It’s ten o’clock in the evening, and the man in front of me sits down on a nearby step. He puts his hand to his face, covering his eyes, and exhales before staring at the floor. Around him, the futuristic environment he inhabits crumbles while an automated voice announces his approaching doom. He doesn’t move. He simply stares at the floor in grim defeat, despite his victory over the evil forces of his universe. His head moves slowly side to side as he struggles to overcome the things he has done, the things he has seen, and the situation that has been forced upon him. As I watch the man resign himself to his fate, a small piece of text appears in the corner of the screen: “Dead Space 2,” followed by the credits for the voice actors in the game.
Thus ended Dead Space 2 (almost), a game that follows Isaac Clarke, a man who through no will of his own has his entire fate tied to the markers: obelisks which have the power to bring back the corpses of the dead as foully mutated monstrosities, which a naïve and evil cult known as Unitology have deemed the salvation of mankind, and which he holds fully responsible for the death of his girlfriend Nicole, the memory of whom torments him to this day.
The first Dead Space presented Isaac Clarke as a (mostly) silent protagonist whom the player could easily fill the boots of in his quest to try and find Nicole and stop the necromorph plague from spreading. I personally didn’t relate to the character himself, but was compelled enough to fight with/through him in the goal of achieving a satisfactory conclusion. Dead Space 2, however, turned this idea on its head, giving Isaac a voice, allowing him to speak out about his predicament and his pain. In Dead Space 2, he is a man who has nothing more to lose, and the only gain he can see is preserving as many lives as he can while redeeming himself for the death of Nicole, something he apparently blames himself for. He saves the life of Ellie, an NPC who is already walking injured, by sending her away in a ship against her will, so that at least this partially offsets his own guilt. This done, he confronts the Marker on the sprawl head on, eventually emerging victorious.
Isaac suddenly having a voice went a long way to making him relatable. Whereas in Dead Space he was a mere tool through which the player could interact with the game world, much like Gordon Freeman of Half-Life or the Point Man from the F.E.A.R series. Dead Space 2 brought the character to a whole new level, and I must confess that Isaac Clarke is currently, hands down, my favourite character in videogames. This is of course subject to change, as I’m only on Chapter 9 of Dead Space 3.
While I highly commend Viscarel Games for their work with Dead Space 2, transforming it into an action heavy yet equally horrific vehicle for the tale of one of the best damn characters in videogames, it is also important to consider how far other developers are going in their quest to develop people as opposed to protaganists. Gears of War often gets criticized for being a “bro game,” heavy on the action and light on the brain cells. While I feel that Epic Games’ later efforts with the series were perhaps over ambitious and fell rather flat, and that marketing campaigns were at best slightly misleading (“Mad World,” anyone?), I must commend them on their very first Gears game. The interaction between the four squad members is fantastically written and very well voiced. The quartet will joke, insult and tease each other liberally, but at times, genuine concern for the wellbeing of their comrades is clearly evident. One part that sticks in my mind is a section in Act 3 down in the Locust’s underground habitat, where you must choose which path you will take, and which path Dom is left with. Dom says, “I hope I got the right path here,” to which Marcus replies, “Hey! I hope we both do.” It’s a rare instance in these types of games, and one that many fail in their attempt to replicate such sentiments, but Gears of War frequently pulls it off with aplomb.
Even in the last six months, we’ve seen two iconic characters reach new heights. This year, we’ve had the much maligned black “emo-haired” Dante burst onto the scene in DmC: Devil May Cry amidst waves of condemnation and basic lies about his nature. The truth is that, despite his half-demon and half-angel genetic makeup, new Dante is probably more human than the efforts of most developers. Again, he shows concern for his human friends, and sticks up for the human race against those who would enslave it, but is also capable of being flawed. His angry rant at the main antagonist as he seeks to antagonize him to the point of distraction is a powerful scene, as it demonstrates his hesitation at actually being that much of a dick, and the very thing he boasts about in order to achieve this is something that he himself disagreed with totally.
Equally, like Dead Space 2 and Isaac Clarke, Halo 4 set out to give more of a voice to its criminally underdeveloped protagonist, particularly in a scene at the end which confronts him with the loss of his longest serving ally and friend, who themselves demonstrated a flawed yet believable personality.
But all this begs the question: are these characters relatable? I would have to say mostly no. They face things we can’t even dream of, achieve things well beyond our reach, and are put into situations so infeasible that to attempt to put ourselves into their situation is beyond us. Sure, the Captain Price’s, the Adam Jenson’s and the Nathan Drake’s may not exhibit actual supernatural powers, but they foolhardily throw themselves into their battles with reckless abandon, into situations that, should we be confronted with them, we would almost certainly back down.
What makes them compelling is not how we relate to them (I would struggle to find any character in the whole videogame medium for whom this is true), but how the developer makes them conceivable as a person – albeit, a larger than life person willing to go further than any existing person alive or dead. Nathan Drake can gun down thousands of mercenaries and scale vast mountains and dangerous temples, but he cracks a joke, and even questions his motives by the third installment of Uncharted, echoing the concerns of his friends. Adam Jenson may stride into huge complexes full of gun-toting cyborgs, but he does so under necessity, with a wish to secure mankind’s future, and yet with massive regret at his current form (as demonstrated by the smashed mirror in his apartment). And by now, a real life Captain Price would have retired from post-traumatic stress disorder and drowned himself in a bottle in an effort to forget his fallen comrades, yet he struggles on, determined to take down the Modern Warfare big bad and avenge his fallen comrades with great passion and anger, as demonstrated by the manner in which he finally finishes off Vladimir Makarov.
Is how “relatable” a character is to us important? I don’t think so. I don’t need to have just floating hands and feet and no apparent neck in order to enjoy Rayman or its colourful universe, or to root for him and guide him to victory. I don’t need to have lost someone in armed combat to understand the motives of Call of Duty’s Captain Price, and I certainly don’t want to go to the USG Ishimura to understand Isaac Clarke. Faced with what Isaac has seen, has fought, and has gone up against, I would have backed down straight away, crafted a space-raft with fireworks, and gone hunting for dairy products on the nearest moon rather than fight a single necromorph. I’d have been out of the door as soon as the first severed foot showed up. What I want instead is a character I can root for, whether it be for their quest for redemption in the face of hellish corpses and an all-powerful cult, or whether it be just to smash up the old woman from the Land of the Livid Dead for mutating a bird and a fish, and for being disproportionately upset that my snoring was too loud.
You can probably dismiss this argument as a mere point over semantics. I’m sure when most people complain about a character not being “relatable,” what they ultimately mean is “feasible” with human qualities. Ultimately, videogames are there to allow us to participate in activities and scenarios well beyond our reach and ability. In order to have a character capable of these tasks, they’re going to be nothing like you, except maybe for your tastes in music or a slight physical resemblance. They’re going to be skilled killers with physical capabilities vastly superior to yours, potentially unbelievably so, and have a moral compass and levels of courage that few on this planet have, have ever had or will ever have while still retaining a shred of humanity. Without these important points, you may as well have a game about walking some dogs.