Creating A Likable Video Game Hero

Creating A Likable Video Game Hero


One thing I’ve always been interested in
when it comes to video games is what goes into making a likable character. And by that, I don’t mean what makes them
compelling or complex, although those things can play a factor; I simply mean what makes
players like them? In the past, I’ve talked about some of the
ways video games get players to like companions and villains, and now I want to look at the
3rd piece of the puzzle and talk about what goes into making a likable hero. With companions and villains, the focus is
on the player forming a relationship with someone else. With heroes, there isn’t that same kind
of separation. It isn’t a character the player is interacting
with—it is one they are interacting as. And being put in control of a character inherently
changes the way a player will look at them. Due to video games being an interactive medium,
players will always have some sort of influence over how the playable character thinks. This might be in the way they approach the
story or combat or puzzles or any other element of the game, big or small. No matter what the player is a part of the
protagonist. However, this connection can be tricky to
maintain. The general concern a lot of developers seem
to have is that if players become detached from the hero for any reason, then they’ll
be less invested in the game as a whole. When considering that potentially millions
of people may play any given title, it makes sense that they would want to play it safe. So, in response to this, a lot of developers
opt to create heroes with either no real personality or a relatively muted one—the idea being
that players can project themselves onto the character. Some games do this through a silent protagonist,
others allow players to create their own character, and a lot end up having heroes with defining
traits that are generally inoffensive. That isn’t to say that there aren’t video
game protagonists with likable personalities, it’s just that more often than not they end
up being a little more on the reserved side. It is okay for an NPC to be over-the-top,
because the player will have limited interactions with them, but if the protagonist goes too
far in any one direction, it can become grating because the player is constantly with them. So, we end up getting a lot of safe protagonists. They’re funny but in a quiet and sarcastic
sort of way, they’re heroic but not so heroic that they come off as self-righteous, they’re
attractive but forgettably so…they’re Nathan Drake but usually with even less flair. These kinds of heroes have a decent enough
personality to set the base for a likable character, but there isn’t really enough
there to push them to the next level. Fortunately, a character’s personality is
not the only thing that makes them likable, and given the interactivity of games, developers
have some unique tools to build that connect—the most effective of which arguably being how
it feels to control the character. Given that this is how players engage most
with the protagonist, it plays an important role in shaping how they view them. If the player is constantly wrestling with
controls or getting frustrated at the character’s movement speed or having inputs not work consistently,
they’ll become justifiably annoyed, and part of that frustration will most likely
be directed at the playable character. However, if a their movements are fluid and
precise, this will build a positive connection A character who players are excited to play
as is one who they’ll end up liking more. Consider, Spider-Man from Spider-Man. Web-slinging around New York City is exciting
and fast-paced. Moving from combat to traversal feels seamless,
and I found myself so impressed with how good it feels to be Spider-Man, that even after
beating, I boot up once every few weeks just to swing around. I enjoyed how it felt to be Spider-Man, and
I liked him more as a character because of it. On the other hand, a character like Sonic
has a long history of feeling terrible to control. So I hate him. In a similar vein, a character’s animation
also affects how players feel about them. A lot can be understood about a character
from the way they move around an environment and interact with their surroundings, and
when done right, it can make them far more endearing. Whether it be the way Nathan Drake absently
puts his hands on walls when walking close to them or how Luigi creeps down corridors
with a shiver in his step in Luigi’s Mansion or the various expressions shown on Link’s
face in Wind Waker, these little touches add a surprising amount of depth to these characters. It is a way to inject personality into them
while not pulling the player out of the experience. Where hearing the same voice lines over and
over again can become grating, small visual touches never really do, especially if they
don’t interrupt the action. Honestly, just being able to see a character
has a major influence on how likable they are. The limited perspective of first person titles
doesn’t offer as many opportunities to show off the protagonist’s personality. Players may get some dialogue from the hero
either filled with thoughts of what is going on or quippy one-liners, but a lot about a
character is lost when the only input from them is their voice. Personally, I find when first-person games
have cutscenes that show the protagonist, I end up liking them a fair bit more. Even though it is still limited, it helps
give a sense of what they are like based on how they look and physically interact with
the world around them. One of the more effective examples of this
is BJ Blazkowicz from the Wolfenstein series. Based on his character design alone, he comes
off as a monster of a man who could crush you with his bicep, but through cutscenes
and his inner-monologues, it is clear that he is a tender and thoughtful individual. There is something endearing about the combination
