Video Game Protagonists

I touched upon this issue in my review of Dead Space 2 but I think this topic is worth expanding into an entire post. I’m talking about the astonishing lack of variety when it comes to video game protagonists. It saddens me that in the year 2012, when you are playing a game, your virtual avatar is almost invariably a 30 something, straight, white male with brown hair, a deep gravely voice, chiseled athletic body with a military background and a standard issue 5 o’clock shadow. Oh, wait sorry – sometimes you might get lucky and play a straight, white female with a supermodel figure and enormous breasts who wears a chain-mail bikini or a miniskirt. But most probably there is a dude option in there somewhere.

What does it say about our hobby? What does it say about the target demographic the video game makers try to cater to when they design these character models? Please don’t tell me this is a legacy thing, stemming from the fact that gaming used to be dominated by 12 year old, white, nerdy boys or something. This brown haired macho-dude-bro archetype is actually a recent development. If you look at the older video games, you will see all kinds of different characters: Mario was a short, hairy and overweight Italian plumber, Link is an effeminate elf boy, Gybrush Threpwood is a skinny blond haired dofus who is not very good at fighting, Earthworm Jim is an… Earthworm. Granted, most of them were still male, and white but at least there used to be some variety. The way a character looked was dictated by his personality and his role in the game. As the medium developed towards hyper-realism the brown haired, muscular white dude sort of became a de facto standard.

Let me use Isaac from Dead Space games as an example here. I believe that in the first game he was sort of a Master Chief type character who never removed his helmet. Visceral Games decided to flesh him out a bit in Dead Space 2 and give him a face and an identity. And of course they chose to make him a 30 something white male with brown hair. Why? Because it is the standard. Couldn’t he be a brown skinned guy in his late 40′s for example? I mean, he is an engineer and his combat style puts tactics and smart weapon use over brute force. He has a full body suit that helps him lift things or move around in zero-G. I get why a special-forces commando guy may need to be certain age and body type, but an engineer?

For one, I would love to see a modern game featuring a protagonist with a non-standard body type and play it straight. For example, why can’t you find a game with a main character that looks like this:

Saints Row the Third

My Character in Saints Row the Third (he is the one in the middle).

I made my Saints Row the Third to be a fat, balding dude with a neck-beard who likes to wear shorts, sandals and obnoxious shades all the time. Why? Because I could. And you know what? He is pretty bad-ass. It’s a pity that you only get to play someone like that in a game with a flexible character designer that will also let you play as a circus clown, or a dude that looks like silver surfer.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Saints Row is great because of the options it gives you. It just saddens me that it is currently the only game on the market who lets you play as a fat black chick:

How many video games are out there in which the default, canonical protagonist looks like Carl from Aqua Teen Hunger Force? Ok, maybe this is a bad example. Maybe I’m the only person out there who would like to play as a fat slob from time to time. Let’s pick an easier target.

How many recent, mainstream video games can you name in which the main, default, canonical protagonist is not white but at the same time not a walking stereotype? By that I mean a black character who is not a gangbanger, an Asian character who doesn’t do Kung-Fu and etc… Can you name at least one game? Because I’m grasping at straws here.

The chick from Mirror’s Edge was Asian, and she did parkour and not traditional Asian martial arts… So not terribly stereotypical with respect to ethnicity. The game doesn’t even mention her race at all, or make a big deal out of it – which is a good thing in my opinion. Another nice thing about her is that she isn’t a sex object. She does not wear revealing clothes, she does not have a sexy taunt move, or some sort of overblown romance. The story does not hinge on the fact she is a female. She just happens to be an Asian girl, but that’s not all her character is about. To me this is great – this is how it should be. It is just a pity she was such a bland and uninteresting character, and that the game was so lousy.

Mirror's Edge

The game does not sexualize her all that much. Advertising though, yes quite a bit. So does this count?

Can you think of any other games that take this approach? That pick a non-standard type of protagonist without making a big deal out of it? Without making it the core concept of the game? I’m drawing a blank. I think this is about it. One game, and a bland and uninspiring one at that. Sexy Asian chick is the best we can do?

Ok, yes there are at least two big mainstream titles out there with prominent black protagonists: GTA: San Andreas and that 50 Cent game. Sadly both depict their characters as violent, gun-toting gangbangers exploiting some of the worst stereotypes we have. I mean, it is 2012 so one would think that there would be at least few games out there with a black hero who is not involved in some sort of criminal and/or gang activity or who does not glamorize such activities. But I can’t think of any. And no, Skyrim doesn’t count because while you may play as a Redguard, it is not a default choice but merely an option.

