Exploits Feature

The Batman Problem

This is a reprint of the Television essay from Issue #65 of Exploits, our collaborative cultural diary in magazine form. If you like what you see, buy it now for $2, or subscribe to never miss an issue (note: Exploits is always free for subscribers of Unwinnable Monthly). 

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On the internet, the saying goes, “Always be Batman.” As a quote, it speaks to the internet’s love for the DC superhero, but it also highlights a huge stumbling block for many videogame series. In a game set in Gotham City, why would a player ever want to be anyone other than Batman? Of course, this extends to other games, as well. The Halo series has struggled with its storytelling in recent entries because there’s very little left to explore for its protagonist, Master Chief, but it’s nearly as impossible to imagine the series continuing without him. Similarly, one of the reasons Mass Effect: Andromeda struggled – and something the next Mass Effect game will have to deal with – is that players are heavily invested in seeing the universe through the eyes of their version of Commander Shepard and must be convinced to move beyond them.

One team has shown a path forward, however. When Ryu Ga Gotoku Studios decided to move on from the Yakuza series’ beloved protagonist, Kazuma Kiryu, they must have known what they were in for because they made all the right decisions in crafting their new protagonist, Kasuga Ichiban.

In all the ways that matter, Ichi is nothing like Kiryu. Where Kiryu is quiet and stoic, Ichi is loud and emotional. While Kiryu was known for his powerful fists that dole out punishment to any who threaten those he cared for, Ichi specializes in taking hits to protect his loved ones. Even their clothes are opposites. Kiryu wears his iconic gray suit with a maroon shirt, while Ichi wears a maroon suit with a white shirt.

In all the ways that matter, they’re exactly the same. Both like to kick back, drink with friends and maybe throw some darts. They each have a charisma that keeps people coming back to them for help, over and over again. The pair adhere so strongly to their individual – and similar, though not identical – codes of honor that they never stop offering that aid even when any rational person would have walked away from that situation and those people long ago.

Ichiban is just like Kiryu, except where he isn’t. That is the key to how he so thoroughly woos an audience that might not otherwise have been ready to move on from the iconic protagonist. Ichiban’s insides, his motivations and his feelings are very similar to Kiryu – this lets the player feel like they’re still playing in the same place they’ve always played. Their exterior behaviors, however, are so very different that Ichiban never feels like the watered-down clone of his predecessor he might have instead become.

With Ichiban, RGG Studios managed to craft a superb successor. Someone who does the same things for similar reasons but in his own, entirely unique way. Thus, they forged the key to solving the so-called “Batman Problem.” Find the core motivations of your character and then design one who is motivated to do the same things but in a different way or for different reasons. Obviously, this is something that is simple to describe but very difficult to do. Only time will tell if other series will be able to follow the path blazed here by RGG studios.

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