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Bytes: Clumsy Sociopathic Marksmen

Game heroes tend to embody strangely dissonant characteristics. While some are obvious necessities, I find others a little disturbing.

DISCLAIMER: This article is meant at least half in jest, and is written from the perspective of people who might not have a couple decades of game tropes fresh in their mind.

There is a kind of game hero, born of many influences, that assembles many of my least favorite characteristics of both games and life.  I think these are worth examining, as the counter-examples tend to be long-lived classics of the form.  This generic game hero tends to be a hopelessly clumsy but exceptional fighter with absolutely no regard for human life.  I want to briefly discuss each of these traits, and I will try to provide examples, though you can bet they will be highly subjective and biased!

The Blundering Idiot

This is a much-loved archetype from film - guts over finesse - Indiana Jones punching out Nazi masterminds.  This isn't exactly what comes across in games; heroes might have this lovable tendency ascribed to them in a cutscene, but what we see more often than not is characters that are simply hard to control.  Either they have too many inputs, their context sensitivity is unpredictable, their momentum is hard to control, etc.  That's not to say getting it right is easy; indeed it's rare.  But taking a step back I find it VERY hard to take a heroic character, cast by the game as un unstoppable badass, very seriously when I try to leap up to a ledge and he sort of lamely hops at the wall before falling to his feet again, or runs in place in the corner, feet slipping over the pavement like it's ice.

It doesn't come across as Han Solo or Malcolm Reynolds, it comes across as embarassing and ridiculous.  But it's also in so many ways normal for games to do this that we completely forget it and ignore it, even though it happens all the time.  Rocksteady's Batman I think is notable for how clean and precise his controls are; historically, Mario's controls have been remarkably well-tuned as well.  But these are game of the year/decade type titles, in no way indicative of the majority of mainstream development.  When you're checking over your development schedule, and you see one of the designers has requested an extra couple weeks to tune the controls, please please please give them the time to do this.  As Miyamoto once said: a late game is good eventually, a bad game is bad forever.

Mikami's RE4 is interesting I think because between the history of Resident Evil and the gamecube controller, the designers decided to stick with "tank controls", or a lack of strafing, which usually results in a very clumsy, frustrating play experience.  However, designing the environments and enemies around this, and providing a lot of sound cues as well as a quick turn button help this scheme feel natural and smooth.

The Improbably Precise Marksman

As games tend to be about kicking ass in some form or other, this is an obvious set of skills to assign to your hero.  However, the way these things are implemented are frequently at odds with themselves and/or the game's movement system.  Sometimes these things overlap and influence each other; for example, a game that requires you to aim using a thumbstick on a controller usually has a weird relationship between coarse and fine tuning your targeting.  I find that I use the aiming thumbstick to position the reticle relatively close to my target, and then I use the movement thumbstick to change my own position relative to my target, just enough to get my sights set properly.  Moving 8 feet to the left is a broad, easy input for me, which results in a small adjustment to my aim in game; it's very easy and natural to do once you learn how.

However, like our clumsy running and jumping, this is absurd if you step back.  Imagine someone who is comfortable enough with a firearm that they can A) shoot someone, B) hit them from 100+ yards, and C) hit the 3" of exposed shoulderpad sticking out of the rubble.  They pull out their gun, take aim in the general vicinity of the target, then lock their arm in place, and start walking side to side until it feels right before pulling the trigger.  Actually I really want to see this happen in a movie now!

This isn't solely the case of course; occasionally hardware steps in and helps to mitigate the problem.  The 360 has a great set of thumbsticks which Halo 3 puts to definitively good use, as much as I hate to admit it.  The Gamecube had an amazing left thumbstick which RE4 used exceedingly well, and the Wii pointer definitely does the job in Metroid Prime 3.  But again, we are looking at exceptions in a world of astonishingly clumsy men with bizarre aiming rituals.

I don't want to reopen the can of worms that was my DooM writeup (which I at least partially regret), but how much does aiming really add to your game?  Is it sufficiently shallow that the basic act of pointing one thing at another is essential for it to present a challenge and be fun?  Are you on hardware that can handle this process (i.e. not the PS3)?

Nathan Drake is a War Criminal

Anybody who kills 100 dudes before breakfast has to be judged by a separate set of standards.  I know games have to be more than 90 minutes long, but dang.  John Rambo only killed like 1 guy in his first movie, and that was using a bow and arrow.  In Predator, Dutch kills MAYBE a dozen contras in their jungle base.  In Die Hard, John McClane takes out fewer than a dozen terrorists-cum-thieves.  Even in the original Tomb Raider man was a fairly elusive target (though they began to amp that up almost immediately in the sequels, animals are hard to rotate convincingly).  Rocksteady's Arkham Asylum stands out again (although you might say they're cribbing from Metal Gear Solid 1) as a game that isn't presented as wholescale murder; just massive genocidal beatings.  Which I somehow find vastly more palatable.

This is not to say that there shouldn't be games where you blow up lots of crap.  But even the games that invented this genre (DooM, Duke Nukem, Quake, Arcade Shooters) rarely involved a guy that we are supposed to take seriously as a mildly sympathetic human straightup murdering in cold blood hundreds of people over the course of a week.  Sure, they use zombies as stand-ins, or alien pig cops, or robots, but that is a significant design decision.  These aren't people with green blood to get a T rating, these are merely bloodthirsty humanoid creatures (RE4 continues this tradition nicely).  It sounds really trivial, but from this objective, 10 feet away perspective on games, it's hard not to project movie rules onto the situation.  Would you sympathize with a movie character who made wise cracks and killed like 600 people?  You might clap at the sheer balls of the film, but most of us could never identify.  And guess what?  We don't.

Clumsy, Sociopathic Marksmen

And so we have our video game hero; he is stumped by invisible walls, has to run sideways to aim properly (but then has superhuman marksmanship), and despite his witty voiceover is an utterly stone cold killer who somehow avoids legal scrutiny in spite of his swath of destruction.  Maybe when we obsess over the mainstream potential of a certain genre, we should pull back a little, and view these game hero archetypes with fresh eyes.  There are limits to the concessions you can make, but the true classics make these exceptions, and become simply exceptional.


It sounds like maybe this article doesn't really clarify a particular position or desire on my own part regarding game characters in general and game heroes (and heroines) in particular.  I am not demanding or even remotely wishing for more realistic heroes; I want to see more believable, cohesive heroes.  Danielle Feinberg from Pixar once said:

"Pixar always strives for believability instead of realism. When you make humans a little more stylized, like we tried for in The Incredibles, the audience can accept them as human being–type creatures, stop comparing them to the real thing, and instead just enjoy the story. However, there are definitely some things where we strive for more realism, like smoke, fire, explosions, and waterfalls. All of these things tend to look very fake if they don’t have some of the proper physics behind them. If one thing goes out of whack, the whole thing can look phony and pull the audience out of the story."

It's not important that in real life, Nathan Drake could damn well climb the back of that bus, so why can't he in-game??   What's important is this: inside the game world, he's a phenomenal athlete, so why on earth is that bus an obstacle?  This is the distraction, this is the thing that draws the audience out of the story.  The fewer of these situations, the more likely your game is to endure.

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