A Hero in Need: What Makes a Protagonist Interesting?

on December 17, 2011 12:00 PM

[This article on what makes a protagonist interesting might contain some minor spoilers for Uncharted 3, Assassins Creed II and some major spoilers for Gears of War 3, fair warning!]

These days, it seems like there are two main types of single player games: those that try to tell a specific story to the player, and those that allow the story to be told through the player.  Each has their own shortcomings and merits, and to my own surprise, I’ve found that I don’t actually prefer one over the other.  While I love having the ability to make choices that will influence the story, I’m perfectly fine playing as a character that can just cruise through gameplay sections after telling me what my more linear purpose is.  What I also found a bit surprising is that a sandbox game’s choices usually does not affect story as much as some more linear games with strong elements of choice.

After looking at what made a villain special last weekend, I wanted to see what made a hero special.  The problem is, heroes are for the most part dull.  It is a hero’s motivation and drive that makes him interesting and three-dimensional, whereas a villain just needs a certain amount of charisma to make himself interesting.  Most heroes can (and do) get by on their basic premise that they are the good guy; they only get interesting when some form of real or truly deep conflict is added.  Sure, good dialogue or clever writing might cover up some of the blandness of a character, but a truly memorable hero is one where we want to continue to hear their story long after the game has ended.  Mind you, this is not to say a shallow character is a bad thing; in fact, one of the heroes that I take a look at below started off as rather shallow.

Of the characters where you’re merely the vehicle through which the story is progressed, there are several who stand out, though some not always in a good way.  The most popular of them is Nathan Drake.  Until Uncharted 3, Drake was a pretty flat character.  Even after Uncharted 3, Drake is still pretty flat.  Sure he had personality, but he was still rather two dimensional.  He had one motivation, treasure, and was willing to go to any length to get it.  Drake pushes through adversity, but he is never really explored in depth until the third game, and even then, the interesting things brought to light are never addressed.  The overarching stories of the Uncharted games are usually very enjoyable, but aside from witty dialogue, Drake still stands as a surprisingly flat character.  Uncharted 3 tries its damndest to change this.  The second stage sets a nice tone, and his past and his actual motivations are constantly brought up by those around him, but unfortunately, the game decides to give us an ending where Drake not only does not seem to learn anything, but still seems to take those around him for granted.  Worst of all, we are still left not knowing why he is so driven to prove himself by being so reckless with the lives of himself and his friends; we merely learn that he has some drive other than the thrill and the actual worldly rewards.

A Hero in Need: What Makes a Protagonist Interesting?

It is frustrating, because Drake is so close to being an amazing character, and I mean that past his witty lines and amusing devil-may-care personality.  As I have stated, Uncharted 3 at least gives us a glimpse that there is more to Drake than a simple adventurer, but unfortunately it just stays a glimpse.  I will always enjoy the Uncharted games, but Drake’s rationale behind his attitude and mystery is starting to wear very thin.  Even the other characters in Uncharted 3 remind us that he is going a bit too far.

Whereas Nathan Drake’s personality has yet to really emerge past “smug asshole,” other games have given us interesting heroes where we have no control over their story, just their actions within their story.  Enter Ezio Auditore de Firenze from the Assassins Creed series.  Ezio is a character who we have literally watched grow older through the last three games.  This gives him a strange sort of ongoing and everchanging personality.  Ezio’s strength as a character comes from his past, but it was one that was so well explored that it made him endearing.  We got to play through Ezio’s late teens, where he went from a spoiled Italian noble to a hard and driven yet still smooth older man.  Ezio was a character who suffered tragedy, but then through his own driven nature turned himself into the man we see in the most recent game, Revelations, where he is referred to as “Mentor” by the other assassins.

A Hero in Need: What Makes a Protagonist Interesting?

Growing up with Ezio is interesting, because while we got to see a small section of Drake’s childhood, we still were only given hints as to who he really was; by contrast, Ezio changes.  About half way through Assassins Creed II, he has gone from a fun-loving noble to a hard, revenge-driven man.  Then in Brotherhood we get to watch as he mellows and learns more about what it really means to be an assassin, focusing on the larger task and not so much on the death of his family.  Finally in the third game, we have a mature individual who is a nice balance between the driven but thoughtful man from Brotherhood and the fun loving young noble from the first game.  Ezio has gained wisdom from age and, to his credit, he has gained an understanding of how to live for himself as well as live for the order he is a part of.  His growth stands as a testament to those who write him.

We have no control over Ezio’s actual story; we are merely the pilots to get him from one destination to another.  Because of the way he is written, as someone who grows, there is a clear motivation to see what Ezio will do next to see how he will learn and grow from the experience.  For someone like Drake, it has been three games, and he hasn’t grown at all from his past experiences.  Granted, the Assassins Creed games take place over a longer period, but this is no excuse for how Drake is treated, as he goes on some amazing adventures, then continues to not learn from them.

