This week on Cold Take, Sebastian muses about how video game developers craft unlikable characters.
There’s an Art to Making Unlikable Characters – Transcript
Amnesia! Not the game. The characters in game need to be amnesiacs. That’s the best blend between ‘the character is the player’ but ‘the character is the character.’
It takes a special mind to make smug, patronizing, too-cool-for-you characters endearing. You got your Ezios from Assassin’s Creed and your Geralts from The Witcher. But then you have characters like Frey from Forspoken. Major P-3 from Atomic Heart. If those two have taught me anything at the beginning of 2023, it’s that there’s more to it than just starting a character off with negative savoir-faire. What is it about these two that makes them so insufferable, and if they are so insufferable how do these big games end up with such fundamentally unlikable mascots?
Whether you’re attending a court hearing for your third count of felony theft, trying to sweet talk a group of thugs, or being the protagonist in a video game, the first impression is always crucial. It doesn’t even have to be a good impression. Neutral’s fine. Just don’t muck it up. The internet’s diagnosis is that Frey from Forspoken is too quippy to love. I’ve been microdosing on quips and pop culture references for decades, so I am immune to this aspect of Frey. My issue is Frey feels too untrustworthy and lacks any kind of defining character traits. For the intro, she is surrounded by NPCs with more personality than herself. The judge can’t trust Frey to be a law-abiding citizen but lets her off because the judge also had a hard upbringing. That’s a lot of empathy coming out of the judge. A bit of naivete as well. Maybe a little darkness in her. Fellow criminals can’t trust Frey because she makes off with the money, so they have to hunt her down or Big Boss takes it out on them. That’s bureaucracy at work and the moral complications of being a leader. Frey’s a little difficult to trust. She shows nary a modicum of self-preservation and really no rhyme or reason for anything.
She has a gun pointed to her head and her weapons of choice are sass and pocket sand. Her apartment is on fire and she overrides my most sensible decision to grab the sack of money at her feet before grabbing the cat. The very money that we keep getting arrested for. The same money that puts us at odds with other criminals. The money we are basing our hopes and dreams on is going up in smoke for reasons beyond my understanding.
Who does this? Who-who precisely? Who is Frey? Frey ain’t a character yet. She is sass and unfortunate circumstances. She’s an abandoned homeless street urchin running from the law, running from thugs, and running her mouth without anything else of note. I love street urchin characters, but they need something besides their circumstances to latch on to. They need character traits. Some kind of wit, some kind of humanity–more than just saving her own cat. That’s not even a show of humanity. That’s a – that’s a Turing Test. You’re some kind of a robot if you didn’t try to save Homer. When trying to make people latch on to your characters there’s no cutting corners.
Atomic Heart’s protagonist doesn’t start off on the wrong foot per say. The strange disjointed dialogue is more of a slight stumble, but most of my judgment is aimed at the developers and not necessarily Major P-3. Not a good first impression, not a bad one either. It isn’t until he says more lines that I realize I’m playing as the tried and true Angry Macho Man Main Character. Again, not too bothered– I myself have voiced an Angry Macho Man Main Character. The problem is he is only angry and he’s, relatively speaking, not all that macho given the circumstances. I feel as if the developers at Mundfish locked me inside of a car with a gorilla, and at times I am begging them to please stop pissing off the monkey while I drive.
Let’s talk Doom Guy (2016) for a second. He’s a fairly straightforward Angry Macho Man Main Character. He rips and he tears. It’s hard to imagine a (doom) guy like that would be bothered to stand still and listen to audio logs when he could be redecorating Hell with his favorite shotgun. He may come off as lacking restraint, but he ain’t reckless. As he waits to see the immediately important information first. Then smashes the monitor and goes on about his merry way in defiance of the man trying to talk to him and in defiance of the developers at id Software. He’s a man of focus, commitment, sheer will and complete irreverence–more than just angry. He ain’t amused by the likes of demons trying to kill him or his own developers trying to lead him around. So while it may be a surprise later on that he takes the time to fist bump a tiny figurine version of himself, it ain’t a stretch of the imagination. “Of course! That’s so Doom Guy of him.”
