Thursday, March 8, 2012

My Top Ten Protagonists (Part II)

Let's Start Part II of My Top Ten Protagonists.  I'll be honest, in the upcoming numbers, we'll be getting into my rather strange interpretations of characters.  But still, even if my interpretations are bizarre, the fact that the characters and their works in multiple ways lends credibility to the idea that video games can be quite similar to novels.  And I would rather have video games be closer to novels than to movies, which is the horrible trend the video game industry has been taking in recent years.  But more on that in future posts, for now, let's continue the countdown.

7) Ezio Auditore de Firenze 
Maximum Swagger
In the realms of video game history, there is quite a list of sequels that drastically improved their respective series and took fairly average games and turned them into classics.  Off the top of my head (and from this Entertainment Weekly countdown (,,20336031_20342707_20736574,00.html)), I can think of Half-Life 2, Baldur's Gate 2, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, Resident Evil 4, Grand Theft Auto III, and, of course, Assassin's Creed 2.  Now, don't get me wrong, all of these games had very good predecessors, but the sequels truly established the series in the mainstream and in the hearts of gamers.  

Assassin's Creed was an OK game.  It had some fantastic ideas, but terrible execution: the game was overly repetitive, and the narrative lacked heart and emotion.  This latter idea was especially prominent in the game's main character, Altair.  Now, Altair was a perfect Assassin: cold-blooded and unemotional.  But while this might have worked to establish what an Assassin should be, he completely failed to be an interesting character.  Like Hitman's Agent 47, Altair was like a brick wall, effective but completely void of all potential emotional attachment for the character.  Oh sure, you could talk about how badass the characters are, but you could never truly connect with someone who never cracks a smile or expresses any other emotion than anger.
I hope you like this serious face, because it will be the only thing you will ever see.
Ezio, on the other hand, was more human in the fact that he actually expressed emotion.  He was witty, sarcastic, and sometimes even a little bit stupid and gullible.  Observe:
(Yes, I know this isn't from AC II, but I just love this moment.)

But it is in these moments that we grow to love Ezio.  He makes us laugh with his wit and his ignorance, and we find that he is a person we would love to hang out with.  Thus, in the game's opening acts, when everything is fine and dandy, the game builds this connection so when bad things eventually happen, we sympathize with him more readily.  We are more willing to care about his evolution into an assassin in revenge for his family's murder.  This is proper story telling and attachment.
Ezio is pleased with your shenanigans.
(Found on, Origin Unknown)
But there is also the element of his evolution throughout the games' story lines.  For example, in the very first assassination meeting, Ezio's stabs his victim in a very brutal and angry manner.  But, as time goes on, we see him become more organized, calculated, and precise with his attacks.  In other words, he becomes more like Altair.  Yet, he still retains his humor and charm.  Thus, despite his evolution as an Assassin, he will always remain more interesting than his ancestor.  
Ezio's response whenever someone says Altair was the better protagonist.
(Courtesy of
Assassin's Creed II had a lot going for it, including a better narrative, likable characters, less repetitive gameplay, better climbing, and so on.  But the main advantage over its predecessor rested in everyone's favorite Italian history changer.  The players connected with him more at an earlier time, and thus the game becomes more interesting from the get-go.  The fact that he had two more games dedicated to him shows quite clearly how much Ubisoft and the fans adored Mr. Auditore.

6) Ethan Thomas (Specifically in Condemned 2: Bloodshot)
Yes, this hobo is your protagonist.  And I LOVE it.

The Condemned series has always interested me, not just because you beat up hobos with pipes.  The game features fantastic CSI moments and genuinely terrifying moment and environments.  Condemned 2: Bloodshot has received a lot of criticism for its silly plot involving cults that completely ruined the mystery and scariness of the random hobo attacks.  As Benjamin "Yahtzee" Croshaw mentioned in his review of Condemned 2: 

"In Condemned 1 it's never explained why the homeless all went kill crazy, and the fact that it was unexplained exacerbated the creepiness. In Condemned 2 it's explained on the first fucking level. Some prick nailed noisy hubcaps to the walls that were keeping everyone awake. Thanks, Condemned 2, I was almost getting intrigued. This isn't rocket science. Mysteries lose all their appeal the instant you explain them. This is why they never explained why Scully never got it on with Mulder, besides the fact that he had the charisma of a cardboard cut-out with a bag of sick taped to it."

