The Importance of Not Being Francis York Morgan

How can you not love this guy?

How can you not love this guy?

Deadly Premonition is a strange, strange game. Strange both in the fact that the cult hit budget title jam-packed with weird, quirky moments, mildly insane writing, and off-beat voice acting. But also strange in the sense that we’ve given it almost two full playthroughs and we’re still not sure if it’s good or not. The combat gameplay’s atrocious, the open-world is perhaps one of the clumsiest ever implemented, the story is deranged, and the whole thing constantly veers between good, so bad-it’s-good, and bad.

There’s one part of the game that we unreservedly love though, and the reason you should pay the pocket change needed to pick it up: its hero, Francis York Morgan. He’s well-written, well-acted, funny, and likeable, sure. But he’s also, honestly, one of the most important protagonists in gaming– one who’s wholly unique, one who could only exist in this particular medium, and one that should be studied by anyone trying to create games. (WARNING: Spoilers for Deadly Premonition follow.)

Francis York Morgan– just call him York, everybody else does –is a bit of an oddball. He’s basically all the weird parts of Agent Cooper from Twin Peaks, Agent Mulder from The X-Files, and a hefty dose of schizophrenia. He receives messages in his coffee, is obsessed with 80’s movies, and is cocky to the point of being unbearable. He’s also incredibly kind-hearted, brilliant, a crack shot, and the FBI’s greatest detective. This is what brings him to the sleepy town of Greenvale: he’s investigating the murder of a young girl, believing it to be connected to a string of other cases he’s worked on.

"My coffee warned me about this Zach."

“My coffee warned me about this Zach.”

But what really makes York special is his imaginary friend. He speaks constantly to a “Zach”– a secondary personality that helps him solve mysteries, tells him where to go, and gives him extraordinary deductive powers and psychic sensitivity. This Zach, you’ll realize fairly early on, is you, the player. When you nail one of the game’s enemies in the head, York mutters “great shot, Zach!” When you open the start menu, it takes the form of the Red Room– the dimension that Zach resides in, outside of time (thus pausing the game). When working on a crime scene, you find the clues that are highlighted and point them out to York, who makes deductions. Even the game’s quick-time events have a neat justification– they all occur at times when York is panicking and scared, and you hammering buttons and waggling sticks is to keep him focused and brave.

This is a brilliant overlap of game design and narrative. First, and most obviously, it provides a great way to frame York’s actions as a player character. He’s erratic, detached, and unpredictable because he’s never really in control, instead taking orders from a being outside the world. York never questions Zach– if you want to blow off the case to go fishing, drive around in the rain, collect the skeleton of a separate, unrelated murder victim, you can. York trusts you completely, and won’t even eat or shave unless Zach tells him he needs to. At one point, York is captured and you need to go find another character and guide them to him. What in other games is immersion-breaking– the disconnect between the player and their avatar –is here a central part of the story. York could only exist in games because the central element of his internal conflict, his mental illness and his need for a friend to guid and protect him, is expressed entirely as a form of game mechanics.

York and Zach's discussions are the only things that make the driving sections bearable.

York and Zach’s discussions are the only things that make the driving sections bearable.

It’s also just wonderful storytelling, as it creates a bond between player and protagonist. We’d routinely throw the game’s other characters out of the car so that we could drive alone with York, talking about the Superman movies and Jaws. Although a lot of the game’s writing is strange and nonsensical, the moments between Zack and York always feel warm and friendly, putting the serial killer mystery on the back burner so that York can talk about movies or ask you for dating advice. Whereas most game heroes are loners, York actively reaches out to the player. And even though there’s murders to solve, lives to save, and coffee to drink, Deadly Premonition is at its core the story of York and Zach’s relationship. If Zach wasn’t the player, the climactic twist– [highlight to reveal] that Zach is York’s childhood self who suffered a grievous trauma, and York has been looking after their shared body for years, talking to Zach and giving Zach control to try and draw him back into the real world –would seem hokey. The twist seems tired when told in third-person, but when you’re involved in the story, when it’s about you and York’s relationship, it’s a surprising and powerful moment. Like Bioshock, it’s a twist that redefines your role in the game, turning the “player” of the game into a real character in it. It’s not exactly Bioshock’s level of  writing excellence and wit, but it’s an incredibly interesting and unique twist in the middle of a game that seemed like a cheesy, weird horror-comedy.

