Athletics and Recreation

Creating A Likable Video Game Hero

Creating A Likable Video Game Hero


One thing I’ve always been interested in
when it comes to video games is what goes into making a likable character. And by that, I don’t mean what makes them
compelling or complex, although those things can play a factor; I simply mean what makes
players like them? In the past, I’ve talked about some of the
ways video games get players to like companions and villains, and now I want to look at the
3rd piece of the puzzle and talk about what goes into making a likable hero. With companions and villains, the focus is
on the player forming a relationship with someone else. With heroes, there isn’t that same kind
of separation. It isn’t a character the player is interacting
with—it is one they are interacting as. And being put in control of a character inherently
changes the way a player will look at them. Due to video games being an interactive medium,
players will always have some sort of influence over how the playable character thinks. This might be in the way they approach the
story or combat or puzzles or any other element of the game, big or small. No matter what the player is a part of the
protagonist. However, this connection can be tricky to
maintain. The general concern a lot of developers seem
to have is that if players become detached from the hero for any reason, then they’ll
be less invested in the game as a whole. When considering that potentially millions
of people may play any given title, it makes sense that they would want to play it safe. So, in response to this, a lot of developers
opt to create heroes with either no real personality or a relatively muted one—the idea being
that players can project themselves onto the character. Some games do this through a silent protagonist,
others allow players to create their own character, and a lot end up having heroes with defining
traits that are generally inoffensive. That isn’t to say that there aren’t video
game protagonists with likable personalities, it’s just that more often than not they end
up being a little more on the reserved side. It is okay for an NPC to be over-the-top,
because the player will have limited interactions with them, but if the protagonist goes too
far in any one direction, it can become grating because the player is constantly with them. So, we end up getting a lot of safe protagonists. They’re funny but in a quiet and sarcastic
sort of way, they’re heroic but not so heroic that they come off as self-righteous, they’re
attractive but forgettably so…they’re Nathan Drake but usually with even less flair. These kinds of heroes have a decent enough
personality to set the base for a likable character, but there isn’t really enough
there to push them to the next level. Fortunately, a character’s personality is
not the only thing that makes them likable, and given the interactivity of games, developers
have some unique tools to build that connect—the most effective of which arguably being how
it feels to control the character. Given that this is how players engage most
with the protagonist, it plays an important role in shaping how they view them. If the player is constantly wrestling with
controls or getting frustrated at the character’s movement speed or having inputs not work consistently,
they’ll become justifiably annoyed, and part of that frustration will most likely
be directed at the playable character. However, if a their movements are fluid and
precise, this will build a positive connection A character who players are excited to play
as is one who they’ll end up liking more. Consider, Spider-Man from Spider-Man. Web-slinging around New York City is exciting
and fast-paced. Moving from combat to traversal feels seamless,
and I found myself so impressed with how good it feels to be Spider-Man, that even after
beating, I boot up once every few weeks just to swing around. I enjoyed how it felt to be Spider-Man, and
I liked him more as a character because of it. On the other hand, a character like Sonic
has a long history of feeling terrible to control. So I hate him. In a similar vein, a character’s animation
also affects how players feel about them. A lot can be understood about a character
from the way they move around an environment and interact with their surroundings, and
when done right, it can make them far more endearing. Whether it be the way Nathan Drake absently
puts his hands on walls when walking close to them or how Luigi creeps down corridors
with a shiver in his step in Luigi’s Mansion or the various expressions shown on Link’s
face in Wind Waker, these little touches add a surprising amount of depth to these characters. It is a way to inject personality into them
while not pulling the player out of the experience. Where hearing the same voice lines over and
over again can become grating, small visual touches never really do, especially if they
don’t interrupt the action. Honestly, just being able to see a character
has a major influence on how likable they are. The limited perspective of first person titles
doesn’t offer as many opportunities to show off the protagonist’s personality. Players may get some dialogue from the hero
either filled with thoughts of what is going on or quippy one-liners, but a lot about a
character is lost when the only input from them is their voice. Personally, I find when first-person games
have cutscenes that show the protagonist, I end up liking them a fair bit more. Even though it is still limited, it helps
give a sense of what they are like based on how they look and physically interact with
the world around them. One of the more effective examples of this
is BJ Blazkowicz from the Wolfenstein series. Based on his character design alone, he comes
off as a monster of a man who could crush you with his bicep, but through cutscenes
and his inner-monologues, it is clear that he is a tender and thoughtful individual. There is something endearing about the combination
