Protagonist Problems

Titanfall 2 is one of the best games of the past year. It lives up to all the promise that the originals game had but adds in whole host of new weapons, maps and hulking robot death machines. It also had what the original game did not, a single player campaign. And not only is the single player in Titanfall 2 present and correct after a being rather conspicuously absent from the original Titanfall but it’s really really damn good. Taking a page from the short and sweet school of game design, not a moment is wasted and not a second goes by without you doing something awesome. Wall running in the jungle, awesome. Climbing the walls of a building factory while robot mercenaries try to kill you with lasers, awesome. Violating the laws of space and time with a wrist mounted flux capacitor, awesome.

What’s less awesome, however, is this guy. Jack Cooper, a humble rifleman elevated to Pilot status after his mentor gets all murdered. And coincidentally the most generic protagonist in a video game since Aidan Pierce. The guy from Watch_dogs 1. With the iconic hat? No? Nevermind? There’s nothing wrong with Cooper, but there’s exactly nothing interesting about him either. He’s a handsome white man who doesn’t have any major personality quirks or flaws. He’s not reckless, or angry or traumatised. He’s a cipher, a blank slate given a few optional voice lines to flesh out his character and his relationship with his pet robot BT. He makes a few jokes but they’re nothing above standard action movie one liners.

Matthew Mercer makes a decent attempt to bring some life to the character but cooper is still as memorable as a bucket of beige paint. What makes this all the stranger is that the cast of characters that surrounds Generic McWhiteman is one of the more varied and interesting in a AAA video game. Although there’s not a fantastic range as far as ethnic origin. Lastimosa gets fridged in the first 10 minutes and the rest of the cast is whiter than driven snow. But there are several female characters in a significant roles. The bad guys are a motley cast of mercenaries and murders including the robot Ash and the sadistic Sloan. Even the blond haired anatagonist has the decency to be South African. The heroic Marauders  are led by Sarah Briggs, and the elite troops of the 6-4 squadron are led by Gates. The former is a heroic commander archetype and the latter is stoic and badass in equal measure.

They’re both dressed in perfectly sensible clothing for their station and situation. Gates never takes her helmet off, which means she could have any physical appearance or ethnicity. Neither is given much to do in the story, but the brief time that we spend each of them leaves no doubt in my mind that these would have made more interesting focus for the game than the terminally boring Cooper. Although it’s supposed to be a origin story they could quite easily have skipped back in time to the period before Gates and Briggs ascended to their loft positions as titan pilots extraordinaire. Even if they wanted to make Cooper the protagonist they could have at least given the player the option to choose gender. As a player you only ever see Cooper’s hands and forearms and he has less than one page of dialogue. A little extra in the budget could have paid for a female voice actor that would have expanded the potential audience and improved the character no end. most story cliches can be made interesting again just by having female characters step into the roles usually occupied by men and this would be a situation where this would work well.

Titanfall 2 is not the only game which has this problem. The this year’s DOOM reboot, which placed the player in the shoes of the doom slayer, a angry windstorm of a human being armed to the teeth perpetually furious with the legions of hell. And apart for the brief seconds in which we glimpse his torso during the opening cut scene entirely without sex. It would actually have taken less effort for the game not to show the upper body and leave it up to the player’s imagination whether or not he was actually male, or female.

Not to ignore the most glaring culprit of this, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, a game about systematic prejudice and the ways in which fear, misunderstanding and ignorance can be used to build a segregated society, which had a straight white man as its protagonist. Adam Jensen wasn’t a bad character but it feels a little hollow to have the main character tick every single box on the privilege check sheet.

Characters in video games and more specifically the protagonist are usually in place as cipher. The are a blank slate that we can project ourselves onto and through them we experience the game. The overriding issue is that the character we are usually given is a straight white male aged between 25 and 45. But lots of us are not that person. Obviously it’s not a case of direct similarity, you could be the most heterosexual white male in the world and still find that you have nothing in common with Duke Nukem. But the casual assumption that most people who play games fit into that demographic is annoying. Because it’s what leads to situations like this, where we’re given a boring, characterless white dude to play as because game writers, and I have no doubt the executives in marketing and publishing who sign their paychecks, assume that’s who we’ll see the most of ourselves in.

Even if you were to discount the notion of seeing myself in a character specifically it’s still frankly ridiculous to suggest that every protagonist would have the same ethnicity, general appearance and sexual orientation. Even if that is exactly how every single gamer looked, video games are about escapism and seeing something new. If my character can summon a giant robot with a mini gun to drop from the sky like an angry sentient Mjolnir then I can probably believe that character might also have a vagina. 

I’m getting distracted by semantics, but the point is that Titanfall 2 is better than it has any right to be. It’s a smart, slick shooter that succeeds where competitors like Call of Duty fail. But it’s still victim to the same cliches that hobble the genre and the medium as a whole. Storytelling in games has a way to go before it outgrows the cliches that have served it well for the past few years but it’s not a losing battle. Developers, players and publishers can and do get behind more interesting characters. Overwatch is the biggest new IP in recent memory that features a wide cast of characters from literally every continent. Watchdogs 2 and Mafia 3 came out last year and both chose to swap out their previously white bread protagonists for individuals with African American characters. Titanfall 2 succeeds at just about everything it sets out to do. It tells a compelling story with the characters it creates. It’s just a shame that some of those characters weren’t a little bit more compelling.

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