Twenty four years ago I was adorable. Now I'm inquisitive and hilarious.
I have a plastic tooth to replace one lost in a mosh pit during my more ridiculous high school years. I speak shitty German and I ride a bike. My Xbox gets so much use, I'm sometimes embarassed. But I'm unemployed, so my time is spent writing blogs on the internet, reading good literary fiction, and playing video games.
In the grand scale of things, I'm a late-bloomer. My parents banned all consoles from my house as a kid. See what you've done? Now I game constantly to make up for years of lost time.
I won't list my favorites, because you've probably seen ten lists like it before me.
There's a life-sized Boba Fett standee in my living room.
If we want to know how to write our video game protagonists, we need only look to the apocalyptic, leather-clad collapse of the nonspecific future. Considered one of the strongest influences on the apocalyptic and dystopian future genre, the Mad Max series is an inspiration to everyone who wants to write psychopaths in leather riding spiked motorcycles hunting down people to murder and finding things to rape. Like what Lord of the Rings is to fantasy, the Mad Max series is to dystopian maniacs and wastelands of murder. But these films have done more than just give us a foundation from which to draw our marauders and spiked death-cars. We are also given one of the best examples of a well-built, unflappable, badass-extreme protagonist; one game writers should really be looking to emulate.
Those unfamiliar with the series, particularly the first two, should probably abandon ship now and just go watch them. Seriously. If you donít care or youíre already familiar, Iíll sum it up anyway. The first film, Mad Max, follows the evolution of the titular character as he develops from loving husband and family man to vengeful, hardened champion of the apocalyptic wastes. At the start of the film, Max is an elite patrolman of the Main Force Patrol, a post-apocalyptic organization designed to maintain law and order as society collapses. Max eventually becomes disillusioned as his colleagues are killed and injured, one after another, and eventually just up and leaves the force. He believes to have escaped the marauders and the chaos that follows them, but they find his family and slaughter them in a surprisingly brutal fashion. Max snaps, his chains tying him to duty and justice break, and we watch him become a ruthless vigilante as he claims vengeance on those responsible.
The events of the first film form an origin story for Max, providing us with an archetype for the second film, The Road Warrior, where the true sense of this character is displayed from beginning to end. In this installment, we follow the path of this lone wanderer as he is swept up into events that quickly leave his control. Heroically, Max saves a scout from a fortress built around a rare treasure, a functioning oil pump producing the sweet, sweet gas for which all the survivors shoot, slice, and kill. Despite himself, Max signs up to help the folks outlive the fleet following the biggest marauder with the porn star name, Lord Humungus. Max does what he does best; survive, kick ass, and outwit everything in his path.
So what makes him such a Rosetta stone of character design? Simple.
Heís Perpetually Flawed
Right out of the gate, Max starts The Road Warrior film with a semi-crippling flaw. In the pursuing chaos as he reaped his vengeance in the first film, Max was brutally shot in the knee. Not a great thing to have happen during the dirty, medicine-scarce apocalypse. Heís not crippled, per say, but he does move with a limp. This is a character trait that would normally impair or, at the very least, define a character. But when you think of Max, you think of him steel-boot-kicking madmen off a tanker truck or wielding a double-barreled shotgun with expertise. So, instead, his injury becomes only a slight encumbering flaw that makes the character of Max stronger each time he succeeds in spite of it.
Flaws are an often ignored element in the world of video game protagonists. Weíve become accustomed to our characters being the Ďbest of the best.í When we get our controller behind a protagonist, theyíre always the most decorated soldier, the strongest fighter, the most promising warrior or wizard. Even when we get an underdog archetype, they rarely come with real flaws. Sure, theyíre unrecognized for their talents or prowess at the beginning, but it doesnít change the fact theyíre inexplicably intelligent, attractive, and capable.
This, of course, does not mean that every good character should take a shotgun blast to the knee to make them interesting, but it shows that providing characters with built-in flaws or ones that develop through the course of the game add contextual gusto to development. Characters throughout literary history have been layered with flaws. They humanize protagonists, flesh out their complexity, and provide them with an obstacle to tackle while tackling obstacles. How many heroes can you think of that kick ass with a leg-brace? I thought so.
Nice Shotgun, No Bullets
This is a small one, and is more of a game design choice as opposed to the development of the protagonist, but it is about guns. So it pretty much directly affects the main character in almost any video game. Itís not learned until later in the film, but in The Road Warrior, Mad Maxís shotgun he so often wields turns out to be empty. However, this doesn't stop him from wrecking everything in sight or bluffing his way through situation after situation. A lack of ammunition seems like a problem more than a solution when designing a character, but it all comes down to providing the hero and, more importantly, the player in charge obstacles to conquer.
Half-Life shows us this when it starts us off one step below even the simplest and weakest of firearms and instead arms us with the crowbar. When you have to fight dudes shooting at you with guns while you swing around a piece of bent steel, you learn to love that pistol. Fast. A commonly scoffed at weapon so quickly becomes the most important thing in your game. Every shot becomes crucial. Each pull of the trigger a matter of tense aiming and a nervous trigger finger. Need I remind you of Ravenholm? Arguably one of the best levels in Half-Life 2 occurs when the game takes away your weapons and leaves you to get creative. Sure, we all fondly recall battling ant-lions in the sand, using discarded trash to stay off the sand ala Tremors. And letís not forget the section of the Citadel that left us with an over-powered gravity gun capable of hurling Combine soldiers into deep, jagged chasms. But thereís that crafty fun in Ravenholm that really stands out. There's nothing like the heart-pounding journey through the dark, booby-trapped streets, luring lumbering crab-heads into falling car traps and decapitating foes with propelled saw-blades. Not to mention mercilessly beating enemies to death with a crowbar in a pinch.
