When we play games we become attached to the characters involved. Often times we forget that the characters we adore have no real value. Characters like the Master Chief, Soap MacTavish, and Mario are all stark examples of generally worthless characters or characters that are just empty and hollow.
Characters that are worth something have depth, show signs of things far beneath the surface, can bend and break to evidence fibrous foundations or show sliding morals, they're pliable, progressive, living breathing entities that sustain themselves and while readers may absolutely love and defend their chosen characters to the death – it's time to be honest with yourself – they're generally shitty characters. Examples of great characters are:
- Ethan Mars (Heavy Rain)
- Commander Sheperd (Mass Effect)
- Solid Snake & Otacon (Metal Gear Solid)
- Agent 47 (Codename: Hitman)
- Cloud Strife & Sephiroth (Final Fantasy 7)
- Kefka & Terra (Final Fantasy 6I)
- Ryo Hazuki (Shenmue)
- Raziel (Soul Reaver)
- Michael LeRoi (Shadow Man)
- Ramza & Delita (Final Fantasy Tactics)
- Ashley Riot (Vagrant Story)
- James Sutherland (Silent Hill 2)
- Rain & Hana (Fear Effect)
- Jack (Bioshock)
- Morrigan (Dragon Age)
Great characters aren't always likable characters or characters we can relate to. Sephiroth and Kefka were considered vile characters for their actions, and even though their motives are explained and multiple sides of their personalities gave light to how their morals were shaped over time, we hated them as 'people'. As players we were driven to kick their asses out of principle for what they wanted to do and eventually did. There were times when we understood or even possibly sympathized with the motives of Delita – being cast off and betrayed by a system, discovering that the character was unjustly manipulated. Characters like Morrigan who have unpalpable personalities were written to give players the opportunity to see beyond the freak on a leash exterior or cruel and exercising exterior. They were written to make players question their own assumptions, provide contrast to other characters and support choices or give deeper reason behind events within the story. Other times great characters may come off as mundane or 'average', like Ryo Hazuki. His character expresses deep thoughts, allows insight to his rationale, and provides potential to be good at his endeavors or be a general fuck-up underachiever. Even Agent 47, a pretty low key and generic character type was given a level of depth in how he was written to go against his habits and display a bit of compassion, how he rationalized the decision to do so and carried out his actions against his beliefs.
In every case of the above list, the characters are congruent with other characters of the world in a situation beyond the events taking place and contain dimensions that have everything to do with who they are and little to do with what they are.
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Many games present players with characters that really have no importance to the game itself. Soap MacTavish is one such character. He's a spec ops soldier, considered one of the best, but he didn't start that way. He's got progression in his history and it was established just enough to give players the idea of it all, but in the grand scheme of things his role is filled by a man who is in the right place at the right time. There's no concept of who he is – he's a body filling a role scripted by story writers that didn't take the time to give him real purpose. He wants to stop terrorists – okay, so do 95% of the free world. What amkes his different than the rest of us outside of situational placement? Nothing, and if there's something unique and special about MacTavish, then it wasn't written in.
Characters, good characters need to have a driving purpose beyond scripted motive. Soap presents as nothing different than anyone else, and for that becomes relatively unremarkable. At its core, there's no driving purpose to see Soap live other than to see if the writers can pull their heads from their ass and make a coherent story. His life in context to the story isn't really important – he's not specially trained to take on the antagonist, and while he's got insight, it's rarely used. He's developed to be just what he is, a meat puppet and badass as he's presented… doesn't matter.
To further the point, these kind of poor characters allow us to see only a single side or a couple of sides to them. We know Soap is a great soldier and we love that about him, but there's more to a character than that one side, even in relation to the story in which they live. Even Sam Fisher was given depth by showing us some of his personal thoughts and the developers establishing his family and previous life.
