. They’re not alone, though; every genre has an embarrassing family member or five with characters written by childish amateurs. Look at the Resident Evil series. Or Darksiders. All feature shockingly boring characters with (unless you’re the kind to get off on cartoons of steroid-addled beefcakes or breasts so large they have area codes) bugger all redeeming features, reasons to care about what’s happening to them, or anything to draw you into their point of view.

Men in tight costumes waving their big weapons at each other. This is about as deep as any of the relationships get in GoW.

We need more characters like the Prince/Farah duo (Prince of Persia: Sands of Time). The haughty, arrogant Prince unwittingly unleashed an apocalypse, learning a little humility through Farah while still remaining badass. The mutual dislike between them softened to grudging respect, and from there blossomed into genuine love, so that the closing stages of the game became truly poignant. It’s a shame then that Warrior Within threw it all away to make the Prince a sulky emo whiner you just want to punch. Improvements in the combat and puzzles barely balanced the nu-metal soundtrack, floppy-hairdo’d-glaring, and uninteresting dialogue with dull, busty female personality-voids. The Prince ceased being human. The final game made up for that, but they changed Farah’s voice and personality, and their relationship just didn’t click the way it did before.

Another great character was Garret from the Thief series. Garret is a tough loner with few friends and a surly, cynical attitude, but he avoids the power-armour dudemarine cliché, mostly by being fragile (if you get into combat in a Thief game, you have failed) and relying on stealth and cunning to achieve his goals. He’s an independent thief in a city of hostile guards, religious fanatics and rival guilds – he has reasons to be cynical. He has setbacks and failures, and at one point loses an eye when he completely cocks up, but these things make him more believable, they shape him. He learns from his mistakes, changes opinions, does things that real people do. In Thief II, the main villain’s voice was that of Droopy Dog. That kind of bad guy is only a threat if he’s well-written, but lo and behold, the man was terrifying, even though you never meet him in-game. Thanks to such writing, Thief III provides a hugely satisfying conclusion to the series.

Half-Life 2's Alyx Vance is an excellent character. And totally into geeks who don't talk.

More excellent characters include Alistair (Dragon Age), 2nd Lieutenant Mira (Space Marine) and Ezio Auditore (Assassin’s Creed II). These are interesting, believable characters we can relate to, because they’re human, they get things wrong, they feel emotions, they have strengths AND weaknesses. The characters from Gears/Halo/Prototype, they’re emotionless supermen possessing only strengths. And just like Superman, they’re boring because of it.

Sure, Superman can be good when a talented writer gets hold of him, but that’s the point: most game writers can’t do a good job on Grunty McSurlyface from Generic Cover-based Shooter 9: OMG More Terrorists. Even in Assassin’s Creed II, Ezio is the only fleshed-out personality there. He’s not even the main character of the series; Desmond is, and everyone finds him so boring there are support groups for it. But rather than write better characters, Ubisoft spent three games milking the one they got right.

It’s a problem that nobody wants to acknowledge. Too many game writers are bad writers. The well-written plots and fleshed-out, interesting characters are the exception when they should be the rule. When writers have the talent to realise interesting characters, their publishers often force them to write lowest-common-denominator stuff (see Bioware’s writing post-EA, or Modern Warfare‘s Activision-fuelled spiral into Go Team USA banality) to ‘reach a wider market’.

They can’t be held solely responsible, though. A lot of the blame must fall on ourselves. We’re too easily pleased, guzzling down Gears/Modern Warfare/Halo sequels like they’re video game bukkake, never stopping to think ‘Hang on, these characters are really sodding dull!’ And if we do think that, we don’t complain enough. And thus developers think we’re happy with low standards.

About the Author

Ciarán O'Brien

Ciarán has been gaming since the days of the Amiga 500, all the way up to the latest tabletop RPGs and wargames. A friendly, gentle soul who wouldn't harm a fly right up until the point where you touch his whiskey.

  • http://www.lisamcinerney.com Lisa McInerney

    To an extent, there used to be some excuse for bad characterisation in games, back in the good ol’ days of 16bit side-scrollers when the only dialogue the writer could add would have to fit in tiny text boxes on-screen. There’s no excuse now, though.

