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!

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