of these seemingly contradictory traits, and that would be lost if players never had the
chance to see him in third person. While all of these touches can highlight likable
traits about a protagonist, there are some approaches that aim to build a deeper link
between the player and hero, and they typically center around how the playable character is
framed within the story. Consider Firewatch. The opening section of the game presents the
player with a series of choices that chronicles the relationship between the protagonist,
Henry and his wife, Julia. Through this section players see him fall
in love, plan for a future, and then lose it all as Julia develops early-onset Alzheimers. Players feel connected to Henry not only because
they made choices for him, but also because they witnessed the best and worst moments
of his life, and regardless of who he is, experiencing that with him is endearing. Firewatch uses empathy to get players to relate
to and like Henry, and as it turns out this is one of the most effective ways to build
a connection. When done right, it doesn’t even really
matter whether or not the hero has a likable personality; it just matters that players
see them from a certain perspective. Take Joel from The Last of Us. While he has a bit of that good ole southern
charm and does act as a protector for other characters players care about, it is hard
for me to call him likable. He’s cold and distant, and he also brutally
kills a lot of people, many of whom don’t deserve it. However, I found myself endeared to him throughout
the majority of the playthrough. And that’s because within the first 20 minutes
of the game, I witnessed the worst moment of Joel’s life. I liked Joel because I thought I knew Joel;
I experienced his loss alongside him, and felt like close to him because of it. This led to me excusing a lot of his actions
in the name of his trauma, so much so that it wasn’t until near the end that I realized,
“oh yeah…this is very not good.” The game is set up in a way where players
will have a lot of patience for Joel. They’ve seen what he’s gone through, they’ve
seen how he has changed because of it, and throughout the game, they see that there is
hope of him becoming a better man. Which, yeah, doesn’t happen, but all of
this did get me to like him up until the point where it became clear that he couldn’t be
redeemed. Of course, the effectiveness of this approach
really depends on how well it is presented. The God of War series has been trying to get
players to empathize with Kratos since the first game, but given the depth of his depravity
along with him be pretty terrible even before anything happened to his family, the series’s
early attempts always kind of missed the mark. With that said, this did set a good foundation
for God Of War 2018, which starts off with him losing his wife; only this time, instead
of seeking a way to unleash his anger like, he sets out with his son to fulfill her final
request. For players new to the series, he’s endearing
because his grief is relatable, and for players who are already familiar with the character,
this shift in the way he responds to loss shows his capacity for change, helping to
reset the effects of his indiscretions in the past. While it can certainly run the risk of aggravating
a portion of the audience, redemption is another solid way to get players to like a protagonist. It makes it so that the hero can be a little
more rough around the edges, but also give people a reason to root for them. For example, Lee Everett from The Walking
Dead and John Marston from Red Dead Redemption are both characters who have done terrible
things in their past and the player is introduced to them at a time where they are forced to
confront those things. While both games allow players to decide how
these characters find redemption, by leaving room for them to become better people, it
gives players the chance to grow a connection with them and be endeared by their change. Most of what I have talked about so far are
ways that games aim to make protagonists likable to a wide audience, but I think it’s worth
mentioning that some of the most likable heroes are the ones who aren’t meant to appeal
to everyone. People connect to characters who they relate
to, and while there are plenty of ways to present a character so that they appeal to
more people, there is something to be said for a protagonist who only appeals to some. Characters like Max from Life is Strange whose
indecisiveness manifests as a game mechanic, or Mae from Night In The Woods whose lack
of drive continually gets in her way, can be irritating to people who don’t relate
to those pressures, but as someone who very distinctly does, both of them are extremely
endearing to me. Specificity has the potential to create the
strongest bond between a player and protagonist, and while I understand why a lot of games
opt to have heroes who are for everyone, those kinds of characters won’t have the same
kind of profound relatability because they’re too general. Ultimately, what matters most about a hero
isn’t if they’re likable or not; what matters is if they improve the experience
of the game. Some titles are written in a way that benefits
from having a nondescript hero while others would make no sense without a predefined protagonist. While I personally prefer when games create
playable characters with distinct traits that won’t be relatable to everyone, I imagine
I will mostly have to stick to indie games for that. With that said, I respect why a lot of developers
aim to make heroes that will appeal to the largest amount of people. At the end of the day, they are trying to
make money, so they want their games to be easy to get into for as many folks as possible. Given that the protagonist is how players
interact with a game, that sometimes means having a hero that appeals to the lowest common
denominator, I just wish that so many of them weren’t so boring.