Harsh language aside, the point is made, and I agree with it completely.  But the interesting thing about Condemned 2's protagonist, Ethan Thomas, is that his drunken personality and life in squalor might actually offer an explanation for the game's horrible story.

Ethan Thomas is a former FBI agent who fell into drink and squalor after the Case of Serial Killer X.  Long story short, SKX (aka Malcolm Vanhorn) was a serial killer who killed other serial killers by using their own M.O.s against them.  The experience tested Thomas's sanity and commitment to the job, and reached a bloody and unsatisfying conclusion.

But the game reaches an interesting point at the beginning of Condemned 2.  By this time, Ethan begins hallucinating not only his alcoholism as a masked man (which is a pretty serious symptom in itself), but also begins hallucinating entire levels of the game!  That amazed me during my play though.  The fact that the game could not even be occurring in real life made me question Ethan's reliability as a first person narrator.  If he hallucinated entire portions of the game, how could we be sure that any of the game was true?  Is it possible that entire game was merely an hallucination of Ethan's alcohol fueled mind?

If your main character sees this guy on a regular basis, you can assume that something is wrong with him.
If one looks at the context of all the "reveals" of Condemned 2's plot, one might just see the horrible rationalization of a man just looking for reason and meaning in his shitty life.  By forming the Alcohol Demon as a separate entity, Ethan forms the common rationalization of an addict by thinking that his alcoholism is something separate from him and something that he can simply defeat by just beating the hell out of it in a fist fight.  By having Leland Vanhorn (SKX's uncle) reveal that Ethan is actually a superhuman and his parents died trying to protect Ethan from some bizarre cult might have been a rationalization of Ethan's inability to explain his parents death, and to give meaning to his life .  The idea that the hobo attacks are caused by some sonar hubcaps might be an attempt to explain the hobo violence, which Ethan was never able to explain.  The fact that SKX survived a gunshot to the goddamn face in the first game might reflect Ethan's inability to let go of the SKX case.  Even the the fact that his former agency found him in order to solve a case he had no reason to be involved with might reflect Ethan's desire to get back to his former, "normal" life.  Everything becomes an object of study.  Ethan's unreliability as a narrator becomes a central point of the game's plot, if not the plot itself.
You saying I'm crazy?  Well, I'll beat the shit out of you with a pipe to prove that you're wrong!
(Courtesy of Photobucket)
Of course, this is just speculation.  I doubt even the game's creators thought this way.  But the fact that Ethan's romps could just be a reflection of his fractured mind makes the game come alive!  It makes even the worst plot imaginable somehow become interesting.  I only wish the creator's had played more with the crazy route rather than the cult route.  Oh well.  He's still got a dope shirt, which can be purchased here: 

5) Daniel (Amnesia: The Dark Descent)
"Don't be hatin' 'cause I be stylin' on you!"
On the surface, Daniel violates the first two rules in my first post.  During the gameplay, he is not only a silent protagonist, but he is also more an empty vessel for you to insert yourself.  So, WHY did I decide to put Daniel on the list?  And why so high on the list?  Well, rather interestingly, the reason lies in the fact that Daniel was a separate character with his own personality before the the events of the game, and he becomes the empty vessel when he drinks the potion that causes the amnesia.  So, in search of his notes an hallucinations though out the castle, you are learning about Daniel, not as Daniel, but as yourself learning about Daniel, but while you are controlling Daniel's body.  It's almost like the audio diaries in Bioshock, except that you are learning about the character you control, not other, tertiary characters.  This is something that I had never seen before.  The fact that a game lets the player learn about the character being controlled was something rather revolutionary.  It's a strange, out-of-body experience that I was fascinated by.

But that is not the only reason why I love Daniel.  The more we learn about him in his notes and hallucinations, the more we learn how out of his element, and even despicable Daniel is.  We learn that he is fleeing from an ancient, Lovecraftian evil that has been following him for years.  We learn that Daniel fled to Castle Brennenburg in order to get protection from this evil, and, in order to keep in the good whims of the castle's lord, the obviously-named Lord Brennenburg, Daniel commits the most heinous acts imaginable, including torture and murder.  But in these acts, Daniel reflects the horrible things a person will do when he is afraid and in panic.  We always try to deny that we would do horrible actions when in a panic, but Daniel, with his rather extreme actions, shows us that we really do become savages when we are caught in a corner and we fear the worst.  And that is what draws me to him.  The fact that he is used to teach us a lesson about the depravity of man when in a harsh situation makes him become a fascinating character, despite his role as a silent character and empty vessel.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Introduction and My Top Ten Protagonists (Part 1)

Welcome to my blog!  I hope you enjoy all the upcoming posts.  To be honest, I had been interested in starting this blog for ages, but never got around to it.  But now that I have the opportunity (spring break, woo!), I think this is the time to start it.