DANTE: Dante of Dante's Inferno presents as a guilt stricken man making attempt to both repent and exact revenge. Still, he's a hollow character that was injected into a poor adaptation that leans more in action towards "What Dreams May Come" by Richard Matheson in the setting of "Divine Comedy" by Dante Alighieri more than a strict game translation of the latter. Through the game dialogue players learn about the reasons and some of the skewed philosophies used by Dante, but they don't flesh out who he is as a character. Ultimately Dante is a poorly developed character because writers assumed that players would cope with and understand the motives of who they play as. Many times Dante's actions don't even make sense to the world in which he's been placed. He's been placed in a unique situation, but by his own hands. This makes his character somewhat interesting but unremarkable considering the premise and source material. Players get to, at some length, see into the kind of man Dante is, but never see why or how he felt at the time his choices were made.
FOX MCCLOUD: Nothing about Fox McCloud stands out as important. Aside from being the leader of StarFox, he's professional, cocky and shy – but mainly professional. Not much is written to give him depth beyond a few multiple endings in StarFox Command. In existence he's practically irrelevant. The StarFox series isn't about ox, it's not about the team, but about their exploits. Switching out the characters with others won't change events or outcomes given that Fox possesses no inherent special abilities designed to combat the universal evil within the game. Instead, Fox is a character who, could very well be anyone doing anything. Fox's most hated enemy is Andross because Andross killed Fox's father. That's a good purpose for action, but it's story development and not character development. More often than not Fox's actions have little or nothing to do with his thoughts and feelings about the death of his father or Andross. His personal drive is not fleshed out in a way that gives Fox dimension. Some have compared Fox:Andross to Luke:Vader, however Andross only killed Fox's father – Vader IS Luke's father and even though Mark Hamil isn't an A list actor, he at least was written to be affected by the situation. Fox is merely a static figure given life by player assumptions of how he 'should' feel. At least he's got a last name.
MASTER CHIEF: A character of few words and less unique action generally indicates a prop for an excuse. In this case the excuse would be that because Master Chief says little if at all, players can impose themselves upon him and give him their own personality. While this is true, it doesn't make Master Chief a well written or remotely great character. If it did then people would ask for empty boxes at Christmas and on their Birthday because with an empty box they can put whatever they want inside. Master Chief is possibly the most hollow and worthless character in a modern game with such a rich action driven story. The only thing that keeps him from being overly generic is what he is, not who he is.
GORDON FREEMAN: Nerd fatale Gordon Freeman was introduced as the reluctant crowbar wielding hero in Half-Life. The stroy was unique in that Gordan wasn't your 'average guy', but rather your 'below average guy'. Nerds aren't supposed to be dangerous, but quantum physicists apparently can be given the right tools. Still, players only see a single side of Gordon: the survivalist freedom fighter championed by those around him too weak to single-handedly do what Gordon has done. Like the Master Chief of Halo, Gordon says very little (actually, he doesn't say anything except at the very end of both games). People like a man of action, but it makes for a terribly shallow character. Gordon suffers from the same issues of the Master Chief and in many cases Master Chief might as well be a future close of Gordon. Gordon in a what, is indisputably awesome, but who he is remains empty.
Writers have hashed details about Gordon out, but as a player they're not seen or heard. They can however be assumed in the light banter between NPC characters through the series of Half-Life games, but nothing really indicating he is outside of Hugh Laurie in a rad-suit.
Some enjoy the silent progaonist style of character, and they ahve merit, I suppose. However, in the case of games like Modern Warfare 2, HL2, Halo, or any other FPS style game where a silent protagonist lives, their actions are scripted and there's no character resistence. When an NPC suggests everyone particiapte in some of the dumbest, craziest, scariest, or adventureous things – the player-characer 'just goes along'. The silent protagonist is meant to have the player controlling them insert their personality – apparently, all of us are fickle sheep willing to do whatever we're told.
In contrast, Jack Ryan works well as the silent protagonist because he IS a puppet.
The games that these characters live in are fun, well made, and for the most part objectively worth experiencing, but they're not so because of the misshapen characters used to demonstrate the generally interesting story.
What we end up with are characters that aren't important at all. As an example, Mario of Super Mario Bros. He's a plumber, which has zero bearing on the story of the game as the game or the character was developed. It may account for his attire, but beyond that Mario is nothing short of a tool – a device in the game which allows the player to traverse obstacles and overcome a challenge to the player. He serves a purpose no different than a hammer to nails. In these, characters are popular because the game in which they're presented is fun. It's fun based on the objective and not entirely the characters themselves. Mario can't do anything special until around SMB3 with the suits. The purpose is the same and all that was added was a new game mechanic – which has no real bearing on the character in terms of who they are and why they're cool.