Reader Comments

  1. Ay! First off, I started streaming recently over on twitch, so come hang out some time https://www.twitch.tv/razbuten Also, follow me on twitter @theRazbuten.

    I am currently working on the next Gaming for A Non-Gamer. This one is going to be a little more similar to the very first one in that it features my wife (also known as the lady I live with) playing multiple games (if you were paying close attention in this video, you may have noticed one of them). Beyond that, I've got a handful of things in production, and they will come out at sometime eventually. I appreciate you all so much, and I hope you enjoyed this one.

  2. There is ONE game that totally breaks these rules though. GTA V's story mode. The characters are so specific in their experiences, situations, and personalities that you're not supposed to be able to relate to them. GTA V is set up in a way where there are lots of cool action scenes that the characters go through, and they become likable because the player knows that these are just "generic crazy people", but they're literally shooting down a private jet and hunting it down. The characters also go through many developments, and it's also fun to see how they react to these situations, (Trevor is the most fun).

    I think GTA V's strong suit is that it has multiple protagonists that you can switch out of almost as much as you please.

  3. Where Joel is such a success is empathy and understanding.
    Even if the player sees his monstrous actions for what they are, we always understand why he is making those decisions. In the early game we understand why he is a cold criminal because we know he has lost everything, and then when he pretty much dooms the world we still understand because he has found a surrogate daughter and he is about to lose everything he cares about all over again.

    Even if we see his decision as calamitous, we don't blame him for making that decision. We can say that it is the wrong decision with our own separate morality, but we have seen enough of Joel and the world of the Last of Us to understand him.

    There is another channel who recently did a great video on Blank-Slate Protagonists vs Characterful Protagonists (I think it was Architect of Games). Both roles have their place in games, but I think the sweet spot is having a characterful protagonist with just enough vagueness or openness to interpretation that the player still feels like they can inhabit them.

  4. I play my real life from a first-person perspective and don’t see myself that often. Is this why I don’t like me?

  5. BJ Blazkowicz is one of my favorite protagonists of this past generation. He has all the trappings of a bland, milquetoast, thematically troubling white male American super soldier action hero but he's written so fantastically what would be negatives in a weaker character shine in Blazko. First and foremost BJ fights for the people he loves, his family and friends, not out of blind patriotism or hatred for Nazi's(although there is plenty of the latter). Over the course of the series a lot of Blazko's ideals and notions are checked, destroyed even, but he always adapts and moves forward with determination. His initial insistence that America would never fold is dashed by knowledge of its surrender, and upon returning to its shores he's disgusted and disillusioned seeing Americans celebrating their subjugation under a fascist regime cough cough Ultimately his loss off nativity of and loyalty to America doesn't stunt him, it allows him to grow, fighting for the freedom of everybody. People from all walks of life from all over the world, Blazko's development as a character is a mirror to the series' message: resistance is not done by a country, it is done by humanity.

  6. Huh..

    So how come audio flairs are more annoying than visual ones? I agree, but I wanna know why people think that way.

  7. "Make a game some people will love, instead of one everyone will like." – Creator of Magic at a GDC talk

    I think this can apply to characters. Unless millions of dollars were poured into your game and you need to sell a million copies.

  8. Naughty Dog are practically gods at creating likable characters. Crash Bandicoot, Ellie, and my all time favorite video game icon, Nathan Drake. I think video game characters with a believable sense of humanity is the key to successfully creating a likable character.

  9. "a protagonist who only appeals to some" – showing black and female characters. Seriously?

