Why Are Most Videogame Characters Total Dicks?

I’ve just finished Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, a first-person parkour game about Faith Connors and a scrappy band of outlaw runners and hackers who deliver secret packages under the noses of an oppressive corporate government. By rights you should root for these underdogs. If only they weren’t all dicks.

There’s your mentor Noah, who obviously cares about you, but whose limited screen time means the major impression they leave is of grumping and yelling at you. There’s Icarus, cocky hotshot runner, who is arrogant and heckling and who, even when he softens slightly, still wears a sleeveless hoodie with sunglasses and elbow length gloves all the time. Faith is no delight either, with an emotional range that stretches from “grumbling” to “belly-aching”. The game is 11 hours-ish long and I think I remember one smile and one self-consciously bad joke.

That’s only one game, though. Surely there are others with more pleasant characters?

Overwatch seemed a safe bet, with its roster of colourful cartoon champs, including talking gorillas, cowboys, snow-loving scientists and more. Yet listen to the voice lines for each of them in-game: they’re almost all cocky and arrogant. Hanzo is a traditional Japanese samurai-inspired character, tormented with guilt over the killing of his brother, yet his voice lines include gloating “Never second best” and “You have been judged.” Every character is similarly, when in-game, either mainly neutral (“I see a sniper.”) or bragging. And even the neutral lines are often delivered with an obnoxious “aren’t I a cool badass” drawl.

There are reasons for that, including that it’s a multiplayer game that’s relating valuable information to players. But I think there are other assumptions at work.

For one, I think they’re assuming that players want to brag like braggy jerks after each kill, to taunt strangers or friends. For another, I think they’re trying to imagine the kinds of people who might spend their entire lives fighting, as these characters do, and then assuming that means an outgoing confidence that surfaces as braggadocio. Same as Mirror’s Edge. Same as all games.

Finding videogame characters who are pleasant, who actually seem to enjoy each other’s company, is remarkably difficult. The few instances I can think of stand out.

For example, how much of Half-Life 2’s success lies in simply how much the characters seem to enjoy one another? Barney is happy to see Gordon at the start of the game, smiling and jokingly referencing moments from their past. Alyx is cocksure, but she’s gently ribbing with it rather than swaggering, and you also see her concern for her dad or the way she plays with d0g. Eli fits other stereotypes, but he’s warm and welcoming and close friends with Kleiner, and when they’re all in a scene together there’s real banter between them. You understand why they spend time together and the history they have with one another. You want to spend time with them, too.

I crave this more. Games keep assembling ensemble casts and then having you hang out with them again and again over the course of hours, much like many television shows do. But even the darkest television shows tend to remember to include moments of levity and kindness among the srs bsns. With a couple of exceptions, even Game of Thrones’ most dick-ish of characters are seen cracking a smile or demonstrating moments of kindness or simply expressing something other than grumbles. Not so games.

Not all villains are villainous dicks 100% of the time. Not all heroes are cocky dicks 100% of the time. Give me humans who act like friends sometimes, to the player and each other, and I’ll be much happier.

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  1. Thulsa Hex says:

    I agree 100%! The worst jerks are the cock-sure, “I’m sooo good at this so I can afford to be a jerk” jerks. Perhaps they’re the worst because they’re so abundant.

    Half-life 2 is defo a great example of the opposite. The mix of concern and relief shown by Alyx when she sees you’ve escaped a tricky situation is just… nice. Also, the first time any of the scientists see you in HL2 they visibly light up. “Gordon, is that you?!” Lovely :)

    Perhaps it’s more common to “have nice friends” in RPGs, but another pleasant one off the top of my head is Zoltan in the Witcher. Any time you bump into him he’s all, “WAHHHEEYYYY, GERALT!” Good ol’ Zoltan.

    • AutonomyLost says:

      That’s funny, as Mr. Chivay was a character who immediately sprung to mind when thinking of genuine pals of the protagonist. It is a strange and lovely thing that even a virtual personality can evoke a smile and sense of history. I suppose that’s what strong writing and consideration can yield.

      But yeah, most characters are dicks.

    • lokimotive says:

      I feel like most of Geralt’s companions have a generally amiable countenance to them. Even Lambert and Eskel behave, expectedly like school friends. Lambert’s a bit of a dick, but you can still have a drink with him. I think a lot of that is just good writing; The Witcher 3 can afford to fully develop it’s characters, having them express doubts, concerns, and other aspects of their personality, along with other characters weighing in on their opinion of them

      • Louis Mayall says:

        Yeah, when I ran into Dandelion and Zoltan for the first time in £, I was genuinely pleased to see them, as you would with an old friend. There needs to be more of this.

    • Rindan says:

      Alyx was great. I loved how human she was. She was a bad ass, but still human. I think one of my favorite scenes with her was when you are on that train that derails filled with strapped down zombie people. She end up with a zombie person right in her face but unable to get at her. It is a pretty scary moment in the game. So she gets out of it like a bad ass, but once out of the train and is like, “I need a moment.” She doesn’t cry or anything, but you see her take a moment to collect her self because she just had a fucked up moment. She takes a few breathes and is like, “okay, let’s go.”

      It is brilliant. You see it finally really get to her, she processes it a little, and then soldiers on. The moment of human weakness makes her strength so much more believable. You see that this fucked journey does have consequences and that it is hard, and then she gets it together and soldiers on. I think Alyx is still one of the most believable humans in a video game to this day.

