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Player Characters

The not-so many faces of the gaming lead

For all his charming flaws and self-aware one-liners, as a player character Nathan Drake is very conventional. Uncharted's lead is a well-built male who saves the world and gets the girl, slotting neatly into the always prominent Hollywood hero trope. In video games, this trope traces its origins right back to Jumpman saving Pauline from Donkey Kong, yet still defines many contemporary titles.

The history of player characters reveals an assortment of branching types that are much more noteworthy than said Hollywood trope. Some have yet to be fully explored, others are waiting to be reprised and revived in the modern era. Here are six such branches warranting further examination.

Reviving the Mascot

The mascot movement began in 1980 and with Pac-Man, a simplistic character swept up in his game's opportune worldwide success. Said success quickly made Pac-Man into a cultural phenomenon as marketing centred on him rather than the game, with everything from cereals to panties displaying his yellow visage. He even got his own animated series depicting his family's adventures in Pac-Land - Pac-baby et al. The simple Pac-Man design had become iconic.

His cultural impact was not lost on competitors. Other early 80s games like Frogger and Pitfall tried but failed to ape the Pac-Man formula in their heroes, and then a plucky plumber named Mario emerged. Even though he started life playing second fiddle to the afore-mentioned Donkey Kong, he went on to star in his own game, 1985's Super Mario Bros. which would go on to sell over 40 million copies worldwide. With Mario's commercial success came a similar whirlwind of merchandising and spinoffs, but unlike other gaming icons Mario's cultural status and significance would never fade.

Mario became a mascot both for Nintendo and gaming, his challengers fading while his success surged over the late 80s. Then 1991 produced Sega's mascot with attitude, Sonic. The stylish, impassive hedgehog aptly represented the detached MTV generation, and his cultural relevance threatened to oust the moustachioed, chubby Mario from his mascot throne. The 2D platforming heroes fought at the centre of their manufacturers' decade-long console war, but Mario's emphatic transition into 3D combined with Sega's financial problems brought battle to a close.

Despite the emergence of iconic player characters like Lara Croft, Pikachu and Master Chief, there's now a gap in the market for another mascot to emerge, one to rival the all-conquering Mario. While it may seem an impossible feat, the push made with LittleBigPlanet's Sackboy proves the importance Sony places on finding a face to represent its systems. Mario's ability to adapt over time ensures he'll never be outdated, but someone like Sackboy could present a more current, fresher icon for gaming's oft-forgotten younger generation to get behind. If Sackboy somehow achieves anything near to the cultural impacts of Pac-Man and Mario then he could also represent the cutesy face needed to remind the public that gaming still has a charming, imaginative side.

More than Just a Bow

While 1981's Ms. Pac-Man had quicker action and smarter AI than its predecessor, in truth gaming's first female player character only represented a blatant scheme to bring women to arcades, albeit a highly successful one. It took six more years for gaming's true first lady to surface.

While inspired by the sci-fi films Alien and Aliens' lead female, Metroid held back its protagonist's gender right until its ending. With gaming's abundance of male leads and developer Nintendo's reverence for men saving princesses, the revelation of a female Samus behind the armour stunned players with its strong feminist commentary even if that wasn't necessarily the intention. As a lone but capable bounty hunter, Samus is often cited as an important leading lady. Yet her sexualisation over time not least in her tight-fitting Zero Suit arguably detracts from her initial impact.

Hyper-sexualisation would be a criticism levelled far more at gaming's next prominent heroine, Lara Croft. Her emergence at the height of the 90s girl power movement, combined with the wild success of her games and movies, propelled her into cultural stardom. But any girl power she may have had was demeaned by her enormous bust, supposedly accidentally produced by the slip of a designer's mouse. Her sexualised image combined with the game's controllable camera gave Tomb Raider a strong voyeuristic element, one which Lara has failed or arguably never tried to escape from.Nearly 13 years on, there is still a lack of engaging, realistic female leads. While Beyond Good & Evil's resourceful Jade and Mirror's Edge's athletic Faith provide notable modern exceptions, both of their games failed to achieve commercial success and with it public awareness. The gaming audience may be more gender-diverse than ever before, but surely the absence of female leads for players to identify with presents a huge barrier between video games and half of the world's population.

Silence is Golden

The silence of Nintendo's early player characters was more circumstantial than by design. The technological limits of initial Mario, Zelda and Metroid iterations only allowed for minimal dialogue at best. While Samus grew a narrative voice in future incarnations, Nintendo decided to keep Mario and Link (mostly) silent, even as Zelda games became more complex and Mario entered the sphere of role-playing games. After witnessing their animated series, it feels like an agreeable decision.

In 1995 there were no technology-based excuses for Crono's silence in Japanese RPG Chrono Trigger. With the Final Fantasy series producing astonishing narrative depth and plenty of dialogue for its time, many players were surprised by Square's decision to give their new J-RPG a silent protagonist. However, Crono's silence only served to magnify the personalities of his colourful supporting cast, while expressive touches in his animation gave him enough of a personality to not feel soulless.

Three years later, Gordon Freeman burst inaudibly onto the scene. The silence of gaming's most famously silent protagonist was particularly highlighted in Half-Life's sequels, in which he was joined by accomplice and romantic interest Alyx. Gordon's atypical, ordinary background and mild-mannered appearance gave players a realistic vessel to identify with, while Alyx provided near-rhetorical dialogue to help fill in his absent dialogue. Detractors argued that Gordon's lack of a perceivable personality and muteness at important plot moments undermined him as a hero.

