Saturday, June 9, 2012

Update and My Top Ten Protagonists (Part III)

So, yeah, it's been ages since I have updated this blog, but now that my summer has become fairly regular, I can now have regular updates.  Expect to have at least one every Saturday or Friday, depending on work schedule.  I was going to have a video up last week of the entire countdown, but considering I am, frankly, awful with Apple's iMovie (all of my training has been in Final Cut), I had no idea what to do. videos until I can use Final Cut (maybe when the new school year starts?)

Now, to finally finish up this countdown, so we can move on to more important and relevant topics.  I must admit that I do not like doing lists that often, but I felt it was a good way to get people introduced to what I like and what I like to see in video games.  Hopefully, these last four entries to the list will show my preferences in character and in video games.  

4) Isaac Clarke (The Dead Space Series)
"What're YOU lookin' at?"
Man, do I love Visceral Games.  You can really tell that they really care about their projects and creating full, vibrant worlds to accompany their games.  Looking at Dead Space, you would never expect that a game about splitting up creatures straight out of John Carpenter's The Thing would not only have a fully fleshed out world, including a commentary about cults and religions like Scientology, but there it all is.  It truly is in all of the little things that suck me into Visceral's romps.  Thus, I always find it kind of disappointing that some people hate on Visceral and their well-crafted games for the silliest of reasons.  Yes, they aren't perfect, I would admit that, but I've heard several people say that they disliked Dead Space because of its "Your Mom Will Hate It" Ad Campaign.  To hate on a game because of the stupidly of its publisher (EA especially, whose stupidly can reach baffling levels) seems a bit petty when the game itself is not affected.  It's not like Mass Effect 3, which was, in many ways, ruined by EA's meddling.  Besides, without that campaign, as silly and childish as it was, we would have never been introduced to this woman:

I have no idea who this woman is, but she is the coolest and funniest woman I ever seen.  And my life is only brighter after seeing this video.

But that's besides the point.  We're here to talk about Isaac Clarke, Dead Space's protagonist.  Now, Isaac seems to violate my rule about silent protagonists.  But the thing is...he isn't and never was.  Even in Dead Space 1, Isaac wasn't truly an empty vessel like other silent protagonists.  Not many people are aware of this, but the next time you boot up Dead Space 1, look for Isaac's notes on the Objectives Menu.  It's there  the player learns Isaac's hidden personality.  The verdict: Isaac is a...dark individual.  He's sarcastic, depressed, and even mean-sprited.  He calls people "psychopaths" and "maniacs."  He loathes the Unitologists.  But, unfortunately, this personality was hidden underneath the silence and robot nature, and it's not until the very end of the game that we see that Isaac has more violent emotions that we see in Dead Space 2.  I think the developers wanted Isaac to be a vessel in the first Dead Space, but they realized this wouldn't work for a truly interesting game.  

But, when we compare Isaac from the first game to him in the sequel. Please watch this video from the guys at Extra Credits:

Now, the lesson here is that though you might have a silent protagonists.  That does not mean you do not know anything about him or her, and you can just make up anything you want.  Just because a character doesn't speak doesn't mean that the character has no personality.  Personality is conveyed through actions as well as words.  And the developers at Visceral did a fantastic transition.  They took the little we knew about Isaac from DS1 and fleshed out the character in DS2.  And, yet, nothing was out of place.  I never felt like I was being introduced to a new character in DS2, just the same character finally given the chance to speak.  The dark, confused, sarcastic individual from the original is still here.  

But what makes him a great character besides this transition, is the fact that Isaac, more than most characters I have played, feels like a real person.  He has the same reactions I did to the situations he was in.  Sometimes word for word.  And that's what's brilliant about him.  He not only is a separate and unique personality, but still reflects the personality of the player.  He can be a vessel for the player like originally intended, but still be a unique character.  And that kind of balance makes Isaac such a wonderful marvel of character design.

In addition, the idea of madness in video games is something that has been used often and very effectively, but Dead Space 2 knows how to use this in a fantastic way.  It uses the confines of the medium to truly put you on edge and show you what Isaac is going through.  A great example:

A great set piece and fantastic way to convey insanity and produce horror.  I look forward to what they do in Dead Space 3.  Apparently, they plan to have a "Dark Isaac" who will insult you along your journey, and I think this can not only be a greater opportunity for humor, tension, and more of these kind of QTEs.