    One reason I miss out on a lot of games is because I don't want to play "That Guy" that all games are about, the gruff, face-scarred, squinty, scruffy beardy mullet guy, who looks like he can't be bothered to wash, but is also a super sneaky bodybuilder who has obviously cared enough about his body to get buff and train at sneaking, who is grim and quiet except for occasional sarcasm, rides a horse usually nowadays (Solid Snake, Geralt, Mr. Reddead, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. ad nauseam) – those are protagonists who "only appeal to some", and I know because I'm NOT one of those people. Those are NOT protagonists who everyone identifies with. They're not even a "neutral mask", they're a TYPE. They're a specific type made to appeal to a specific type of player's fantasies. Mr. Hitman, Agent Numbers, whatever his name is as if it matters, is kind of a "neutral mask". The rest of those guys are not.

    If you can't see that, and you think those guys appeal to "everyone", and ANY female protagonist "only appeal to some", you should open your eyes to your own preconceived biases.

    As for me, I prefer games where I can make my own character. Failing that, if I'm guiding some chumbo who is not me along on their adventures, they'd better be interesting enough to be worth it, and not just some gruff grunting squinty sneaky bodybuilder. I'm DONE with AAA games about face-scarred scruffy sneaky bodybuilders. It's WEIRD, and it's a trope that should go away.

  10. Also, I think we need to dispense with the idea that "in the end games are made to make money." Fuck that. Games are made to entertain, educate, and express. The hope of any artist is that they can live off of their art, but whether or not they can, they will still make art. Video games existed before they made a lot of money, and will continue to exist long after. I think it hurts the industry to excuse poor choices in the name of making money.

    Btw not like internet yelling at you, just generally talking about this idea.

  11. My favorite game protagonists are Niko Bellic, kratos from god of war 2018, Dante from Dante's inferno, John Marston & Arthur Morgan and more I can't think of right now. I think what makes a great protagonist is seeing them go through great struggles. Great video 👍

  12. >bad controls make you dislike the player character
    Ya know I found myself yelling "WHAT ARE YOU DOING NATHAN" whenever i couldnt get the movement to do what i wanted and died in uncharted, usually in combat

  13. I think Doom Slayer, of the 2016 reboot, counters some of these claims by showing off a fair amount of character through 1st person cutscenes. It's harder, but it's possible.

  14. Artyom from metro exodus especially has alot of the same quirks and effort in his expression like doom guy that makes him seem innocent and more like a man stuck and trying his best

  15. You say you like a character more when they have 3rd person cutscenes. But what about doom 2016? There were no 3rd person cutscenes in that and it's generally said that doomguy is a very likeable character

  16. "hearing the same voice lines over and over again can be really annoying"
    "damn youre ugly"
    "winds howling"
    "how do you like that silver"

  17. the heroes i love are, Masterchief, Prophet, Inquisitor from Halo not dragon age :P, Geralt of Fkcing Rivia, Bucker DeWitt, Ezio, Niko Belic, Marcus Phoenix, James Raynor, Thrall, BJ Blatzo, the cast of Borderlands 1, Maya, Claptrap (is a hero goddamnit shut up XD)

  18. Video games is not about empathy, it way more than that, it's not a movie, in games you let your ludic element (game mechanics) tell the story. You are mixing this up.

  19. Question: how do you deal with thoroughly unlikable protagonists? Like Wario, for instance, whose greed eclipses everything else.

  20. I love your shit man keep doing what you're doing. Also have to say though it's so jarring hearing lady I live with. It just doesn't seem how normal people talk.

  21. Lots of good takes here, my OCD is pleased that the trilogy is complete.

    Seeing Dante from DmC on the annoying protagonist side of the argument made sense, but not seeing DMC5/4/3 Dante on the likable protagonist side made big sad

  22. Great video! Though honestly I'm surprised you didn't mention or even show Persona. The protagonists in those games really are great and, in my opinion, some of the most well handled "blank slate" characters ever.

  23. The protag of Doom 2016 got a lot of his personality accross though first person gesutres and his actions, he has a ton of personality, and is very likable… even if he is a force of nature…

  24. I can't stand another straight, white, slightly sarcastic guy.
    I'm all of the above. I don't need to play this out in my video game fantasies

  25. Moral of the story: It depends on the game, the intent of the developer behind the Hero, as well as who you are and what you like. In other words, there are too many factors to consider to really nail how to make a good Hero in a video game.