    Funnily enough, the flip side of that is the overuse of cut scenes, to the extent where we end up with something closer to an interactive movie than a video game (Metal Gear Solid, I’m looking at you). A good writer should be able to deftly draw up engaging characters and stories, without stuffing in cut scenes that go on forever. Worse! Unskippable cut scenes!

    I guess the other requirement, and one developers consistently fuck up on, is hiring GOOD voice actors. There seems to be a stable of voice actors used in the industry – seriously, cross-reference titles on IMBD for giggles – and an unfortunately low standard when held against, say, TV animation.

    And on the flip side of that, you get the likes of Fable III, where all of the budget seems to have been spent on a stellar voice cast (Ben Kingsley, Michael Fassbender, Stephen Fry, Simon Pegg, Bernard Hill, John Cleese… um, some women too…) resulting in brilliant acting layered over a pretty lazy game.

    • http://twitter.com/Sarklor Ciaran O’Brien

      Sometimes the only characterisation you need is “The president has been kidnapped! Are you a bad enough dude to rescue the president?”

      I’m not demanding well-written complex characters for every game. That would have made Serious Sam far less entertaining. But Serious Sam is about an alien invasion led by the evil Lord Mental (and daughter Jill), so the story and characters have to go a certain way. Then you can have talented actors that just don’t care enough. The main character in the last Turok game was Ron Perlman, and he did a ghastly job of it, even though he’s a fine actor, and did some great voice work for the Fallout games.

      I was well-impressed with the Batman games, actually. I mean, the story of Arkham City was all over the bloody place and stupidly convoluted, but even forgetting Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, the voice acting was great. That game’s ending was the biggest emotional punch in the gut I’ve had since the second mission of Homeworld where you return to find your whole planet burning.

      • http://www.lisamcinerney.com Lisa McInerney

        Dammit, man, I need motivation before I go rescuing any presidents. What if the president was more of a despot? What if my character has an innate fear of presidents? Give me some context.

        I know we’ll disagree on this one but all of the strongest emotional responses I’ve had as a gamer came from various games in the Final Fantasy series. Most recently in the final sacrifice in XIII, and then the gutwrenching sadness of its immediate follow-up in the beginning of XIII-2, all the way to its seriously fucking depressing ending.

        Were the characters well-written? Well, not altogether necessarily, in the sense that they’re bound by the kind of glitzy, frequently twee tradition of kooky Japanese RPGs. Having said that, the relative simplicity of the characters (both Lightning and Serah have the same motivation: to get home to one another) kind of works well with the often overbearing complexities of the plot (demi-gods versus humans in a take on the old “ignorance is bliss” mantra).

        Hell, I still haven’t met a character I loved more than the utterly dickish Squall Leonhart, so one could say I have a certain emotional attachment to the series even before I start playing. Having said that, I hated XII with a passion. Couldn’t get more than a couple of hours in, despite trying on numerous occasions. Why? Because Vaan was a crap character.

        The point is: you’ve got good characterisation, and you’ve got strong plots. Including both in a game shouldn’t be a tall order. And you’re right – characters don’t have to be complicated to be effective. From just a couple of neon flashbacks and well-placed bitter lines of dialogue, we got the measure of The King of All Cosmos, and he’s fucking iconic.

        Confession time: I have Arkham City on the shelf since last year and still haven’t started it. I best get to that, I suppose.

        Also, the mention of Ron Perlman has just reminded me of how much I detested Liam Neeson’s turn in Fallout 3. That man has one seriously boring voice.

        • http://twitter.com/Sarklor Ciaran O’Brien

          With so many questions like that, you’re clearly not a bad enough dude to rescue the president!

          I must also confess, most of my experience of Final Fantasy comes from FF X. Maybe the other games had much higher standards for character and story, but I couldn’t find anyone in X that I didn’t want to scream “STOP BEING SO BORING!” at, punctuating each word with a slap to the face. That said, I’ve heard plenty of people rant about the greatness of FF VII, and I can’t say I enjoyed it. Maybe I’m just not able to appreciate a JRPG? [shrug]

          Good character and good plot does occasionally happen. I’m reminded of Baldur’s gate (“Go for the eyes, Boo! GO FOR THE EYES!”) and Planescape: Torment in particular. Planescape was all about the characters. The story was a completely personal journey for the protagonist. The universe wasn’t in any danger, there was no villain (Well, there sort of was, but I can’t spoil such a delicious twist), and the companion characters all played off each other incredibly well, so that I shed tears of both sorrow and laughter at some of the things they chatted about.

          Heh, I just realised I can’t use HTML brackets without the site thinking it’s code. *dances*

          • http://www.lisamcinerney.com Lisa McInerney

            Oh, here, I spent 200 hours on FFX (shut up, the gameplay was good) and I still can’t say I enjoyed the story. Yuna was a simpering moron and Tidus will always be “Tedious” to me.

            But yeah, I think you need a certain level of patience to be able to get into JRPGs. They’re… well, they’re a bit… kawaii. Those crazy multicoloured funsters with their honour code and sexual repression and belief in vengeful ghosts!

            Good character and good plot does occasionally happen, you’re right. I guess what I meant is that having one doesn’t necessarily mean the other is a given. Ugh. I guess one could optimistically suggest it’s a learning curve for a very new medium, but then, games outperform every other entertainment medium in terms of sales, so there’s really no excuse, budgetary or otherwise, not to strive for perfection.

          • http://twitter.com/Sarklor Ciaran O’Brien

            That’s why I’m super-excited about the Project Eternity thing Obsidian started recently. The people who developed almost every game I ever loved getting together to do another epic RPG with deep plot hooks, and interesting complex characters? Yes please.

  • http://twitter.com/Fearganainim Fearganainim

    Good article. The Houser brothers, the self styled Coen Brothers of the video game world, are responsible for some of the most lazy game writing in the industry at the minute, Max Payne 3 having the most awful plot.
    While over ridden with clichés, Red Dead was a wonderful game, but when it came to LA Noire and the characterisation of Cole Phelps, well lets just say, I still haven’t finished it.
    Enslaved, with a plot written by Alex Garland, is a decent attempt of marrying story with gameplay that works quite well.
    I loved the Bad Co 1 & 2 single player stories. The characters had a certain depth, which made them likeable.

    • http://twitter.com/Sarklor Ciaran O’Brien

      I really liked the characters and story in Enslaved, but I thought it was ruined by boring, repetitive combat mechanics, shallow so-called “RPG elements” (Oh, I could rant for several pages on that one) and the climbing acrobatics bits which, while pretty, held your hand so tight you could never actually fail. And all those damn “tech orbs” and masks to collect were horrible padding.

  • Bernhard Rohrer

    couldn’t agree more. The Witcher is another good character / series. I am currently playing xcom and am imagining the added interest if you got our soldiers to know better and possibly even the scientists/engineers. This would be a whole different game.

    • http://twitter.com/Sarklor Ciaran O’Brien

      I’d love to see individual X-COM troops develop hatred and fear of different aliens, I think. Hatred providing bonuses to attack, fear providing penalties (or maybe bonus to hiding?) Perhaps some simple mechanic for soldiers developing a romantic tie or two with squadmates, and of course one of them getting injured or killed would have an effect on their lover…

      • http://www.lisamcinerney.com Lisa McInerney

        Agreed. You can never have enough “Sandra! NOOOOOOOOOO!” moments in your turn-based strategy games.

  • http://twitter.com/ToeMcD Tony McDermot

    Ezio is one of the outstanding games characters. The Ezio trilogy in AC acts like a Coming of Age narrative, every bit as intriguing and exciting as a film. Desmond is, in theory, the central character to the series (and they attempt to make you care about him by using the most boring side-game of all time in ACR) but you spend so little time AS Desmond that it’s pretty superfluous.

    I’m not a massive wargames fan, I tend to avoid them as mainly they tend to be samey and boring. There are good character-driven games but they tend not to be big-sellers. The responsibility of games-as-art is the same as games-as-movies, some makers feel it, most don’t.


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