The Flawed Champion

By Shamus Posted Friday May 9, 2008

Filed under: Game Design 39 comments

This is part of the May Roundtable at Man Bytes Blog. (It’s also a rich source of Jade Empire spoilers, even the comic.) This month we’re talking about interesting character flaws.

I like the flaws of the main character in Jade Empire. The character can be male or female, and is named by the player. Let’s assume he’s a male named Bob, because that’s clearly an optimal name for a kung-fu student in ancient quasi-China. Also because I actually named one of my characters Bob at one point.

Jade Empire, The Awesome Idiot Student.
Bob has two tragic flaws. One is more or less a contrivance of the plot: Master Li, his teacher, has taught him to fight slightly wrong, with a weakness in his style. It’s not something obvious, but it’s there for Master Li to exploit and sucker-punch Bob at a crucial moment.

But the other flaw that Bob has is that he’s a raving egomaniac. He doesn’t act like one or talk like one, but for him to go through his adventure making the assumptions that he does, he must think he’s the most important person in the world. This flaw – which causes him to misunderstand everything he sees around him and most of the things Master Li says – is insidious because he borrows it from the player. The player accepts Bob’s view of the world because Bob is the player character.

Bob sees that he is better than the other students, and assumes it’s because he’s simply the most skilled. Bob sees that he miraculously survives the slaughter of his village, and he assumes it’s because he’s been chosen by fate. People comment on the aberration in his fighting technique and he assumes they’re just unable to comprehend his superhuman kung-fu. He follows a trail of discovery to the imperial palace and thinks it’s destiny. All of these assumptions are wrong. All of them are the thoughts of a man who believes himself to be of extraordinary importance.

Bob is constantly working under the delusion that he’s somehow the center of the world. He believes this for his entire life, and it’s not until he’s dead that he realizes he was never the center of anything. Master Li was. Bob was simply his willing dupe, and his “destiny” was nothing more than a carefully laid trail of breadcrumbs placed by Li. Bob’s entire quest is a mere errand for Master Li, who is only too happy to kill Bob the moment the job is done. Bob gets another chance to make things right, but only because a minor deity intervenes. Bob is sent back to the living not for the virtue of anything he’s said or done, but simply because there isn’t anyone else left. He’s not the best. He’s just the only one available.

The beauty of the thing is the way the player can be an unwitting egomaniac right along with him. We assume that Bob is the chosen one and the center of the world because he’s our character, and metagame thinking tells us he must be the most important guy or we wouldn’t be playing him. The game takes this expectation and uses it like a blind spot in which to hide the central truths of the story until the big reveal at the start of the third act.

This is a wonderful device. I know that not everyone fell for it. Several people left comments on my original post on the Jade Empire plot twist that they saw Li’s betrayal coming. That’s a shame, as I really enjoyed being blindsided by this development.

Going through the game a second time can be kind of funny, once you’re in on the joke. The conversations all take on a different meaning as you realize your character isn’t the fulcrum on which the world is moved. The comic above isn’t that far from the truth – I just put into words what most players took for granted.

It’s tough to have character flaws in a real RPG game. (Japanese RPGs get away with it (I almost wrote this post about Tidus) and while I love jRPGs, they aren’t really “role playing games” as much as “role watching games”.) Usually the main character is supposedly an empty vessel for the player to fill, and the game designer can’t normally get away with sneaking in any flaws without it feeling contrived, alienating, or railroad-y. I love the way Jade Empire imparted a flaw on the main character by simply borrowing it from the player.

Side note: I wrote this post and did the comic last weekend, before I heard anything about the Mass Effect controversy or launched my series of angry posts aimed at EA / BioWare. It’s just a coincidence that the story of the next BioWare game popped up while I was writing a post revisiting the last one.


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39 thoughts on “Roundtable:
The Flawed Champion

  1. JFargo says:

    It’s cool how such a twist that you never see in any other games can become the main reason to want to play through the game again, giving everything you hear, say, and do a second meaning that’s clear that time around.

