Games are More Interesting When Their Characters Aren't Perfect

By Kate Gray on at

By Kate Gray

“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.”

That there is 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.)

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Drake’s problem is that he’s not all that considerate. In the latest Uncharted game, 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.)

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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 likably unlikeable 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.