Extra Punctuation

Extra Punctuation
The Plight of the Mary Sue Character in Games

Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw | 9 Jun 2015 16:00
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Witcher 3

In my review of Witcher 3, I mentioned that Geralt of Rivia comes across as a bit of a Mary Sue, which is the generally-accepted euphemism for a character who comes across as an idealized, wish-fulfillment figure created for the author's gratification. As anyone who has spent any time on the internet should know, it's a term that grew out of the fan fiction community, but it rings true for writers of original stuff as well. I think we all went through a phase of writing stories (or indeed adventure games) about our secret desire to be abducted by aliens and become space adventurers, Starlord-style.

To give the quick crash course, the Mary Sue is really great at everything they try their hand at, physically attractive, and in the case of medieval fantasy stories, will have a really unusually modern, progressive attitude. They constantly occupy the moral high ground to such an extent that they possess an almost supernatural knowledge of what's right and good for everyone they meet. Almost as if they literally are the author in disguise. Geralt is a master swordsman (who uses two swords 'cos he's so great), magic user, alchemist, hunter and fantasy CSI technician, he's been personally involved with virtually all the important political figures in the land, and all the ladies want to knob him for his distinguished scars and buff bod.

Which I've always thought was kind of at odds with the whole narrative that witchers are supposed to be shunned and regarded as disgusting by society. And I know what you might say - surely a Mary Sue author insertion character wouldn't be written as a social pariah or considered disgusting in-universe. Well, in truth, what marks the Mary Sue is that the world revolves around them. They might not necessarily be universally loved, but they universally provoke a strong reaction. They attract either love and deep respect or hatred and fear, nothing in between. There will be very few people in the world who are indifferent and don't really give a toss about them either way.

Witcher 3

It seems to me that it would make more sense in the world of The Witcher for monster hunters to be regarded as just another professional with a necessary trade, who you wouldn't give a second thought to until you had a griffin knocking about, the same way you don't give any thought to plumbers until you have to deal with some errant poo. Indeed, the peasants Geralt meets as part of his tracking missions often seem to have this attitude, but we are still constantly informed by random dialogue (and the odd loading screen tooltip just to make sure we're paying attention) that witchers are generally reviled.

For you see, the other hallmark of the Mary Sue is that they must be a tragic figure that demands sympathy, but are never flawed or impeded by their tragedy in any way. Their impediments are either of the told and not shown variety (as with witcher hate), or the flaws and impediments are actually blatant advantages that the character can disingenuously angst about. Geralt is ostensibly considered to be disgusting because he put himself through a traumatic mutation process, the end result being that he's really good at fighting and got an advanced metabolism, with no damage to his mental faculties or physical appearance besides cool and interesting white hair and cat eyes. Oh Geralt you poor lamb. How on earth do you shoulder such a burden.

And of course most of the human characters who do immediately antagonize or dislike Geralt are established as being jealous, hypocritical, cowardly, or irrationally bigoted against witching (what would you call that, ableist? Or is it the opposite of ableist, where you're bigoted against people who are much better at things than you). All their thick peasant superstitions are of course completely unfounded because Geralt only wants to aid justice and save damsels from monsters, but he weathers their prejudice and is clearly the better man for it.

Witcher 3

So on the whole, the Mary Sue comparison remains Fairly True. But it's made me wonder if a character being a Mary Sue is as much a criticism in a video game as it is in other storytelling media. It's obnoxious in a book or a film because the author's sense of protectiveness towards the character ends up making them incredibly boring, dramatically - the author might get a kick out of their proxy self getting the respect they deserve but a third party audience has no equivalent sense of automatic attachment, they just see a dull character with no flaws and no challenges, around whom the plot inexplicably revolves. But in a video game, the plot revolves around the protagonist by necessity, and the audience does have an automatic attachment because they are controlling them. All video game protagonists are by default audience surrogates, before we even consider if they might be author surrogates as well.

The character that comes to mind is Riddick, from Riddick. Riddick is a fairly blatant Mary Sue character - he's too improbably skilled, and knowing, and clever, and nothing seems to challenge him. He worked in Pitch Black as an untrustworthy, possibly dangerous figure, but as a protagonist, he's useless; his adversities just don't feel believable enough. But I would argue that he worked perfectly well as a video game character in Escape from Butcher Bay. He's still improbably unruffled and ridiculously highly skilled in theory, but in practice, he's only as good as you are. Ultimately, that's the in-built defense mechanism video games have against protagonists becoming Mary Sues - no matter how flawless a character might seem from their attitude, backstory and prior performance, they are always able to fuck up. Riddick and Geralt can smugly roll their eyes as a trio of yokels raise their fists for a brawl, but it is entirely down to the player whether or not they will end up as a mewling pile in the middle of a circle of relentless farmyard kicks.

I hate people who ride around in convertibles with the stereo blaring, but in the past I've had opportunity to ride a passenger seat in a convertible with the stereo blaring, and I've found it strangely liberating, to think that any observer would think me a total dickbag. For we tend to forgive the dickbag when the dickbag is ourselves, because we know ourselves, and know that we are not the smug, self-assured figure we seem to be projecting. We know that eventually we have to turn the stereo off, get out of the car, lock ourselves in our bedroom, put on a cumstained sock puppet and start crying.

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