Here's the Thing

Sick of Chosen Ones

A monthly glimpse into whatever gaming bugaboo Rob’s got on his mind.

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This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #89. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.

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Videogames have been full of clichéd storytelling since we started putting stories into them. Amnesiac protagonists; bad guys have a Thing and Thing must be recovered/destroyed; the world is in peril; tutorials that double as awkward exposition dumps; all the MacGuffins (all of them). Sometimes a game handles these predictable methods relatively well, and other times not so much. Honestly I don’t care about any of that too much because the story – when there is one, mind you – either shares the spotlight with the gameplay or is eclipsed by it.

Here’s the thing: I can turn a blind eye to just about any plot contrivance, but the one that always gets under my skin is when my character is supposed to be some sort of badass savior. It’s boring, uninspired and probably one of the laziest ways to try and empower players that I’ve seen over the past 25+ years.

Now I don’t mean to imply that I take umbrage with a protagonist that knows how to handle themselves. I happen to like characters such as Bayonetta and Dante and Jill Valentine (especially Jill Valentine). No, what I’m talking about has more to do with games that try to get me as a player to insert myself into the protagonist’s shoes – to make me feel as though I’m in the world myself – and then basically tell me I’m the One.

I’m so freaking sick of being a Legendary Hero or the only person who’s been able to _____ or Space Jesus. This doesn’t make me feel powerful, it makes me feel pandered to. Telling players they’re The Best at Everything and Will Totally Kill the Boss Because GO YOU is the participation trophy of empowerment. It’s a pat on the head and a “Go get ‘em, sport!” It’s god damn insufferable.

I’m so freaking sick of being a Legendary Hero or the only person who’s been able to _____ or Space Jesus.

RPGs are especially guilty of this, both because more modern offerings tend to default to character customization and so many RPGs just can’t resist the allure of making something legendary or part of a prophecy. It’s at this point I feel it necessary to mention that I do enjoy playing a lot of the games that pull this crap (i.e. Mass Effect, Skyrim, etc); I just hate the contrivance in question.

What bugs me even more is that there are games that do the whole “put the player in the world” thing without relying on the stupid “oh, and also make them nigh unto a god” thing. They don’t need to go hand-in-hand. Look at survival horror games like Resident Evil 7 and the first Silent Hill. You’re meant to identify with a “hero” who isn’t actually a combat specialist or even necessarily a good person. They do end up prevailing, because of course they do, but it’s not because they’re some sort of unstoppable killing machine. They’re desperate; they make mistakes; they get scared; they usually die a LOT.

Don’t come at me with the Power Fantasy excuse, either. There are plenty of games that let players feel powerful without turning them into a digital deity. Monster Hunter and the Souls series (and Bloodborne) are perfect examples of this. Yes, you feel like The Ultimate Badass come the endgame stuff, but you freaking EARN that sense of accomplishment. Your characters get better by way of gear and stats (just gear in Monster Hunter’s case, of course), however it’s you as a player who have improved the most. You learn the optimal techniques, to read attacks, become intimately familiar with your weapons’ speed and reach. You feel like a badass because, by that point, you are a badass; not because some NPC or tip window told you so.

Again, I don’t take issue with games that have you controlling a character who is themselves amazing at everything. They’re their own person (sort of), and you’re just controlling their movements. What I take issue with is when my own character – either one I’ve designed or one I’m meant to mentally stand in for – is a master of all things cop-out. I don’t want a game to try and make me feel perfect. I want to feel imperfect but believably proficient at one or two things that make me useful in a scrap, or I want to feel like I’m awesome after actually having to work at it rather than having awesomeness handed to me. I’m freaking sick of being The Chosen One.

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Rob Rich has loved videogames since the 80s and has the good fortune to be able to write about them. Catch his rants on Twitter at @RobsteinOne

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