The Tough Guy

By Shamus Posted Friday Apr 11, 2008

Filed under: Game Design 41 comments

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.
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.
Videogames are often compared to movies for various reasons, although in the end they are different mediums with different requirements and limitations. I love watching movies where the main character is a tough guy, and I am bored to the point of anguish when they are the main character in a videogame. In a movie, we might experience adventure vicariously through the main character, but in a videogame we embody him, and he’s just not a fun guy to be. If I’m going to be playing an empty shell of a character, I’d just as soon have him keep his yap shut, like Matthew Cain from Quake 4, or Gordon Freeman from Half-Life. I’ll fill in the blanks myself.

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 <strong>watching</strong> Cutter instead of <strong>being</strong> cutter. Still, he was rife with cliché.
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.
First-person games impose this tough guy on the player. They make me be him and then they make me say and do stupid things as him. I’m talking about Tommy from Prey. Hawaiian Shirt guy from Far Cry. JC Denton from Deus Ex. Number XIII from XIII. And above all, I am talking about Mr. Faceless nobody himself: That Damnable tool, Masterchief. I don’t care how cool these guys think they are. Telling me how super-awesome the guy is does not forge a bond between myself and him, because “is a badass” isn’t a personality.

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.
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.
Part of the problem is one of perspective. Switching from third person view to first person isn’t just a matter of deciding how the camera controls should work. When you stick the player into the head of a character you are giving them license to write that character themselves. If you’re going to yank creative control away from them during a cutscene, you had better do a better job of it than they were, because when you paint over their efforts with bravado and idiocy, you’re basically overwriting the most sophisticated character in the game.

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.


From The Archives:

41 thoughts on “Roundtable:
The Tough Guy

  1. Blurr says:

    I generally dislike ALL storyline FPS games. If I want a storyline, I’ll play an RPG. If I want to simply kill stuff, I’ll play an FPS. On a related note: Assassin’s Creed was released for the PC lately. Are you going to try it out?

    Also: There seems to be an error at the bottom of your post:

  2. Stu says:

    Hmmm, very interesting, and perfectly spot on.

    On the subject of character being forced upon you: I remember around the time Oblivion came out, my computer didn’t have a chance in Hades so I stuck with Morrowind. I remember a friend said to me “Oblivion Rocks!”
    “yeah?” I replied. “Totally, I’m head of the Assassin’s guild – and your character speaks now.”

    “..Wait, what?”

    I overlooked the fact that they were head of an elite guild after a couple of hours play (a guild which was well hidden away in Morrowind and would not accept low level slashers as members) and immediately became obssessed with point two. I don’t want to hear my character speaking in not-my-voice. When I play any sort of rpg (or indeed fps) I imagine myself in that place doing what I would do- the choices I would make.

  3. ArchU says:

    You raise some good points, Shamus. F.E.A.R. held my attention for so long perhaps because of the very reasons you illustrate (and have done so previously): that the protagonist is the silent shell and the player fills in the personality. Conversely, apart from the gameplay I undoubtedly like Thief almost exclusively for the character of Garrett, which addressed a particular level of background, cool-headedness and wry humour (which I well relate to) in the game.

    However I can conceivably argue that some people just want to play the “tough guy” to have some semblance of plot without getting too bogged down in detailed character development – which can slow up gameplay in trivial side-plots – just like an action movie.

    I was going to add some examples and logic at this point but it’s almost 1 in the morning so my brain is fried and none of what I’d intended on writing would make sense, so I’ll leave it at that. Good night fellow 20-siders~

  4. Blurr says:

    The trouble with Oblivion is that you can quite literally beat the game at level 1. I don’t like leveling for hours to be powerful enough to take on a quest, but I do think that there should have been a lot less autobalancing.

  5. IncredibleGeek says:

    I really loved the original Serious Sam. It had a good feel of over the top, Duke style fun.

    I really enjoy games with silent protagonists so much more than forced characters. I’m one of those people who “nods” and “shakes” my head while playing.

  6. Frank says:

    I don’t really see how perspective (first or third person) influences your experience with the character. It just seems to me that a cardboard cut out is a cardboard cut out regardless of the perspective you’re playing in.