This is most likely going to be a strange blog.  Not only will it incorporate things like Top 10 Lists and review of movies and games and such, but there will also be variety of posts commenting on my contrary opinions.  But first, in order to introduce you to my views of video games and its role as an artistic medium, I will discuss my top 10 protagonists in video games.

Now, these 10 protagonists are not based on what, say, IGN or Empire ranks their top 100 lists, based on popular opinion or historical significance.  If it was, this would just be another Mario, Link, Master Chief list that you have seen millions of times before.  Rather, this is a list of characters I enjoyed playing as and who properly used the confines of the video game medium to deliver interesting, moving, or just plain fun experiences for the player.

So what, in my opinion, makes a good character?  In other words, what are the limits of this list?  Who is allowed and who is not?  Well, the first thing I did was limit it in the following ways:
1) No silent protagonists.  This gets rid of Mario, Link, Gordon Freeman, etc.  It's not that I don't like those characters, it's just that I feel that they could be replaced with a raccoon and it would make about as much sense.  The games would not feel different with or without them.  I will probably do an article about how much I hate Silent Protagonists.  They're just empty vessels, but lack the ability to shape the character to your own desires.  Speaking of which...

2) No customizable characters. In other words, no Commander Shepherd or Dovakiin.  These are better than silent protagonists, due to the ability to actually shape your character to reflect your own whims, but the fact of the matter is, the character will always just be YOU.  And while I love that once in a while, I don't think the story is truly an emotional expression.  An established character is always more interesting.  It's like choosing between a choose-your-own adventure novel and a regular novel.  The choose-your-own adventure novel may be the best written book around, but you can't study the main character in the same way that you could a novel.  To me, studying internal motivations of a character will always be a more entertaining and most artistically valuable experience than the customizable character.

3) Finally, of course, this is based on games I have played.  And while I try to play as many games as I can, my time is always limited by school and other activities. In addition, I have not become as obsessed with video games until the past few years.  So, unfortunately, I have not played earlier gems like Deus Ex or Baldur's Gate.  I definitely want to get to these games, but until then, I have to judge on what I have done up until this point.  If you would like to make suggestions based on this list, go ahead!  I want to play everything that I can, and if you have ideas for what I might enjoy, I would appreciate it.

So, with that in mind, let us begin a three post countdown of MY favorite protagonists.

10) Sam Fisher
Look at all the fucks he gives.
(Courtesy of the Splinter Cell Wiki)
I've never seen 24, but if it's anything like Splinter Cell, I would buy every season right now.  Sam Fisher, Splinter Cell's gravelly voiced protagonist, is just an absolute powerhouse.  He's a force of nature, and a combination of Jason Bourne, John McClane, and Jack Bauer rolled into one incredibly powerful performance.  And, to add to the badassness of it all, Fisher is voiced by Michael Ironside, the voice of the animated Darkseid.  When you have the man behind this as your main character, you know you have something that can send chills down someone's spine with a mere utterance:
But that is not the only reason Sam Fisher is such an interesting character.  They could have just a badass character and Sam Fisher would have been as indistinguishable from any of John Cena or Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's roles.  (Can you name even one?  I certainly can't.  Oh wait, does the Scorpion King count?)  But the creators of Splinter Cell decided to actually add some pathos to the Bourne-ripped plots.  By "killing" Sam's daughter, the series took an interesting turn.  We began to study Fisher's psyche, the human behind the ass-kicker.  It was after this point that Fisher's actions actually had meaning behind them, instead of just the generic following of the mission of the first few games.  He had a reason to do things according to his own decisions.  It was then that there was an actual reason to care for Sam's ass-kickery.  Watching him smash a man's head into the urinal actually becomes something to root for when we know that he's trying to solve the mystery of his daughter's death.
I'm gonna pathos the shit out of your face!
The only mistake was bringing back Sam's daughter.  If Sam completed his mission and solved the mystery of his daughter's death, but found that finding the killer and saving the country does not satisfy his rage and despair, we would have learned that violence and brutal revenge does not solve the pain of the loss of a loved one.  We would have grown to sympathize even more with Sam and his plight, and we would have had an interesting and rarely seen view on the tired revenge plot line.  But no, we got the worst bit of plot contrivance I have ever seen and a hasty, almost incomprehensible conclusion.  Still, it was fun to play as Sam, and if it had been done well, we could have had a satisfying, yet haunting conclusion to Sam's revenge.

