Did you know that Die Hard, every reasonable person’s favourite Christmas movie, is actually based on a book? And in that book, John McClain, Mr Gruff Rogue Policeman Protagonist himself, was actually a fairly old, grizzled and grumpy man, a la Donald Glover in Lethal Weapon? And that in the movie, they decided that wouldn’t quite fit, so they changed his character to be more suited to someone like Bruce Willis to play? I tell you this fact, just as an interesting introduction to the world of the media wanting young or middle-aged, gruff, white, male protagonists, though obviously, I’m going to talk about games here because this is a games website and I try to remain a focussed writer to some level. To get back to games on some level, why don’t you take a look around at the protagonists of many of this year’s biggest games, and how many of them are gruff white guys, which I’m now shortening to GWGs to save my word count some abuse (extra bonus points go to where they’re a vigilante of some description, or their family was hurt prior to or at the beginning of the game, or where they’re out for redemption of some sort for past sins, because those are all crucial GWG qualities).
Watch_Dogs is a pretty prime example of everything that is the issue with GWGs in games. Ignoring the fact that Aiden Pearce, aka Hack’n’Shoot Hatmaskman, is essentially a walking digital pile of crime fiction tropes, he is essentially given very little real development throughout the game. The game introduces him as a gruff white guy who hacks stuff for his own personal profit, then some bad stuff happens, he feels guilty for the bad stuff that happens, and becomes a vigilante to redeem himself and get some fairly petty vengeance against people. Following all that hassle, he gets embroiled in a revenge plot against him by an old partner which puts his family in danger, all of which is again insanely stereotypical crime vigilante fiction and in no way gives you a good reason to play the game. And if your lengthy singleplayer-focussed story-oriented game has a protagonist that has no relatability or interesting features, and a story that has no real originality to it, then things are going to drag real quickly. The only reason I personally found to want to follow the adventures of Mr Hatmaskman was that this was about as close as I could get to a good Punisher game at the minute, and went about trying to focus on enjoying the gameplay and being a vigilante in a fairly solid city simulation with working public transport and nice gunplay.
And that’s a game that people have largely derided for its story, so its not exactly hard to pick at its already criticised-to-death corpse with all the other amateur journalist vultures (note: I actually quite like Watch_Dogs as a game, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have issues). Both of the big hitting AAA games that competed for Game of the Year on most sites, and are getting or have had re-releases this year, also have this major issue with using GWGs as their protagonists. The Last of Us and Grand Theft Auto V both feature morally ambiguous white men who end up seeking redemption or something similar on their respective journeys; yes, you could say that the storylines to those games are more complicated than that, and there is more to the characters than that, and even that I’m attacking games that don’t need to be attacked because they still tell fine stories with the characters they use and they have other playable or leading characters that aren’t gruff white guys. And you’re not wrong to say that; hell, if all gruff white guys were as well written as Joel in the Last of Us, we’d be just fine. But what if we could be better than just fine, and what if we could have made some of those characters not just fit the default?
To a rather basic observation, the characters of Joel and Lee, from the Walking Dead games by Telltale, are actually rather similar. Both of them are these grizzled cynical middle-aged guys who’ve seen their fair share of shit and done their fair share of bad things, and end up pairing up with a young girl to try and seek redemption and survival in the crazy post-apocalyptic worlds they live in. And without this necessarily becoming a reflection on which developers have better writers, Lee is the more interesting of the two characters in my opinion, and this is largely helped by the fact that he’s not just another gruff white guy; there is dialogue that allows for a reasonable, non-exploitative use of the fact that he’s not a GWG, emphasis more on the W than anything else, throughout the Walking Dead. That then allows for a more interesting dynamic between him and some of the other characters as well as allowing those of us who don’t experience life like that a small emulation of the experience and allowing those of us who can more directly relate to Lee to have someone to look up to in games, which is far too rare. On the other hand, Joel’s character is more just defined by his gender, age and gruffness, which is just a bit better than par for the course with game protagonist character development; again though, this isn’t me saying ‘Oh, The Last of Us is terrible because Joel is white and gruff’, this is me saying ‘Joel’s character is great within the story generally, but it is also very default-hero and I see no real reason why that has to be the case, when we see more interesting non-default heroes of a similar vein elsewhere’.
And then onto the other big game, Grand Theft Auto V. The one where Rockstar decided to be a bit ballsy and have 3 protagonists instead of just 1. And to their credit, it was an interesting design choice, for sure; now if only the protagonists were as interesting in design choices. Of the three, two are gruff middle-aged career criminal white guys, looking to make some money to pay off some bad choices and help mentor the third character, who is a young inexperienced black guy (who is fairly underplayed and is generally regarded as the worst of the three characters by most players, which tells you something about Rockstar’s focus in character design and plotting). I get that Michael is the retired family man, and that Trevor is the psychopathic criminal, neither of which are totally obvious crime fiction tropes at all obviously, but what specifically requires both of them to be gruff middle-aged white guys. In conversations I’ve had with people, they’ve said “Because the plot requires them to be so”, but I refuse to believe that Rockstar write a plot first and then go “Right, well, nothing about this can be changed, this is literally the Bible to our new game and this is the purest and holiest form of game canon” and fit all their characters into it. Just think about how cool it could have been if Michael was a female character, who’d settled down into a mother role and was lured back into her criminal ways or had her criminal ways catch up to her, in a kind of Orange Is The New Black style perhaps, or if Trevor had been some kind of Machete-like psychopath, as opposed to just a disgusting balding white guy.
