Wanted: Original Heroes

Cole Infamous 2

I don’t mean to be a grumpy old man about the state of games these days – as you know, I love them fiercely. Think of it as a mama bear and her cubs. And yes, I’m the mama bear. Anyway, while I try to stay positive and don’t want to pounce on the things that bug me all the time, I will say that in addition to poor writing in modern games, another problem that I’ve seen is a new tendency towards weak protagonists.

In my mind, these two problems easily fit together hand-in-hand. I feel like writing in games suffers precisely because of weak protagonists, who are designed to be bland so as not to affect the plot itself or even your memory of it. While story isn’t everything in games, there’s something to be said for an experience that works alongside the gameplay.

To underscore this unsettling trend, IGN posted a feature a couple of weeks back that highlights the Devolution of Character Design. It’s really disturbing to see, especially as they photoshop several heroes together without any hitches. I knew that heroes were growing more unoriginal, but not to such a staggering degree.

So what do you guys think? Do we need more original heroes? Who’s your favorite protagonist in recent video games? Who is your least favorite? Go!

Source – IGN

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I write about samurai girls and space marines. Writer for Smooth Few Films. Rooster Teeth Freelancer. Author of Red vs. Blue, The Ultimate Fan Guide, out NOW!

14 thoughts on “Wanted: Original Heroes”

  1. Geralt of Rivia from the Witcher, he has a personality, and philosophizes about his job and lot in life. Also long flowing hair (no homo), so no buzz cut.

  2. My favorite protagonist from a recent game is Cole Phelps from L.A. Noir. His attitude towards upholding the law, and discovering his many flaws (since he is only human), really made this character shine for me.

    I can’t really think of a really bad one, but I’ll go with the guy you play as in Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2 (I HATE that game), he seemed to be nothing more than the cut-and-paste of the average hero stereotype in military games.

  3. So, I’d like to show you guys James Vega, the new squad mate for Mass Effect 3: http://images.wikia.com/masseffect/images/2/25/James_vega.jpg

    He looks like he escaped from the Modern Warfare/Killzone character creation death camp. No offense to BioWare, but this is a pretty generic design. Granted, the basic Shepard is fairly bog standard, but gamers can change his appearance they are so inclined.

    On to the subject of the list, the Robin/Starkiller mash scared the crap out of me. Is that just lazy design, or do gaming companies think we like that kind of character. There’s a new Robin concept art that looks like a red and yellow Assassin’s Creed re-skin. http://community.batmanarkhamcity.com/forums/attachment.php?attachmentid=12&d=1309895627

    The best characters I’m finding these days are supporting characters. Zeke from inFAMOUS 2 is way improved from the first game, and is done way better than Cole (although Cole’s nature has to be malleable).

  4. Couldn’t agree more. Original characters are awesome. Even if Cole from infamous was a little on the bland side, he was still original and relatively cool. We need more new IP’s with new heroes.

    The best original protagonist lately would have to be John Marston from RDR. Such a bad ass. Least favorite would have to be the main characters from Killzone 2 & 3. It’s an awesome game, but the protagonists are so bland and nothing that it’s criminal. As far as I’m concerned at least a bad protagonist has character, but a bland nothing is like a sin against life. FAIL.

  5. @ Mitch – Zeke was SO annoying, did they finally fix that aspect of him?

    This article is kind of scary. What a shame. We may be seeing gaming in hard times. 🙁

  6. John Marston is my most recent favorite protagonist because, ya know, he’s the only recent protagonist with any characterization. But aside from having no competition, Marston’s story of redemption really drew me in, and his personally was reminiscent of Walt Kowalski from Gran Torino (tough and mean, but a good guy at heart; but uh, John wasn’t quite as old) and fits well with a former outlaw in the Not-So-Wild West. John connected very well with me, the player, because he was tough (he’s in an FPS) yet was ready to atone for his sins (the audience naturally wants to be on the side of good).

