How Boring do Game Designers Think We Are?

Usually on Cardinal Virtual, we like to focus on things we like about games (Video Game Critics Who Are Angry being a fairly bloated genre). This week though, we’re doing something a little different and talking about a pet peeve both of us have with many modern games. It seems like so many of the AAA titles that come out these days feature personality-less husks of human beings who are about as dynamic as the color beige. (They’re almost always square-jawed, brown-haired, slightly-tanned white men too– confusing “everyman” for “statistically average.”) Most likely, this is done because of the false assumption that this is the only way to really immerse the player. Since game developers fear a non-relatable character will draw the player out of the experience, they often opt for the safe route and create a character who won’t offend anyone but is as dull as a stamp collector. Okay, these similes are getting old, so let’s dive into some examples of characters who need a bit of color in their personalities.

Chuck Greene: Boring.

Specimen 1: Desmond Miles (The Assassin’s Creed series)

If there was ever a physical manifestation of blandness, it would be this guy. So maybe Desmond isn’t the main character of any one Assassin’s Creed game, but he’s definitely the star of the overall series. You play as one of his ancestors for most of each installment (Altaïr in the first game and Ezio in the second and it’s spin-offs), and fortunately, these characters are much more interesting. Both Altaïr and Ezio start off as inexperienced and sloppy assassins (in Ezio’s case, he’s dragged into the profession through tragic circumstances) and gradually become more professional and competent as the game progresses (as the player’s skill increases) and at the end of their stories, come to the realization that they’re a part of a struggle much bigger than themselves. Neither of them are quite as strong as the characters we wrote about two weeks ago (well, maybe Ezio is), but they still manage to engage, making the game all the more fun.

But Desmond doesn’t have any of this going for him. Nothing about him seems to change over the course of the series. He never really sounds excited, or scared, or angry. He has a love interest (for most of the game so far) but you never feel any chemistry between them (nor does she do much to endear herself to the player), she’s the love interest simply because she’s there. Desmond doesn’t even need to work to improve his skills, as he just seems to magically acquire his assassin skills (that he barely needs to use anyway). There’s no real story or Hero’s Journey for Desmond– the 2-3 hours the player spends controlling him and not Ezio or Altaïr are the complete, real-time story of Desmond. It might not seem as though we’re really describing much about Desmond, but honestly, there really isn’t anything more worth saying. The idea of connecting a series of games that take place in different eras and countries by reliving the memories of assassin’s from said time frames is interesting, but the (thankfully) brief sections spent controlling Desmond don’t make us feel anymore immersed in the games, they just make us want to go back to playing as Ezio or Altaïr. In a series dominated by exciting, complex heroes, the central protagonist is as cookie-cutter Standard Protagonist as you could possibly get.

Desmond Miles: Boring.

Specimen 2: Gordon Freeman (The Half-Life series)

Half-Life 2 (and it’s episodes) create one of the most impressive worlds in any video game. The different areas are quite varied, the sound design is impeccable, and its home to enemies like the Striders, Headcrab Zombies, and Hunters. The games also feature a great cast of characters, from Alyx Vance to Dr. Breen to the mysterious  G-Man. Unfortunately, protagonist Gordon Freeman does not belong in the ranks of these great characters, and (along with the level Water Hazard) is one of the weakest aspects of his games. It says something that the game could be improved by changing the protagonist to Barney Calhoun.

Barney Calhoun: less boring, vastly more drunk.

Now some of you may be screaming at your computer screens that Gordon Freeman is a silent protagonist, but Freeman still fails as an engaging character even within this criteria. Good silent protagonists are still expressive. Link, in the 3D installments of The Legend of Zelda series expresses himself through his myriad of idle animations, facial expressions (especially in The Wind Waker), and just through his reactions to what other characters do, all of which contribute to his, admittedly basic, personality. Link does have the advantage of a third person perspective though, so let’s look at some FPS silent protagonists. Jack from BioShock mostly receives orders from people via radio and the mid-game twist heavily implies why he’s a mostly silent protagonist (he does speak in the intro). Fellow Valve hero Chell also doesn’t have many other characters to interact with in the first Portal, and in Portal 2 she equates saying apple with jumping. But even Chell is given personality by the other characters, who praise and condemn her stubbornness, ingenuity, and drive.