of these seemingly contradictory traits, and that would be lost if players never had the
chance to see him in third person. While all of these touches can highlight likable
traits about a protagonist, there are some approaches that aim to build a deeper link
between the player and hero, and they typically center around how the playable character is
framed within the story. Consider Firewatch. The opening section of the game presents the
player with a series of choices that chronicles the relationship between the protagonist,
Henry and his wife, Julia. Through this section players see him fall
in love, plan for a future, and then lose it all as Julia develops early-onset Alzheimers. Players feel connected to Henry not only because
they made choices for him, but also because they witnessed the best and worst moments
of his life, and regardless of who he is, experiencing that with him is endearing. Firewatch uses empathy to get players to relate
to and like Henry, and as it turns out this is one of the most effective ways to build
a connection. When done right, it doesn’t even really
matter whether or not the hero has a likable personality; it just matters that players
see them from a certain perspective. Take Joel from The Last of Us. While he has a bit of that good ole southern
charm and does act as a protector for other characters players care about, it is hard
for me to call him likable. He’s cold and distant, and he also brutally
kills a lot of people, many of whom don’t deserve it. However, I found myself endeared to him throughout
the majority of the playthrough. And that’s because within the first 20 minutes
of the game, I witnessed the worst moment of Joel’s life. I liked Joel because I thought I knew Joel;
I experienced his loss alongside him, and felt like close to him because of it. This led to me excusing a lot of his actions
in the name of his trauma, so much so that it wasn’t until near the end that I realized,
“oh yeah…this is very not good.” The game is set up in a way where players
will have a lot of patience for Joel. They’ve seen what he’s gone through, they’ve
seen how he has changed because of it, and throughout the game, they see that there is
hope of him becoming a better man. Which, yeah, doesn’t happen, but all of
this did get me to like him up until the point where it became clear that he couldn’t be
redeemed. Of course, the effectiveness of this approach
really depends on how well it is presented. The God of War series has been trying to get
players to empathize with Kratos since the first game, but given the depth of his depravity
along with him be pretty terrible even before anything happened to his family, the series’s
early attempts always kind of missed the mark. With that said, this did set a good foundation
for God Of War 2018, which starts off with him losing his wife; only this time, instead
of seeking a way to unleash his anger like, he sets out with his son to fulfill her final
request. For players new to the series, he’s endearing
because his grief is relatable, and for players who are already familiar with the character,
this shift in the way he responds to loss shows his capacity for change, helping to
reset the effects of his indiscretions in the past. While it can certainly run the risk of aggravating
a portion of the audience, redemption is another solid way to get players to like a protagonist. It makes it so that the hero can be a little
more rough around the edges, but also give people a reason to root for them. For example, Lee Everett from The Walking
Dead and John Marston from Red Dead Redemption are both characters who have done terrible
things in their past and the player is introduced to them at a time where they are forced to
confront those things. While both games allow players to decide how
these characters find redemption, by leaving room for them to become better people, it
gives players the chance to grow a connection with them and be endeared by their change. Most of what I have talked about so far are
ways that games aim to make protagonists likable to a wide audience, but I think it’s worth
mentioning that some of the most likable heroes are the ones who aren’t meant to appeal
to everyone. People connect to characters who they relate
to, and while there are plenty of ways to present a character so that they appeal to
more people, there is something to be said for a protagonist who only appeals to some. Characters like Max from Life is Strange whose
indecisiveness manifests as a game mechanic, or Mae from Night In The Woods whose lack
of drive continually gets in her way, can be irritating to people who don’t relate
to those pressures, but as someone who very distinctly does, both of them are extremely
endearing to me. Specificity has the potential to create the
strongest bond between a player and protagonist, and while I understand why a lot of games
opt to have heroes who are for everyone, those kinds of characters won’t have the same
kind of profound relatability because they’re too general. Ultimately, what matters most about a hero
isn’t if they’re likable or not; what matters is if they improve the experience
of the game. Some titles are written in a way that benefits
from having a nondescript hero while others would make no sense without a predefined protagonist. While I personally prefer when games create
playable characters with distinct traits that won’t be relatable to everyone, I imagine
I will mostly have to stick to indie games for that. With that said, I respect why a lot of developers
aim to make heroes that will appeal to the largest amount of people. At the end of the day, they are trying to
make money, so they want their games to be easy to get into for as many folks as possible. Given that the protagonist is how players
interact with a game, that sometimes means having a hero that appeals to the lowest common
denominator, I just wish that so many of them weren’t so boring.