Maybe this is an argument underlined by 2007's BioShock, in which players led a silent protagonist into harm by blindly following the suggestions of what turned out to be a malevolent stranger. BioShock's revelatory plot exposes how much more can be explored within the realm of silent protagonists. The game wouldn't have been anywhere near as impactful with a talking player character, after all. Maybe what Half-Life and BioShock prove in combination is that gaming hasn't yet seen a convincing silent protagonist, one whose silence players truly feel comfortable with.

The Customs of Custom-Made Characters

Wizardry, a Dungeons and Dragons-style game released in 1981, let players compose a party of five characters with customizable races, moral alignments and fighting classes. It was one of the first games to offer character customization, a feature that would pervade future RPG series like Might & Magic and early Final Fantasy iterations.

Wizardry's D&D-inspired customization would find a spiritual successor in BioWare's Baldur's Gate series, but around that time Maxis were making more interesting developments. Released in 2000, The Sims offered more pragmatic, personality-based attributes for customization, such as neatness and playfulness, allowing players to create characters with fairly discernable traits. The Sims enjoyed exceptional success and broad appeal, and millions of men and women used the life simulator's character customization for role-play and playing out dramatic scenarios.

Character customization spread into many genres, but continued as a staple of the Western RPG in the hands of developers BioWare and Bethesda Softworks. Their most recent games, Dragon Age: Origins and Fallout 3 respectively, both offer incredibly detailed visual customization, as does the recently released Sims 3. However, EA Sports games like FIFA 10, PGA Tour 10 and Fight Night Round 4 allow players to superimpose photo-derived versions of their own face onto avatars, taking the concept of a virtual representation of self in a video game to whole new levels.

While this level of visual customization is impressive, it remains decorative compared to the ability to impose specific attributes upon a character. With The Sims series (rightly) keeping its casual edge, the lack of customizable personality-based variables holds back development of social experiment-type gameplay. As for Western RPGs, developers may argue that players define their characters through their actions. Yet their games offer some personality-based variables, usually D&D-derived attributes like wisdom, intelligence and charisma. Surely there is more to a character's personality, even in fantastical settings, than these vague and tired tropes? In terms of personality, the character customization of Dragon Age hasn't progressed far from the days of Baldur's Gate and Wizardry.

Sexuality: Inclusive but Never Mandatory

Gaming's history of gender-ambiguous characters goes right back to Super Mario Bros. 2's gender-confused Birdo, and maybe most famously with Chrono Cross' cross-dressing Flea. But a man playing as a woman has become accepted gaming practice, whereas the idea of a straight man playing a gay character provokes more adverse reactions.

The first two Fallouts, post-apocalyptic RPGs, were the earliest games to give players the option of engaging in homosexual romance and even same sex marriage. Their mantle was famously taken up in 2001 by The Sims and then by Fable three years later, both accommodating for gay and bisexual player characters. This inclusive approach to player characters' sexuality went on to feature in other games like Bully, Mass Effect and Dragon Age, with those examples coming under intense media scrutiny for bringing sex and sexuality to a medium alleged to be the mainstay of children.

Video games are becoming more inclusive regards sexuality, notably by featuring more maturely written gay characters like Grand Theft Auto IV's Gay Tony' Prince and BioShock's Sander Cohen. However, mandatorily gay or bisexual player characters unquestionably remain a rarity.

Fighting games offer diverse and plentiful rosters, so it's not surprising to find many examples of gay and bisexual player characters in that genre. Yet for the majority of them, their sexuality is superficial and irrelevant, unsurprising given the simplistic nature of the genre. Party-based RPGs offer some examples like the comic relief of Shadow Hearts: Covenant's gay character Joachim Valentine. Survival horror Fear Effect 2 features a more mature take in the explicit relationship between two of its female protagonists, Hana and Rain, although game director Stan Liu played down their status as lesbians in post-release interviews.

In terms of a gay or bisexual central character, one has to go all the way back to Curtis Craig, the protagonist of 1995's psychological horror Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh. Craig starts out the game seemingly straight, but later confesses to a therapist his concerns over being bisexual, revealing feelings for his openly gay best friend.

What A Puzzle of Flesh exposes is not primarily the need for gay player characters although there certainly is a deficiency but sexuality, something so important to self-identity, typically bears little relevance to player characters and their actions. Maybe it's asking too much of a medium that still has trouble handling sex, but it would be great to see more games consider their characters' sexuality, whatever it may be, in ways that aren't inappropriate, offensive or plain attention-seeking.

Breaking the Racial Stereotype

The first black player character appeared early in gaming's history, thirty years ago. Basketball on the Atari 800 featured two playable characters, one white and one black. Skip forward 18 years and you haven't missed much in terms of black player characters. Then came 1997 and with it Final Fantasy VII, bringing with it Mr. T lookalike Barret Wallace. While Barret was popular in the East, his use of Ebonics was met with harsh criticism in the West where he was subsequently accused of being a racist stereotype.

1998 and 2003 brought less controversial ethnic characters in Grim Fandango's Hispanic Manny Calavera and Beyond Good & Evil's Jade, although the latter's indistinct skin colour made her racial origin a mystery. But gaming continued to be predominated by white player characters, except for one significant exception.

Over the years, the controversial Grand Theft Auto series has presented several ethnic player characters including San Andreas' CJ, GTA IV's Niko Bellic, Chinatown Wars' Huang Lee, and The Ballad of Gay Tony's Luis Lopez. While prone to mild stereotyping, the series does reflect the increasingly multicultural nature of America and in particular New York. It does it appropriately too by touching on suburban racism, be it casual or more aggressive. Nonetheless, GTA remains the exception as most developers hide behind their fantastical settings to truly explore race in video games, fearful of alienating their audience and coming into trouble through poor handling of sensitive issues. But it's not just about underrepresentation. Like with player characters' sexuality and gender, failing to explore race from a protagonists' perspective ignores what still makes up a huge part of contemporary life for many of us, me included.

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