Which leads me to what I think is a game that I think will make a fairly solid comparison to Grand Theft Auto V; Sleeping Dogs. Sleeping Dogs is yet another open world crime game, but it has plenty of distinctions that make it rather unlike the rest; as opposed to being set in an American city or a pastiche of an American city, it’s set in Hong Kong, and instead of having another white guy criminal or grizzled middle-aged cop out for redemption or revenge or whatever, you play as a young Interpol agent who originally came from Hong Kong but mostly grew up in the States and is back to infiltrate the Triad. Now, to me at least, that brief summary of only the start of Sleeping Dogs sounds more interesting than most open world crime games set in America with a GWG as a lead, but hey, what do I know. And this is not to say that Sleeping Dogs does not descend into crime fiction tropes either; it is absolutely full of them, and often feels like a grand tribute to John Woo, but hey, how many games do you get that feel like they’re homages to John Woo as opposed to people like Michael Mann and Quentin Tarantino. It is very much a game that tries to represent a culture that other games don’t, and that gives it this wonderful sense of novelty, for lack of a better word, that feeds back into the world so much more; in place of the typical open world mini games, there’s bizarre little things like a Karaoke mini game, which I find unceasingly hilarious but not because of how odd it is to have it in there, which make sense within the context, as do other changes to the game. The whole game world and the plot and everything are all the more interesting for the fact that the protagonist and the game’s setting were picked to be outside of the default gruff white male crime game lead and the default American urban environment.
On the topic of games that benefit from having a protagonist/s that isn’t all that default in a game world that isn’t too default either, its about time I brought up Mercenaries as a counter to boring old gruff white guy marine stereotypes. Yes, one of the three characters you can choose to play as IS a gruff white marine, but he’s more of a violent Swede than an American, and of the three, his background is the least interesting; the other two characters are an African American soldier whose father was a diplomat, and a Chinese-British female soldier. The main reason that I mention the African American soldier’s father is that each of these characters got a neat little un-mentioned bonus in the course of the game, as depending on the character you chose, you’d be able to understand what one of the three non-UN factions working with Korea were saying; the Swede could understand what the Russian mafia said, the American understood the South Korean forces and the Chinese-British woman understood the Chinese leadership. It meant that you got this slight insight into what each group was up to, and it was all the more reason not to trust anyone within the warzone. Also, the warzone itself, rather than being [insert Middle Eastern country where instability might happen] or America’s own backyard, was North and South Korea, which you freely roamed, trying to hold back North Korean troops from conquering the peninsula. It’s not really an environment you see much in games, and it has a wonderful alienness to it as you see all this Communist architecture and all these statues dedicated to their glorious leader. The environment could be done with a gruff white protagonist, sure, but I like to discuss it as being outside the default, plus half the fun of exploring that environment comes from the fact that you’re a private contractor who is not your average US soldier in the warzone and you can go and do your own thing instead of sticking with your particular regiment or whatever.
In the wake of Alien: Isolation coming out, it seems relevant to think about the space equivalent to our dear gruff white guy marine as well. Considering we live in a world where women are getting ever closer to being frontline soldiers just like men, and its not like women aren’t in the armed forces anyway, it seems odd that the vast VAST majority of combat-participating characters in shooty games set in the future are men. To the point where a female character in Gears of War is apparently an applaudable thing. A single female character. Sure, we get the occasional badass female in space, following in the footsteps of Ridley and her alien-ass-kicking ways, but most of the time it’s another Master Chief or whatever-the-boring-lead-from-Gears-of-War’s-name-is or whatever-the-boring-leads-from-the-Killzone-games’-names-are to add to the pile of soon-to-be-nameless and forgotten protagonists who shoot stuff in space. And its a terrible case when these people who have some degree of imagination because they can come up with these fantastical worlds in the galaxy and these cool weapons and setpieces and things can’t be bothered to do anything with the protagonist because its easier to just lean on the default and work from there. Why not let the player be in some kind of Sisters of Mercy-esque (The Sisters of Mercy are a group in Warhammer 40K, who are essentially violent fiery nuns to the Emperor) unit that goes around kicking ass, instead of just being another grunt, huh?
So what I’m saying is, how about we stop falling back on the default heroes and environments and plots and all the rest in games? How about we push some boundaries, get some more interesting things going, create a more diverse industry and fanbase for gaming, and all have that bit more fun? How about we put our imaginations and creativity towards creating something other than short-haired-deep-voiced-grunt-no.326 and his journey into a desert to shoot folk for the US government? As much as people worry about the idea of having this more diverse cast of protagonists across the games industry, it only helps to push developers and writers to create more interesting stories and characters if they don’t just rely on the default gruff white guy archetype that games seem to love and use oh so very much all the time. And if nothing else, I’m much happier having interesting games with new narratives than another gruff white guy who lost his family and is looking for redemption or who lost his squadmates and is looking for revenge. Much happier.
Joe Trail is the editor-in-chief of Don’t Be A Pixel. Mostly because he says he is, not because he has other writers to edit over. But such is the life of a busy editor-in-chief, obviously. He’s also an avid writer for the site. Of course.