However, in spite of Drake’s failings as a character, he is still very endearing.  This is mostly because the quality of the writers of Drake’s dialogue.  It is all perfect from situation to situation, and made even better by Nolan North’s delivery.  Ezio is endearing because of his progression as an actual character.  However, these characters progress the same way, with or without the player’s input.  These heroes create an interesting dynamic when compared to other protagonists whose stories are directly controlled by the player.  They retain a personality that the storyteller wants them to have.  It keeps things simple and much more consistent.

A Hero in Need: What Makes a Protagonist Interesting?

There is also something to be said about a single player game where the player has some control over the story.  In these games, you’ll often visit the same places regardless of your path, but the actions you take there could be entirely different, leading to the same final moment, just with a slightly twisted ending.  There are two examples I can think of off the top of my head: J.C. Denton of Deus Ex and Commander Shepard of the Mass Effect series.  What makes these characters stand out from the likes of the Drakes and the Ezios is that we are essentially the characters.  In making decisions like not killing anyone or playing paragon or renegade (or even a blend of the two), the story is still able to be told, but the player is further immersed in the world of the game.  It is not better than the linear story, but it can certainly go a long way towards making a protagonist into more of a character than just a pivot point for the gameplay to revolve around.

What characters like J.C. and Shepard share is their ability to solve the mysteries that surround their games regardless of the pace and the actual path that the player decides to take.  It is an interesting form of storytelling, and one where the actual heroics of the main character can easily be overshadowed by the force of player choice.  A good game can avoid this by crafting a story so that, while your choice still matters, any of the choices would be interesting.  The original Deus Ex is still one of the best games for allowing J.C. to grow and change from a naïve UNATCO agent into a strong and competent character, regardless of the player’s decisions.  In fact, J.C. is perhaps more well-crafted then someone like Ezio because he grows in spite of the player’s decisions.  A better way to say this is that J.C. is a deep and interesting hero because the player is not only allowed to dictate the ways in which he grows over the course of the story, but that the player also grows alongside him, becoming more and more skeptical of the story elements and learning the game world as it is presented to J.C.  Denton’s backstory becomes irrelevant because of the ways in which he grows over the several days the game takes place in.

A Hero in Need: What Makes a Protagonist Interesting?

Commander Shepard is a bit different.  Shepard is someone whose growth is already established (by the player no less) at the beginning of the first Mass Effect.  However, while Shepard does not grow in the traditional sense, his motivations and the way in which he interacts with those around him that make him interesting.  As Shepard, it is the player’s job in Mass Effect to not just stop the Reapers, but to actually teach the other characters about the threat and try to convince them.  A large part of what makes Mass Effect such a deep series, and Shepard a deeper character, is that the growth in the series is done by those around him as they learn and react to his actions and the information presented.  That is not to say that Shepard does not have depth or characterization that someone like Drake, who is somewhat similarly static, lacks.  His choices, as someone so well known throughout the galaxy, retain a certain amount of charisma.  His decisions are logical and his motivations are mature, with a driving force where he knows he is one of a very few people who not only know about the Reapers, but who also possess the sheer will to try to stop them.  Characters like Drake may share a similar drive, but as I stated before, without the motivations behind that drive, the drive falls flat.

Before I wrap this up, I do want to address that I know I have harped on Drake a lot here, and I assure that he is a character that I genuinely enjoy.  Again, credit to his fantastic dialogue and personality, but all of that is getting a bit stale due to the lack of actual growth and characterization.  Also note that Drake is not the only one guilty of being two-dimensional.  Other examples of main characters lacking the exploration they deserve include Marcus Fenix of Gears of War or Niko Bellic of Grand Theft Auto IV.  While Fenix is explored pretty well in the books, his character seems to be lacking in the games.  There are flashes of emotion, but these never really pan out into character depth.  With Niko, we are presented with a character who has a fantastic backstory that never pans out into the character he constantly expresses he wishes he could be.  This is arguably part of the game’s message, but at the same time Niko, over the course of the game, never grows out of his role of being a simple thug for hire.

While I still enjoyed the games listed in the above paragraph, I’m nonetheless left wanting more for the characters that I’ve spent so much time getting to know.  I want to see them grow and change past merely being the exact same as they were at the beginning of each series.  I want them to have epiphanies, like Ezio and Shepard did, and like J.C. constantly has.  Too often, games will fall into the trap of using a simple character archetype for a hero, and then rolling with that static character through a game or even through a series.  Gears, Uncharted and GTA IV manage to avoid that trap, by having their particular characters fleshed out enough to still be unique, but still don’t quite advance their characters to a truly satisfactory degree like Assassins Creed or Mass Effect do.

In order to create a protagonist that is more than just an archetype or a static, unchanging cardboard cutout of a character, the character should grow, change and learn from their experiences, and, if possible, the player should grow a bit with them.  Growth adds depth, even if it is the growth of those around the character.  The games that do succeed in adding a true depth to their characters are the ones that should be looked at in the future as ways to make leads more interesting and more fun to play as.  Not only that, but if we really want games to be taken more seriously as an art form, we need more complex main characters.

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Scott just graduated from Law School. But he didn't let that stop him from gaming, a hobby that he has stuck with ever since he received his NES at age 5. His favorites are Metal Gear Solid, OutRun, Half-Life, Deus Ex, Ratchet and Clank and most recently, the Mass Effect series.