Not quite as good a character as Andrew Ryan, but just as...memorable.

Not quite as good a character as Andrew Ryan, but just as…memorable.

Like Bioshock, Deadly Premonition (and there’s a sentence you never thought you’d see game critics start) is about finding an emotional core to what the player accepts as standard mechanics. Whereas Bioshock took player agency as its core–making the player the protagonist, not just their controller — Premonition is about finding the emotion implicit in the difference between the player and their protagonist. York is brave and professional (one of the best lines in the game is when he tells a supernatural monster with godlike power that “you’re a first-degree murderer. And I’m a federal agent. Of course you’re going to lose.”), but he’s also profoundly lonely, more scared by falling in love than by ghosts and demons. He may seem like a super-detective with no social skills to other characters, but the player sees him in his intimate moments, when he’s weak and needs help. When he’s in the most dangerous situations, it’s not just an issue of the player being threatened, but the character that they’ve been protecting and guiding. It changes the way you look at a character, and creates a relationship between them and you that wouldn’t exist in another game.

The game’s ending is an especially beautiful use of this. By the end of the game, York’s trauma is revealed. He’s faced down the monster responsible for his parents’ deaths, he’s stopped the killings he’s spent years chasing, and he’s pulled Zach back into the world. But there’s a problem: Zach no longer needs him. Not only that, but Emily, the woman that York loved, is dead. And so you lie down in your hotel room. You discuss the case, as you have at the end of every mission, and talk about what’s happening next. And the protagonist asks the player if they’re ready to say goodbye.You can keep playing if you select “no,” but because the game is fundamentally about your relationship with York it doesn’t end until that relationship does.  The last action you, as a player take– the last button you press –is selecting “yes.” From that point on, the story plays out via cutscene, as you can only watch as the character you’ve spent the game guiding goes on to live his life without you. For all of Deadly Premonition‘s faults– Dreamcast-level graphics, awful combat, out-of-place and poorly-thought-out open world, bizarre survival mechanics, strange writing, unbelievable characters, unbalanced weapons, unintuitive sidequests, fishing minigames, uneven pacing –it’s a fantastic ending, one that mines the mechanics of the game for a wealth of emotion.

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Those We Love to Hate

[Massive spoilers ahead for Final Fantasy VI, BioShock, and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.]

Typical old school game antagonist.

Traditionally, antagonists in video games have been treated as merely another obstacle, a dragon for the player to slay in pursuit of their goal. And this worked fine, back in the days when video game stories could be conveyed within a paragraph in the instruction booklet. Because of this early trend, that still persists today, many lists of the best video game villains will contain a lot of characters like Bowser or Dr. Robotnik, characters who are well known and liked mainly because their games are. With this article though, we want to focus on antagonists who are good characters in their own right. These guys aren’t just waiting for you at the end, they’re taking risks, planning, and changing along with the protagonist. And because of this, your struggle against them feels all the more real and rewarding. They become a part of the game themselves– antagonists so hateable that your desire to bring them down turns into a gameplay element.

Kefka Palazzo from Final Fantasy VI

This article could never be complete without talking about this guy. After all, Kefka was one of the first main video game antagonists to really develop throughout the course of his story. He’s not super complex and definitely not subtle, but he manages to be both incredibly sadistic and brutal while also being funny as hell.

If his magic doesn’t get you his bad puns will.

One thing that sets Kefka apart from most earlier video game villains is that he doesn’t start off as a huge threat at the beginning of the game. Sure, he starts off with some political clout in the Gestahlian Empire and he was able to force main character Terra Branford to do some despicable things (via a mind control device) before the game begins. But earlier on, he seems much more like the comic relief villain who’s not good in a fight and plays second fiddle to the much more powerful and serious main antagonist (in this case, Emperor Gesthal). Kefka’s more sinister side first rears its ugly head when he poisons the water supply of the war torn city of Doma, killing nearly everyone there (even some of his own imperial soldiers invading the castle). From there, he continues to rise through the ranks of the Empire, commit more atrocities, and gain more magical abilities by torturing, killing, and absorbing otherworldly creatures called Espers. The player begins to recognize Kefka as an increasingly dangerous threat in the same way that the Empire begin to recognize the player’s characters as emerging threats. Kefka’s assent to power culminates about halfway through the game when he moves the Warring Triad (three statues that are the source of the world’s magic) out of  alignment. Emperor Gesthal had been seeking this power source to tighten his control over the world, but Kefka reveals his true loyalties by killing the emperor and absorbing the power himself, becoming a god and reshaping the entire world (not to mention, scattering your party members all over said reshaped world). Many video game villains plot to carry out a plan like this, but Kefka is on of the few to actually achieve it, at least for a while. The one potentially good trait Kefka’s had the entire game was his ambition, and it’s led him to godhood.

