Games Are Better When Characters Aren't Perfect

Image: Witcher 3 Wiki

"My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun; coral is far more red than her lips red. If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; if hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head. And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare; as any she belied with false compare."

This story originally appeared in September 2016.

That's an excerpt from one of Shakespeare’s sonnets –- my favourite, in fact, and you can probably see why. When he wrote “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”, he didn’t once say “thou art bloody irritating, far too hot, and I never seem to be dressed right to go out with you”.

(That’s the true British experience of a summer’s day, as evidenced by literally any time that the outdoor temperature nudges 25 degrees, so if we’re striving for accuracy here then his mistress is probably more like a surprisingly pleasant Spring afternoon.)

I like this sonnet because it’s unvarnished, imperfect, not weighed down by flouncy, poetic declarations of ardent admiration. The point is this: imperfection is sexy.

Your flaws, your freckles, your lumpy feet and varicose veins –- those are what make you human. We can admire the perfection of Photoshopped models and Vanity Fair covers, but those representations of humans are too perfect to be real.

You can’t love a Vanity Fair cover, unless you’re one of those chaps that Channel 4 makes documentaries about. Love – that is, the romantic, two-way kind of love – requires both parties to be sort of fleshy and lumpy and weird and imperfect. Why would you want anything less?

I feel another kind of love for my favourite video games. Recently, I’ve been playing The Witcher 3 and Uncharted 4, and after every session – whether that’s an hour or two after work or an epic eight-hour weekend binge – I feel a sort of glow, a happy, contented appreciation for the work of the developers behind both games.

I think there’s a good reason for that: both Geralt of Rivia and Nathan Drake of My Dreams are these wonderfully, tragically flawed characters. OK, so they’re both pretty sexy, but their flaws are more emotional and personal than physical. (Although Geralt does have a lot of scars.)

Image: Youtube

Drake’s problem is that he’s not all that considerate. In Uncharted 4, he swans off to Adventure Town without consulting his wife; in fact, he straight up lies to her, despite the fact that she used to be his partner on all his adventures and can probably handle it.

Bad idea, Nate.

He’s also too trusting, too reckless, too short-sighted –- all traits that play well into his lovably roguish adventurer persona, but don’t go too well with the fact that he’s supposed to be acting more responsibly now that he has a family.

It’s a wonderful, relatable way to tell the Uncharted story, and it makes Drake the appealing, charming dickhead we know and love.

Geralt, meanwhile, is emotionally stunted – not his fault, really, it’s part of becoming a Witcher – but this makes it hard for him to form meaningful relationships.

Credit here goes to Andrej Sapkowski, the author of the Witcher books, for thinking up a protagonist that can be relatable even while he uses his magic flame-sword to cut a griffin in half.

He messes up with Yennefer (never piss off a sorceress), he messes up with Triss (never piss off a woman with a temper as fiery as her hair ... who is also a sorceress), and in my game his over-protective attitude towards Ciri was basically shown to be super bad parenting. Geralt is far from perfect as an adoptive dad or a lover, but his defiant and loyal love towards his "family" makes him one of gaming’s finest male characters.


Geralt Messes Up With Yennefer

The reason I love Geralt and Drake is because I can put myself in their shoes. Not entirely, because I am not a dragon-slaying wizard, I don’t really enjoy the idea of climbing a sheer cliff-face and I’m probably not the same shoe size as either of them – but I can understand and empathise with their choices and motivations.

Both are motivated by love, which leads them to making mistakes, and mistakes make for more interesting stories. There’s a reason people don’t like “Mary Sue” characters: they’re just narratively dull. Things happen to them, but not because of them, and in the meantime, Nathan Drake is accidentally pulling off chunks of an incredibly valuable, ancient statue and Geralt is accidentally killing the cursed monster instead of saving it.

Isn’t that much more interesting than being The Chosen One with perfect hair? (Nathan Drake does have perfect hair, though.)

Image: Supplied

It’s harder to write a flawed female protagonist, for what should be obvious reasons. Lara Croft’s beginnings as a young woman afraid to kill were scrutinised much more than usual, because it made her look weak as opposed to the strong, badass Croft we were used to.