    However, I can see that being in the first person perspective does give a certain sense of immersion, and that the half-life approaches were a very good choice in terms of not defining the character for you.

    But In my opinion, defining the character for the player isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I really enjoyed Halo 2, not to say that it’s the end all beat all of shooters, but it’s story was enjoyable and had enough twists to keep me interested. Plus the arbiter was one cool character, until they nerfed him in halo 3 anyway…*grumble*

    In addition, the Max Payne series also has a kind of stereotypical bad ass character. Yet the focus on noir style storytelling and dialogue, plus the extensive use of comic book style cut scenes, all combine to give Max a practically unprecedented level of character development. Plus they have great game play.

    I understand the rant against repetitive and shallow characters, but it seems to me that we’ll always have those in video games. For the same reason we still get god awful movies (anyone here find the wait for prom night unbearable? I think not). But that doesn’t mean that they’re aren’t a ton of exceptions to the rule that are worth the time to check out.

  7. Smileyfax says:

    Personally, I think J.C. Denton doesn’t match up very well to the cliche of the tough guy — he has many friends and often discusses governmental philosophy with bartenders. (Then again, he often has hilarious or inadvertently hilarious one-liners, and can take on entire bases filled with hostiles without breaking a sweat).

    And actually, the minimum level to beat Oblivion is 2. :p

    I also don’t recall your character in Oblivion ever actually ‘speaking’, apart from the occasional grunt of pain. Occasionally in dialogue you could say a full sentence instead of the usual array of keywords, but that’s about it.

  8. Dan says:

    I’d love to have a FPS with my character as a guy who derives pure, innocent pleasure and fulfillment when blowing the heads off badguys. Cute one-liners “Hey, are those Jimmy Choo shoes…that I just incinerated?” and humming bars of “Ode to Joy” would be great. The higher the body count, the more relaxed and content the hero’s face becomes. He’s the good guy, right? Let the stakes be that his potential failure won’t rob him of life, sanity or sobriety, but true fulfillment: the joy of being an agent of justice on the side of a holy, and angry, God.

    The only shooter I can think of that parodied the tough guy in this way to some degree were the Evil Dead shooters.

    Kiss my boomstick, indeed.

  9. GamerCow says:

    Blurr, I think that Bioshock does a good job at being a FPS with a good story. Before playing that game, I would have agreed with you.

  10. Gahaz says:

    Not to be the “Halo bad-guy”, but if you really followed the fiction the the company fostered Master Chief is a tough guy with a terrible reason for it. When he was a child the Navy kidnapped him from his colony and replaced him with a hastily bred clone to keep his parents quiet. At the age of about 10 he was placed with other child hopefuls into the Spartan Project were they were trained as normal marines. They were subjected to cruel treatment and a lot of the kids died in the first few years. As they reached puberty they were injected with newly developed genetic enhancers.

    A lot of other things happened between then and the tough guy you see on screen. So much so that when I played Halo I was wanting him to keep winning because he deserved it after all that had happened to him.

    Ah well, defending halo leaves a our taste in my mouth, but there really is a rich fiction in there that the X-bot Live kids will never see.

  11. Falco Rusticula says:

    You know, it’d be really nice to see a video game where the main character is a guy who has a family, and protecting/hiding his family is an important part of the game. The NCP misuse would probably be rife, but I guess there are ways of getting around that, and if you want someone with a bit of character it would probably be a great way to build them up.

  12. Phlux says:

    Stu: Your character still doesn’t speak in Oblivion. I think maybe your friend meant that the game has voice acting now, as opposed to being all text.

    You “speak” in pretty much the same way as any other RPG…through dialogue trees.

    There are good examples of player characters that have dialogue though, but I can’t think of one that fits into the “tough guy” or “badass” theme, except for maybe Commander Shepherd in Mass Effect. He/She is definitely a badass, but that isn’t the sole, defining characteristic.

    I will also throw “brooding antihero” into the list of videogame characters that suck.

  13. Lain says:

    I finished “A Bard’s Tale” a few days from now.

    THAT is a cool character. The whole game had a sympathic dark and funny cynism about all the fantasy-clichees. The Bard loves to drink, to kick some goblinsbutts and to f(bad word)ck. For that he does everything, even all the dull, retarded quests (, which mostly have a sarcastic ending), for saving – obvious: – the imprisoned princess.

