on Apr 11, 2008
This is part of the April ’08 roundtable discussion over at Man Bytes Blog. This month we’re talking about established themes in videogames. The ones we love or hate. As is my custom, I have chosen the latter.
Meet Slate Rockman, Ex-Navy SEAL. He’s haunted by demons in his past based on what happened to him in [insert name of timeperiod war here] but not in in such a way that it interferes with his ability to engage in additional violence right now. He’s amazingly good-looking but single because [he doesn’t have time for a woman in his life / his girlfriend was killed] and he shows only enough interest in females in order to make it clear that he’s a loner, but not like, gay or anything. He’s built like Hercules on ‘roids, even though he spends all of his time sitting around [in his cabin / on his boat] drowning his regrets in beer and brooding in a manly way. Despite his time in the military, he doesn’t seem to have any buddies and he’s inept at working with others. His prowess with a firearm is only surpassed by his flippant attitude towards danger. He’s a tough guy.
This is the standard-issue tough guy, although they come in many assorted flavors. What they have in common is that their characters are about as deep as the anti-glare finish on your monitor. I’ve met this guy, a dozen times. He didn’t impress me the first time around, and he’s done nothing but grate since then. If game developers could arrange it so that I never have to embody this dull, soulless shell of a character ever again, they would earn my profound and enduring gratitude.
|Garret, from Thief. Not a tough guy. He is outmatched by town guards, and must rely on stealth to survive. His skills are an emergent aspect of his character, not the whole.|
And people do exactly this. If you check out some Half-Life movies on YouTube, you’ll see it’s very common for people to shake their heads or nod during cutscenes, even though this action is ignored by NPCs and has no effect on gameplay. They’re imbuing Gordon Freeman with the personality they desire. They have some concept of what this guy is thinking and feeling as events progress around them. They know who Gordon Freeman is because they wrote him. But their Gordon Freeman would be obliterated if he ever spoke. “Don’t worry Alyx baby, I won’t let those Combine bastards hurt you ever again.” It would shatter the Gordan Freeman they are trying to play, and replace him with some unimaginative tough-guy douchebag.
|Cutter Slade was a fairly classic example of the caricature tough guy. He has two saving graces, though. One is that he has an endearing sense of humor. The other is that the game is third person, so that the player is watching Cutter instead of being cutter. Still, he was rife with cliché.|
It gets even worse when the opening cutscene ends and the game gets rolling. The only personality I have for this guy is his alleged toughness, and that part is my responsibility. More to the point, he’s clearly not really that tough. He dies every fifteen minutes. The only reason he’s winning is because I’m saving the game. He only thinks he’s tough. His only superpower is the quicksave button and the fact that this is my third attempt at getting through this room and I’ve memorized where the bad guys are by now.
|Serious Sam is a highly concentrated dose of the tough guy formula, although he’s played for laughs and you’re never expected to take him or his world seriously. He’s absurd , ridiculous, and over the top.|
I think that making the main character of a first-person game the classic cardboard tough guy is a waste of time. Kids that are just there for the shooting don’t care about your story or dialog, they want you to get them to the next roomful of bad guys for them to knock down. Players who do care about character will resent the sudden intrusion, because they can’t possibly be doing a worse job of writing the main character than you are. Because there is nothing less interesting than the Tough Guy.
Later: I make peace with JC Denton in my follow-up post.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.