5+: Interactive Protagonists

Hello and welcome to our new weekly article series: 5+.  Think of 5+ as a top ten list series but with some serious changes.  First, these are not “top” lists as I’ll be relying on my own gaming experiences for entries and there are many games out there that I have yet to play.  I’m simply listing 5 examples of whatever topic I pick for the week and explaining why these examples stand out.  Second, after listing my own examples one week, the next week will be spent discussing five suggestions offered in the comments by you.  Remember to explain why you chose that example because I will have to rely on quoting you should I use a suggestion from a game I’ve yet to play.  If you still don’t see your favorite featured, know that I am willing to use the same subject multiple times in these columns if I am confident that I still have enough material to discuss. Finally, this series will be focusing on video games in an academic sense.  Focus on examples that bring something unique to video games as an art form.  For example, this week is focused on video game heroes that stand apart from heroes in other media.  You could suggest Master Chief for next week’s list but make your argument more substantial than you thinking that he’s a pretty cool guy who kills aliens and doesn’t afraid of anything.

Desmond Miles and the Assassins (Assassin’s Creed series)

Adapting historical events into video games is not an easy task.  Video games need to give players freedom to act upon the game at their own will while history is a defined sequence of events.  Building a game that gives the player freedom while also staying true to historic events is a difficult task for any developer.  The Assassin’s Creed series has found an effective solution for this problem with the Animus.  The historic events seen in the game are not happening in real-time but are being simulated for Desmond Miles as he tries to relive the events of his ancestors.  This context allows players to make slight deviations from events as they historically happened but does encourage them to act precisely according to history in order to achieve full synchronization.  Granted, the portrayal of history in Assassin’s Creed is far from perfect with its broad strokes of good-versus-evil and its intrusive Templar conspiracy storyline but it is still a brilliant technique at its core with unlimited potential.

Phoenix Wright (Ace Attorney series)

There are many games that we play in order to feel powerful.  As such, games that appeal to this concept tend to design the heroes to be as strong and skillful as possible.  However, the simple fact is that many players are not skilled enough to maintain the hero’s established image all throughout the game.  There are endless instances of players and, by extension,  the hero of the story making mistakes that such a character should be above committing.  It’s with this concept in mind that I have decided to give Phoenix Wright a spot on the list.  Wright is clever and passionate enough to make it through his court cases but still young and inexperienced enough that he isn’t forced to break character should the player just start guessing at answers.  Regardless of the player’s skills, Wright always acts as he himself would.

Link (The Legend of Zelda series)

I see Link as having the same benefits as sci-fi icon Doctor Who in that their backgrounds have been written in such a way that it is impossible for either character to ever truly become stale.  The spirit of the hero is reborn as a different “Link” in whatever era he is needed and is someone new every time.  There are core aspects to him that remain constant such as being too good to ever harm innocent people but still mischievous enough to raid their pottery for supplies.  However, it is rarely the exact same person appearing in two different games in the series.  This is how Link can go from a wide-eyed child in a colorful world in The Wind Waker to being a werewolf allied with a dark imp in Twilight Princess.  In fact, as one hacker has proven, Link’s character can even transcend gender with ease.  The only problem is that, while Link has the potential to star in almost any story, that potential has merely had its surface scratched in the series’ 27 year history and Link has mostly been a typical tabula-rasa protagonist.  Still, the highly malleable universe that The Legend of Zelda series offers to writers ensures that there will be plenty to said in the franchise’s many more years ahead.

Wander (Shadow of the Colossus)

Shadow of the Colossus is one of the games that people immediately put forward to prove the artistic merits of video games and for good reason.  Wander initially appears to be your typical hero on a quest to save his beloved Mono by slaying a series of fearsome monsters.  However, it quickly becomes clear to the player that something is amiss as slaying Colossi always concludes with Wander being struck with foreboding black tentacles.  The tentacles are clearly harmful to Wander and even subtly alter his appearance throughout the game.  More concerning is the battle with the fourth colossus, Phaedra, which can hardly be called a battle as the colossus makes no attempt to harm his opponent but is still slayed like the rest.  At this point, it should be obvious that the being who tasked Wander with slaying the colossi, Dormin, is scheming something but our hero continues his mission without question to the end.  By the game’s end, Wander proves to be the greatest monster of them all as his obsession with reviving Mono has blinded him to all logic and reason and puts the world at risk for his own selfish goals.

Chell (Portal series)

It is fascinating to see a character that never speaks a line and has almost no scripted actions throughout two games yet still has so much personality.  Since childhood, her only interactions have been with mad A.I.s that have tried their best to kill her.  Said machines have forced her to take part in a wide-variety of “tests” that often involve hazardous chemicals and may have left her with brain damage.  Even more than Phoenix Wright, Chell is able to perform any insane action the player instructs her to while staying completely in character whether it’s jumping to certain death or imitating the rare endangered spy-crab.  At the same time, a glimpse of an old science project of hers in Portal 2 shows that she is also intelligent enough to overcome the deranged trials she is forced to endure and ultimately defeat her adversaries.  She is the perfect avatar to carry us through the Portal games while still being a compelling character on her own.  Chell is precisely what a good video game hero should be.

