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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