    For example: You died before and need to load the savegame. Then you need anew to hear a dialog. With ESC you can disrupt that for hearing him saying: “HEARD THAT BEFORE!”, “Come to the amusing part”, “shut up!” or something like that.

    I/my character died laughing more than one time.

  14. Dreamshadow says:


    I’d like to point out an excellent example of autobalancing and some details between the two. I didn’t hear a single omplaint about Mass Effect and how the enemies got tougher as you leveled up. Why? Because the structure of the gameplay between the games were so different, even while they gave you a lot of freedom to play things in the order you want to.

    Oblivion has a levelling system tied to *all* of your stats and a world that lets you play as a ranged combat, magic user, or fighter character. You can level up by simply working on your underwater-basket-weaving, which causes the world to get tougher…even though your combat skills are no better.

    Mass Effect had no abilities (aside from the three conversation stats) that didn’t’ relate somehow to combat. No matter what you did where, when you levelled, all your abilities to fight got better. You kept pace with the world, though poor choices might make some fights harder than others.

    Oblivion’s only real failure was to not divide the system into different levels or compartments. Diplomacy, Underwater Basket Weaving, etc, should have only made non-combat encounters harder. *shrug* Of course..other people learn more about their jobs over time, so just because you worked on your basket weaving for three months didn’t mean that city guard took a sabbatical for three months.

  15. Martin says:

    Thief was the best series of all, but I still miss Duke Nukem’s one-liners.

    Interact with a McDonald’s register and get “No way I’m eatin this shit!”

  16. One of the semi “tough-guy” heroes I actually enjoyed was the (nameless) main character from the Gothic series. You get to decide what he says through the typical RPG dialog tree, but everything he says is also voice-acted.

    He has a little bit of a personality (he’s ever so slightly incredulous when people ask him to do ridiculous things, for instance), and I found myself liking him even though I generally don’t enjoy having to play a male character.

  17. capital L says:

    I didn’t mind the occasional outburst from Caleb, the protagonist of the Blood series. Of course, that game was clearly operating in the over-the-top Duke Nukem style of violence and humor.

    Also, it interesting that Bungie has created 2 series that I have spent a lot of time playing, one of which with a story that I still reflect on and the other with a story I couldn’t be bothered to care about.

  18. Kennet says:

    This actually reminds me of Chrono Trigger. I think it was the first game I came upon where the main character never speaks. I remember finding it a little bit strange at the time but I got uesd to it fairly quick and then it worked really well. Granted it is an RPG and the main character really isn’t a tough-guy, but it is a good example of where less is more.

    Chrono Trigger turned into one of my favorite games of all time and I think some of that comes from the fact that having no dialogue it was a ot easier to identify with Chrono. He was another person but he was also you

  19. Hal says:

    Y’know, in all fairness, the point of most FPS games is to carry big guns and shoot anything that moves. This rather requires you to play a Tough Guy.â„¢

    What, you think an overly emotional Captain Sensitive is going to blast away entire armies? Do you really want a protagnoist who is going to get all angsty and conflicted after every head shot?

    [/Devil’s Advocate]

  20. Shamus – what about all of us WOMEN who have to endure playing ‘tough guy’ characters. We have even less with which to identify.

    I’ve been playing computer games since the first Doom. I’m beyond tired of playing male ‘tough guy’ characters.

    And yes, I realize that we have Laura Croft. But she’s one female protagonist in a sea of male stereotypes.

  21. Freggle says:

    —wrong post—
    wanted to comment on another article
    please delete

  22. Ian says:

    I don’t really have anything to add to the discussion except for this:

    Kudos on the Outcast mention, Shamus. :)

  23. fefe says:

    Perhaps try No One Lives Forever Leslee. James Bond style parody with a female protagonist, might be interesting what Shamus thinks about her.

  24. Joshua says:

    “You know, it'd be really nice to see a video game where the main character is a guy who has a family, and protecting/hiding his family is an important part of the game. The NCP misuse would probably be rife, but I guess there are ways of getting around that, and if you want someone with a bit of character it would probably be a great way to build them up.”