That concludes our first foray into 5+.  Let me know who I missed in the comments below and I’ll see you again next week for the user picks.

Nick Connor

I'm an English major and History minor at UW-Parkside. I'm a big fan of Mega Man, Deus Ex, Okami, Civilization, Kingdom Hearts, and Team Fortress 2.

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6 thoughts on “5+: Interactive Protagonists

  1. Jack from BioShock is the most fascinating protagonist for me. He only speaks in the beginning of the game before the plane crash, but he is arguably the third most important character in the game next to Andrew Ryan and Atlas, and that’s saying a ton. The tattoos on his wrist speak volumes by themselves, and there is a ton of speculation by fans about just where Jack came from and what his life was like before the plane crash.

  2. I don’t know if this is an acceptable entry, but here it goes.

    I find myself thinking of Zero from the Megaman series. He started out as a supporting character in the Megaman X series (he was actually intended to be the main character from the start, but then Inafue decided he would be too different from the original Megaman for the audience to relate to him). Despite playing second fiddle he was still the center of attention because he was cooler than the main character, and because the story to each game always seemed to focus more on him (Megaman X 4 and 5 stick out in this regard). Zero himself undergoes an impressive journey of characterization. He started out as a villain, but turned good. He has no memory of who he used to be, but players figure out that he’s one of Dr. Wily’s last creations. He’s much more carefree than his friend, X, but he questions himself after a (robot) woman he loves becomes one of the casualties of the war he’s fighting (by his own hand no less). He spends the rest of the series as a more somber character.

    Then he gets his own series, the Megaman Zero series. After sealing himself away for a hundred years, he wakes up in the middle of a whole new war. He doesn’t remember anything from the past, and finds himself forced against his old friend, X. As his own series drags on, he stops caring who he was, and decides that helping his friends matters more. He’s much less talkative this time around, but no less powerful. He fights his way through a world that has only gotten worse over the years, and managed to make it a little bit better at the end of each game.

    One defining characteristic of Zero is humility. Despite being hailed as a hero in his own series, and having enough combat experience to back it up, he doesn’t let it get to his head. His past and story line before he got his own series also add a depth the Megaman series was lacking before. Of course, being the first hero in the series to use a lightsaber, and having some of the best themes in the entire franchise don’t hurt either.

  3. The closest I can get to having a character that I find to be exceptional would probably Commander Shepard from the Mass Effect trilogy, but I have trouble justifying it. The draw of the series, and why I like Shepard, is player choice, and as binary as it may be, it allows for the player mold their character as they see fit. He can be the perfect benevolent military leader who pulls everybody together by being virtuous, or the guy that bullies everybody into submission and doesn’t care if he dooms an entire species to extinction. Or, you can take the cannon route and be Commander Bumblefoot, stumbling your way through important decisions and arriving at a less than optimal outcome. Whatever you do, though, he represents your choices, and that I feel is where the industry should be heading.

  4. So, in this discussion of talking about heroes I always think of Vincent from Catherine as being the prime example of an outstanding hero in the sense that there is nobody else like him. Throughout the game he is constantly wrestling with the concept of marriage and living a free life outside the chains of being eternally bound in a relationship. There is no massive world-ending ordeal to overcome nor is there an enemy seeking to cause a problem that has to be stopped. All Vincent cares about is repairing (or not escaping) his relationship with Katherine. That is a unique hero.

  5. An interactive protagonist, huh? The most inspiring character I’ve come across was an anti-hero–Alucard from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Alucard storms into his father’s lair to lay waste to his greatest abominations and monsters, carving a path through anything standing in his way, all to prevent his own father from being resurrected. He does this because he knows that his father is evil (and would exploit humankind), and that humanity has proven itself capable of doing good. This sort of human pathos made Alucard’s quest a more personal one to me. He was a shining example of a character born into evil, but capable of rising to the values of reason and order. To this day, I love playing through the classic “vanquish evil” plot line, and I think that is greatly thanks to SotN’s fantastic setting and simple. bold character development.

    Plus, the voice acting was hilarious.

  6. Lee Everett from The Walking Dead would have to be one of the greatest video game protagonists in recent releases. Although the decisions are made by the player, Lee has his own distinct motivations and personality, all of which center around preserving the safety and innocence of his post-apocalyptic ward, Clementine. Telltale’s The Walking Dead allows players to make their own choices to meet the goals of a man they can’t help but identify with, despite his shady past. Lee becomes the player, as much as the player becomes Lee.

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