Be warned, there are brief Bioshock Infinite spoilers ahead.
After discussing Bioshock Infinite with a friend, a game I haven't played since it was first released in 2013, I wanted to revisit some of the criticism that shrouded the game after it's launch and see how well they held up. Browsing through articles and reviews, I noticed that a lot of people seemed to have an issue with the characters in the game, specifically DeWitt.
We hear DeWitt repeatedly emphasise that there is no difference whatsoever between Comstock and Fitzroy, which is an astoundingly asinine assertion. Criticising a bloody uprising is fair enough, but to tar racism and revolution with the same brush and then dismiss the entire topic? That isn't just oversimplification, that's verging on cowardice.
Which started me down a path, considering whether it's OK for the protagonist in a game to be unpleasant, or imperfect. In some instances, such as with Kratos or Vegeta, we're happy to accept and even enjoy their moral corruption. So what is it that causes that inconsistency?
I've had similar discussions with people before about The Name Of The Wind. The protagonist, Kvothe, is frequently arrogant, sexist, and demonstrates a plethora of unhealthy attitudes towards women which made me think, in spite of what the story apparently wants you to believe, that he's a bit of a twat. This is offset by the fact that an adult version of Kvothe is dictating his story from memory, the implication being that the story has been romanticized and exaggerated in equal measure depending on the current level of self-loathing Kvothe himself is experiencing at that exact point in time; clearly bitter and filled with regret over his actions it's difficult to tell if he's deliberately making his younger self seem obnoxious because he feels that he deserves the disdain of his audience, or if that's completely unintentional and the author, Patrick Rothfuss, genuinely thinks these are admirable and heroic characteristics. As I've said before, he's either a very good author or a very bad one. From the interviews with the author that followed I'd lean towards the latter, though he does seem to be making an effort to improve.
Ready Player One (the book, let's not talk about the film) is similarly subject to criticism - not only because the protagonist Wade Watts is a complete bellend, but because the author has repeatedly demonstrated in interviews that he is oblivious to this fact. The other characters glorify Wade's problematic behavior with starry eyes, making the entire novel deeply uncomfortable.
So does writing a "bad" character mean the book is automatically bad? For a story to succeed is a protagonist obligated to be virtuous and embody our most desirable ideals? And when they do not should we blame the character or the writer?
The Death Of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave is a good counter example. The protagonist, Bunny Munro, is deliberately designed to be a culmination of detestable ideals; He's a cheater, a rapist, a pervert, a fat greedy moron who doesn't care about anyone but himself. His 10 year old son, also called Bunny Munro, adores him - a sweet friendly boy who thinks the world of his father and will do whatever he can to please him - the central dynamic of the book being that you know one of them is going to die, you just don't know which one.
It's an excellent book, despite the fact that the protagonist as about as deplorable a human being as you could hope to write. I think it proves quite succinctly that a character who is morally corrupt does not automatically equal a bad story. You can have great stories about bad characters. So why do some characters sour an entire experience and not others?
In games we frequently play horrible characters.
Violent men and women, murderers, assassins, thieves, monsters, and in one case an extremely vexed raccoon. One of my favourite games is The Last Of Us, the protagonist Joel essentially hired muscle. It's made clear repeatedly that he's done some pretty horrible fucking things to survive, and you yourself continue to do some messed up shit as you're guiding him through the game. He still resonates with me as a good character, however. By contrast the character of DeWitt seems like a dick, to the extent that it almost spoiled the game for me. Perhaps it's because of the way that the games other inhabitants seem immune to his bullshit, the way he is hero-worshipped by Elizabeth regardless. It feels undeserved? That undeserved-ness feels like the opinions of the writers themselves shining through, that this is what they think people should aspire to. We're OK to play and enjoy asshole protagonists as long as the other characters, the world, the writer, are in on the joke. That self awareness is important, and it's awkward when we don't get a sense of it.
The new Kratos has been praised repeatedly, but nobody is going to vote him father of the year, especially not himself.
It's obviously difficult to write good characters, because creating a personality which everyone feels the same way about is always going to be problematic. I'm sure there are plenty of people out there who thought DeWitt was badass and have no idea what I'm talking about right now. I'm sure a lot of people think the way Kvothe objectifies and treats women is cool too. I think the mark of a good writer should be the potential they leave for doubt, though; The potential for opposing opinions on a character's behavior is what gives them depth and makes them human - to be imperfect and to have those imperfections acknowledged and even celebrated.
So while hearing DeWitt preach nonsense isn't inherently bad, the fact that nobody questions him in the game is what causes us to do so in our criticisms of it. If DeWitt was an alcoholic womaniser and the other characters in the game treated him like as a useless scumbag then I think I'd like him more. It's weird how that works, huh?