  2. When he mentioned the flaw and shortly thereafter got very cagey about the plot events right at the beginning, I remember thinking, “This fucker’s evil.”

    I give credit where it’s due. I am perfectly aware of how many hours I sunk into Baldur’s Gate, Baldur’s Gate II, Jade Empire, and KOTOR. Bioware makes great games. But they do tend to write in very broad strokes. If you consider that behind every aberration like that– the flaw in the style, any example of sneakiness– is a writer directing the story’s flow, plots like the ones with Master Li reveal themselves quickly.

    (Although I was not expecting him to be exactly WHO he was, what with the armor and all… that was pretty cool.)

    One of the things I loved about Planescape: Torment, and the reason I always cross my fingers when Obsidian makes something, is they always seemed to work well in subtler shades than their peers at Bioware who actually invented the technology Black Isle/Obsidian use/d.

    Knights of the Old Republic II– and I am aware of its myriad flaws– was one of the only interesting arguments for the Dark Side of the Force, for example. The Dark Side is an answer to the ruthless or discompassionate in all of us. This is a RELIGION, and the compulsion of the dark side ought to be as compelling as, well, “sin” is to the rest of us. The choices offered should be WAY more attractive than the, “So do you want to be a douche… or not?” that seems to be the operating rule in choosing light or dark side (Jedi Knight, KOTOR, etc.)

    Everyone reading this knows how guilty of these binary and simplistic decisions Bioware was when they wrote the script for Jade Empire. Open palm vs. closed fist was usually a decision to be a cockbag or not.

  3. Deoxy says:

    I ALWAYS name my main character or sign in Bob… it’s a running gag among my friends, who all know that the “Bob” entry on their games is me (no, Bob is not my name).

    My wife has suggested I try other names… So I suggested, “George?” She hasn’t really bothered since then.

    No, I did not name any of my children Bob! (though I did humorously suggest it every time – even for my daughter)

  4. Adamantyr says:

    Heh, maybe you should call the protagonist “Ed Gruberman”…

  5. SimeSublime says:

    Just a small gripe, but the Water Dragon was hardly a ‘minor’ deity. The inventor, the shopkeeper and fox in the forest were minor deities. The Water Dragon, although not the major God, was one of the big ones.

    Otherwise, good post. It’s always nice to hear about Jade Empire, especially with the recent Bioware/EA unpleasantness.

  6. Shamus says:

    Upon further reflection: Yeah – WD is not minor. Corrected.

  7. lxs says:

    I’ll grant it was damn sneaky, effective and enjoyable.

    However, they didn’t so much borrow it from the player, as play on the foot-thick suspension of disbelief most gamers have built up. It’s really quite rare to find a game where you aren’t THE ONE, naturally it comes as a surprise.

    btw ‘bob’ is my experimental coding go-to guy. Variables, methods, strings, you name it, I name it bob.

  8. Nilus says:

    Anyone ever see Kung-Pow: Enter the Fist. When I played Jade Empire(and when I just read this post). I couldn’t help but think about Wimp Low.

    “Pay no attention to Wimp Lo, we purposely trained him wrong… as a joke. ” – Master Tang

  9. randolph says:

    I remember when I first played it through, just after exiting the cave from the first meeting with the water spirit, Master Li has some rather telling dialogue. I actually thought at the time that it was slightly off voice acting or even maybe a small lack of polish in the production because what he says and the wary suspicion in his voice seems so oddly out of place. Ironic.

  10. =Dan says:

    Why is that in all of the Bioware/Black Isle/Obsidian games being evil always equals being a jerk?
    In dialogue the response if you want to be Dark Side/Closed Fist/Renegade is always the rudest. Some of the most evil people in history have been the most charismatic, just because you’re an @$$ doesn’t mean you would slaughter thousands of people. Although slaughtering thousands of people definitely makes you an @$$.

