Empathetic Weakness and Characterisation in Games

Written by Stephen Patterson

If you’re pressed for time or busy with something else, you can now listen to me read this article here or on your favourite podcast application, such as iTunes:

My article today is something a little more personal than those I’ve written over the past couple of weeks, and therefore comes from personal experience and is based on opinion rather than statistics or sources. I’d like to discuss video game protagonists and how they represent power fantasy, that is, a suspension of disbelief on our part at the unbelievable heroism (or destruction) delivered by the characters we control on a daily basis. What is key to my experience of the games I’ll discuss is how I connect with them on a personal level, as I would with characters in movies or literature – I encourage you to look at them in the same way.

When we feel lost, we find solace in characters who are struggling just as we are.


On a broad scale, most of the games we play focus on empowering you as the player by providing you with an analogue of yourself, usually a character with superhuman powers. These powers may be overt and obvious, as in jumping over buildings and flying (a la Saint’s Row IV) or they be more inconspicuous: Nathan Drake in Uncharted may on the surface be little more than a treasure hunter, but throughout each game he kills and maims  hundreds upon hundreds of opponents by your hand. Not exactly a normal human being. These power fantasies are all well and good when you desire nothing more than mindless destruction (we’ve all been there), but they often lack any real nuance, personal development or the ability to form a personal connection with us as players. Sticking with Nathan Drake, his goals often seem vastly aloof and unrelatable: it is difficult to connect with a character who travels the world twice over, kills a legion of bad guys and recovers an ancient artifact from a nazi submarine during the course of one game. The core of it is this: the unassailably powerful men (and, infrequently, women) we play in games are not reflections of myself, they are avatars of the things I am not.

So why do I take issue with games being conduits for the things I cannot be? In a lot of cases, that is exactly what I want to do – pretend to be someone else who can achieve the things I cannot. In some not-so-rare instances however, it’s best to embrace your failings as a person and live them out vicariously through others, even if those people are simply figments of the imagination of a video game writer half a world away. There are benefits to using games as a medium in this way: we can confront our demons by battling them secondhand through a controller and use that experience to better ourselves, learn about our faults or find strength in the achievements we make progress towards on screen. The interactivity of games presents a unique learning experience which you can influence directly and make changes to based on personal preference – much like life, and something you cannot do with the fixed linearity of a novel, movie or TV show.

Let us take for example Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee, brought to my attention once again through a fantastic piece about the series over on Waypoint. You play as Abe, a Mudokon, part of a subservient underclass whose entire existence is built on serving others and their factory masters, the suited Glukkons. Throughout the original game, you have no direct attacks available to you, meaning you often rely on stealth and spirituality to guide you throughout the black smokestacks of Rupture Farms, where your race is being harvested and sold as a food product. In Oddworld we are truly powerless, skipping from room to room with a primary purpose to escape from what hunts you – but also to free your people at the same time. Although there isn’t a clear desire to express a feeling of hopelessness and loss in Oddworld, rather an against-the-odds underdog tale, I find solace in a protagonist who exists to help others rather than fighting his oppressors directly. Here, and notably in popular horror games such as Amnesia: The Dark Descent, you are always powerless. At best, you can shine a light, metaphorically or physically, on the darkness which holds you back. If anything, these games are sympathetically dour and depressing because they represent the futility of human struggle – yet, in them both, you eventually succeed.

The games which speak to me the most in regards to character weakness are those that represent transitional periods between weakness and power. Instead of brutally powering through hordes of enemies, they teach you the subtlety of becoming capable and learning how to approach problems through succession and drive. From a narrative perspective, the most popular of these in recent memory is almost certainly The Last of Us. At first, Ellie is little more than a scared yet inquisitive child, especially in the Left Behind prequel, and then a surrogate child for Joel who lost his daughter in the opening of the main game. She on many occasions is helpless: unable to swim and not strong enough to lift a gate which separates the group in the sewers of Pittsburgh. Slowly, Ellie is transformed from useless and weak to powerful. She is tested and prevails through adversity when all seems lost: when Joel is shot, she sneaks into a house controlled by looters and murderers to retrieve supplies. She wades through knee deep snow and runs through broken glass to protect others when she can barely protect herself. Ellie presents us with a strength of willpower and almost blind motivation against forces far beyond her reckoning and emerges at the end of the game a woman. But it isn’t just the writing in games that can teach us things about ourselves. Sometimes, it has nothing to do with writing. From a gameplay perspective, we need look no further than Dark Souls to find a game which is all about teaching us directly to persevere. In this instance, I am reminded of a dozen hours spent in the Undead Burg, the first area of Dark Souls, battling away fruitlessly against poisoned rats, black knights and an armoured bull the size of a tank and coming away frustrated and defeated, to the point of abandoning the game wholesale. I slammed the controller down on the floor and sold the game because it had beat me into submission and I was not strong enough to see it through. Now, 4 years later, I have completed Dark Souls 3 in just under a week, because the game taught me that there is a deep meaning in staying the course and becoming unrelenting: to learn the way the world operates and to adapt.


When writing or experiencing characters, I relate intrinsically with those which demonstrate weakness in the way I experience it. In Life is Strange, Maxine literally develops superhuman powers, but her struggles in early episodes are most often related to deadlines, friendships and relationships. What Dontnod do in that game and what practically every other game in the modern era provides for us is the ability to revisit decisions which we cannot in life. If I miss part of a conversation tree which would have fit my character perfectly in Mass Effect, I can potentially load my last save and try it again to reach a desired outcome – but doing so feels inherently disingenuous to me, because that’s not an ability I have outside of the TV screen. Unless the game is fundamentally constructed on the idea, as in Life is Strange where the game is built on the concept of rewinding time as a core mechanic, I have trained myself to take the rough with the smooth. If I miss a magic item or a hidden area and cannot return through conventional means, then so be it – life is full of missed opportunities – and games are an excellent way of educating us to this fact if we let them. If you’ll allow me to be aloof and distant for a moment (perhaps to the point of absurdity), there is a settling notion present when games remind us that we are social pack animals; that we are not special. I find far more solace in stories which involve characters who struggle like I do because it reminds me that we’re all battling along together and nothing goes the way we imagine it will – I’m not going to save the galaxy from the Reapers, establish a colony in another solar system or defeat the Soviet Union before they annihilate the planet, and I’m okay with that.

Unfortunately, it’s clear that video games are still in their infancy when it comes to conveying complex emotions and the characters who experience them. However, as the medium becomes more accessible from a developer viewpoint, mainly through an increase in coding programmes for children in schools and increased public awareness to games as a storytelling platform, we will begin to see stories which tackle the whole spectrum of human experience in much the same way as movies and, most importantly, literature. In almost all circumstances, I feel more emotionally invested in novel characterisation because writing in its current form has had hundreds of years to develop into its current state as we experience it now, something that we simply have not had enough time with games to see emerge. There are millions of authors in the world and comparatively very few with the combined writing and coding ability to present to us powerful stories in the form of interactive games. What I long to see is an exploration of characters who are lacking, defeatist, depressed or mentally and physically weak – not because I seek some masochistic embodiment of my difficult experiences, but because to do so would be an enormous step towards making video games a more expressive art form.

Those characters that can currently achieve this do not teach us that becoming strong is becoming immune to emotion; they teach us that to embrace our emotions is a key part of becoming a better person.

If you enjoyed this piece, you can follow the site on Facebook or Twitter over there on the right to keep up with future pieces! Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s