I appreciate that talking about the characterization in mainstream shooter games is like talking about what color flak jacket one should wear while storming a Mafia wedding, but at the same time, I hate to support the argument that a game about action and gameplay focus doesn’t also need strong writing. It’s true that good gameplay can save a badly-written game, but every now and again you get a game like Portal or Driver: San Francisco that builds upon an innovative mechanical core with good writing, hitting the ball totally out of the park and reminding me what I’m in this business for. With those examples it’s disappointing to see games being overly praised for being “good enough”.

So, a while back here in Egg & Cress Sandwich-uation I wrote a column explaining the differences between “manly” characters and “macho” characters, reaching the eventual conclusion that the former is a classically heroic but flawed, relatable figure who can get the job done but is also capable of emotion and considering his decisions carefully, while a “macho” character is a scowling slab of processed beef capable only of kill-crazy rage and generic broody angst with no apparent cause. I’d like to return to this subject by closely examining two case studies from very recent gaming history. Namely Resistance 3‘s Joseph Capelli, and Gears of War 3‘s Marcus Fenix. There’re going to be spoilers here regarding the plots of both games and major characters getting splattered, so consider yourself warned if these titles are still on your to-do list.

Both characters have problems in the way they’re written, but Capelli’s is a little more mechanical in that for some reason he only really has a character during cutscenes, and during gameplay he keeps silent. I’m tempted to say that that’s the case because Half-Life 2‘s protagonist was silent within gameplay and Resistance 3 was trying to win a bet by seeing how much they could rip off before anyone noticed. But there’s really no reason Capelli’s characterization couldn’t have been filled in with some in-game conversations. In fact, for this reason the story of Resistance 3 seems to be missing a few important chunks.

The cutscenes early on in the game show Capelli starting out on what appears to be a classic Hero’s Journey. He’s in a comfortable place with his family when the Call To Adventure arrives in the form of that beardy scientist Malikov with news that the planet’s going to explode if he doesn’t sort out the situation in New York, and he needs Capelli to escort him there. Joseph responds with a textbook Refusal Of The Call before his home situation worsens – and more to the point, his wife nags him – and he leaves with Malikov, nakedly resenting him as he does. But what’s missing from the ensuing mid-section of the story is any kind of development in the relationship between Capelli and Malikov. Which is odd, because as the final act begins (here comes that spoiler) Malikov dies a meaningless death at the hands of ignorant humans. Capelli totally goes spare, and is even seen visiting the scientist’s grave in the closing credits, despite the fact that he and Malikov hadn’t had any scenes together since the aforementioned naked resentment. They’d only interacted in gameplay, when Capelli was silent and Malikov was usually locking himself in a cupboard, ordering Joseph to go risk his life clearing the way ahead. I didn’t see any reason Capelli couldn’t have had some answering dialogues within gameplay to show him warming up to the old goat.


Meanwhile, Fenix’s problem is the opposite: He gets plenty of dialogues, but it all paints him as a complete tosser. And it’s strange, because thinking about it I can’t think of anyone in GoW3 who wouldn’t have made a better protagonist than Fenix. Despite everyone having only one character trait each, like “is sarcastic” or “wears a hat”. Fenix is the only character who never has a single moment of levity that might make him likeable to any degree at all. He exists only to bark orders and simmer with humourless rage and/or despair.

On its own, this would only make the character boring. Fenix crosses over to “unlikeable” after the shock death of (spoilers again) Dom, his usual co-op partner in the series thus far. As I said in the review, Fenix has existed in a state of unending brooding anger for so long that any additional brooding anger he gains from mourning his long-time friend is virtually unnoticeable. Shortly afterwards there’s a scene in which Fenix and pals lead the Locust to a human survivor settlement who are all promptly slaughtered. Now, bearing in mind that Fenix should have been well aware that the Locust were following him since he’d encountered them many times up to this point, the settlement’s leader quite justifiably chews him out. Fenix responds by changing the subject and whining like a fucking child: “I JUST LOST MY BROTHER!! DO YOU UNDERSTAND?!!” Yes, Marcus, I’m pretty sure he does understand, because you just killed his entire family and everyone he knew. You cunt.

All of this paints a picture of a man with the mental age of 12 who thinks only his own grief matters. You could say the same for the ending scene after it’s revealed that the Locust only invaded the surface because they were forced out of their homeland and Fenix’s dad reneged on his agreement to help retake them. All of which flies right over Fenix’s meaty head and he interrupts the Locust Queen’s valid expression of grievance by stabbing her in the gut with his big knife (Freudian imagery again), growling “THISH ISH FUR DOM”. I mean, come on. Someone explain to me what the hell kind of character arc this was supposed to be before my brain junks what memories of the series remain.

Getting back to Resistance 3, another important aspect of the Hero’s Journey is that all hope appears to be lost just before the final act. There’s a very effective cutscene as Capelli trudges alone into frozen New York with no chuffin’ idea of what he’s supposed to do when he gets there. He finds a radio that he’s not even sure is working and gives an emotional heartfelt message to his wife and child before getting up and going back out into the snow, certain that he wasn’t coming back. It’s a rather splendid character moment, but then he shakes it off and bunny hops around Times Square shooting baddies because gameplay takes over. It illustrates how tragic it is that Capelli’s cutscene characterization couldn’t be kept consistent (crikey).

The game’s plot kind of gets a bit hasty at around wrapping-up time. Despite Malikov claiming that only he would be able to destroy the Chimera tower in New York, Capelli manages it by basically doing an upscaled version of backing his car into it. But for what it’s worth, the characters work.

Resistance 3 and Gears 3 present two opposing problems. On the one hand, a relatable manly hero who isn’t given the screen time he needs. On the other, a dipshit macho hero given far too many opportunities to come across as a complete twat. Capelli’s personality combined with Fenix’s consistency, and there you have a well-written game protagonist, my friends. It also doesn’t hurt to not give them body types that look like they make a living working the door at the angry charging bull disco.

Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games and writes the back page column for PC Gamer, who are too important to mention us. His personal site is

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