  11. Micah says:

    The whole “center of the world” thing is one of the reasons why I like tabletop RPGs more than cRPGs. Most cRPG’s (with Final Fantasy smack in the middle) have the chosen-one syndrome.

    With tabletop RPGs, I have seen many more campaigns focusing on just a group of adventurers, rather than “those destined by fate to save the world.”

    Just look at my campaign and you’ll see that it’s a group of nobodys running around and getting into trouble, rather than trying to find the super-crystal and defeat the evil wizard thereby saving the world from doom and gloom. Sure, it’s less epic, but it’s also less cliched.

  12. Mari says:

    Everyone uses Bob. Bob is the scary voice that commands me to kill. Bob is my character’s name. Bob is the invisible guy that opens the door sometimes even when the wind isn’t blowing. What about Bob, people? Did you ever think maybe Bob is tired of being blamed for everything that goes wrong in your lives?? Bob’s a helluva nice guy when he’s not being accused of doing everything from falling for Master Li’s schemes to secretly being the head of the Zionist conspiracy. Blame somebody else for a change…like Roland. You just know somebody named Roland is no good to anybody. ;-P

    But back on topic, I dunno, it’s not so much that Jade Empire integrated a “character flaw” as the fact that they used the fact that we all know that if we’re playing a character, he’s got to be The One. Otherwise, what purpose would ultimately be served? Where’s the entertainment value in playing Harry The Guy Twiddling His Thumbs On The Street? Of course Bob had a destiny. Sometimes destiny is convoluted and it’s always created by the person wielding it. Bob’s destiny wasn’t to be the best ever, it was simply to uncover Master Li’s plot, get killed, get resurrected, and eventually save the world. Anybody around here played KOTOR? “Engine Sucking Andor” ring any bells? Same kind of deal.

  13. Deoxy says:

    Actually, I think it would be fun to have a game where you start as Mr. My-Destiny-Is-To-Save-The-World, but you fail like that (because Mr Evil saw it coming and planned it for decades, or whatever), and then you get to create a character who is obviously a lot more of a “normal” person, and you have to go through the majority of the game gathering allies, forming an army, becoming reasonably skilled yourself, etc, to succeed with “normal” people (at great cost, likely, too) where the Great Hero failed.

    No special status or powers (well, normal “class” powers, ganre-depending), just a normal person. Hard to do well, I’d bet, but it would be awesome if properly executed.

    As a variant, playing a “nobody” who accompanies the Great Hero (or just crosses paths with him during the course of the game) and has to make small but vital contributions could be nifty, too. This would also be very difficult to pull off, I think.

    An RPG could do this, but it could also work well in a tactical sort of game, I think – hmm, now I’m thinking of a Battle for Wesnoth campaign, which is bad (because now I want to sink a lot of time I don’t have into it :-( ).

  14. Martin says:

    This is why nobody ever replies to my comments. They’re too brilliant for your feeble minds to process.

    I knew it!

  15. Dana says:

    Up in Canada, when one of our territories split off from another and became a separate political entity, the name ‘Bob’ came third in the voting… :)

  16. Blackbird71 says:

    Adamantyr said:
    “Heh, maybe you should call the protagonist “Ed Gruberman”…


    Either that, or “Mel” …

    Oddly enough, years ago I wrote up a Star Wars campaign with an entire planet named Bob. It was before I ever saw Titan A.E., and by another coincidence when Episode 2 came out, I saw my planet brougth to life in Kamino. Well, the inhabitants were a bit different, more frog-like, but water-covered world with big round platform cities on stilts – that was Bob.

    Wow, that’s got to be one of my biggest digressions yet!

  17. Lee from Sheboygan says:

    “As a variant, playing a “nobody” who accompanies the Great Hero (or just crosses paths with him during the course of the game) and has to make small but vital contributions could be nifty, too. This would also be very difficult to pull off, I think.”