    It’s clear that the events of the story make more of an impact on the character’s and the player’s connection than appearance. What if the player isn’t a white, grizzled, brown-haired hardass? How are we supposed to project ourselves onto him? If, however, we’re forced to make decisions, or we see how the protagonist reacts to events and other characters, it’s that characterization that makes the character more memorable and that’s when the audience projects themselves onto the character. Not because the character is a blank slate, but because the player is participating in that character’s experience and character development.

    In short, rite gooder.

  7. Do gamers really need to project themselves onto blank canvases, though? I feel like that’s the easy rationale behind these creative bankruptcies, but I don’t think anyone actually does that. And I would contend that people only do it in cases when the main character is weak. Not once have I ever played Uncharted and thought, “oh man, if only Drake were a better receptacle for my own personality.” I never thought that with John Marston, either.

    Anyways, great points, dudes, and good discussion to boot. John Marston is a great example.

  8. [quote comment=”17017″]@ Mitch – Zeke was SO annoying, did they finally fix that aspect of him?[/quote]

    Yeah, he’s much improved. A lot of his character arc has to do with him redeeming himself for his total dickitude in the first inFAMOUS.

  9. The IGN article seems to focus on character design, but it sounds like you’re talking about characterization. Either way, though, I think the new Prince of Persia’s prince (and Elika, too) are not only cool characters with personalities, they actually have character arcs! Some of the dialogue is not so well written, sure, but they work together to drive a story that resolves in one of the best video game endings I’ve ever seen.

  10. What’s even more horrifying is that I actually mistook some of the characters on the IGN article for other unlisted characters(one example was adding Soap MacTavish to the pair of mohawked men).

    Now, maybe it’s just prejudice against the buzzcut/crewcut for creating cookie cutter heroes, but it is a practical haircut for all intents and purposes. No worries about hair getting in your eye and it’s harder for an enemy to get a grip on your head.

    I’m going to go with the other commentators here and say Rockstar gets its heroes right, well-developed, with personalities, strong characterization and sympathetic motives. John Marston; retired outlaw. Cole Phelps; incorruptible knight of the LAPD.

    Maybe the trend in weaker writing comes from there being an increased emphasis on multiplayer these days? You know, long term investment from the consumer, not just a product, now a service. I mean, at best you got TF2 with 9 developed personalities for the mercs and even then it took them a decade and change to really flesh it out.

    Or maybe it’s an obsession with space marines in powered armor and the aforementioned brigade of buzzcuts and stubble, and a script that’s about 50% military jargon and acronyms that sound vaguely militaristic and sound neat when you read them in NATO phonetic? I mean, face it, I rail against it but I hear a trailer with some John Williams and some guy saying cryptically ominous things about the state of the world or warfare or something and it has my undivided attention.

  11. Then, on the Japanese side, you have men that look like women and women that look like little girls.

    Lightning from FF XIII was pretty awesome, as was Balthier from FF XII, but these are few and far between. Hell, if it weren’t for his personality, Nathan Drake would be fairly generic.

  12. Glad somebody mentioned the “redux” version of the Prince of Persia and Elika. Both looked very unique in terms of character design.

    All of the characters from Enslaved are really unique as well.

    Given that I’ve both hated and loved Bayonetta, she probably deserves a mention too. Whether you regard her as a middle aged Japanese programmer’s wet dream (my initial reaction) or a clever tongue-in-cheek send up of the hypersexuality so prevalent in popular media (my revised opinion after playing the game), at least her character design elicits a strong reaction.

    A pity some of gaming’s quirkier looking franchises, such as Oddworld, Panzer Dragoon, and Jet Set Radio, haven’t made the transition to the HD generation. Then again, seeing as how those franchises don’t have sparkling sales records and many games featuring “assembly line heroes” make heaps of money, maybe developers have gamers pegged better than we think.

  13. Oh, and I hope DP hasn’t played the Prince of Persia “Epilogue” DLC, which TOTALLY wrecks that aforementioned brilliant ending.

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