Skyrim Khajit

Yes, this character is technically black. Also technically a kitten. Also, does not count.

Same goes for openly gay characters. There is a handful of games that let you be gay as an option. Skyrim and Fable games for example let you marry non essential NPC’s of the same sex if you wish to do so. Dragon Age and Mass Effect games offer optional same sex romance options. I think it is great that these options exist. It is sad that they are so far and few in between though. But have we had a protagonist that just happens to be gay by default? Nope, I don’t think so.

The gaming community is large and rather diverse. There are gamers out there from all ethnic groups and all walks of life. The love of gaming transcends things like the color of your skin, your nationality, your body type or your sexual orientation. And yet, our choices for virtual avatars are painfully limited. This doesn’t happen in different media. Hollywood for example doesn’t seem to have issues releasing mainstream movies with protagonists who are physically attractive, young, white and straight. If we want our medium to be treated seriously as a genuine form of creative expression, this lack of variety is something we should work on.

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13 Responses to Video Game Protagonists

  1. Liudvikas LITHUANIA Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    Mirrors edge wasn’t lousy, I actually liked it. Gameplay was rather fun.

    Also it’s unfair you disqualify all the games with option to be non-standard protagonist. Those are the games that usually attract people with liking for such protagonists. Unlike certain bland military shooters, where main audience is very different.
    The black kitten most definitely counts.

    When you make a game it’s a safe bet to make the protagonist to be someone your widest audience can sympathize with. It’s stupid and anyone reasonable wouldn’t stop playing game if the protagonist has a slightly different shade of skin, but yet here we are. It’s not even a game problem, other kinds of media also haw lower rate of non-standard protagonists. Gay characters get it doubly so, I can only imagine what kind of stupid rants we would hear if some triple A game had an openly gay protagonist, but I bet words “gay” and “agenda” wouldn’t be far apart.
    In the end it all comes down to making as much money as possible and publishers want their investments as safe as possible.

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Liudvikas:

    Well, I’m not discounting them. The games that give you a blank slate and let you create any character you want are great. My point is that they don’t really have a “protagonist” so to say. They are “make your own hero” type things and you essentially play as whatever you want. Which is amazing. I love these games for the ability to role-play the type of character I want.

    That said, only certain types of stories can be told these way – the open-ended sweeping RPG epics, sanbox games and etc. If you want to make a game with an involved story and interesting relationships you usually need to flesh out the protagonist at least a little bit.

    And yeah, I can imagine how the X-Box crowd would react to an openly gay character. Or that half of the bible belt would have an instant stroke upon finding out that there is gay stuff in a game or something. I still remember the media circus around the first Mass Effect game. Sigh… I live in a pretty liberal and open minded area so I sometimes forget that half of this country has somehow mixed up “family values” with “prejudice and bigotry”. Oh well. :P

    So yeah, I can kindoff see how say EA or Ubisoft wouldn’t want to kick over an anthill and do something “risky” like having a protagonist who doesn’t happen to be heterosexual. I mean, there shouldn’t be a problem with that, but I can see why they might want to avoid it. That said, I think in 2012 having a protagonist who happens not to be white, brown haired military dude is probably not “risky” anymore.

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  3. Liudvikas LITHUANIA Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Luke Maciak:
    Well take Dragon Age: Origins for example. There were different origins stories and world reacted differently to you. It’s more difficult to integrate custom made protagonist into the world, but it can be done to some extent.

    As for making protagonist a black blonde (what’s the opposite of military dude?) isn’t exactly risky, but it doesn’t serve any real purpose either. It’s just giving marketing department more work with no real benefit to the publisher.

    As for creating a protagonist for any game, there are limitations. If you are making a shooter, you can choose a military dude or regular dude. Military dude can easily fit in any story, but regular dude must be thrust into fighting by some circumstances. Those circumstances are rather limited Dead Space uses “bite your head off aliens” excuse, Half Life uses “bite your head off different kind of aliens” excuse, Red Faction uses “viva la revolution” excuse. Well that’s pretty much everything I can remember.
    So it pretty much comes down to either survival horror or guerrilla warfare. And guerrilla warfare is pretty limited, due to needing to market to american audience and there’s nothing “guerrilla” about military force with biggest military spending in the world. So the story can’t happen in regular real world of today, it pretty much needs to be sci-fi for protagonist to be anything but military dude.