      • Horg says:

        Also that moment a bit later on in the pitch black parking lot where she pretends to be a zombine the first time your flash light runs out of juice, just to playfully spook you.

        • Premium User Badge

          phuzz says:

          I don’t think that bit’s tied to a particular place, just whenever it’s dark and you don’t have your torch on.
          I had just turned mine off to recharge in a dark hall way when I thought it was safe.
          Then I hear a zombie right behind me and span round panicking, only to have Alyx start laughing at me.
          One of the most human parts in any game for me.

          • skittles says:

            I always thought it a bit dumb actually. Sneak up on and spook a heavily armed psychopath that has killed countless humans and aliens. Short trip to being dead.

      • Dr. Raven Darktalon Blood says:

        That exact moment with Alyx was the first time I ever felt real empathy towards a videogame character.
        Stupid bloody mute Gordon not giving her a hug, damnit man !

        • FeepingCreature says:

          I choose to believe that’s just an engine limitation. Because obviously you did, come on man.

          For a similar thing, in the game Transistor you play as a singer who loses her voice. So .. the game gives you a “hum” button. When you press it, your character hums along to the soundtrack. It has absolutely no gameplay value. And I absolutely love it.

    • snowgim says:

      I believe in the industry this is known as the “Poochie Effect”.
      Actually probably not, but it should be. If it had a name it might not keep happening.

  2. Premium User Badge

    alison says:

    Great post. Even though I mostly play adventure games, which tend to be better at this than most genres, I still find a lot of the dialog and characterization lacking compared to television or books. I am not sure why games tend to fail so hard here – it’s not like they don’t have the budget to bring in good writers these days.

    • Zekiel says:

      Yes, I really appreciated this post too.

      My pet opinion is that writing is highly under-rated. You still get blockbuster films with awful writings (*cough* Transformers) even though with their budget even buying in an amazing writer would be trivial. I think games, as a younger medium, are even more prone to not putting enough emphasis on getting the writing to work well.

      • laggerific says:

        I’m looking at you, Bethesda!

        The writing on the Fallout games, and even the Elder Scrolls…the writing in all the books and journals all sound like they came from the same voice, and feel extremely gamey, and not at all organic.

        Now the Ultima series…that one had great books and journals to discover.

  3. Grizzly says:

    I actually found some of the overwatch quibs to be rather fun though: The best bits are at the start of the round, where the significantly happier heroes often banter with eachother in funny ways – It even has dialogue for having two tracers on the team.

    I kinda dislike how HL2 went about with it’s characters who seemed to go too much in the other direction, where the entire cast seems to constantly adore your presence despite you, as in that world you are a legendary figure and you are treated as such by almost everybody – but I’d expect there to be more people to feel a bit less enthusiastic about it all after 20 years of living under rule that resolves around mutating people into slavery. The cast feels designed around providing you with constant encouragement to a Valvian sense of perfection, but that’s exactly why it feels off to me – Especially since Gordon can’t actually talk back. It feels a bit like Dora the Explorer in a way that other games that pull the mute character trope, like Dishonoured or the Metro series, do not. Yes, the characters do enjoy eachother, but the way they enjoy you just seems off.

    The game that, I feel, shines in believable social interaction in characters is Left 4 Dead, where the characters respond to eachother partly in ways that are related to how often and how these characters interacted: A team which suffers trough a few too many friendly fire incidents tends to be a bit less warm then a team where people have been constantly covering each other and helping eachother up. The responses that they have when a character dies is not a random sample, but based on the amount of teamplay happening.

    The obvious mention is Saint’s Row 4, which also builds itself around characters simply having a whole lot of fun despite their entire life story being based around screwing others over. It’s a big leap from SR3, but it works!

    Thulsa does have a point in The Witcher (and any Bioware RPG) which also had a great supporting cast which felt genuinely heartwarming in many a case and…

    … I think I have played of more games where people show warmth and affection then I can think of games where the cast is simply just dicks. I don’t play most games though.

    • Thulsa Hex says:

      I agree that it can sometimes feel a bit off to play the silent protagonist in an FPS where everyone’s a bit “yay for you!”, but for whatever reason HL2 worked for me. Perhaps it had something to do with the giddiness of finally being back in Half-Life — not only was it exciting to be back, but all you friends are excited to have you back, too. Probably more likely is that these guys were some of the most natural feeling NPCs ever seen in a game, back in 2004.

      Conversely, the same approach fell flat for me in Dishonored, partly due to delivery, partly due to not feeling too invested in the implicit history (the nice boatman was an exception, though). I’m glad that they’re going with voiced protagonists with the sequel.

      • Grizzly says:

        They are? Rad! I loved the DLC for Dishonoured partly for that reason.

        • Thulsa Hex says:

          I haven’t gotten around to the DLC yet, but must fix that! I owned Dishonored on console though, so I’ll have to pick up the PC version in a sale.

          • qrter says:

            The DLC basically is what the main game’s campaign should’ve been (except there are still way too few upgrade options for stealthy players).

        • Arkayjiya says:

          Yeah they don’t really have a choice, seeing as you can choose to play as Emily or Corvo, you need a voice for the one you’re not playing (unless the other disappear from the screen at the start but that’s not reasonable xD) and since it can be either they need to voice both.