3) Dante (Dante's Inferno)
I don't think you can get more badass than this.
Oh Visceral, I wish EA would stop ruining your games with their ridiculous advertising ploys.  But Dante's Inferno has a lot more going against it.  First of all, it's title.  Now, I had no problem with the title. I simply saw it as Visceral presenting Dante Allegheri's version of Hell.  Was it silly to make the Italian poet into a bulky Crusader?  Sure.  I personally think it would have better to name the main character and his love something else, (let's use "Mario" and "Peach" for this whole post, since that's pretty much what the game is) and have you meet the real Dante Allegheri along the way, such as when you talk with Virgil.  And yes, it was a lackluster God of War clone with a half-finished ending.  These are all true, and no matter how much I enjoyed myself playing it, I can't deny that.  (But, seriously,  how fun was it doing this?)

But the thing is, if you asked me if I would prefer to play God of War or Dante's Inferno, I would pick Dante's Inferno every time.  And you know why?  It's because "Mario" is just a much more interesting and original character than Kratos.  While Kratos is just a big ball of rage than blames other people for all of his problems (most of which, he himself caused), "Mario" is quite the opposite.  He blames himself for all of his problems, even when they might be other people's faults.  He is the epitome of Catholic guilt and Puritan thinking, whenever something has gone wrong, it is because he has made a mistake or because he doesn't understand.  It is through this self-deprecation that we learn what it was mostly likely like to be a Crusader.  He, like many others, thought he was being absolved for his sins by partaking in his conquest, but he was misled.  I feel like Visceral could have done a better job with "Mario's" crisis of faith, but the fact that he wasn't raging against the machine made him a big step up from Kratos.

But something else that interested me was "Mario's" pursuit of "Peach."  Now, if "Mario" was just another Kratos clone, he would most likely would have just have had a had a sex mini game with her corpse and then continued on his angst filled journey.  No, there was something more to "Peach" that motivated him to trek through nine levels of hell.  If "Peach" was just another set of rocking tits, he would have never have done so.  "Peach" represents the last shreds "Mario's" humanity, the last threshold between a sane, normal life and complete insanity and life as...well...Kratos.  This makes "Mario's" quest seem much more weighty than whatever revenge fantasy Kratos is cooking up.  

But all of this together, the epic quest, the self-deprecation, and the Catholic guilt, make "Mario"a deeply sympathetic and original character.  I only wish he had more to do than his usual "save the princess" quest.  It's epic and significant to him, but they could have done so much more.  He has such a rich personality that we could have had many more deep and interesting tales to tell.  Sort of like our next entry...

2) James Sunderland (Silent Hill 2)

Oh, James, you magnificent, yet miserable bastard.  If only you knew how amazing you and your game Silent Hill 2 was.  Maybe it's because you are Silent Hill 2.  Yes, from the enemies, to the bosses, to the environments, and the Otherworld, all of Silent Hill 2 was designed specifically with James and his fragile psyche.  Now, there are going to be some major spoilers here, so if you don't want to know why James is such an impressive feat, stop reading here and just go to number one.  The big revelation of the game is that James's wife contracted a serious illness that made her face scarred.  Feeling that she looked like a monster, James's wife lashed out at James, verbally abusing him at every chance.  Therefore, James avoided her, turning to drink.  Eventually, due to his sexual frustration and deteriorating patience and sanity, James smothered his wife, putting him and her out of their misery.  Or so he thought.  Unfortunately, Silent Hill has a way of bringing those demons back to light.

Let's just give two examples of how Silent Hill 2 is tailor-made to James's mind.  The first would be the infamous sexy nurses.
Should I be aroused or terrified?  Both?
These nurses aren't just meant to titillate  the teenagers playing this game.  Far from it.  These nurses represent the sexual frustration of James.  It's been years since he has had sexual release and, since he has spent ages in a hospital for his wife, James's libido is all over the place, including a potential nurse fetish.
He is judge, jury, and executioner.  Also... a rapist.
The infamous Pyramid Head, on the other hand, represents James's inner, subconscious desire for punishment for the action of killing his wife.  On the outside, James rejects he did anything wrong, and thus he runs from Pyramid Head any chance he gets.  As time goes on, the monster slowly creeps up on James, just gaining and gaining on him, just as the guilt slowly builds from James's subconscious to his consciousness.  But when he finally faces the truth, when he finally can't deny his guilt anymore, the Pyramid Head monster does not kill him.  Rather, the monster falls on his own sword.  He moves past his guilt, or at least admits to it.  It is then up to the player how James reacts to this.  Does he accept it with grace and move on with his life?  Or does he fall into misery?  Or does he get abducted by aliens or meet a dog in a control room?  OK, those last two might not have been relevant, but you get what I'm saying.  

James and Silent Hill 2 are the perfect representation of how gams can use their own confines of their medium to tell amazing stories.  The game took the basic confines of a game (enemies, bosses, combat) and used them to not only make a terrifying, harrowing experience, to tell the story of a tortured man.  If more games followed SH2's example, more games could tell brilliant character pieces.  Such as my number one protagonist...