Her simultaneous redesign from the triangle-chested polygonal lass of yore into a more realistic model was similarly motivated: make Lara Croft a person, with motivations and dreams and fears like any of us, rather than the cartoon she was before.

Going from cartoonish games – the Crash Bandicoots and Marios of the '90s – to the modern world of photorealism enables us to develop characters’ minds alongside their bodies.

As the polygon count increases, so do the synapses and neurons in our protagonists’ brains. They become complex beings, with all the issues that come with being a creature capable of rational and intricate thought. At the heart of it, a more complicated character with more complicated and varied motivations allows for a better story that goes beyond the simplistic 'Save The Princess' narrative of older games.

It’s something to be proud of and excited for – that we can now play games that echo our own experiences, that allow us to react to events as we might in our own lives.

We can play The Witcher 3’s beautifully mundane Bloody Baron quest (and that’s mundane not in the sense of being boring, but in being of this earth) and though it takes place against a background of magic, witches and demons, the story at its heart is one of flawed and often likeably unlikable characters whose mistakes have lost them everything.

That’s why that quest is one of the most talked about in The Witcher: it’s so completely human, because everyone is fucked up.

We’re all fucked up. Games have always tended towards idealism: you are the perfect hero, the worlds are perfect escapism, the narratives are simple and fable-like. But idealism, in the end, is really quite boring.


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This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour from the British isles.


Comments

    Nice one. I think that's mostly why I could never get into James Bond films; there's nothing to relate to. Even in escapist fantasy type entertainment I still want some light and shade.

    Witcher 3 was pretty good for imperfections. Remember that incident (I think it was a DLC) where you come across this Witcher who's killed some town folk? I liked that the various witchers felt like multi-faceted individuals rather than just paradigms of virtue or whatever.

      re: James Bond

      Absolutely true. It's why you watch something like Kingsmen and you can relate to say, Eggsy, but you watch Bond and can't make that connection. He's cool and suave, but he's not 'relatable'.

        Skyfall was a small improvment on making bond relatable.

          Although the whole "go to Scotland and visit the family estate" bit came out of nowhere.

          That said, I think it was great to see Bond:

          A) Nearly die
          B) Have to come back and try show he's 100% when he's clearly not
          C) Go up against a villain who had very personal reasons for what he was doing
          D) Show why he was different from said villain and prove why he needs MI6

          Basically, show him being more of a human being than just a penis with a gun.

      There is a reason some dub Geralt The Butcher of Blaviken, he is about as far from perfect one can get and still remain "the good guy"

    Incidentally, that's my favorite of Shakespeare's Sonnets too, Sonnet 130. I teach it to students whenever I can. I love the contrast between the unattainable which have unrealistic expectations associated with them, and what you have, which should mean more to you than what you cannot have. The idea that someone with faults is more important than something you believe to be faultless, which simply does not exist, is true and characters with flaws are inherently more interesting than the aryan like ubercharacters who have not a flaw.

    John Marston stands as one of the greatest characters to me, repentant about his wicked past, trying to raise a family, trying to give up his ways yet drawn back in. Tommy Vercetti, bad as the day is long, deep down a good heart, but still rotten to the core. Geraldt as you mentioned for sure, more three dimensional in one game than most in a whole series, but across three Witcher games??? Holy cow. Look at Frank West from Dead Rising, sexist, chauvinist, a little misogynist and utterly entertaining and memorable, goofy and charming.

    I don't think this is *always* the case though, Chun Li is without fault realistically, yet memorable, Ryu and Ken too, pretty much all the core Streetfighter 2 characters from that era. I could wax lyrical all day, but you know what I mean. But at the end of the day they're just archetypes, not fully fleshed out three dimensional characters which seperates them from the faulted characters. After all when we compare Ryu to Heihachi Mishima, even though I love Streetfighter more, Heihachi DEFINITELY has the richer story, the more interesting character and the better background...

    I'm rambling I know, so I'll cut it short, great article and I look forward to more :)

    Have to agree, but on the flip side, having too many flaws is just as bad as not having any.

    Despite this people will always naturally gravitate to the assumptiong that we should want to BE the main character and that you CAN'T experience something if the characters are "unlikable". I wish so very much people would be open to more diverse stories and characters but every time you move it away from power fantasy, suddenly everyone has an in-depth, expert perspective on narrative and story elements.

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