The grinning face of God.

Kefka doesn’t show up as much in the second half of the game, but you can feel his influence in nearly every corner of the reshaped world (also known as the World of Ruin). Towns have been decimated, millions are dead, and the world is composed of more washed out and dead looking textures. You have the sense too that even if you kill Kefka, things can never really go back to the way they were. Instead of assuming control of the remnants of the Gestahlian Empire, Kefka simply remains in his tower at the center of the world (constructed from random debris) and rains down his “light of judgement” on random towns just for the fun of it. There is a cult dedicated to worshiping Kefka, but he never really interacts with them or uses them as henchmen, and if his violent reign continued, Kefka might have blown up the cultists anyway simply for a moment of enjoyment. When the heroes finally reassemble and attack Kefka in his tower, he’s developed a nihilistic attitude on life and the world. The once-ambitious psycho has gotten everything he ever wanted, and since his mad quest for dominance and power was the only thing he ever cared about, there’s nothing left for him to strive for now that it’s over. He’s really the perfect villain for a story that revolves the need to find something worth defending and fighting for. And in the end, that’s something that Kefka simply cannot do. He’s not simply a nemesis, but an extension of the game’s themes: his failings and flaws serve as a contrast to your own characters’ growth.

Frank Fontaine from BioShock

“The most dangerous type of hoodlum…the kind with vision.”

When BioShock comes to mind, most people instantly think of Andrew Ryan. And it’s true, Andrew Ryan is also a great antagonist. He’s in many ways a tragic hero, brought down by his own hubris, his unfaltering belief in his own infallibility, and also Jack (you), his own illegitimate son. But both of us here at Cardinal Virtual have always been more interested in the true villain behind BioShock’s interesting plot. Unlike Ryan, Fontaine has no class to speak of. He isn’t trying to defend a grand vision or a sweeping philosophical belief, he’s simply out for himself and is willing to go to any lengths to achieve money and power. And that’s why he’s such a great villain: this inhibition allows him to hit the player harder than Ryan ever could. Fontaine essentially spends the first two thirds of the game disguised as a freedom fighter known as Atlas, aka the only person in the underwater hell hole Jack stumbles into who doesn’t seem to want him dead. As Atlas, Fontaine goes to extreme lengths to gain the player’s sympathies, mainly by claiming that he has a wife and child who he’s trying to get out of the city. Fontaine later stages an explosion to make Jack believe that Ryan killed his family, which serves as the impetus to start pursuing Ryan directly. The fact that he makes the player sympathize with him makes the betrayal all the more devastating. And Fontaine is where the game’s ideas about control and family and freedom are thrown into their best relief.

Sure the boss fight with Fontaine isn’t that great, but the way he dies more than makes up for it.

It’s interesting that Fontaine chose to appeal to Jack’s sympathies, when he had Jack mentally programmed as a child to do his bidding when he uttered the phrase “Would you kindly…” Obviously, from the developer’s perspective, Fontaine works to build camaraderie with Jack in order to make the story more interesting, but he also seems to take joy in the fact that he’s getting Ryan’s son to willingly kill his father (even though Jack isn’t aware of that fact for the most part), only using the “Would you kindly…” commands to nudge Jack in the right direction. Later in the game, after Andrew Ryan’s death, Fontaine reveals his identity and turns against the player. His ability to manipulate Jack’s actions is canceled out by a another character so he resorts to a different phrase. When he utters the words “Code Yellow”, the player’s maximum health decreases and continues to do so until the player manages to find a complete antidote to Fontaine’s mind control. The first time you play through this segment it’s terrifying, because you’re not sure if these effects are going to be permanent, you just want to get to that antidote as fast as possible. Even though your health will return once you consume the antidote and your health cannot be lowered to nothing (as far as we know at least), it definitely makes you want to kill Fontaine even more. Ryan obstructs Jack in a narrative sense, but Fontaine’s control runs so deep that he directly fights the player themselves. He doesn’t simply represent a Randian ideology (of which he is the ultimate, twisted, conclusion), he represents the rules and obstructions of the game’s system.