        • GameCat says:

          Yeah, they do.
          And that’s awesome, since for me one of the worst flaws of Dishonoured 1 is a fact that Corvo doesn’t speak at all.

          • Xigageshi says:

            Gordon being silent was always the one big thing that bugged me in HL2, which I otherwise really liked, but strangely it has never really registered to me that Corvo never talks in dishonored until you guys mentioned it here, and I absolutely adored and replayed it at least three or four times.

  4. Andy_Panthro says:

    Ultima VII (both parts) are great examples of having a great variety of NPCs, only some of whom are total dicks. In particular, it was a great early example of party member interactions (in scripted areas, admittedly, and mostly in part 2).

    But for a more recent game I’d probably point to Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which also seemed to have a few good characters in there. Also Dishonored for Sam the boatman, but not so much for the rest of the cast.

    For the worst recent games I’d probably point towards some examples from Mass Effect or Fallout 3/4, in which there are some truly awful characters and what’s worse, you sometimes aren’t even allowed to just shoot them in their smug faces! (Well, you can in FO3/4 in some cases, but in others you just briefly knock them out).

    • Premium User Badge

      keithzg says:

      Dishonored’s plot justifies the dickishness of most of the cast (not that it gives them an out, I mean in the sense that it seems in-character for most of the conspirators to be dicks, as well as most of the aristocracy). In fact, I rather like that, and how it contrasts with how fundamentally decent of a person Sam the boatman appears to be.

      And actually, I’d say The Outsider mostly avoids being a dick; he seems to be genuinely intrigued by Corvo, and there’s a fascinating curiosity in his voice which elevates what on the face of it is a standard trope of a powerful godlike being toying with mortals.

      • qrter says:

        The Outsider is barely a character, more a bunch of cliched prose woodenly read by an actor.

    • Zekiel says:

      Human Revolution is interesting because the best interaction in the game (imho) is Adam and Pritchard. And Pritchard *is* a dick, but he’s a dick who is on your side, doesn’t turn out to be a traitor, and you get some nice banter between them. That’s a great example of dickishness done well and being enjoyable to experience.

      • Thulsa Hex says:

        Yeah, Pritchard being a dick worked because you could intuit that it’s a bit of a facade and likely down to self-consciousness. He’s more nuanced than he wants to admit.

        I guess you could say that dickishness works in narratives if the character is well written and feels somewhat natural. The shithead egoists we get in too many other games are based on tired, vapid, and largely unrealistic tropes.

      • Scripten says:

        One could write an entire article on the way that Pritchard worked in HR. Possibly one of the best-written “jerk” characters, with real character development and depth, in gaming. Certainly beats out Mass Effects’ “jerk” characters. (Probably down to how few of the companions are not just outright decent people.)

    • PopeRatzo says:

      I don’t know what companions you had in Fallout 4, but Curie couldn’t get enough of me.

      • Andy_Panthro says:

        The problem with Fallout 4 is less the companions (although I only ever used Dogmeat and Nick Valentine, the others didn’t interest me), but with the other characters you meet. Like the annoying Minutemen, who constantly seem to berate you for whatever actions you take (I wish I’d never even talked to Mama Murphy, let alone give her all those drugs she asked for…).

        For a game in which you can rack up a kill count in the hundreds very easily, it also has quite a few key characters that are immortal, and it felt like most of the immortal ones were the most annoying…

        • Distec says:

          Speaking of annoying, immortal NPCs…

          link to shamusyoung.com

          Maven Black Briar from Skyrim really stands out to me as a recent example. All of her dialogue seems designed to arouse the player’s frustration with her and there’s no way to deliver her comeuppance because the game has marked her as an essential character. Skyrim is littered with a number of assholes that you should be able to rightfully crush or undermine given your uber-warrior abilities and prowess, but no. Bethesda either decided these irritating foils are necessary for some level of dramatic tension or they didn’t give them any thought at all.

          • Andy_Panthro says:

            Shamus & friends have made so many very good points on this issue, especially regarding Bethesda games.

            He also wrote a huge series of posts on Mass Effect (whole series), which was a great read.

          • Nick says:

            Remember when in Morrowind you could kill anyone? It would tell you after that it fucked up the story but it actually let you keep playing if you wanted to?

            That was also the last time they gave a shit about the world they had established.

    • sicanshu says:

      It’s interesting that you’d mention Mass Effect, which I would have used as an example of some of the most likeable characters in gaming (Garrus, Thane, Tali, Wrex, and Mordin all come to mind). Even the ones who are dicks generally have some backstory for why they’re that way. If you don’t mind my asking, which characters didn’t you like?

      • lglethal says:

        I have to agree. I thought the companions in Mass Effect were some of the best written characters I’ve come across – Shepherd and Garrus especially, that one scene where your shooting cans, if that isnt one of the best “buddy” scenes in any medium I’ll eat my hat! :)

      • Andy_Panthro says:

        I’m being unfair on Mass Effect, I liked most of the first game’s cast (except Udina, who seemed like a badly written jerk), but the second was a different kettle of fish. You had characters like The Illusive Man and Miranda who I couldn’t stand, and yet couldn’t get rid of either. Mordin was great though (and maybe Legion?).

