Why Writing Video Game Protagonists is the Hardest Job Ever

Computer game writers have one hell of a job in front of them.

Jack Owen Gyll


Computer game writers have one hell of a job in front of them. Not only do they have to write stories that lend themselves to the interactivity that games offer, but they have to write characters that do the same. Writing the protagonist of a game, is not the same as writing the protagonist in any other medium. Why? Because of the player, of course. The player is the ultimate unreliable narrator.

Take Niko Bellic in GTA IV for example: Niko arrives in Liberty City with the intention of starting a new life, a life in which he can forget his past crimes and most importantly, a life where killing is not a daily occurrence. As soon as Niko comes under my control, the first things I do are: Drive directly down the pavement hitting as many people as possible with my car. Beat a policeman to death to steal his gun, before going on a trigger happy rampage. All this culminates when I am gunned down by a police helicopter. Niko is discharged from hospital and begins again.

Thus, Niko is not the man he said he was. Perhaps he is lying to himself, or perhaps we are to believe that he is possessed by some kind of demon (me) every time he isn’t talking to someone.

Many, if not all games are affected by this potential problem, and actually GTA IV is probably one of the games that deals with it most effectively. Niko is an excellently realised character, and his contradictory, if not downright hypocritical nature lends itself well to the game, making his actions throughout both the pre-rendered story and the in game action work mostly in unison.

The antithesis of Niko Bellic and an example of what I would call a bad character in a game, is L.A. Noire‘s Cole Phelps. Phelps is a clear cut, by the book detective. His professional and completely serious approach to things does not lend itself well to the game world. At any driving section I feel as though I am defying the game because I’m a bad driver, often using cliff edges as short cuts (once landing directly on a hot dog stand) and carelessly smashing into traffic.

It is this feeling that can work to make games less enjoyable, as you feel you’re playing it wrong. Whereas in gaming, there should never be a wrong or right way of playing. Obviously, by writing Cole this way the writers were attempting to remove our ‘GTA mentality’ and get us into the role of an LAPD officer, but it all seems too forced. There’s no in-between. It’s just good/bad, wrong/right.

But there is another big problem with Cole, and this is that you can’t trust him. Straight up, Cole is an un-likable asshole. He has a bad attitude towards people and no social skills whatsoever. Because of this, coupled with his tendency to shoot his mouth off at the drop of a hat, the player looses trust in him. When interviewing a 15 year old rape and attempted murder victim, one might want to exercise a little restraint, saying something like ‘now, we know it’s hard to talk about, but there’s nothing to be ashamed of…’ but a press of the doubt button will have Cole outright accusing her of holding back evidence, and calling her a liar.

This lead to me having a sort of fear of Cole, and I started playing the game trying to prejudge the way Cole might react to a situation rather than than keeping my mind on the case. Cole is a good example of a character who goes against the player. This happens because the player was not taken into account upon the writing of Cole.

When writing any playable character, the player must be taken into consideration. It just helps to destroy a games story and atmosphere if the actions of the player completely contradict the story. That’s why I hold characters like Solid Snake in such high regard, because, yes he is supposed to enter his missions unseen, but it wouldn’t contradict his character to go in guns blazing either. Due to the way he is portrayed in the story, anything I do makes a sort of sense. He’s a professional, yet he has a sense of humour (bordering on madness at times), meaning that it doesn’t underwrite him when I mess with the guards, knocking them out and putting them in funny positions. He’s charming, but he’s also a bit of a pervert, making it his kind of fun to take photos of Meryl or shove her and run away. Somehow, everything I, as a player can do, makes a kind of sense in the warped logic that is Snake.

And actually, that’s a point – Gaming logic is warped. Meaning that a LAPD officer who drives like a maniac doesn’t necessarily have to be unrealistic. Striving to be completely realistic in a game, is a mistake I think.

So some other examples of excellent characterisation:

Max Payne. The writers take a very interesting approach to Max. That is, they acknowledge that he’s a computer game character throughout the story. He often makes remarks about not being in control, and in one of my all time favourite computer game scenes, Max is told in a drug induced dream, that his life is a computer game. “The truth was a burning green crack through my brain.” Says Max, “Weapon statistics hanging in the air, glimpsed out of the corner of my eye. Endless repetition of the act of shooting, time slowing down to show off my moves. The paranoid feel of someone controlling my every step. I was in a computer game. Funny as Hell, it was the most horrible thing I could think of.”

With this the writers do 2 very clever things. Firstly, they remove the possibility of the player contradicting Max. The moments we take control, he is not in control. This idea is enhanced by the simple effect at the beginning of each level where the ‘camera’ rotates around Max and slides into the back of his head, literally placing us inside Max. Second, they speak directly to us, pointing out that to us, Max’s suffering is entertainment.

As I said, this happens throughout the game, and we’re often reminded that that’s exactly what Max Payne is. Another of my favourite examples is the following line from Max; “After Y2K, the end of the world had become a cliché. But who was I to talk, a brooding underdog avenger, alone against an empire of evil, out to right a grave injustice. Everything was subjective. There were only personal apocalypses. Nothing is a cliché when it’s happening to you.”

Another game which takes a similar approach is Deadly Premonition. If you didn’t play this – Do. It’s cheap, it’s badly made, and it’s absolutely one of the best games I’ve played in the last few years. Again the writers employ a simple trick which works to alienate us from the character at the same time as integrating us. The protagonist, Francis York Morgan, has an imaginary friend called Zack. It becomes very clear, very early on, that the player is Zack and through this persona, York talks directly to us.

This separates York from the player, because actually we’re playing as Zack. But also, because Zack is ‘in York’s head’ so to speak, it makes sense that he (or we) have control over York. York will often ask Zack for advice, showing that Zack has strong influence over York. So this way we can see that not all of York’s actions belong to himself.

There is something else about the writing in Deadly Premonition though – all of the characters are batshit crazy, York included. Meaning that pretty much anything in the games makes sense simply because it doesn’t make traditional sense. Seriously, I urge anyone to play this game, if just to decide for yourself whether it’s a work of genius, or absolute bollocks.

These examples here work with the concept of alienating the player from the character to a certain extent, and it works very effectively. But it’s not all they do, both these games feature fully fleshed out, believable characters who’s own nature lend them to the players actions. This is true for other games with strong characters. Commander Shepard from Mass Effect is a great character. Partially, because s/he is tailor made by us, but also because s/he is so well written.

Unlike Cole, Shepard can be trusted when in dialogue. If I want him to, he’ll act like a maniac, brandishing his gun or head butting news reporters and Korgans alike. But if I choose differently, he’ll be far more restrained and polite. Now obviously, I realise that L.A. Noire didn’t have such an in-depth conversation system as Mass Effect, but the fact remains, Shepard is a consistent, trustable character, according to our play style.

So, what is it that makes a computer game character good, and consistent with the player’s in game choices? Is it by bringing the player into the game knowing he is a player, even to an extent such as in Assassin’s Creed, whereby we know that the way Ezio is acting may not be an accurate portrayal of the man, because the entire situation is effected by Desmond and the Animus.

Or, is it through well written, fleshed out characters. Or is it both? Are there even more factors that I haven’t even considered? Whatever it is, I can only imagine that writing a protagonist for gaming must be very, very difficult, and it makes characters like John Marston from Red Dead, or Kreia from KoTOR2 just that much more impressive.