Despite Fontaine’s completely brutal and selfish exterior, you you can gleam a few hints of loneliness from some of his actions and dialogue, a feeling that he himself might not really be aware of. The wife and child lie that he feeds Jack is certainly a ploy to garner sympathy but you get the impression that part of him wishes it were true. Later he says “Maybe I’ll get a real family someday, they play well with the suckers.” You get the feeling, part of him would like to have an actual family for more than just the con game. Also he does seem to care for Jack a little bit, even though he needs him out of the way for his plan to succeed. Just before the final battle (after he’s genetically altered himself to hell and back), Fontaine admits “You were my ace in the hole, but you were also the closest thing I had to a son. And that’s why this hurts.” Fontaine feels a connection to Jack, even though he cares more about his own success. Mentally programming Jack to be his assassin is the closest this man’s ever come to really caring about another. Of course, at the end of the boss fight, when Fontaine has Jack on the ropes, the “Little Sisters” come to their rescuer’s aid (or to their oppressor’s aid for some reason if you’re aiming for the bad ending) and finish off Fontaine once and for all. The perfect end to a nearly perfect game.

Officer Tenpenny from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

Cleaning up crime in the worst possible ways.

Most Grand Theft Auto antagonists mainly appear at the beginning of the game to set up the conflict and again at the end when the protagonist finally finishes them off. Officer Tenpenny from San Andreas on the other hand is a consistent presence throughout the game and is the first antagonist Rockstar seemed to put a lot of effort into developing. The fact that Samuel L. Jackson voices him doesn’t hurt either. Tenpenny and his underlings use their law enforcement clout to pit gangs against each other and even goes so far as to sponsor a drug operation aimed at making Grove Street kids into addicts in a ploy to reduce gang violence. Tenpenny rationalizes all this by saying it’s for the greater good but in reality his actions are just as destructive as any gang violence he manages to prevent, not to mention all the law enforcement personnel he has killed to cover his tracks. Throughout the game, Tenpenny coerces many gang members and cops into his corrupt way of operating, but he seems to take real pleasure in manipulating player controlled Carl Johnson. He was involved in the murder of Carl’s mother. At the start of the game, when Carl returns to Los Santos to attend her funeral, Tenpenny accosts him and threatens to frame Carl for the death of a cop (whom Tenpenny had actually killed), if Carl doesn’t do some jobs for him.

“Fifty of me and this town would be okay.”

What really sets Tenpenny apart from all the other corrupt and terrible people in the Grand Theft Auto world is his confidence in how justified his terrible crimes are. He’s the perfect character for GTA’s America: simultaneously completely corrupt and yet still clinging to an absurd moral high ground.  Other characters in the series (like GTA IV’s fellow corrupt cop Francis McReary), echo this personality trait, but none of them have nearly as big a negative impact on the world as Tenpenny does. He terrorized inner-city Los Santos to such a degree that when he’s finally put on trial, his acquittal (due to the witnesses he forced Carl to kill for him) causes a full city wide riot that lasts until his death at the end of the game. How he got this way we never find out. Maybe he witnessed one too many brutalities growing up, or perhaps the futility of the war on drugs caused him to snap. All the same, when he’s crawling out of his wrecked firetruck and bleeding out in the street after an attempted escape from Carl and the city went awry, you can’t help but feel that he got what was coming to him. He’s not just a villain, he’s the living embodiment of everything wrong with The System.

Gaming’s Rare Feminist Heroes

Video games have not had an easy time portraying women. Part of this is, of course, gamer culture (researching this post proved it was much easier to find articles on the hottest women in gaming than on the best female characters). But even without the issues of their customer base, it’s hard to find examples of female protagonists in games that aren’t offensive. Even the ones who legitimately kick ass do so in a way that feels almost apologetic– most female action heroes in games who aren’t BloodRayne-level pinups are de-feminized, hyper-aggressive, and usually terribly written and intensely unlikeable. Even Samus Aran– one of gaming’s first and most famous female heroes –still rewards the player by taking off more of her armor depending on how quickly players got through the game.

