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What Makes a Great Protagonist?

Warning: Some spoilers of games ranging in age may occur.  They’ve been out a while, so it’s unlikely that I’ll be spoiling anything damaging to anyone.

For many of us, video games just wouldn’t be the same without great leads.  We get off on rugged adventurers with hearts of gold, cocky badasses with something to prove, even fallen soldiers with the world’s weight on their shoulders.  They inspire us, showing us great truths about ourselves, and giving us a reason to keep playing.

But why?

What exactly is the winning formula for creating an iconic hero? What makes these men and women such upstanding people?

I’m glad you asked… and even if you didn’t, I’m explaining it anyway.

1.  The Personality

Most of the time, what makes lead characters great is their natural personality – what kind of a person do they promote themselves as, and how well does it represent who they truly are?

For some, this means making them cocky and self-confident, as with the demon-slayer Dante or the famed Nathan Drake.  Both men have a natural charisma that gives their characters instant wit and pride in battle, making their every taunt and comment entertaining to listen to (even though it’s becoming apparent that “lovable ruffian” is now interchangeable with “wise-cracking jackass”).

Other characters require a more nuanced approach.  Cole McGrath, for instance, has moments of wit and charisma, but his appeal comes from his nobility and sense of determination.  Cole’s unwillingness to give up the quest to stop the Beast, even after countless failures, and his (player-controlled) decision to sacrifice his life for humanity, makes the whole of his story entirely endearing enough to make us want to root for him and declare a quiet “F*ck yeah” during the credits.

Then, there’s cases like Gordon Freeman or Chell, whose complete lack of distinct personality allows the audience to shape the characters as they see fit.  Less is more, as they say.

2. The Emotional Motivation

Another thing to remember about protagonists is that they don’t exist in a bubble; they have things and people to care about, and how they show that care marks the strength of their characters.

Kratos, for instance, is not a role-model for good parenting or marriage – given that he “accidentally” killed his wife and daughter while serving the will of Ares.  However, his quest throughout the series stems from his deep-seated regret of this act and his inability to move on, which in turn inspires the player to sympathize with the poor overly-homicidal man.

There’s also the case of Nathan Drake, who evolves into a deeply troubled but well-meaning man as the Uncharted series progresses.  Drake, through a series of events too vast to go into, becomes estranged with his wife and leads his friends into constant harm, all for the sake of finding closure and resolving a life-long mystery.  Obviously, if it were anyone else we might abandon ship, but Drake’s moments of doubt and realization of his flaws by Uncharted 3‘s end inspires us to keep giving a damn.

And come on, admit it – seeing Wander in Shadow of the Colossus go through hell for Mono had to have stirred up something in you.

3.  The Strong Ideals

Having a good personality hook and a emotional bond can make all the difference in the world, but sometimes what it really takes is some good life lessons.  I’ve seen some of the greatest protagonists in gaming history live by codes of honour more believable and sensible than some real people.

Sometimes it’s just knowing what’s important in life.  Take Nico Bellic of GTA IV fame: he came to America on his cousin’s request, seeking an escape from his old life, yet he finds America to be even more shallow and corrupt than he anticipated.  While his loyalty and dedication to his family is admirable, it’s ultimately Nico’s growing understanding that no society is perfect which makes him a character I feel has been sorely underrated.

With some people, though, their code is more complex and troubled.  None can claim this more than Solid Snake.

Big Boss, Snake’s biological father, might have been the more obvious choice due to his long and controversial military career, but Snake’s ideals are by far stronger.  Rather than giving into his father’s belief that governments should be overthrown by the people, Snake conforms to the idea that people should be free to live as they wish, and should find a way to accept the consequences of their actions.

Throughout the series, he demonstrates this freedom by avoiding fighting for an official government, by respecting his enemies’ beliefs in death and by continuing to serve the beliefs and people he feels are just.

4.  The Physical Competence

Look, all the strong writing, acting and emotional development in the world can’t completely make up for a character’s physical inadequacies.  Protagonists must be able to meet the odds in a video game, facing their opponents head-on if necessary (which it usually is).

In terms of muscle mass, look no further than Marcus Fenix and Chris Redfield.  Both of these soldiers are ripped Hulk-style, charging at their foes with determination and ruthlessness.  Add the former’s wielding of a chainsaw blade and the latter’s boulder-shoving melee training, and you can understand why players grudgingly respect these men’s brute strength.

However, that’s not the only way to meet the odds.  Weapons training and top-notch gear can also be a life-saver, as is the case with Master Chief John 117.  Being capable of wielding bubble shields, energy swords and other advanced technology gives the impression that you’re controlling a very intelligent, strategically-inclined person who understands the nature of war.

In the end, all characters have strengths and everyone is entitled to like their own heroes without argument.  But for some of us, understanding why we care about them – be it their outlandishness, their personal drive, their lifestyle, or how badass they are – helps us to understand what gaming means to us and how it influences our views on society.

Plus, as stupid as it is, it’s still pretty awesome to talk about a character who can punch a boulder into lava.







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