  26. Raz, I love your videos and the fresh perspective you bring to video games. However, I do have one request/suggestion. Could you add subtitles or something to focus our eyes on during your videos? Sometimes, I find myself getting distracted by the footage you're using and missing significant portions of your voice-over.

  27. I see your well crafted video and thought and raise you DOOM 2016. “They are rage, brutal, without mercy but you, you will be worse”. The mc never speaks never gets a heart wrenching moment hardly does anything except in a few small scenes. You learn nothing about the character unless you delve deep into the lore. All in all it’s the most basic thing ever and yet it works so well because the first line sets the tone. You are the villain in this story. You kill demons who can’t get behind that? You don’t need justification. They are demons, rip and tear. The first 10 minutes of a story the reader or player or movie goer is open to new ides and is building the world in their head you can get away with a lot of change at the beginning but later on as the person has a strong view in their mind of the world then it’s almost impossible. In doom it tells you from the beginning who you are and what you do and never ever strays from it. It was the best game I ever played and one of the few I actually wanted to spend money on in the first place.

  28. I love your videos. You explore unique topics that few make videos about, and you provide great in-depth analysis. I also like how you use lots of game footage to keep the visuals interesting and how you use a game's soundtrack while you're talking about it. The attention to detail is astounding. Thanks for making excellent videos.

  29. Animations are so key. In BotW when Link does a dope backflip dodge, it makes him feel like a badass. Like you're playing a character capable of getting shit done. If you believe the character is capable you are more likely to trust that character, in turn making them more likable.

  30. Oof I really enjoy all of the voice lines in league, one of the reasons that keeps me coming back. Visual effects can be noticed a lot quicker and easier than a line though and don’t get in the way of any other noise that could be going on in the game. Anyway great video

  31. I’m surprised you used John instead of Arthur in that example. John’s a good main character but everything really bad he does happens before you hit “new game”. Arthur does bad things throughout the whole game and because of that, his redemption at the end hits home a lot more because you were there during the bad.

  32. Having a likeable hero can really impact on a games perception by the audience.
    I think the reason Resident Evil 2 was more popular than one was because Claire and Leon where easier to connect to than Chris and Jill. It's easier to identify as a teenager looking for their lost family or a rookie with good intentions but no experience than it is to "21 YEAR OLD WHO WAS ON THE AIRFORCE".
    They (Leon and Claire) are both way out of their league in the Racoon City incident while Jill and Chris are special force cops who where dealing with supernatural horror sure but until the end nothing that feels like they can't really handle it.

    Sure it makes more sense for the S.T.A.R.S. to survive the mansion than it does for Leon and Claire to survive the city but it also makes for a less compeling situation.

  33. 1:28 – "Defining traits that are generally inoffensive."

    Uh….I don't think we played the same game. Whitelight's video on WatchDogs put a lot of the character writing into perspective for me.

    1:44 – (The protagonist is grating – showing Dante from DmC)

    I'd argue that a character should be more interesting than likable, and DmC Dante is that based on what he went through and his character arc.

  34. DmC Dante, Kratos from God of War 1, Raiden from Metal Gear Rising, Joel from The Last of Us, Starkiller from The Force Unleashed, Walker in Spec Ops: the Line, Booker in BioShock Infinite, Dante from Dante's Inferno, Jackie Estacado in The Darkness 1/2, Rick from the 2010 remake of Splatterhouse, Max in Mad Max.

    You don't need to make your protagonist likable. Just make them interesting. It's why no matter how much JD, Kait, and the rest of the team joke with each other in Gears of War 4/5, I find them so incredibly boring because they're uninteresting.

  35. Idk why but alot of the borderlands main characters are really cool. Zer0 and fl4k are very interesting and the sirens are all very similar in there movesets but different in personality.

  36. I couldn't take more than a few hours of Grand Theft Auto 4; I knew right from the introduction that I HATED the main character. This wasn't a role-playing as the "bad guy" just to see his perspective issue, this was a completely unlikable character ruining a perfectly good game for me. Alternatively, I had no problem completing Grand Theft Auto 5; It's characters were equally flawed but much more likeable and that was the difference that mattered.