When critics talk about Aliens’  Ripley as a great feminist action hero (and given that Aliens gets quoted, referenced, or ripped-off in about half the games released, you’d think developers might remember this), they point out that she can be feminine and kick ass without treating it as a paradox, still grapples with maternal pangs, and that the issue of her gender is an important one to the character and story without the story becoming dominated by it. So today, we’re going to look at two video game heroines that both live up to this standard in very different ways.

A. Terra Branford from Final Fantasy VI

This outfit is actually pretty subdued for a Yoshitaka Amano character.

Even though Terra has the distinction of being the first female main character in a Final Fantasy game (and the only one until Final Fantasy XIII happened), she has the misfortune of starring in a game where the main villain, the demented and outlandish Kefka Palazzo, overshadows everyone else. So why not give her some time to shine?

Like many video game characters (including the one we’ll be discussing next), Terra suffers from amnesia at the start of her story (well– technically she’s under mind control but this is soon undone). Her story arc involves her gradually recovering fragments of her lost memories along with learning and coming to terms with the source of her unusual abilities. While this character type may be fairly common in video games, Terra stands apart from the rest because these developments are well executed, give or take a few poorly translated and written lines. Some flashbacks show excerpts of her past which effectively raise interest in the story. The fact that she was an unwilling pawn of steampunk nazis explains why she’s hesitant to accept her unique abilities and heritage throughout the story, though aside from a few key scenes, these hesitations usually don’t carry over into battles.

Like many JRPG heroes, Terra can have a bit of a mopey side.

So the above shows why Terra is a good character (and by extension a good female character), but why exactly did we choose her for this entry? Because her feminine qualities are emphasized just enough to make her character unique without completely dominating the tone of the game. Throughout the first half of the game, Terra struggles with her inability to experience human emotions, especially love, most likely due to her half-Human half-Esper status and her prolonged imprisonment before the game begins. This character arc is completed in the second half of the game, which happens a year after the first half once the world has completely gone to hell and all the party members have been scattered.  Terra is encountered again while attempting act as a mother to a village of children who’s parent’s were all killed during the mid-game apocalypse. Ultimately, through this act she realizes that she can experience human love and learns to fully control her powers and accept who she is. Terra grows and develops through characteristics that are typically thought of as feminine (maternal instinct, etc), whereas many female game heroes have to “overcome” their femininity by becoming violent asskickers. Whereas for Lara Croft, Samus, and other iconic women in games, femininity is a weakness, for Terra it’s a strength. She also serves as a great contrast to arch villain Kefka, who’s insane and completely selfish quest for godhood can be seen as a distortion of male ambition and power. The game has Terra grow into a powerful figure while acknowledging that she’s a woman, but not going so far as to constantly scream in your ear “Look, she’s a woman but she also tough! Isn’t that great!? Aren’t we so progressive!?”

B. Bayonetta from …Bayonetta

If you haven’t played it, imagine a super-Japanese Kill Bill as written by William Blake.

To get the most obvious hurdle out of the way: yes, Bayonetta is insanely sexual. Yes, the game’s director (Hideki Kamiya, who designed the similarly-oversexed Devil May Cry) readily admits that Bayonetta is his “perfect woman.” But like with Terra, Bayonetta is a powerful character through predominantly feminine traits, although these traits come from the opposite end of the spectrum.

Firstly, Bayonetta may just be the most intimidating woman to ever star in a game, both sexually and in terms of her skill and danger. On the sexual front, she’s six-and-a-half feet of legs, coolly dismissive of every character in the game, and wearing teetering heels that are also guns. But she’s also by far the most competent and important figure in her game: there’s no man to ever rescue her, she’s consistently the smartest, coolest, and most prepared person around, and, oh yes, the final boss fight of the game involves her punching God into the sun. She’s also well-written, clever, and genuinely kind to the people she cares about (game designers think that making a female character an asshole counts as making her strong). Unlike many other game heroines (Samus in Metroid: Other M or even Terra), Bayonetta is cool and in control the entire time.

