Be they good or evil, somber or humorous, there’s no denying the power of a great character in storytelling. And when a narrative requires interactivity like that found in video games, it’s incredibly important that characters be strong and compelling. After all, you’ll be spending more than a few hours experiencing that character’s story and world within a game, and nothing creates a bigger drag than a terrible set of characters you don’t care about.
But what makes for a great video game character? Or more generally, what exactly makes for a great character?
In more ways than one, characters are our representation within a story. A pair of eyes for us to see through, if you will. Through witnessing and taking part of that character’s actions, we’re suddenly absorbed into their world and able to approach it from their perspective.
Therefore, it’s important that we have a good “feel” for them, or a good sense of who they are. And the key to achieving that is allowing us to relate to them on a human level.
So how is this achieved? Look at it this way: humans are flawed. While we have strengths, talents, and morality, we also have many faults, quirks, and problems that keep us from being perfect. Because of this, it’s imperative that characters embrace both the good and the bad sides of the human condition in order for them to feel real.
While we all love a hero, it’s easier for us to relate to and embrace someone who has flaws and shortcomings vs. someone who doesn’t. If a story’s hero is a character with great moral conviction and no limitations, we suddenly experience a disconnect between him and our understanding of how human beings should be.
But if a hero comes along who has faults and makes mistakes while trying to stay true to their convictions,we find more reasons to cheer him on and want him to succeed. We’ve all experienced the despair of failure and struggle, and we’ve also felt the joy of triumph. It’s because of this that a multi-dimensional hero is all the more compelling to us.
While they’re only a small fraction of the best characters we’ve seen in games, the following three exemplify these ideas of humanity and vulnerability in a real and interesting way.
Sly, suave, and charming, Nathan Drake is one of the most charismatic characters in video games. It’s hard to not like him thanks to his sense of humor, his adventurous nature, and his devil-may-care attitude.
But thanks especially to the developments in Uncharted 3, we’ve seen that even Drake has some serious flaws.
He’s got something of a hedonistic edge that draws him to all corners of the globe in search of treasure and cashing in on something big. Because of this, he’s willing to lie about himself and put his friends at risk in order to obtain something he’s been after for most of his life.
Once he realizes the jeopardy he’s put his friends in, we suddenly see Nate reconsider his actions from the past and re-think the danger he’s put Sully and Elena in. Add to that an entire section of limping through a desert and collapsing multiple times thanks to exhaustion and dehydration, and Nate becomes a more human character that we can relate to. We know how it feels to contemplate whether or not your intentions are good or bad, we’ve all experienced a letdown, and we’ve had to deal with making difficult decisions in our lives. Because of this, Nate becomes a fleshed-out character and powerful hero we can’t help but root for as the story progresses.
One of the mainstays in the Half-Life series, Alyx is not only one of the strongest characters in a video game, she’s also one of the best representations of a female character found in our beloved art medium.
While we’ve made a fair amount of progress over the years with their portrayal, women in gaming still tend to stick to one of two stereotypes: useless damsels in distress unable of protecting themselves in any way, or beastly women incapable of wearing anything other than clothing that makes them look like a dominatrix. For many, it’s more about sex appeal than realistic qualities.
Enter Alyx Vance, a woman that not only looks normal in every way, but is also strong and empowered in her role of helping Gordon Freeman in his campaign against the Combine.
Alyx is interesting because of her many different sides. Sure, she’s got a badass edge to her that sees her toting guns and pumping enemies full of bullets without hesitation. But for all her brawn, she’s got a good amount of empathy as well. She cares deeply about her friends and family and is willing to go to great lengths in order to protect them. In fact, a majority of her actions throughout the games are fueled by this idea alone. And while she is capable of taking care of herself a majority of the time, Alyx still occasionally falls into trouble and needs help, showing that she has some level of vulnerability. It’s because of her many traits that we can relate to her and begin to care about her and her involvement within the story. She’s a fantastic representation of an empowered female character and displays great heroism thanks to her ability to stick by her convictions and do whatever it takes to protect herself and the ones she loves. She’s not invincible, but she’s strong and able enough to overcome her shortcomings, making her a strong character and an optimal choice in helping Dr. Freeman.
THE ILLUSIVE MAN
Every protagonist needs an antagonist, and while there have been many, many, many villains found in video games throughout the years, few have been quite as impressive as The Illusive Man.
So what makes for a great villain? Much like a hero, they have to have their own strengths and weaknesses. But there’s one difference between their development and that of characters we cheer for: understanding. When creating a villain, you don’t want people to necessarily like them, but you need them to understand where the villain is coming from and how they got that way. It’s when that happens that we see people embrace the villain and understand exactly who they are and what they’re all about.
The Illusive Man is a brilliant example of this. Being the leader of the radical pro-human group Cerberus, his main goal is to make life better for humanity in a galaxy filled with multiple species.
Now, his approach is brilliant, because let’s face it; unless a copy of Mass Effect has drifted into space and somehow managed to escape our galaxy and end up in the hands of a sentient alien life form capable of playing the game, the fan base of the Mass Effect series is all human. And because we’re all a bunch of humans, it’s hard to argue with the idea of a group dedicated to protecting the human race.
But at what cost? Once we start to see the nefarious ends the Illusive Man is willing to go to in order to achieve his goal, we can suddenly appreciate the hatred Ashley has toward the radical leader. He’s willing to torture and murder innocent beings for his own purposes and does so in a horrific fashion. On top of that, he halts Shepard’s progression time and time again throughout the series with his soldiers and direct intervention. It’s because of this you grow to really hate the Illusive Man and what he’s done. But for all the hate you might have for him, you still understand why he does it. And there’s no moment in the series that captures his twisted convictions in quite the same way as when he’s dying on the floor of the Citadel and catches sight of Earth, uttering the infamous last words “There…Earth. I wish you could see it like I do, Shepard. It’s so…perfect.”
The Illusive Man is a villain whose intentions may have started out good, but became so strong and twisted that they made him a dangerous zealot more than a hero. Because of this, he’s everything a villain should be, all wrapped up in a suave and cunning man with a lit cigarette hanging limply in his hand.
Of course, this is but a small sampling of the many great characters that have appeared throughout gaming’s history. But the need for great characters is a persistent one, and one that will be more and more necessary for building great video game narratives heading forward.