Have the protagonists in gaming evolved into that of god-like power?
2009 may be remembered as the year of domination in gaming. In recent years there has been a shift in many popular titles where the main character seems human but in many ways display the powers of a god. They are in complete control of their situation but at the same time helpless by their environment.
In many games, we see the character evolve. In a few rare titles, the character is supreme from the first loading screen. This seems to be more difficult for the developer to pull off. When done well, however, it’s an experience like no other.
Certainly there have been some games in the past years that have exhibited this trend. It may have even started with such titles as the GTA games, God of War, Crackdown, the first Assassin’s Creed, and—with a bit of stretching—Star Wars The Force Unleashed. It’s this year though where it has been the most prominent. Never in the history of gaming have so many titles been produced with this concept.
Before we get to those titles I must first establish some criteria when referring to preeminence.
- The protagonist must essentially work alone. Certainly there can be some NPCs that help and such, but his dilemma has to be overcome on his own.
- Although there is a sense of god-like powers or abilities, the protagonist must be vulnerable. This vulnerability can come in the narrative, used as a character limitation (losing abilities and powers but gaining them back), or come from the environment.
- Even though there is vulnerability, dying often in the game should not happen. Gods don’t die—often. Of all the points, this is the most ambiguous. One gamer could play through Halo 3 and not die once while others respawn constantly. The same could be said for the games mentioned here. However, in general, most gamers won’t die playing it.
- There can be an evolution to god-like status with the character or the game can start with it. At the end of the title, the gamer must feel in total control. Nothing can stop them.
The one where he just won’t die
Many of the characters presented here come from comic book backgrounds. Wolverine is no exception. In what may be one of the best movie to video game translations to date, X-Men Origins Wolverine presents a great experience where the main character is virtually indestructible. Logan has amazing health regeneration abilities and developer Raven uses this to the fullest. Certainly, he can be taken down, but only at the expense of sacrificing the mythos of Wolverine himself. They solve this by throwing numerous enemies at Logan who are equipped with the same type of metal that is bonded to his skeleton or with shields that his claws cannot penetrate. Another tactic used is to make the enemies teleport, but this can be countered by allowing Wolverine to use his special tracking "sense". As the game progresses, other gimmicks are used to weaken the player—the main ones being removal of health regeneration or the tracking sense. Although this may cause some minor frustration, there is never any true loss of complete power—especially when Wolverine rips an enemy combatant in two over his head.
The one where it’s the shocking truth
Sucker Punch’s Cole McGrath does something a little unique in the world of inFAMOUS. Essentially, Cole is a quintessential 21st century comic book character in video game form. At the start of the game he has very little power. By the end he has evolved into one who owns and dominates the city he inhabits. The twist Sucker Punch gives us is that the Cole can be played as a hero or anti-hero. They succeed in presenting two different type of skill-sets, two different narratives, but with the same result. Cole realizes that he is a god among men by the end of the game. The game player feels this with the mention of his last words and actions—good or evil. Cole’s powers come from electricity and he does have some limitations: water (in some forms), chain link fences (confusingly, yes), and stronger enemies. Sucker Punch gets high marks for creating a completely unique video game character with depth and motives. The electricity power may not have been thought through completely but in the context of the game if fits well.
The one where this is my turf
Batman: Arkham Asylum was certainly the surprise hit of the year. This is one of those games where right from the start we know that the main character is awesome and is going to dominate. And dominate he does. Nothing about Batman feels weak from his character to his intelligence to his strength. There’s a fine line in creating a game like this. Make the protagonist too god-like and the game is a cake walk. Rocksteady does a fine job of still making him vulnerable but it’s almost never Batman’s fault. It’s the players. Still, the developer resorts to using large numbers of enemies, but the game really shines in how it handles that combat. Other unique hindrances also come in the form of intelligent riddles, puzzles, psychological trials, and the counter-strengths of most major Batman villains. It may be the first game where the player really feels like the comic book character he is supposed to be. Players loved it.
The one where silence is deadly
Ezio Auditore is sort of a street-brawling, womanizing bumbler. He has no purpose in life other than to live off his father’s wealth. Thus begins Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed II. By the end of the title he has become the feared assassin of the Italian countryside dominating many of the countries famous cities. Along the way Ezio learns to follow in his father’s footsteps by climbing buildings, killing silently, and avenging the wrong that has been done to his family. The niche that Ezio fills is that he may be a feared god among men but he is silent and hides—in broad daylight. Compared to the first title, this is one where the sense of being an assassin comes into the foreground. Blending in with crowds is no longer a gimmick. Just walking into a group of people and your lost (at most times) to the guards. As an unintended effect he becomes the protector of not just the cities he scans but maybe mankind as a whole. Ezio is just a part of a larger mythos presented in the game but it’s one where in his time period he takes on the leadership of the known world and succeeds well.
Is this a trend?
There are many other games that could fit this criteria but for some reason or another the sense of being a god among men is lost: [Prototype] (very difficult end-game), Red Faction: Guerrilla (too easy to die), and Bionic Commando (death by invisible gas? just…no.). Take a look at many of the finalists for game of the year. It’s certain that you’ll see games that fit this mold win quite a few accolades—one may even be the game most remembered for 2009.