    This reminds me of Chrono Trigger, specifically the character of Glenn/Frog. He’s accompanying this hero-type character, and then things go haywire. I thought that was awesome.

  18. Nate says:

    Deoxy’s right, actually. I’ve played a few games where you basically took a relatively unimportant person and ended up doing vastly important things by dint of rallying other normal folks around you and taking decisive action. They were immensely satisfying.

    Best example I can think of is Final Fantasy Tactics; the third son of a noble house, shunted off to officer’s acadamy, more or less accidentally stumbles onto world-changing events and is swept up in them because everyone’s backstabbing everyone else. No nonsense about fate intervening or your character being naturally any more talented than anyone else. Heck, the lowborn peasant companion of your character ended up playing a major part as well. And in the histories, these ‘small figures’ in the war were barely even given cursory mention.

    Damn, I loved that game.

  19. Kallahim says:

    arggggh, can you at least put spoiler on the front of that post…i read the comic and i realize that its been out for a while but i get games on the old school discount, when its old school it has a discount.

  20. SimeSublime says:

    What’s interesting is taking this character flaw and applying it to other games. KotOR comes to mind. At the start, you bail from the capital ship and end up on Taris. It’s only you, a relatively skilled but new recruit, and Carth, a Republic hero. So why is it that he follows your every lead without question(but a good deal of complaining)?

  21. Telas says:

    Of course he’s a sham. He’s bearded, and an NPC. All he needs to complete the ‘triple play’ of backstabbing is to have a name like “Master Lie”.

    Um, yeah.

  22. Tichfield says:

    *facepalm* Maybe I should cancel the Amazon order I put up for Jade Empire PC, which I have never before played and now know the main plot twists of.

    I’d REALLY have appreciated a ‘spoiler’ tag.

    (Ironically: only ordered the game because of how this blog went on about how good it was.)

  23. Zaxares says:

    *WARNING! Big spoilers mentioned in the following post!*

    Actually, the main character in JE IS pretty important. As the last of the Spirit Monks, he’s the only one who can do what Master Li has set him out to do. Anybody else would not have been able to defeat Emperor Sun Hai (observe the way he just toppled everybody else, even Master Li, with one spell. Only the PC resisted it because, as a Spirit Monk, he has an innate resistance to the power of the Water Dragon.) If the PC had failed, Master Li’s plans would have gone up in smoke. Sun Li was actually GAMBLING on the hope that his student would be powerful enough to defeat Sun Hai.

    Besides, the game offers you plenty of opportunities to showcase your character as a humble, ordinary man (whether the player thinks so is a different matter). In the beginning, when Master Li asks you what you think of your future, you had the opportunity to answer that you hope to become a simple teacher at the school after Master Li. Even when you confront Sun Hai in the Imperial palace, you could say that you are simply here to rescue Master Li.

    Nor do you simply dismiss the others commenting on the strange flaw in your combat style. When you speak to Crimson Khana (at least, I think it’s her, I could be wrong) in the Imperial Arena, you ask her, “Others have commented about this before. Should I be concerned about it?” However, Khana comes to the conclusion that no such flaw exists; that it is actually an elaborate trap designed to make your enemy THINK there is a flaw. This was a very clever scheme of the developers that mollified my suspicions, and made me appreciate just how well Master Li trained my character… until the surprise denouement.

  24. DGM says:


    Shamus, why didn’t you put a spoiler warning on this one? I avoided reading the older post where you discussed this precisely because I thought I might get the game someday. Now the big surprise is blown for me.

  25. Shamus says:

    To those who got spoiled: There was a warning right in the first paragraph. I guess I should have realized some people read the comic first.

    Spoiler warning added to the comic.

  26. MrValdez says:

    Yeah, I got spoiled too.

    Funny thing is, I was halfway through the post before the comic was fully loaded. I didn’t glanced at it because the post was very interesting.