This is because the game forced us not to be fast on the trigger of a machine gun or accurate with missiles. Instead, we had to be outrageously clever. Whether it was traps or frantically scrabbling to locate our last saw-blade weíd just thrown at an enemy zombie, the one thing we couldnít rely on was our guns, which remained almost consistently empty.
This isnít an isolated incident. Chronicles of Riddick doesn't even let you near a gun until you've half-finished the game and instead forces you to slowly climb the prison hierarchy of shivs. And it's a tense, hair-raising fight to get there. The first Condemned game reinforced the power of limited ammunition when it presented the player with a simple pistol with only a single clip. Each pull of the trigger became a deliberate, nerve-wracking act that left your brain sweating. Every time you located a gun or even just a single bullet laying around, you became filled with excitement like youíd found the goddamned arc of the covenant. Or, at the very least, the last bit of solid chocolate at the bottom of those drumstick ice cream cones. I mean, isnít that the best part? Fuck yes it is.
Sure, Max never had the advantage of a gravity gun and wasnít quite as brutal with a broken paper-cutter blade as Ethan Thomas, but the fact that he was able to not only survive alone for so long but also kick metric tons of ass with barely firing a shot? Thatís part of what makes him the ultimate hero.
Max Has a Conscience, But Heís Not a Wuss
Of course, Mad Max is no saint. He brutalizes his enemies, gunning some down in the street, handcuffing one to a burning vehicle and tossing him a hacksaw. Heís a pretty fucked-up guy. But his murderous outbursts arenít frivolous. He operates like the classic anti-hero vigilante character, murdering only those who have clearly wronged him or innocents.
Max has a sense of right and wrong, but heís also learned not to take any shit. Heíll do the right thing because he has yet to completely part with his morality, but he wonít charge headlong into blind benevolence without something to gain out of the encounter. He comes to the aid of a wounded runner from the oil rig fortress, for example, but only because he stands to gain a reward from it. In Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, he refuses to murder Blaster, despite all his possessions and his life itself hang in the balance of this decision. Heís a good guy, but not an idiot. He avoids trouble whenever possible. But despite his general hesitance to involve himself needlessly in conflicts, heíll step in where no one will, consequences be damned.
Currently all the rage in modern games are the Paragon/Renegade choice trees, which are undoubtedly a fantastic evolution of the player choice dynamic in gaming. Where previously the only choices that existed were which gun to use on the undead Nazi or what order to proceed with the required story missions, we now have the ability to influence the game world, if only slightly, with our choices. We can save lives or ruin them. We can profit from crime or we can shut it down to gain the respect of the townsfolk. Additionally, to provide a lasting effect with the character, weíre given a good/evil rating for every choice, giving us a persistent evolution to our characterís design.
But what if a player decides to ride the middle like Max? Do some good here and there, save a few helpless families from packs of raiders. But how about knocking around a few heads to get some needed supplies? What if I choose to save the innocents in the light of day but steal a few possessions when the sun sets? Where does that leave me?
Short answer: With the short end of the stick.
Conventional good/evil structure in games rewards players for being dedicated to one side and avoid the other like the plague. This system often includes a reward hierarchy in place which you progress forward along for how strongly you adhere to either side of this duality. So even if we see an opportunity to steal some food or supplies for ourselves from someone with more than enough, we find ourselves only doing damage to our progression of morality powers or upgrades. If we do a few sneaky dealings, ala Han Solo, we found ourselves falling short on the hero progression.
This black and white definition of each and every action rewards the heroes and the villains but leaves no room for Mad Max to ride the line of just doing the minimum of staying alive.
Heís a Badass Because Heís Clever, Smart, and Confident
This one doesnít take much explaining, as most other facets of pop culture have this one on lockdown. Batman, John McClane, Robin Hood, and the aforementioned Malcom Reynolds. These sorts of characters have been well established up and down the movie scene and literature. Characters that arenít simply adored for their heroic deeds, but for their hesitance to do them without something in return. Why do people love Han Solo so much? Well, there are certainly plenty of reasons. Heís slick, charming, and remarkably capable. Plus, that vest is just so god-damned dashing. But thereís more to it than that. What it really comes down to is that his choices just make so much goddamned sense. Given the option, human beings will consistently side with the outcome that offers them the most personal gain. Sure, people do the heroic thing and save a baby from a speeding car or rescue someone from a burning building. But most of us wouldnít put our lives on the line over and over through moments of great peril simply to uphold a moral code or abstract concept of principles. But for some cash along with the glory? Treasure? A beautiful princess?
This we can wrap our heads around.
The gaming world has some catching up to do in this department. Our video game protagonists are almost always confident. Take Marcus Phoenix. Itís rather hard to be timid with a chainsaw attached to a gun the size of a microwave oven. Kratos canít help but be confident after taking a few demi-gods heads home as trophies. But few lead heroes are clever or particularly intelligent and rarely both. Nathan Drake would probably get a checkmark for all three. Solid Snake is no slouch. The list goes on, but not for very long.
I understand the problem here, since itís difficult to define too much of your main character when itís really the responsibility of the player to make their decisions for them. This is the persistent hitch when attempting complex character design in a gaming environment, but itís not impossible. Presenting the player with situations where guns and huge fireball spells arenít the only answer. Iím talking Portal thinking, where levels make your brain hurt.
And, as a side note, forcing the player into long levels of platforming isnít the answer to make your players think instead of shoot. Itís just annoying.
He Wears Leather And doesn't look like an extra from the Rocky Horror Picture Show.