    Actually, I was thinking that it would be cool to have a kind of Ellen Ripley character- one who’s athletic but not in an over the top manner, willing to work with others, and who’s main strengths are willpower and resolution in the face of adversity. That, and empathy towards others that drives the choices she(or perhaps even a he) makes. A female character in this vein would even be a hell of a lot more original than the Lara Crofts out there.

    Also, even the “Tough guy as parody” is getting cliche even now. Too many games have done this.

    Although not an FPS, the first character I thought of with Shamus’s description was Silent Snake from Metal Gear.

  25. ArchU says:

    #20, Leslee Beldotti: Play more games, there are plenty of female protagonists in shooters and beat-em-ups. A few quick examples without delving into proper research are Joanna Dark from Perfect Dark and Konoko from Oni. Joanna is more spy than tough grrl, Konoko is the opposite.

  26. Tormod says:

    The one good thing to come out of FPS’s merging with RPG’s… more roleplaying, less tough guys ;)

  27. ChrisAsmadi says:

    To be honest, one of my favourite games series for character development is the Legacy of Kain ones – both Kain & Raziel undergo serious character development throughout, from what I recall.

  28. Felblood says:

    I just played through Rainbow Six Las Vegas in co-op, on my cousin’s PS3 yesterday.

    The main chartacter “Bishop” is not a fun guy to be. Every time that moron opens his mouth, you find yourself saying, “No you idiot! Don’t do that!”

    Bishop inevitably screws up everything he touches, and makes the wrong call every time. He plays by the book even after he realises that his enemy has read the book and is using his predictability against him.

    While we are making his decisions, bishop makes the right calls, leads his team efficiently and effectively, and saves the day, but once he switches on the safety and starts talking (I can put my cross-hairs on the terrorist leader’s face, but Bishop refuses to shoot when I pull the trigger)he becomes a drooling idiot.

    I hate that guy.

  29. Joush says:

    I’d have to say that JC Denton doesn’t really fit into the “tough guy” model, as the RPG style choices you make allow him to be by turns philosophical and reserved or arrogant and bloodthirsty. He can talk down UNATCO troopers that are too gun ho, talk about the underpinnings of the government you serve and even talk to the terrorist you apprehend about why they do what they do.

    Sure, if you want to play the tough guy you can, but it’s only an option.

  30. Shapeshifter says:

    It’s kind of funny that Master Chief falls into this stereotype because, in Marathon (the spiritual ancestor of Halo), the Marathon marine never said anything. Well, never directly. In Infinity things get a little confusing, because you (Marathon marine) go schizophrenic demi-god time traveling invincible destroyer of worlds/defeater of the physical principle of entropy and start talking to yourself across timelines… but… uh… that doesn’t count.

    I think the Marathon marine wasn’t actually necessarily a guy, either.

  31. Alex says:

    Oh lord, do I hate the “badass with the short black hair and tight t-shirt” character template in games. And don’t even get me started on The Chief.

    I can count at least 5 different txt files in my folders detailing incredibly long-winded explanations on why The Master Chief is quite possibly the laziest attempt at a character I’ve ever seen or played as in a video game. Maybe even movies and literature for that matter. For all of the hullabaloo the ads made for him being some bigshot hero, and all of the character depth he supposedly has in the books, it would’ve been nice if any of that came through in the games. Talk about false advertising.

    Then in 1 and a half paragraphs you end up saying just about all that needs to be said about ‘im, better than I could. Maybe my problem was assuming there was more than 1 and a half paragraphs worth talking about in regards to that big green walking penis?

    I think what bugs me is that Bungie has stated several times that the Master Chief “is the player”, along the lines of the guy from GTA III. But then they give him a voice, and lines. Not enough to make him more interesting than a wall or anything, but just enough so that he no longer IS our character, meaning they just wanted to hook the Half-Life audience. But they don’t even give him the faintest suggestion that he might be more than just an explosion-delivery service, so he’s barely even THEIR character. That “Slate Mega Man” writeup at the top showcased more depth and originality than Halo 3’s entire campaign, of which The Chief was the least consequential presence. And I love how he gets his face on Mountain Dew cans and stuff, even though I’M the one who’s doing the actual playing and shooting and saving of Le Worlde. How come he’s getting rewarded when I’m doing all of the hard work?