    I wasn’t able to read the spoiler tag because this is how I read your post:

    Roundtable [yes! another roundtable. this post is gonna have good game design thoughts] at Man Bytes Blog. (———— Jade Empire [w00t Jade Empire! A game I’m planning to buy soon] —————— comic [comic not yet loaded] ) This month we're talking about interesting character flaws. [Sounds like a cool topic]


    I only realized the post was full of spoilers was when I got to the part where he died :(

  27. Matt P says:

    It bugs me that no matter how well a story’s twist is made, how perfectly concealed it is, someone wil ALWAYS “see it coming”. Whether they’re lying, fooling themselves that that barely noticed gut feeling was a properly thought out suspicion, just paranoid about every character’s motives in any plot or really saw it coming I feel that they’re missing something by not just floating with the current and being surprised by the excellent twist in that game/movie/book. Some people are just that clever, some just want to feel that they are, and others just saw this particular twist coming but I feel all of them missed something nice.
    Sorry if this has been said already.

  28. Derek K. says:

    I do hate the good/evil dichotomy. Renegade Shepard isn’t a “rule-breaker.” He/She is a complete punkass.

    Dark Side PC in KoTOR is a greedy, sadistic punk. But the mechanics say “If you’re going DS, go all the way.”

    Now, KoTOR 2, that did it. The “Light Side” choices and the “Dark Side” choices are tempting. I actually made occasional Dark Side choices without actually realizing it, because I picked the option that seemed best, figuring it would be neutral at least. But no, DSP, and there goes my Light Side Mastery bonus….

    (Spoilerish for KoTOR II)….

    Basically, telling the Jedi to screw off was the *right* thing to do, but it wasn’t the *light* thing to do. Which is *very* cool. It’s rarely dark side, but it is occasionally

    The only time KoTOR really got that was on Korriban – going through the Sith archives, I honestly thought to myself “You know, the Sith really have a good point, it’s just been corrupted.” The argument that passion is what drives everyone is compelling – the ascetic, unloving, unemotional Jedi thing is pretty annoying when you get down to it.

    Mass Effect, for all its brilliance, really made you choose to be an ass to get to 75% for the achievement, and the extra Intimidate. I still haven’t unlocked that one, because the renegade choices just annoy me.

    “So, what’s your name?”

    />”I’m Commander Shepard, Alliance Military Command. Pleased to meet you.” (Paragon)
    -> “Shepard.” (Neutral)
    \>”I’m Bob McShootyYouInTheFace, senator.” *blam* (Renegade)

    A bit annoying.

  29. Telas says:

    Matt P @ 27:It bugs me that no matter how well a story's twist is made, how perfectly concealed it is, someone wil ALWAYS “see it coming”.

    My wife figured out “The Usual Suspects” about a third of the way into the movie. I still have no idea how she did that.

  30. Zereth says:

    I think part of the reason people keep guessing twists like that is that, frequently, if there isn’t a twist, there won’t be any hints at one no matter how subtle. So if there’s somebody acting even slightly shady he MUST be evil.

    And yeah, I also kinda wish you’d put more clear spoiler warnings on this and put the comic behind the cut or something, but I figured, well, if I was going to finish Jade Empire I probably would have done so by now.

  31. Crystalgate says:

    I think part of the reason people keep guessing twists like that is that, frequently, if there isn't a twist, there won't be any hints at one no matter how subtle. So if there's somebody acting even slightly shady he MUST be evil.

    Eh, I have seen people acting a bit shady in video games without being evil. Otherwise I think you’re right though. Video games seldom, if ever, raises a subject they won’t deal with at one point.

    Let’s take a game called Chrono Cross as an example. When you talk to the villagers in the very first village you see, some will say something in line of “I wonder how things would have been had I done something different.” Sure enough, soon thereafter you end up in a parallel time-line where things are a bit different. Of course, in Chrono Cross, the parallel time-lines are not a plot-twist, they are the premise of the game, so in this case that wasn’t a spoiler. The point is however, it’s unlikely the dialog writer would have made the NPCs talk about how things would have been different if different actions had been taken if the game didn’t feature parallel time-lines.