Back to P-3. He is only ever angry. I understand a man might be a little miffed after crashing out of the sky during a robot uprising, and his hyper aggression is medically linked to the plot, but the direction of his ire is oddly specific. He berates the NPCs for talking to him–even if he was the one who asked them for more information. He hates hacking locks, which you need to unlock routinely for normal progression and optional side stuff. He abhors the sexed up vending machine – as he should. His frustration with the level design grows until it feels like he’s trying to send a fiery, and often justified, middle finger hurling through the 4th wall at the developers. “The smartest security measure these eggheads could come up with for their top secret underground science bunker is a 4-part scavenger hunt?!” I’m paraphrasing. But it almost feels like P-3 is aware that he is in a questionably designed video game and he is not happy whatsoever. There’s actually only two things in the entire game he does enjoy: communism and hedge mazes. He gleefully loses his mind over getting to solve a hedge maze. Which I think speaks more to the high demand and low supply of video game hedge mazes these days than any redeeming qualities P-3 might have.
I have one exception for one-dimensional Angry Macho Main Characters, and that is the gameplay. I spent months of my life hearing the melodic raging sounds of Dr. Edward Richtofen, Tank Dempsey, Nikolai Belinski, and Takeo Masaki in the Call of Duty zombie modes. They almost become a part of the soundtrack. Just as the sound of a malfunctioning blender is a feature not a flaw in dubstep, rampaging super soldiers swearing and hollering help to sell the tone of the war zone. This is the kind of game where having a rampaging gorilla is seen as a positive. However, Atomic Heart isn’t serving up a mindless shoot ’em up bonanza. It has about equal parts stealthing, fighting, talking, puzzling and running awaying so his crass and brash yodeling doesn’t meld with the tone of the game at times. Even if the tone of the game at times sounds like classic ballet songs remixed to be more hip hop or death metal – that’s not a metaphor – the tonal dissonance for the rest of the game is at the mercy of P-3’s anger issues.
We’ve covered the what. Now let’s shift to the how. The second half of the burning question I presented at the start is how video game developers end up with these fundamentally unlikable characters as their mascots. I like to think games are a product of their time and Atomic Heart wears its inspiration on its sleeves, the most blatant being Bioshock. So if Mundfish are taking inspiration from as far back as 2007, it starts to paint a picture of where P-3’s spicy DNA comes from. Booker DeWitt from Bioshock Infinite is a self-loathing investigator. Alex Mason from Black Ops shares a closer backstory and rage molecules with P-3. His english-dubbing voice actor seems to be channeling his best Sam Worthington crossed with Jensen Ackles from Supernatural, the latter happens to have done the trailer for the game so there’s a type going on here. P-3’s biggest failing isn’t that he’s derived from so many other Angry Macho Man Main Characters, it’s that he didn’t take any of their other personality traits or even a justifiable backstory from the characters he pays homage to.
And this goes to my final and favorite piece of speculation: P-3 is the main character of the wrong game. I’ve already established how he feels like he belongs in a Call of Duty zombies mini-mode from 2010, a four-player wave-based shoot-em-up. But that’s not Atomic Heart. Strangely enough, that’s exactly the kind of game Mundfish originally tried to make with Soviet Lunapark in 2018. It is a discontinued VR game with a lot of assets that can still be found in Atomic Heart such as locations, enemies, and characters. Looking at old gameplay videos, I see a much more rambunctious and gratuitously gorey game where a single-note Angry Macho Man Main Character could thrive as the frontman. Upon further inspection one of the characters even had a Rage meter underneath their Health bar, which can be used to activate special abilities. Not only is P-3 narratively better suited for this sort of environment, Soviet Lunapark had game systems in place to give more depth to his shallow anger. It seems no one questioned whether this rage fueled super soldier was still the right mascot for a game with a different tone and core gameplay loop in later development, or someone stayed attached to the original idea and kept him in anyways.
Curious enough, that’s what I feel happened in Forspoken as well. One of the writers for Forspoken, Gary Whitta, has gone on record to say the end result is completely different from what he had originally pitched. It’s not unheard of for the final version of a game to deviate drastically from the source material. But it’s like botox, you only notice and talk about the botched ones. I know two big releases with awkward dialogue doesn’t sound like a lot. It’s just weird that it’s been so notable and so recent. People are talking and my recency bias has me wondering if these two are the initial drops of an incoming flood, or if they’re the final two straws that break the design by committee camel’s back. Will a new fighter enter the ring in March? One bigger, stronger, and more unappealing than the one in January and February? Looking at you, Crime Boss: Rockay City.