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  4. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    Liudvikas wrote:

    As for making protagonist a black blonde (what’s the opposite of military dude?) isn’t exactly risky, but it doesn’t serve any real purpose either. It’s just giving marketing department more work with no real benefit to the publisher.

    Right. It is just sad that marketing anything other than “white guy protagonist” is considered “more work” and “no benefit”. I’m nod disagreeing with what you are saying – I’m just pointing out that this is an area were gaming industry is still quite behind Hollywood which in itself doesn’t have a stellar track record with these sorts of things.

    And again – Mirror’s Edge was a massive success even though it had an Asian female protagonist whom it didn’t Lara Croft in front of the camera. Or Portal whose mute, every-man, self insertion character Chell just happens to be Hispanic (I think). That’s the sort of thing I’m getting at. :)

    Liudvikas wrote:

    As for creating a protagonist for any game, there are limitations. If you are making a shooter, you can choose a military dude or regular dude. Military dude can easily fit in any story, but regular dude must be thrust into fighting by some circumstances.

    Right. If you are making a “modern warfare” type game, then military dude is probably the best bet. If you are making a survival horror, you should probably always go for regular dude because it is scarier that way.

    But you are absolutely right – I think the “ex-special forces” thing is just the easiest way to explain why a character in a video game can expertly handle 20 different guns and what not. I guess I wish we had more variety – I guess not just in the types of protagonists but also types of gameplay/combat available.

    For example, I wouldn’t mind playing an FPS where you are, say a mail man who finds himself in the middle of an alien invasion and has to battle aliens using the environment and makeshift weapons made out of household items he can scavenge from people’s kitchens and back yards.

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  5. Matt` UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    There’s Chell in Portal… and I’m out of ideas. Well, except for the older franchises that are still running (Samus and the like).

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  6. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Matt`:

    Granted, Samus started as a trope inversion – so that gamers could go “Oh, shit! No way! Samus is a chick!” upon finishing the game. Coincidentally that was what most people liked about her – that she was a classic, quintessential video game hero who just happened to have tits underneath the power armor. What defined her was not her sex, but what she did.

    Then some “genius” developers decided that since Samus is a girl then the “modern” version of Metroid has to be about periods, motherhood issues and has to have a romantic subplot. I guess they were trying to add depth to a character that didn’t really have any but from what I heard “The Other M” was a downgrade for her. She went from being a fearless though a bit underdeveloped badass hero into being a neurotic, insecure barbie-doll. :/

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  7. GermanPete GERMANY Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    The only title/franchise I can remember right now without a non-white-straight-brownhair protagonist would be Mount & Blade.
    You essentially start with a rather “medieval” character (the likes of Monthy Pythons peasants) and not a William Thatcher but alas, it’s basically a make-your-own-adventure game so it doesn’t really count.

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  8. Liudvikas LITHUANIA Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Luke Maciak:
    One more tidbit about Dead Space, it wouldn’t really matter if the protagonist wasn’t an engineer. Scariness comes from feeling of helplessness and you are helpless because you are not armed to the teeth and in Dead Space it is so because most conventional weapons are highly ineffective against necromorphs.

    And something else on topic about Mirrors Edge:
    http://kotaku.com/5062933/faith-from-mirrors-edge-fan+designed-for-asi an-tastes

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  9. Kaylene POLAND Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

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  10. cptacek UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    30 something, straight, white male with brown hair, a deep gravely voice, chiseled athletic body with a military background and a standard issue 5 o’clock shadow. Oh, wait sorry – sometimes you might get lucky and play a straight, white female with a supermodel figure and enormous breasts who wears a chain-mail bikini or a miniskirt.

    How do you know they are straight? Do they ever say they are, or are you just assuming?

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  11. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ cptacek:

    Well, most of the time there is either a female love interest or the character will be established to have had or have lost a wife/girlfriend at some point to make this point abundantly clear.

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  12. cptacek UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    @ Luke Maciak:
    Fair enough :) I am not a gamer, so I didn’t know that.

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  13. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ cptacek:

    Well, this is rampant in Hollywood too. I think red letter media dubbed this tendency as “establishing that the character has a raging case of the NOT-gays”. It usually means that most male characters who don’t have an established love interest have to do something to establish themselves as straight men – so maybe hit on a girl in the bar, crane their neck at a passing skirt, make some loud remarks about titties, etc.. You know, just so that the audience can be 100% sure they are not gay or anything. :P

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