        I think I just grew a bit resentful of the characters because I really didn’t enjoy ME2 (and consequently didn’t bother with the third game at all). It’s such a long game to be stuck with characters you don’t like. If I could have kept just a core of the ones I did like, then I would have had a better opinion of it (but I guess they needed that big crew for the suicide mission bit).

        • sicanshu says:

          That’s fair. I mean, it stands to reason that if you’re not digging the game itself, characters that might otherwise just be mildly off-putting would become major irritants (looking in your direction, Miranda). Personally, since ME2 is my favorite game of all time (well, maybe tied with Planescape: Torment), I just kind of ignored the more obnoxious characters and focused on the ones I liked. Still, to each their own.

        • Distec says:

          The thing about Udina is that I wouldn’t have considered him a badly written character until ME3, when he basically goes from being a duplicitous, pragmatic politician to an out-and-out traitor to humanity.

          It’s been some time since I played the trilogy. I just remember that while Udina was a jerk, there were a few times he actually was in Shephard’s corner. Some of his questionable actions were at least seen as motivated by the will to protect humanity’s interests in a galaxy of hostile forces. You didn’t have to agree with him, but he wasn’t the unscrupulous power-hungry political stereotype they could have easily made him.

          It’s unfortunate that anything that came into contact with Cerberus in ME3 got a horrid case of the derps.

        • Nick says:

          I liked ME2 overall (some horrible monents and ocasional awful writing aside), but Miranda was just terrible. Her and Jacob were possibly the worst written characters in modern RPGs up till that point. They stood out especially given they were alongside the likes of Mordin or the rest of the crew. Hell, even that guy who everyone died around in all his stories was more of a character and more engaging.. and I don’t even remember his fucking name.

          • KhanSolo says:

            Zaeed Massani, the absolute beast of a companion. My all time favorite companion in ME2. What a beast.

  5. yhancik says:

    As flawed as it was, Else Heart.Break() had some nice characters too :)

  6. caff says:

    We need more disillusioned, satiric characters. Most of my coworkers and I survive the week by mocking our lives generally.

    • Zekiel says:

      Geralt? Ezio? Wolverine? I like that character type but I think we have quite a few of them.

    • Emeraude says:

      This throws me back to a conversation I had with a friend recently, he thinks the “dicks” characters are born out of upper middle-class self-centered writers trying to deliver what they think is empowering lower-class heroes but wrapping them up with their own hyper-individualistic ethos.

      The old sarcastic characters being the produce of people that understand that lower classes are more about sharing the burden, even if its only symbolically through quips.

      I don’t know that I agree, but I find it interesting nonetheless.

      • dangermouse76 says:

        I’d say it’s true that the rich disproportionately have access to the creative industries. Not their fault they wanna follow their dreams like anyone. But there is an imbalance of the working class view and experience in the arts,acting especially.

        Although the UK can be a little obsessed with being seen as or achieving middle class recognition.

        Does that apply here, I’m with you, not sure. Maybe.

      • Ako says:

        I think most video game characters are not “lower class” in any sense of the word.

        • Emeraude says:

          I don’t think so either, but then I remember that comment from one Human Revolution writer – I think Mary DeMerle – about Jensen being a “common man” hero figure, and it keeps me thinking.

  7. Cyphran says:

    I think some of it is down to how easy of a trope ‘total dick’ is to write. One only has to write basically in one key not worrying about depth or complexity. And since the writing is simpler the voice acting can be less deep as well. There’s a knock-on effect of simplicity.

    • Zekiel says:

      I agree. It really is not difficult to write a dick, even one that feels realistic. Conversely writing nice interactions between characters can easily come off as artificial or twee if you get it wrong. Dicks by defintion don’t care about other characters so their interactions can just be [sarcastic quip] [grumpy agreement].

  8. seroto9 says:

    In my experience, most game creators act like…their characters, and they hang out together, so they think that’s normal.

    • Blackcompany says:

      Based on footage of everyone ranging from David Braben and Chris Roberts to the godawful writers for Far Cry 3 (who thought they were far better writers than they in fact are) I think you might be on to something. They basically are all egotistic, elitist jerks who sing each others praises and spend time with people who do the same.

      Maybe they really have normalized this sort of behavior…

      • phlebas says:

        David Braben comes across as Elitist? I’m shocked.

        • Skabooga says:

          How dare anyone impugn Braben’s good character. He’s a Star Citizen.

  9. Benratha says:

    Maybe – Dragons Dogma?
    Ok so most of your supporting cast spends their time spotting the bleedin’ obvious, but in their own way are quite supportive. And the main character (at the point to which I’ve played) seems an OK person

    • GWOP says:

      You have just started, haven’t you?

      • Eight Rooks says:

        I beat the game on PS3 (and got some way into it on Steam) and still loved the pawns by the end. They’re not “characters”, and they do talk far, far too much, but at the same time I really liked the general air of positivity, so whatever Benratha has or hasn’t played of DDogma I’d certainly include it here.

  10. Jamesworkshop says:

    Jade and Pey’j had an awesome relationship

    • Arkayjiya says:

      BG&E is a wonderful game for so many reasons… But its pure idealism is one of them. It’s so endearing to see them interact with each other or the kids they’re sheltering.

  11. reggiep says:

    I suspect that these dickhead characters have more general appeal to the teabagging douchebags that pervade gaming culture. Garbage in, garbage out.

