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.