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Retire the space marine

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I’ve finally re-committed to Deus Ex: Human Revolution. The four or five times I played the first eight hours (on a preview disc, months before release) held me for a long time. Frankly, the idea of clearing all that trouble again just to reach the rest of the game didn’t exactly thrill me, but here’s what brought me back: lead character Adam Jensen.

Sure, he sounds like a sub-literate Clint Eastwood who’s suffering from a permanent form of laryngitis, but just look at him. He’s thin. Lanky, even. He’s Half-Life’s Gordon Freeman with polarized glasses and hair gel. More importantly, he’s not some no-neck space marine in anatomically dubious super-armor. You know what I’m talking about…steroid-munching gorillas who all have biceps measurably larger than their own heads.

This particular archetype pretty much reached its apex in last year’s appropriately named Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine. It’s all downhill from here, friends. Time to put this character type to bed, and not just because of the form factor. I want a game character who's not covered in ridiculous muscles, strictly whitebread Caucasian, and serving his country with overwhelming firepower. And guess what? So do you.

 

Warhammer 40K: Space Marine

He can't actually reach his head himself.

Don’t get me wrong…I’m still in line to play Halo 4. But I find it very curious how developer 343 Industries keeps talking about delving deeper into the Master Chief as a person. That's an interesting direction to go with a highly successful character who exists primarily as an icon rather than a fully-formed individual. The very idea that 343 might show us his face seems sacrilegious at best. Nevertheless, they're going to mess with the archetype.

It's telling that 343 feels something more needs to be said, and they plan to take a risk and say it. I'm fine with that in principal, because I don't always want to play an archetype. I want to play as a person.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution
White and nerdy.

See, Mr. Space Marine isn't just a walking, shooting cliché…he also severely limits width and breadth of the story you're allowed to tell. The second you step into those space-army boots, you'll spend the next 6-8 hours shooting ugly aliens and/or rival space marines from Planet Enemy, guided by a disembodied voice on a mission of critical importance (despite only meriting a detached squad of four soldiers), moving from skirmish to skirmish while a major engagement plays out in the middle-distance. Possibly you'll start feeling betrayed by high command's big picture vs. realities on the ground, or a few surprise betrayals will blindside you, but then you'll go shoot them.

By the time you temporarily win the war for your side, your character will remain staggeringly unaffected by anything he just saw or did. His squad will join in a chorus of multi-faceted grunts. And that's fine, but not every time. If you take a moment to strip away the heavily armed solider blindly taking order from High Command, the possibilities open up like crazy.

Movies do this all the time. Alfred Hitchcock built his career on "wrong man/wrong place/wrong time" foundations. A nigh-invulnerable badass with a big gun plays into video game power fantasies, but shove that assault rifle at an accountant, a bus driver, a drug store clerk, and suddenly you've got someone a player can actually sympathize with. Martial-arts legend Jackie Chan never once played an indestructible machine; he made sure the audience knew he felt pain when an opponent connected. That made him more real, even as a guy with advanced degrees in kicking your ass. It's Max Payne limping when low on health. It's Sam Fisher and Lara Croft grunting from the effort when climbing.

Halo Wars
I didn't know they allowed more than one of these per war.

Moreover, take a character outside a military chain of command, and their motivations change from "I was ordered to do a thing" to something interesting. Nathan Drake's self-destructive need to prove himself. John Marston's quest to save his family. Adam Jensen's man/machine dichotomy. Take away the easy answers, and you change everything. What you're doing. How you're doing it. Why you're doing it.

Hey, a space marine — indeed, any soldier — makes a nice shortcut to arming a character and putting them in an open conflict for players to enjoy. Nothing wrong with that, but like most shortcuts, it's gone from useful to lazy to cliché at the speed of light. We can do better, and we should. Ditch this single-minded crutch, tell me a different story, and stand out from the pack…or get lost in the crowd.


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