  12. jonahcutter says:

    Vermintide has excellent characterizations and interaction. Yes, some (the elf in particular) have some dickishness about them. But it’s based largely on long-established Warhammer lore, and actually reinforcing it. It’s not because they’re surly and emo. It also is written as more ribbing between team members who are actually relying on each other in a desperate situation.

    As well, the banter between them can actually be encouraging or congratulating, or even warning each other to exercise caution. It’s really well done.

    For that matter Vermintide’s inspiration, Left 4 Dead, had excellent, characterization-based banter. The characters could be dickish at times, and even brag, but it rarely made them come across as, outright arrogant dicks or emo posturing. It reinforced aspects of their character and the situation they were in.

    • Chillingjcrazy says:

      Unfortunately, the elf reached the upper limit on jerkass for me and the guys I played with. Maybe we just got unlucky, but for some reason her character banter was near constant and almost each line was a brag or insult. Eventually, no one in our group of 3 would play her purely because we found her that bad. She was our AI meatshield.
      Agreed though on every other character in that game being enjoyable. Even the inquisitor has few funny moments between him and that fire witch lady.

  13. genoforprez says:

    Although video games are traditionally perceived as a nerd’s hobby, there is a certain flavor of gamer that is unquestionably the “jock” of the game world—the nerd jock. “Jock” describes an attitude more than anything, and that’s what all of these characters are. And often times the gamers themselves.

    There are great non-jock characters out there, though. Beyond Good & Evil, Half-Life 2, Alan Wake, Psychonauts. There are especially a lot if you start looking into genres like adventure games (i.e. the point and clicky kind).

    Games that involve shooting guns seem to pretty much be jock attitude games 99% of the time, both on screen and off. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    • Loam says:

      Which is a damn shame really, it’s mechanically fun to virtually sproing around aiming at things and all, whether it’s Splatoon or Robot Roller Derby Disco Dodgeball or [generic shooter here], and it’s more often done up in ways that are not only boring/unoriginal but also actively annoying or unpleasant.

    • Arkayjiya says:

      “Games that involve shooting guns seem to pretty much be jock attitude games 99% of the time, both on screen and off. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯”

      Although the author use Overwatch as an example (there are definitely some arrogance in a few of the lines and of course certain characters such as Reaper or Hanzo), it’s still an example of shooting game in which you can find pure likeable and optimist character. Tracer is a good example (spoiler for the short movie alive: her complete disbelief at the fact that something so bad could happen is extremely endearing) but it’s far from the only one.

      • Person of Interest says:

        The character in Overwatch with most dickish skills, Mei, also has the least arrogant voice lines: “We can do it together!” and “Sorry! Sorry, sorry, sorry…” (appropriate for whenever I accidentally wall off my teammates from the capture point).

    • Kreeth says:

      Beyond Good and Evil, but also Sands of Time – the way the Prince starts out as a total arsehole but grows throughout the game, and the relationship with Farah, was lovely writing. Ubisoft had two games right next to each other with fantastic characters. What happened to them? *cries*

      • bill says:

        I remember Sands of Time actually standing out at the time because it was one of the first games I’d played where the characters actually felt like real people.

        Then, of course, the sequel took the prince and made him into exactly the kind of jerk/jock character that game developers/publishers/gamers seem to love.

  14. Gregoire Simpson says:

    While I like the outline of this article, I find it coming back to a reoccuring problem regarding games discussion. Video/computergames should be regarded as a medium rather than a genre. Few would think of comparing dialogue in a post match sports interview, with dialogue in HBO dramas just because they’re both shown on tv.
    Overwatch and, let’s say the Longest Journey, are both seen as computer games, even if they deal with totally different themes and aim for totally different consumers.

    I still agree to some extent that “games” are well populated by “total dicks”, but cocky mmo sport stars, should not be compared with mellow point and click heroines, just because they’re both displayed on a computer screen, because they’re completely separate things.

    • Loam says:

      Sometimes, a particular medium in a particular time and place comes to be dominated by particular tropes and — yes — particular genres. So it is not unreasonable to talk about trends among “TV plots” or “movie dialogue” or “videogame characters”.

      • Gregoire Simpson says:

        Good point for sure, but don’t you agree that video games are becoming to wide and including to really work as a meaningful definition in this matter?
        What I’m lacking in this sense is a specific prefix to avoid unneccessary confusion. Players of Fifa and NFL don’t neccessarily share the same experiences as players of Deepets dungeon and FTL, just because they use the same gamepad or consoles.

    • brentkc49 says:

      Writing is definitely one of those things that I’m starting to value more as I become more selective about gaming purchase (thanks, student loans). I mean, I love Total HammerWar: War of the Hammers as much as the next tactics nerd, but it is an entertaining game (not saying there’s anything wrong with that…). Some of the best stuff I’ve seen recently isn’t just entertaining, it’s engrossing. Like a good TV show, you want to just keep going until you find out what happens next, and you grow attached to the characters. For instance, I just finished up Life is Strange last Monday, and while that game had some definite faults, I loved the characters and the world they were in, and the ending was absolutely crushing to a sleep-deprived Brent at 11:43 PM. What I’m trying to say is, we get emotionally invested in characters in film and TV and their struggles all the time, and I’d like to see that more in video games as well. And of course, there should still be room for your Overwatches and LoLs, just like there’s room for a Boyhood as well as a Transformers.

      • brentkc49 says:

        Um, well… I thought that was going to go on its own string. Hello everyone, I’m new here! Please excuse me while I break everything. *puts on jacket and knocks over vase*

  15. draglikepull says:

    This may seem like a weird tangent for a video game site, but bear with me for a minute:

    I was listening to an interview with pro wrestling commentator Jim Ross where he talked about the changing nature of good guys vs bad guys in pro wrestling. He said that there aren’t really any bad guys (“heels” in wrestling terminology) any more because everyone wants to be “cool”. And there’s this idea that what’s “cool” is being a kind of tough, anti-authoritarian bad-ass. So you wind up with this weird muddle where the good guys and the bad guys are basically the same because everyone is aiming for this very narrow idea of what it means to be cool.

    Ross said that what really makes good bad guys is that you want to hate them. A proper heel isn’t cool, he’s a coward. He cheats, he lies, he sneaks around to get in cheap shots and runs away as soon as it looks like he might get caught in a fair fight. Wrestlers don’t want to be that kind of bad guy any more because getting cheers is more fun than drawing boos, but for the story to work someone has to play that role.

    I think there’s something similar going on in a lot of games, particularly the big budget games, where there’s a desire for every character to be “cool” (ie. a tough, anti-authoritarian bad-ass), and it results in the same kind of muddle. When that happens, the good guys and the bad guys mostly look the same, and the story suffers, just like it does in wrestling. I don’t think games necessarily need simple good vs evil stories (those can often be boring and full of cliché), but I do think this quest to make every character fit a very narrow definition of “cool” results in some bad storytelling and a lot of unsympathetic protaganists.

    • maninahat says:

      It’s the same with most forms of media. Look at superhero movies and how much they act like smug arseholes around each other. You could blame Joss Whedon for having samey voices for all his characters (and I do), but its across the board. Spiderman went from nerdy do-gooder to skater dude t-shirt model within the space of ten years. In the Avenger movies, everyone is always bickering or trying to score points – even the boy scout Cptn America and the boisterous puppy Thor.

      • Andy_Panthro says:

        Games love to ape films, and films for a while have had a problem with every hero having to be an “anti-hero”, and while they aim for the likes of Snake Plissken (or insert favourite anti-hero of choice here!), they usually fall far from the mark.

        Interesting you put Captain America in there, since I have friends who consider him boring because he’s not moody, cynical, sarcastic, etc.. (although he was much more moody in Civil War, but I felt that was justified).

        • bill says:

          I think you both make very good points. (and Jim Ross!)

          It’s been developing in movies for decades, but these days every hero has to be a gritty tough dark sarcastic anti-hero.
          These were fresh at one time, as they stood out against the whiter-than-white golden age heroes. But they mainly appeal to the teenage boy idea of what is cool, “grown up” and “realistic”.

          Games, of course, have been trying to ape movies for a long time, and game publishers are going after the teenage boy market – hence almost every character has to be of the aforementioned anti-hero cloth.

          The changes to Superman, Spiderman, Batman etc.. are a great example of that in the movies.
          The changes in the characters from Prince of Persia – Sands of Time to Warrior Within are a great example of the exact same thing in games.

    • Xigageshi says:

      This is absolutely the problem I think, it’s almost less a writing problem than a marketing problem, because of the still prevalent attitude that 14 to 24 year old males only like ‘cool’ ie dickish main characters, which also explains why those types of lead characters are more prevalent in AAA games.

  16. GameCat says:

    Binary Domain have a nice banter between your teammates.

    • Kraz3 says:

      One of the few games I actually felt really connected to the characters actually. It was tough for me to fight the one ally in the “boss battle” section.

  17. Zorgulon says:

    You are mostly right about Overwatch, but I have to say I am charmed by some of the random conversational dialogue you get in the spawn room pre-game, depending on which characters are present in your team. In a recent match, my Mercy had a conversation with a friendly Winston:

    “Any lingering effects from the genetic treatment?
    “Only an uncontrollable addiction to peanut butter.”

    There’s also a response from Reaper if Mercy resurrects a recent victim of his: “You can’t be serious”

    Much better than the generic barks you normally hear in game.

    • Koozer says:

      I absolutely cannot stand the pre-game ‘banter’ between characters. Personally it feels incredibly forced, Blizzard’s desperate attempt to inject character and backstory into their multiplayer shooter of cartoon characters. Each to their own of course!

  18. Eleven says:

    The dickishness of the main character was part of the problem with Watch_Dogs.

    Self-centred to the point of sociopathy, absolutely sure of his own righteousness even as he digitally pickpockets/carjacks/murders his way though a city, set on some fuzzy notion of avenging people but actually just doing it for his own petty kicks. Aiden Pearce was a gooseberry of truly colossal proportions.

    I dreaded every interaction Aiden had with the female characters in the game, because it was another opportunity for him to be a dick.

  19. Atomica says:

    I agree with the contention that the allied characters in Half-Life 2 were likeable. Part of that is good writing, but also the technology (even now) made them believable. There are still few games that do lip-sync properly, but HL2 pulled it off.

    I’d say The Witcher 3 does well with nuanced characters and there are few examples of black and white, good or bad stereotypes.

  20. Ivan Ulyanov says:

    Having also just played Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst, and being similarly baffled by the amounts of concentrated dickery on display – yes to this.

    I think a big part of the problem is that the writers are taking their cues from television, but what makes good television (dicks) doesn’t always work quite as well in an interactive medium, where you have to actively interact with these characters, and, essentially, hang out with a huge bag of dicks.

    Which is, obviously, a shame, since hanging out with nice lovely characters who are all friends with each other sounds slightly more appealing to me, and is something games are uniquely good at.

    But then Bioware has been leaning more and more heavily on exactly that in their latest games, and other companies are starting to follow their example, probably excited by how profitable a dedicated fanbase can be, and how many plush krogans they can sell if only they can trick the players into loving their characters. And that’s still a brighter future than what we have now. Yay? :)

  21. LennyLeonardo says:

    Something that didn’t seem to get mentioned much at the time is how sublime the characters were in Left4Dead it’s like a Whedon-grade lesson in how to put together an ensemble cast. So balanced. As the fellow implied above with the wrestling comparison, balance is key. If all the X Men were Wolverine it would be intolerable, even though Wolverine rules.

  22. Xocrates says:

    I find Borderlands approach kind of interesting on this regard. The game realizes that you cannot reasonably morally justify the type of actions required for gameplay, so establishes a setting where everyone is not only a dick, but required to be one in order to survive, which is then used as a baseline from which to develop the personalities of the various characters.
    So they’re still dicks, but they’re interesting dicks.

  23. haldolium says:

    Sadly a very shallow article about a ever-growing issue in the industry.

    It’s not about the writers I think, given that Pratchetts daughter didn’t really manage to pull off anything particular interesting in the Tomb Raid reboot for example.

    Most major titles have the depth of saturday morning cartoons when it comes to characters, story, writing and I highly suspect that it’s simply wanted that way for the sake of marketing and target groups.

    Sure there are games that aren’t as horrible, and some who are even worse, but overall when compared to TV/Movies it’s such a long way to go still. But that doesn’t even end with the linguistics, since real human emotions and even remotely realistic human interactions are entirely absent in games. And what HL² brought back in 2004 sure wasn’t the pinnacle either, given how fucking ridiculous it is if you have all that interaction going on around you, trying so hard to involve you, but you can’t talk.

    • neems says:

      Quotation from the screenwriter Max Landis – “I love my job, it’s a really hard job and there are parts of it that suck. Your [a screenwriter’s] job is to distort, edit, reformat and re-equip your passion, your babies, your scripts to suit a perceived corporate and commercial need. That’s what being a screenwriter is, it’s not writing scripts. Anyone can write scripts, being a screenwriter is changing a script in order to try to get them made.”

      That’s the reality for writing a movie, which is essentially a story telling medium. Imagine how much harder it must be to write a strong, compelling script for your average blockbuster videogame.

      • haldolium says:

        To be fair though, a lot of that is true for any job in the visual department. They might not have a strong attachment towards their assets, but thats just part of making a game since iterration is such a strong part in it.

        The essence here is to give much more value towards it. Look how David Simon and David Chase where both involved as a writer and creator in The Wire and The Sopranoes, which without question are two outstanding TV shows with actual depth, emotional and realistic conflicts.

        That kind of appreciation doesn’t happen in video games. Some make their name, but it’s usually on the technical side or “game design”. Hideo Kojima is the only high level exception here and I think he too had to undergo quite some struggle regarding his vision vs. the publishers vision.

  24. Bishop149 says:

    Because writing good, well-rounded and believable characters is haaaaarrrrd. Like REALLY hard.
    Slapping together an one dimensional walking cliche, only takes about 5 minutes.
    Video games aren’t the only culprit here, movies have been getting worse and worse for it too.

  25. allthegoodonesweretaken2 says:

    Max Payne 3: a video game chock full of dick characters that you end up liking and/or feeling sorry for when they die.

  26. Swordfishtrombone says:

    The Witcher 3 had some of the best characterisation I can recall in a video game. The part where you get plastered with Lambert and Eskel was incredible; I laughed so much when Lambert put on Vesemir’s hat.

  27. Victor A Yorke says:

    Moving away from PC for a moment, and the Fire Emblem series (the groggiest of the JRPGs) typically has a lot of characters of wildly varying personalities. Bonus scenes (unlocked by standing the characters next to each other long enough) provide extra insight into their interactions, which tend to be more about a growing friendship than snark or arrogance.

    With the occasional exception, of course, where humour requires it. link to shrines.rpgclassics.com

  28. Deviija says:

    Hmm, I find choice-driven RPGs and Adventure titles to be a lot more diverse in disposition and pleasantness than action-oriented and shooter fare. It’d be nice to see more amiable, positive, and bonding type of relationships and personalities in those action/shooter/competitive games. I think, too, it is just that far too many game writers think they’re ‘edgy’ by making their junior high fanfiction of 80s/90s cardboard arrogant ‘I’m 2 kool 4 skool bruh’ prats come to life.

  29. LennyLeonardo says:

    I think it’s as much the fact that there are so few good relationships in games. I mean, Joel is a psycho twat, but his relationship his daughter and then with Ellie makes him so much more than that.

  30. Turkey says:

    Nerds love anti-heroes.

  31. criskywalker says:

    Violence. That’s the problem. Most of gaming is based on violence and thus both good and bad characters are dic*s.

    You don’t see that much in games where you can have some social interaction with NPCs like in adventure games, sadly most RPGs seem to be lacking regarding likeable characters, with the exception of Mass Effect.

    And who is one of the worst examples? It is the protagonist of L.A. Noire Cole Phelps. He is berating and yelling most of the time all of a sudden for no reason at all!

  32. Nick says:

    Vampire: Bloodlines. I mean it pretty much set an unbeaten standard for NPC interaction, but the various characters seem to know, has histories with each other, are pleased/displeased by your actions and generally act like actual people(/vampires) with their own agendas and whatnot. None of them are dicks or even seem dickish (well, except LaCroix).

    God damn I wish that game had another 12 months of developement budget. Or that someone would make a sequel/followup of the same quality in terms of world building and characters.

  33. Jetsetlemming says:

    The STALKER games, especially the far more socially-designed Call of Pripyat really stick out to me here. Sure, there are assholes aplenty, it’s a rough world. But there’s a huge variety of personalities, way more than there are character models, and in CoP they have animations and voice lines that really sell their humanity. Guys broken by the unforgiving nature of the zone, people desperately friendly because they need to be to survive, warmly welcoming people who truly enjoy the brotherhood of, say, the Freedom or even Bandit faction in CS. People actually feel like people, despite the fantastical nature of the game and environment, and that is incredibly important in you buying the fiction as real while you’re in it.

    Meanwhile most FPS are like the Mirror’s Edge example. Cocky jerks abound, because it’s a personality type that naturally fits people barking orders in your ear over the sound of gunfire.

  34. Hyena Grin says:

    The thing about non-interactive fiction is that it holds the burden of keeping the viewer interested. A write has to ask ‘why does the viewer care about this character, or this plot twist, or this tragedy.’ They know that without engaging the viewer, they are likely to lose the viewer, and I think most also know that it’s really hard to engage the viewer without making them like and care about the characters, and why they do what they do.

    In games, you can kind of take the player’s engagement for granted. They are engaged through the act of playing, and to some degree, making the player care about the characters is surplus to need – granted, this isn’t an excuse, merely a reduction of the barrier to entry of success for a given game. You don’t need to engage the player with character and story in order to write a successful game.

    I think this has, in some places, made for some very lazy writing. The writing isn’t the key to success, and so it takes a backseat in a lot of circumstances. The lazy writer primarily wants the characters to appear ‘cool’ and ‘badass’ and ‘aloof’ because that, in theory, promotes the power fantasy that dominates the engagement of most action-oriented games.

    I couldn’t help but think of GTAV when I read this article, and how in a game unapologetically populated by assholes and cliches, they still managed to capture the humanity of the protagonists. You weren’t really supposed to like them – Trevor in particular – but by the end of the game, you kinda-sorta-maybe did just a little. You had some sense of how they got to be who they are, what makes them tick, etcetera.

    Anyway, I feel like it just goes to show you that you can even aim to fill a game with assholes and still tell a story that makes you care about the characters to some extent. Which is why it really bothers me when a game like Mirror’s Edge, which should be full of hopeful idealism as much as pessimism, could get it so wrong.

  35. Moneymancer Marklew says:

    Even though their dialogue is quite limited, the characters in the Dark Souls series, especially the first, are quite well-written. In a world where people who lost their motivation eventually become hollows, they seek their own quests instead of existing only to serve the main character (even those that become vendors will depart to tackle their own business once you buy out their inventories). Dickish characters like Lautrec just want you to stay away and not mess with their plans, while others like Siegmeyer or Solaire are genuinely happy when your paths cross. Overall, they give off the impression of sharing the burden of living in this broken world with you, and even a few bosses are shown in a sympathetic light.

  36. Faxmachinen says:

    While some games such as Firewatch have come close, I can’t remember a game where I truly felt welcome.

  37. GomezTheChimp says:

    It`s not just the characters; some games are themselves dicks.
    I refer to the 4X games, which by definition exhibit gross racism.
    I`ve become more and more uncomfortable with games in which wiping out all the other races is the most viable method of winning.
    Are there any that offer more achievable peaceful victory conditions, and which don`t require military expansion?
    If and when Homo Sapiens finally breaks free from the shackles of Einstein, will the first thing we build be a massive battlecruiser? I hope not..

  38. poliovaccine says:

    You want games with character and story. Totally get it. Me too. I abandoned gaming for years cus I could tell it wasn’t what I wanted it to be yet, and modding it into that shape was just plumb fucking exhausting haha. But now it really has arrived, both the tech and the imagination, and I couldn’t be more happy about it.

    What you’re perceiving and describing with this article is the avid, attentive gamer’s desire to see – and *feel* – more in their entertainment. I am all for it – I believe entertainment is really just our training grounds for really-real life. And frankly, DOOM-era and DOOM-era-inflected games have been teaching generations of young males some pretty backwards-ass lessons… evidenced in their social leprosy/fact so few “gamers” get laid haha. Duke Nukem could not exist if that were not true. Thankfully, it seems games have gotten beyond their pubescence, and have reached a newfound level of maturity and potential I see as every bit as exciting as the golden age of movies and/or new-and-no-wave-rock-and-punk in the 1970s!