Gordon Freeman, on the other hand, has none of these excuses. He has only the bare minimum of animations, most of which cover firing his weapons. His silence is sometimes acknowledged by the other characters, but never in any meaningful way and his lack of any input in conversations, especially with Alyx, just makes him seem creepy and awkward. Going from Freeman’s backstory, he’s probably a smart guy, but aside from fighting, all we ever have him do is plug stuff in and solve the same seesaw puzzle over and over again. Whereas Chell is defined by her game’s story and characters, Gordon’s skillsets boil down to shooting, puzzling, and pushing buttons, and the other characters only treat him as an emotionless messiah/walking button-pusher. The player never has an idea what Gordon’s feeling or what makes him special. Basically, Gordon Freeman fails to impress in any way as a silent protagonist. Since he doesn’t actively hurt his games, he’s par for the course, but he’s one of the weakest elements in any Valve game.

Gordon Freeman: Boring.

Specimen 3: Every Faceless Soldier from Every Military Based Shooter

Where to begin with this one? These guys are probably the worst offenders of all considering the large percentage of the market these games take up. It seems that player-controlled soldiers, whether they’re fighting in Germany, the Middle East, or in space (we’re including sci-fi shooters with a military style) all have roughly the same personality. They’re all no-nonsense badasses who never flinch in the face of danger and often have a cool catch-phrase waiting for the end of every battle. Sometimes they may suffer a personal tragedy or develop a love interest, but these situations are rarely developed enough to cause the player any real emotion. More often then not, these soldiers just complete objectives, and if they’re silent protagonists, they mostly mirror Gordon Freeman in the character animations department (without the more original backstory Freeman has). COD 4: Modern Warfare gets a bit of a pass in this area. The game does such a good job of placing the player within the within a military setting that controlling a faceless soldier actually feels appropriate, and part of the game’s point– best made in the early squad-building missions and in the famous Aftermath level–is how faceless and unimportant soldiers really are.

In  Modern Warfare 2/Modern Warfare 3/Call of Duty/Battlefield/Medal of Honor/Killzone/Crysis, the heroes aren’t just silent protagonists or player ciphers. They’re not even characters. They’re just an outgrowth of the gun, a part of the weapon– they may as well be remote-controlled military drones. The problem here isn’t just that developers think we can’t identify with a complex character, it’s that they assume we don’t even want to.

Modern War FPS Heroes:

They are all SO

INCREDIBLY

BORING.

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1 Comment

  1. Emma

     /  August 20, 2012

    I agree with you about Desmond. It seems like the Assassin’s Creed games want us to really like him, and to get excited about the portions of the game where we find out what the “real” story is with why Desmond is imprisoned and what they’re doing with the Animus. Caring about Desmond is kinda integral to the story, and he’s so completely un-care-about-able, it makes the overall story arc seem pointless. Why bother with the Animus as a story device? We could just be playing a game about Altair or Ezio, and in most cases, we would prefer it.

    The military shooters, though… I don’t know. I’m a firm believer in the idea that different games can serve different purposes, and as such, can include or exclude certain elements common to other kinds of games without damaging the game itself. The stories of most military-style shooters don’t necessitate you caring about the protagonist; since most of these games sell themselves on multiplayer mode rather than campaign, there really isn’t a protagonist or a story to care about. It seems to me like the purpose of these games isn’t to sell you on an interesting main character and his intriguing story arc. It’s just to let you imagine that you, yourself, are running around and shooting space Nazis or whatever. Yeah, these protagonists are the blandest of the bunch, but I think that’s intentional and doesn’t necessarily run counter to the game’s purpose. I mean, I wouldn’t criticize Myst or Sim City for having bland protagonists, even though they technically do.

    Gordon Freeman, though. Yeah. At least Chell has the excuse of “no one to talk to.” It’s easy enough to ignore, but when you actually think about Gordon as a character… goddamn. What is even up with that silent creep.

    Reply

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