Opinion: He’s Just Not My [Body] Type

AAA gaming seems to be in a rut of making perfect protagonists. That is: body perfect men in their prime who can shoot guns and wield swords and do all kinds of crazy stuff. Most of these men don't have an inkling of self-doubt. Once they set themselves on a course, they follow through with nary a second thought.

There are no Mario's or Guybrush Threepwood's. In other words, there are very few actual human beings with flaws who aren't Adonis-type men. And that, I believe is a problem.

Our Proud History Of Weird Characters

If you look back on the history of gaming, it is absolutely littered with odd characters. From the vulnerable, confused creatures in Inherit the Earth [who don't understand humanity or why humanity left them behind on Earth] to the fundamentally inept Roger Wilco who always saves they day - by complete accident.

Rif is a fox, and, as the common saying would have it, all foxes steal. So naturally, in his game, he's accused of stealing. But Rif is nothing like that. Likewise, Roger's a janitor. An awkward, clumsy janitor, but he manages to save the day through his fumbles.

Rif and Roger, two interesting protagonists.

Moreover, none of these people is especially an Adonis. Rif the Fox [from Inherit the Earth] is puny alongside his traveling companions. There's absolutely no way he'd win in a brawl against Eeah [a rather massive Elk] or Okk. [a noticeably large Boar]

But what Rif lacks in stature, he more than makes up for in terms of wit and smarts. In order to gain access to the rats sanctum, Rif tricks the doorkeeper by using his friends to confound the rat so that he can sneak past and gain the information he needs.

Similarly, Roger Wilco is constantly portrayed as a bumbling space janitor. When on the Deltaur, after a long game in which you've had to figure your way through various situations, Roger finally finds a disguise so that he can do something about the Star Generator [a piece of technology that's been used to bad ends] when he trips and loses his helmet - a crucial piece of his infiltration plan.

These are both interesting characters, because - on the one hand - they're not muscle-bound hulks, while on the other, they're quite human. Rif wants to get his name cleared of a theft he didn't commit. Roger Wilco simply wants to get back into a janitorial closet and sleep.

One final thing before we talk about the current state of protagonists. Look at the game boxes: not one steroid-fueled brooding man with a gun.

Inherit The Earth's box immediately puts us in mind of a medieval faire, given the clothes that the characters are wearing and the area they're in and the way the text is written. The characters look "normal" for want of a better word. The Space Quest box seems all brash-fifties with it's font choices. It also wants us to explore the reaches of space. No gun required.

Both are evocative boxes. Neither needs a gun.

Our Boring Legacy Of Muscle-Bound He-Men

I'm not sure when this started happening. At a guess, games took their cues from movies and movies started doing this sort of thing in the mid-90's, but there came a point where absolutely every protagonist had to be a dark, brooding he-man. He had to know how to use guns and fight and he had to have a dark, mysterious past that might get unraveled through the course of the game [but might not, either. Story-telling was never a particular strong point for this sort of experience.]

Mario and Sonic and the like were still around, but the idea of colour and of fun had completely drained [more-or-less] out of gaming. Gaming became dense and serious and certainly didn't want flimsy protagonists running amok.

If I didn't know a bit about each character or their series, I'd never be able to tell them apart. They look uninteresting and bland.

Marcus and Nathan. Both pretty bland.

As modern examples, consider Gears of War. Or Uncharted. Both of those games feature pretty bland looking main characters. Both are somewhat muscular, brown-haired men with stubble. Sure, Nathan Drake has a fun personality. But he knows his way around what he's doing. He's never worried about the path he's on. He doesn't fumble when confronted with enemies. In short, apart from his personality, he's a "perfect" character.

Ditto for the Gears characters. Even that title is terribly generic. Gears of War? Epic couldn't think of something more interesting to call their game?

Marcus Fenix is basically a soldier par excellence. There's no hesitation for him as he goes about destroying the bad guys in the game. He's good, they're evil and he needs to be rid of them. There's nothing particularly interesting about Fenix that makes him stand out from the pretty generic horde of current-generation protagonists in gaming.

And again, look at those two game boxes. If you took the names away from the covers, you'd barely be able to tell them apart.

There's so much generic silliness going on in both boxes, I'm not sure where to start. Brooding dude? Check. Gun? Check. Plain font? Check. If you took away the names on the boxes, i'd never be able to tell these games apart.

Oh dear. Both have guns. Both have brooding characters. Neither looks distinctive.

We Can Make More Interesting Characters

Even if we just stuck to human characters, there's a whole wealth of personalities, ages and skill sets we can pull from. Nevermind that I haven't even touched on female protagonists. There's so much diversity in human features that developers should never worry about running out of ideas for unique main characters.

And then, of course, we have the non-humans. Even if it's just as small a step as making an anthropomorphic fox, we can certainly shift the design of main characters away from generic men to all sorts of shapes and sizes.

And aliens! We could have amazing aliens with wholly different perspectives on things. Maybe they're less interested in saving the world and more interested in how a human thinks. Perhaps we could have a sentient robot after the fall of humanity, trying to puzzle through what money is for and why humans seemed to crave so much of it.

There are so many angles we could use for gaming protagonists, and yet all we seem to get are brown haired, generic, muscle-bound he-men.

Frankly, we can do better than that.