    I dunno. You’d think with all of that money, they could’ve hired a writer or something. Even Ted Woolsey would’ve done SOMETHING with him, geez…

    I like the Arbiter though. Surprisingly they didn’t totally f%^% him up in the character department. Just once I’d like to see a game like this that takes place entirely from the alien’s perspective. No, Destroy All Humans doesn’t count.

    Huh. Make that SIX long-winded rants about The Chief.

  32. DarkLadyWolf says:

    @Leslee Beldotti:

    I’d also add the BloodRayne games to the list of those where you can play a female lead role. They’re not the best of games (and alternate between beat-em-up and Prince Of Persia style platformer) but the fun lead character, with her smart mouth just works for me. I guess part of me wishes I were her. Which is perhaps part of drawing someone into a world.

  33. Mayhem says:

    Number one female lead action star – Samus Aran of Metroid fame.

    Ok, maybe not an FPS but still…

  34. IronCastKnight says:

    I’m pulling up third in the JC Denton Defense Force, as a fresh faced newbie who is utterly inept in all but one or two forms of firearms at the start of the game doesn’t quite classify as the Grizzled One Man Army stereotype. Admittedly, he does occasionally spew something unnecessarily macho, and tends to slaughter hordes of enemies single handedly, but Deus Ex, being an FPS/RPG, is still half FPS.

    Other than my qualms concerning the Dentonator, I agree wholly; The tough guy is totally overused and utterly without redeeming quality as a character in anything beyond, say, Max Payne. We love you, o’ wonderful noir filled angsty constantly constipated Max Payne, for without you, funnily enough, it would be the worst thing I could think of.

  35. Chris Arndt says:

    Well, the Master Chief is bad ass for several reasons.

    One of which is that the Halo fiction besides the game depict him as such.

    The other facts include that the game is easy enough that I can kill lots of bad guys before I get fragged.

    His dialogue is short.

    And “Master Chief” is his rank, not his name, implying that he’s a bad enough dude to get promoted to this position, not merely programmed.

    That and the NPCs treat the main character (who rarely speaks) as a savior. Being a “Bad ass” isn’t a personality as the Chief’s only personality traits in the game are stoicism, loyalty and bravery. He is a bad ass because the character is still alive.

    Now, the fiction does claim that the Chief is not the most skilled or the most anything of anything for all the SPARTAN supersoldiers. They claim he is the best leader. Having played the first two games and noticing how many NPCs/Marines die under his command, I say “some leader”.

  36. the_JJ says:

    I personally like the story and charactor of the first halo (the next two… not so much.) Partly this is because the game DOES make a nod to the whole “500th time around” (the Library) The Master Chief is choosen by Cortana because he’s “lucky.” I kid you not. Of course they use this in the third to explain how he crash lands after reentry RIGHT NEXT TO Sgt. Johnson, the real Tough Guy of the trilogy. Now whenever I play the origional Halo I shoot Johnson every time I see him.

  37. Nicest Girl says:

    I like how Thief was thrown in there. I suppose one of the many reasons why I enjoy that game so much (I never beat it cuz I got freaked out by the zombies in the boat) is because I get to be whatever I want to be in it. I was able to get really immersed into the character because he doesn’t really talk unless there are key story movies being played. That… probably has a lot to do with why I was so freaked out by the zombies, too. ^_~

  38. Jordan says:

    I found a series of videos that someone made while playing Half-life, and for those of you who have no idea what it is, it’s an awesome first person shooter that revolves around Gordan Freeman. Anyway, the video includes the players voice, speaking their thoughts of what their version of Gordan is thinking. The videos are called “Freeman’s Mind” and you can find them on Youtube and Machinima, as far as I know.

Thanks for joining the discussion. Be nice, don't post angry, and enjoy yourself. This is supposed to be fun. Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked*

You can enclose spoilers in <strike> tags like so:
<strike>Darth Vader is Luke's father!</strike>

You can make things italics like this:
Can you imagine having Darth Vader as your <i>father</i>?

You can make things bold like this:
I'm <b>very</b> glad Darth Vader isn't my father.

You can make links like this:
I'm reading about <a href="">Darth Vader</a> on Wikipedia!

You can quote someone like this:
Darth Vader said <blockquote>Luke, I am your father.</blockquote>

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *