Games: Bad Characters? Bad Game.
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.
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.
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.