  37. You forgot some surprisingly crucial points to making a character endearing:
    – Optional things the game allows you to do. Even if you don't have to do that, simply having the option to do it says a lot about the character, be it stealing candy in Undertale, setting random stuff on fire in Psychonauts, or throwing chicken in Zelda.
    – The context the game was made in. I think part of the reason why Samus is so popular is because she was one of the first female video game heroes. Even though she's silent and you can't even see her face for most of the game, she's iconic. The same goes for characters that have nostalgia attached to them, sometimes what makes you like a character isn't the isolated game, but the surrounding experience of it.
    – And finally, projected character. Okay, this one is a little more complicated, but for that reason, I really wished we'd gotten to it in the video. Player characters are inherently versatile. Even something like Ace Attorney, where we see the entire inner dialogue of a character and only have control over his deductive skills and a few select decisions have some versatility because there are some choices in the game that can go more than one way. Other games take this to an extreme: Think about Chell from Portal. She says nothing, ever. The only moment of character we get from here is in the tutorial, when she jumps upon being asked to do something else, cue confused Wheatley. However, this little hint, mixed with some other bits of the game not primarily about Chell and the popularity of it ended up building much more vast interpretations of her. Stuff like her love for the companion cube, which comes from simply the fact that the game tricks the player itself into getting attached to it (more like, most players were happy to go along with it, I suppose) and then the entire fanlore that built upon little things like that. When there's enough fanlore, just little hints towards character traits can go a long way. In other games, the player experience alone can project onto the protagonist. Before Borderlands 2, all we got from Lilith was a bunch of voice lines and the general sense of badassery that all the main characters have in this game, but depending on how you played her, you might have grown a different image or idea of her.
    To make a long point short, never underestimate how much further players and fans can take a protagonist. Since players control the protagonist, they inevitably build upon them, sometimes spawning universally agreed upon ideas, and sometimes creating an individual idea (the best example probably being the Twitch Plays Pokémon protagonist, who is considered a different entity from the Pokémon protagonist in general, yet was built upon him by controlling him).

  38. Companions, Villains, and Heroes… after seeing all three of these videos, it's given me a greater appreciation of single-player games in general, and realizing how much many people just suck in online play (and I'm not referring to their gameplay).

  39. Spider-Man PS4: You get to swing around the city as an awesome superhero.

    Also Spider-Man PS4: Let's give you these shitty characters with no good superpowers.

  40. You aren’t even gonna mention that Arthur Morgan is probably the best video game character of all time? I will argue this point.

  41. An AI that focused on these traits when partner searching. Aggressive players pay with aggressive players. Timid players pay with timid players.

  42. Nathan drake is fine and i do like him a lot but i get annoyed at him since you did not just no mercy kill a room full of bad guys and then act like an innocent cool guy thats just being a fucking 2 faced sociopath

  43. Learning to like Joel was one of the most interesting things. After i finished the game i thought "dang Joel is a terrible person imagine being so selfish," but i know full well I'd do the same. It's easy from an objective standpoint to do what's best for the world, but when what needs to be sacrificed is your world, you'll gladly damn everyone else for their protection

  44. So its interesting that you brought the concept of games having heroes with no personality as a way to avoid having the player feel detached from the main character… because that's exactly what having a blank-slate hero does for me.
    No matter how good the story of the game I'm playing is, having a main character that never or barely emotes or speak always drags the experience down for me. When every other character talks and acts like an actual human, seeing them interact with a piece of cardboard with no soul and behave like they're the most charismatic person ever always feels jarring and unnatural. Breaking my immersion just enough to not hold the game in as high a regard I would if the hero did have any personality.

    The main comparisons I can make are ironically in the same series: Fire Emblem awakening and Three Houses. Both Robin and Byleth are the avatar that, as the player, I can influence how his relationships develop. But Robin has a fully fledged personality and he actually interacts and responds to the other characters while Byleth doesnt. Making the former a memorable presence who I want to root for and the latter the least interesting part of their game whose involvement in the story feels alien and unnatural.

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