    Every time a subject is raised in a game, the player will assume that the game will get back to it later. Unless the writers keep that in mind, they can easily accidentally tip the player of.

    That is hardly the only reason though. Sometimes the twist follow patterns seen in other games. One thing is clear however, when I figure out a twist in advance, it’s usually trough application of video game logic and not real world logic. I really wish that would change. If I figure out something through real world logic, I feel smart. If I figure something out through video game logic, I feel that the game is stupid.

  32. Acleacius says:

    I have to disagree, the only way your premise is correct is if you take if from Master Li’s perspective. I.e. we’re (PC) not the chosen but Master Li, which is false.

    We are in fact the chosen and guided by the gods whom Master Li was fighting. We were intended to die, otherwise we could not have restored the temple and put it’s spirits out of eternal struggle. We were chosen because we were the only one whom could succeed.

    We could not have succeeded without the flaw. ;)

  33. Zereth says:

    “That is hardly the only reason though. Sometimes the twist follow patterns seen in other games. One thing is clear however, when I figure out a twist in advance, it's usually trough application of video game logic and not real world logic. I really wish that would change. If I figure out something through real world logic, I feel smart. If I figure something out through video game logic, I feel that the game is stupid.”

    It gets REALLY bad in Japanese console RPGs. I predicted large chunks of the plot of Tales of Symphonia based entirely on the appearance of an angel at the end of the tutorial dungeon. By which I mean “the instant he appeared”. Once I’d actually heard what he had to say I’d predicted upwards of 75% of the plot which wasn’t bizarre left-field twists. It’s hard to go wrong assuming organized religion is evil in those things.

    As for feeling like the Chosen One in Jade Empire, the fact that (at least on Normal difficulty) you can completely murder the hell out of everything you come across doesn’t help. (except apparently Sun Li.)

  34. Miral says:

    “Where's the entertainment value in playing Harry The Guy Twiddling His Thumbs On The Street?”

    You mean like Nondrick? I think he’s pretty entertaining :)

    “Actually, I think it would be fun to have a game where you start as Mr. My-Destiny-Is-To-Save-The-World, but you fail like that (because Mr Evil saw it coming and planned it for decades, or whatever)”

    The new Bard’s Tale game goes a bit like that as well. I’d say more but it’d be a spoiler. (The storyline of the game is definitely worth it, though.)

  35. Matt P says:

    Telas: That’s not even sad. That’s just amazing.

  36. ferryardian says:

    your avatar plugins its so cool.. thanks

  37. Miako says:

    I will have forgotten this by the time I play it. thankfully.

  38. Jeff says:

    Carth, a Republic hero. So why is it that he follows your every lead without question(but a good deal of complaining)?

    I think he’s a hero not because he’s a good leader but because he’s just a darn good soldier, heh.

    Regarding plot twists…

    *Ironman Movie Spoiler Warning*

    Not that big a spoiler considering you see in the trailers that Stark gets kidnapped. He gets tended to by a doctor because he’s injured in the attack that gets him kidnapped. Before Stark (obviously) escapes, I would have sworn that the doctor was the bad guy. Like, THE bad guy, heh.

  39. Deoxy says:

    Followup to my earlier post about the “hero” being a nobody who takes over because the real hero failed…

    I thought of a good example: Willow. That’s exactly what I’m talking about – the little nobody makes the difference (of course, the power of PLOT is what really saves him, but whatever).

    Now, it’s debatable as to whether that’s a good movie (I find it enjoyable, though I certainly can acknowledge its shortcomings), butr still, it’s at least a high profile example…

    (tangent: I heard some kid knocking The Lord of the Rings movies because they were just a big Willow knock-off. No, he was not kidding.)

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