All Hail the Glam Pope.

More importantly, Bayonetta’s sexuality serves a serious narrative and thematic purpose. Make no mistake: despite its ludicrous stupidity, Bayonetta is a very smart game. Its core storyline is the war between the oppressed Umbra Witches (associated with the moon, cats, and other symbols of female sexuality) and the Lumen Sages, a thinly-disguised version of the Catholic Church. The grand plot of the game’s flamboyant Pope (the literal Patriarch) is to enslave Bayonetta and control her feminine magic in order to call God to earth, essentially an attempt to constrain female sexuality. The game’s female angels– Joy –are sexually submissive: offering themselves to the player and inviting the camera to ogle them. Female sexuality from the side of the villains is in the service of male lust or power, whereas Bayonetta is sexual solely for her own sake. This is woven into combat, as well: Bayonetta can perform over-the-top sexual taunts which will enrage nearby angels beyond the point of reason, and many of her more powerful attacks (like summoning a giant demonic high heel to stomp her enemies) are weaponized sexual humiliation. Bayonetta owning and reveling in her sexuality isn’t just a character element: it’s her embracing the very thing that her enemies hate her for. For all its cheesy sexiness, the game’s core story is that of a third-wave feminist using her sexuality as a weapon against the patriarch.

Like Terra, Bayonetta is also extremely feminine. Whereas most game heroes aren’t allowed to be feminine– think of Samus, who spends all of her time as a hero in genderless power armor –Bayonetta struts about in heels, is represented by cats and butterflies, eats lollipops, and becomes a mother figure (to a younger version of herself from the past). Bayonetta is Princess Peach levels of girly, and the game never plays it for irony: she’s an extremely womanly woman who happens to be an amazing hero.

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.

Great Video Game Protagonists. Yes, They Exist.

For the first real entry of Cardinal Virtual, we wanted to discuss what qualities make a good video game protagonist. I’m sure most of you can name at least a few game characters who you’ve felt some kind of a connection with (don’t lie, you know you have). For some of you, these favorite characters might simply have been a player avatar you enjoy taking on the role of (characters like The Dovahkiin in Skyrim or even Gordon Freeman from the Half-Life series). Others might pick a character who already has a set personality that they enjoyed, and this is the type of character we’re here to talk about today.

Keep in mind, neither of us have a problem with player avatar characters– they often help make a game more immersive and can also serve as an outlet for players to express themselves creatively. But successfully creating a game protagonist with a well-defined personality is a delicate balancing act that we feel deserves some attention. The characters who follow are all  protagonists who’s personalities made their games significantly more fun for us to play.

Exhibit A: Niko Bellic from Grand Theft Auto IV

“I was in a war. This means nothing to me!”

Creating a complex protagonist in a Grand Theft Auto game is certainly a daunting task, since players have such a wide array of different actions at their disposal, but Niko Bellic is perfectly crafted for this role. His life before the game as a teenage soldier in Serbia and later as a hired goon for a white slave trader explains his combat skills and proficiency with firearms, as well as showing why he has no problem operating outside the law when the game begins. He also (naturally) witnessed enough horrors during these former careers to damage even the strongest of psyches, which makes the player’s inevitable rampage through the streets of Liberty City seem like Niko finally just snapped. No matter what you end up doing in the game, from killing cops to bowling, it makes sense that Niko would do it. He’s not just a good protagonist– he’s the perfect protagonist for his game, and is designed in such a way that you never feel like you’ve broken character or are stepping away from his story to play cops-and-robbers instead (to see how hard this can be, look at Prototype, which tries to tell a story of a morally troubled antihero clinging to his humanity while simultaneously rewarding the player for eating innocent bystanders).

“Hamburgers, hamburgers, hamburgers!”

If you haven’t actually played GTA IV, you’re probably thinking by this point that Niko’s a complete monster (and you’d be partially right) but his relationships with other characters (especially his cousin Roman) make him sympathetic and something of a tragic figure too. He genuinely feels protective of Roman and tries to stop his cousin from begin stepped on by the dregs of the Liberty City underworld, though this often just gets Roman in further trouble. Still, you always feel that Niko has nothing but good intentions when trying to help his cousin, so he never strays into unlikable territory. Conversely, Roman endears himself to Niko (and the player) by introducing them to Liberty City at the beginning of the game and by offering a free taxi service (provided you hang out with him enough). You, the player, share Niko’s friendships and alliances. In a medium where its all to common for the writers to simply tell you that you care about character x, it’s always nice to see a well developed friendship where actions can have surprising consequences, you know, like with real people.