9) Cole Phelps
So you have to ask your self: do I feel lucky? ya?  PUNK?
Note: For a perfect summary of Cole Phelps, watch this video by the fantastic show Extra Credits.  In fact, watch everything by them.  It's a fascinating study of all things video games related by people much smarter than me.  It was this video that made me realize how brilliant Cole Phelps was as a protagonist.

LA Noire is a flawed game.  It either held your hand too much or too little, the open world was pretty much an illusion and a waste of time, and the save points could have been much greater utilized during the somewhat boring (yet appropriately tense) interviews.  But one thing it did right was the inclusion of a interesting and flawed main character.  
Shut the fuck up, I'm trying to put the right shading your lip.
On the surface, Cole seems like your usual, holier-than-thou jackass that you would want to punch in the face, but there is actually a self-conscious man hiding beneath his pompous exterior.  And I find that fascinating. The fact that a character is written in a way that actually reflects the social facades that we face everyday is truly showing how video game writing has advanced.  Instead of just your usual pompous character like Nathan Drake (who is a fascinating individual in himself, and would be on this list as an honorable mention along with Adam "I Never Asked For This" Jensen), we have a character who places a mask of confidence over a weakling with a desire to be respected by his peers.  He's willing to overlook the horrible actions of his fellow officers so that they will like an respect him, but has no problem with acting like an arrogant jackass around people he thinks he is better than.
God, I really hope my racist, douchebag partner likes me.
But the main reason Cole is such a fascinating, yet unlikeable character because he is so similar to us all.  He has the same arrogance and emotional neediness that we all have.  And as uncomfortable as that seems to us, Rockstar and Team Bondi had no problem with delivering such an experience to us.

8) Garcia F(ucking) Hotspur/Travis Touchdown
Doesn't get more badass than a magnum with a talking skull for a barrel.
Florescent lightsabers: more dangerous than incandescent lightsabers, yet more energy efficient! 
This is the only tie on this list, and it only exists because these two characters are so similar.  Not in any way that you would expect, however.   Their creator, Suda 51, takes so many crazy pills that no game is ever similar.  But the thing is, both of these characters are reflections of the "id" character.  Both are just extremely fun, hilarious characters who are obsessed with sex, dick jokes, and violence like all good, insane people.  And both are spectacularly voiced acted by some of the best voice actors in the biz (Steve Blum (who does the most convincing Mexican accent for Garcia that I actually expected to see Antonio Banderas on IMDb) and Robin Atkin Downs (the guy does a lot of voices, not just Travis).) 

And I mean, honestly, in what other context could you see a gun or a lightsaber act as phallic symbols except in pornos?
Videogames are totally mature, Mom.
So, in most of one's play through, Garcia and Travis are just pure, adrenaline-fueled fun head cases, full of quips and dick jokes.  And this is fun!  This is what makes me want to play No More Heroes or Shadows of the Damned hundreds of times before I would ever play Mass Effect. (More on that series in future posts.)  Yet, there are moments where we see that there is more to these characters than just gullible doofuses with fascinations with phalluses (phalli?).  In Shadows of the Damned, we learn that Garcia does not just see his love interest, Paula, as some sort of sexual object.  He actually sees her more as a fascinating person.  He is drawn not by her looks, but by her strange personality that draws him in.  In many ways, Garcia is more like a romantic scientist than your common thug, despite his purple jacket and leather pants.  He is actually a more understanding and social progressive person than most characters in movies and on TV.  Shocking, I know.
This is what girls are looking for in their dream man.  And no, I don't know where to find a purple leather jacket.
Travis is definitely...less sympathetic than his leather-clad counterpart, but he still does have a touching moment.  Observe these cutscenes from No More Heroes 1.

For once, Travis doesn't have a quip.  He seems generally sorry for the loss of Ms. Summers, the assassin who dies here.  And this is the most interesting moment, and possibly even the turning point in the whole game.  When he actually shows emotion, we see that there is more to him than meets the eye.  We begin to sympathize with Travis more after this moment, and he become our friend rather than a bizarre spectacle.

So, these two characters, while insane and full of irrational and immature urges, actually become fascinating people to watch and study.  Kind of surprising from games featuring a segment where you walk on a giant naked woman or one with a superhero assassin.

Part One is done.  Stayed tuned for numbers 7 through 5!