CAST OF BORDERLANDS: Not a single character in Borderlands is worth a damn. The game was marketed as an FPS/RPG title which allowed the players to enjoy the abilities to play the role of four different individuals with four distinct reasons for being on Pandora. At no point outside of the character synopsis was any aspect of their personality, reason for being, or driving purpose touched again. For example, Lilith was allegedly on Pandora to search out others 'like her'. The only reason this is known is because the character selection screen indicates as such. From that point, the character is sidetracked by the ominous satellite and munchkin bots to operate as a tool. Players can build a class of character based on level and point progression, but the characters are so poorly implemented into the game that it will take a major expansion to inject missions that have relevance to the purpose of the characters presence. To add to this, none of the characters ever speak and the game continually asks rhetorical questions. While the title is full of FPS style fun and does a fantastic job with the stylized art seldom executed properly by others, all that the characters do is serve as an equipment mule to cart around a variance of weapons allowing players to experiment with various means and methods of dispatching a revolving set of enemies. Who is Lilith? Apparently the writers don't even know.
LINK: Link of The Legend of Zelda is what could be considered a necessary archetype to complete the goal. It is the character class that makes the objective obtainable. While a mage or rouge can probably complete the same objectives, Link's sword wielding gets him through the bulk of his operations. He's a staple character than on an individual level, can be done by most any sword wielding hero in a similar situation.His little misadventures are often accented by misanthropic counter-personalities that can also be filled by pretty much anyone. Evidence of this lies in the various universes that the Link character resides, a lack of developer created chronology and the apparent need for fans to generate their own. Link is a poorly developed character to the Legend of Zelda series and as a character in whole. There's no indication as to what makes him special, who he is, or even why he's set out on his quests outside of situational circumstances, yet he's well loved for some strange reason. What if someone else went after the Tri-Force? No real issue there. Any sprite from RPG Maker would fit nicely into the game and playing with what the charter is, where they're from – Link as a character echos of emptiness.
KIRBY: Sharing the name and function with a household vaccum, he's little, fluffy, and somewhat different. Devouring enemies and absorbing their abilities as his own for the length of time that they're in his belly. Still, Kirby brings nothing exciting to the table. As a character he's merely a tool to complete that overall objective of the game. He's got no real past, no real future, and his present is pretty boring. He's given a degree of depth in his overall positive personality and attempts to flesh him out have been made by implementing the idea he enjoys singing and cooking, but it's never really been enough to make him "something". Fans hold debates as to what exactly Kirby is, and that's a pretty clear indication that the character was poorly designed. Cute looks only get you in the door… Does Kirby make Kirby's Dreamland? No. If we changed Kirby into a Frog and named him "Terrence" the game wouldn't change.
SONIC: In a string of characters that have no past, Sonic tends to sit atop them all. What is known is that his planned history and background were wiped to soften his image, that he can't swim because a designer assumed all hedgehogs can't swim (false) and that's pretty much it. He's fleshed out by fans and spin-off comic developers who liked his presentation as a game character. He was wide open for interpretation and in many ways this was a strength, but he's not really much of anything aside from a blue hedgehog with the ability to run fast trying to keep a mad doctor from imprisoning the souls of woodland creatures in a robot army.Could Sonic the Hedgehog be fun without Sonic? Yes.
In the end, all of the above characters can be cool, funny, charming, or any number of other positive characteristics, but none of them are exclusively important to their setting. They can be argued to be important to the game, or the mode of play but most of them are simply bodies filling a slot providing a means to an end – a number just like anyone else. Over time it has been left for fans to largely assume and create a game specific universe continuity, when it is the job of the character designer to do this. and they definitely don't rely on players to concoct some bullshit story to give any of it reason for the sake of the character retaining some kind of intrinsic production value. The point is that the characters of these games are unremarkable because the characters are not unique to the game and in many cases the games are not unique to the characters. What makes these games fun aren't the characters but the mechanics and the objectives. Remove the character or switch them out and the game is the same. It's not a discredit to the game in anyway, just to the characters that these games contain.
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