1) John Marston
The face of a goddamn American Hero...
If I had the opportunity to make a movie based on one game, it would be Red Dead Redemption and the tragic story of John Marston.  That's how good his story is.

Let's start from the basic level.  John Marston has almost everything I love about a character: sarcasm and a silver tongue, a set of strict principles (which well fits the time, but also allows for player freedom (to a degree, which I mention later)), and a personality that allows for fantastic discussions.

Now let's go through all of those and explore why they make John so amazing.  The sarcasm and silver tongue just make John likable.  But the writing on his wit is so perfect that he has the amazing ability to insult people without them knowing.  He has a perfect was of having barbed language without facing retribution.  But it is also through this wit that we learn that he is probably the smartest and wisest man in the game.  He may not be learned or even literate, but when he mocks the people he comes across, no matter how "intelligent" or "learned" they might be, they are mere children compared to the man who has seen and done all.  There are even times when John can be presented as just plain dumb when compared to Nigel West Dickens or another "intellectual", but never ignorant or gullible.

But, due to his principles and his resiliently kind personality, John never comes across as bitter or as a sad sack, such as Max Payne in his most recent outing.  At worst, John just seems tired.  And this exhaustion is key to his character.  All he wants in the world is to go home to his wife and child, and the government is preventing that.  But he still tries to help everyone he can.  Maybe, he feels, if he helps out these strange people, he can resolve the grievances of his past.  And this is how John can expose himself to a variety of conversations.  Conversations, I believe, that expose the best parts of the game, the writing.  It is when John rides on horseback with the people he serves (and he tends to serve both sides of an issue just because he is that unbiased) that he can hear both sides of the argument.  He can ride with a Mexican revolutionary and hear how Mexico needs freedom.  And that revolutionary can convince you, the player,  that she is right.  But John seems nonchalant and at best amused.  As mentioned before, he has seen too much to truly get excited about every new revolution.  But then he can ride with a member of the oppressive Mexican government, and then that person can convince you that Mexico needs a strong government.  But once again, John just sits there and listens.  He acts a catalyst for conversations, but due to his strong backstory, he continues to be motivated by his desire to be reunited with his family, and nothing more.

But, the principles of Mr. Marston also allow him to be such a well written character that it sometimes feels that you can play the game incorrectly.  Normally, I am against such an idea.  A game should never have a wrong way to play it because that is the sign of bad writing, but in this case, the writing of a character is so well done that it is the gameplay that is in conflict with the story, rather than the other way around (once again, Mass Effect is an example of this.  A friend of min said I was playing the game wrong and thus didn't enjoy it.  If that's the case, then it's not a very well designed game to have several "wrong" avenues.)  The best example of this is doing dastardly deeds as John.  Many people have pointed out that John openly refuses the local prostitutes, as he is a Christian man who is faithful to his wife.  But then he has no problem tying said prostitutes to the railroad tracks and watching them get run over.  However, I believe that John is so well written as a man trying to solely good (or as much good as he can) that tying a woman to the tracks actually goes against the established character.  I feel that Rockstar should have excluded this from the game or at least have John mention how he despises himself for doing something evil.

But the true beauty of John Marston is (SPOILER!) his death.  His death is the only thing in video games that made me cry.  Let me set the stage: you finally killed the last of your old gang, including your mentor and father figure.  You spend a few days with your family.  Reconciling with your wife and son, both of whom are angry with you for endangering them.  You save your son from a bear attack, and he finally admits he forgives you for leaving them for your mission.  It looks like John can finally have the peaceful life he has been striving for for all that time.  But then the government comes.  What?  The deal was finished.  Agent Edgar Ross said he would leave you alone?  But now he asks whether you truly thought he would let a murderer live...even though he made you kill your old gang members.  There is a long shoot out between you and the army, as your friend is killed in action.  And then, as the army closes in, you have this brilliant moment:

I admit, I welled up.  I might have even shed a tear.  This is a character I learned to love over the course of my play through.  And to see that there was no happy ending, no riding into the just tore my heart out.  This is something no other game could do.  Not even GTA4.  Niko Bellic was a thug, a man who easily slid back into crime when he claimed he was trying to get away.  John Marston was forced, and when he finally and reluctantly fulfilled his end of the bargain, he was betrayed.  No peace.  No redemption.  Only loss.  And the looming threat of death that hung so heavily over John Marston finally came swooping down.  And you are left there to sit and stare.  

Brilliant, tragic stuff.  Stuff that no other game has been able to do and that no other character was able to convey.  I only hope Rockstar, and any other studio can create amazing moments like these.

I hope you liked this countdown.  Let the normal posts begin...NEXT WEEK!

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