Exhibit B: Travis Touchdown from the No More Heroes series

If you get this, then the joke’s really on you.

There’s no denying that the first No More Heroes had some serious flaws. Combat with regular enemies could quickly become dull and driving across the the lifeless “open world sandbox” city between assassination targets and the menial labor mini games broke any sense of flow. It was the game’s colorful cast of characters (in addition to the boss fights where you dismember that colorful cast) that kept us playing through the first installment of the two game series, namely player controlled Travis Touchdown. I think we can say right off the bat that having a geeky, anime-obsessed assassin star in a game about killing people in an over the top anime fashion is an incredibly funny premise, and that’s initially what makes Travis great– he’s funny as hell. Not because he tries to be of course, Travis thinks he’s a badass smooth talking ladies man when in reality he’s a nerdy loser who routinely picks up trash and pumps gas to make ends meet and who progresses through the fights in the game simply for a shot at getting laid. Also, if you’re a gamer, you can probably see some of yourself in Travis too, which makes him relatable and the whole setup even funnier. He’s the nerd-escapist fantasy made flesh: the lightsaber-wielding collector of schoolgirl anime who learned how to be a deadly killer from his local video store (except he’s still a loser).

Travis delivers a speech about humanity that includes the word “manga.”

But it’s No More Heroes’ far superior sequel where Travis really shines. After witnessing the murder of an assassin he had previously fought and admired, Travis begins to actually develop convictions and becomes his own man, instead of being used like in the first game.  You feel as though he genuinely becomes a better person during the course of his quest for revenge (which is rare for a revenge storyline). To put it bluntly, he matures, and you feel almost proud of him for it.  That alone can endear you to a character. And, as much as Travis is a parody of the player, his self-recognition and growth forces the player to consider themselves–when he stares down his would-be girlfriend and yells that even in video games we shouldn’t casually murder people, it uses the player’s investment in him and the game to raise questions about the medium.

Also, he’s a badass assassin who will willingly spend thousands of dollars to dress up in hot pink clothes promoting his favorite disgusting cartoon.  That’s amazing.

Exhibit C: Cole Phelps from L.A. Noire

That about sums it up.

While No More Heroes 1 may have been far from perfect, it has nothing on L.A. Noire in the flaws department. Never before has an awful ending so utterly ruined an otherwise good game, but that’s a rant for another time. Like fellow Rockstar protagonist Niko Bellic, detective Cole Phelps never preforms an action that feels out of character. For the game mechanics to work, players need to be obsessive when solving a case and Cole’s perfectionist tendencies help to make the long crime scene investigations player conducts feel in character. His perfectionism coupled with his cold and distant manner explains the wild accusations the player is bound to make during the interrogation sections of the game in the hopes of gaining a clue to the real culprit. And the fact that the player has to always be the main character and solve the crime themselves is justified by Cole being constantly convinced he’s smarter than everyone else.

“Sorry for accusing you of strangling your wife out of shame for your latent homosexuality. Just doing my job. You understand.”

So as you can probably tell from above, unlike Niko and Travis, Cole is not a likable character, which is ironic considering the professions of the other two characters discussed here. He’s a self-righteous dick who feels superior to everyone around him, and while these qualities initially make him a good cop, they also help lead to his downfall. He’s a hero whose main downfall is his hero complex. Cole doesn’t seem to care about anyone like Niko does and he’d never be caught dead working menial jobs like Travis; he’s too good for that. But all of this is really makes Cole a great character. You don’t necessarily need to like someone to enjoy playing as him and controlling someone who is an ass to everyone else can be strangely cathartic (especially when other characters call out his delusions of heroism and self-centeredness). Most game studios bend over backwards to get you to love their characters, so Team Bondi unabashedly showing their protagonist to be an unlikeable prick makes Cole Phelps a breath of fresh air.  Too bad they made the ending as unpleasant as Cole.