Mal Reynolds: It's my estimation that every man ever got a statue made of him was one kind of a son of a bitch or another.
Think about some of your favorite game protagonists. Quite probably, they are an asshole.
I’ve been thinking about this for quite a while, but the thing that really drove it home was playing the Uncharted series. The protagonist, Nathan Drake, is presented as a likable Indiana Jones type, affable, replete with foibles and failings, but ready to dust it up when he needs to. As written, he is layered and interesting, in an adventure serial sort of way. And then you play the game. As the player it is your job to direct “Nate” through all his trials. All indications are, that this will mean hair raising adventure, narrowly avoiding disaster, and dodging death with a joke and a rakish smile. What really happens is that you repeatedly murder scores of dudes. Seriously. Angry, armed men spew forth from the masonry, and you direct "Nate" to gun down, or beat to death, every last one of them. The titular assassin in the Assassins Creed series could not hope to compete with the raw dude killing prowess of Nathan Drake, and dude killing is sort of in his job description.
I enjoyed the Uncharted games quite a bit. I enjoyed the pulp serial characters and story, and I enjoyed the cover based action combat. But never both together. The disconnect I felt was due to the story constantly insisting that this character is a decent and likeable human being, when the guy I'm controlling is clearly sociopathic, and borderline psychotic. A lot of games put you in the position of the one man army punching a hole through evil. That player character is either an empty cipher with no personality but what the player assigns to it, or they are presented as an emotionally broken person, worn down by war and struggles for survival. Were you to meet them in a civil setting, they would most likely be an asshole.
How do we tell if someone we meet is an asshole? Typically they express it through their interaction with the world. They tend to be blunt, disruptive, destructive, or all three. The koopas and goombas in Mario games rarely go out of their way to intercept and harass Mario. They just walk diligently along until you direct Mario to stomp on their heads. The enemies in most FPS games are slightly more in control of their own fate, and they do actively assail your avatar, but seriously what was your guy doing, staring them down in the first place. Wouldn't most normal people give the violent gang ahead of them a wide berth. Didn't Nathan Drake venture into these caves, to find treasure. I would think that armed conflict would be detrimental to that goal. Unless of course he's sort of an asshole, then by all means, march right in and start killing dudes.
Now, To be sure, I've killed my fair share of digital baddies. Probably a few other people's share as well. I've enjoyed it too. Almost always I was at least peripherally aware that my character was sort of an asshole. Games are usually a no options environment. I had to kill all the nazis to escape from castle wolfenstein. Had to. All of them. “But Owen” you say “all those soldiers/pirates/aliens/molemen were evil, you had to kill them to save the world, your character is not an asshole, he’s a hero”
Me: hey (insert game hero here) the way you escaped from that (pow camp/spaceship/hell dimension) was amazing, and thanks for saving the world.
Hero: Not a problem. Just part of the job.
Me: So, tell me what happened in there.
Hero: Well I had to fight the first few guards hand to hand until I got ahold of one of their weapons.
Me: Oh wow! So then you busted out?
Hero: Nope. First I had to deactivate the doomsday weapon, and shoot all the guards in the head.
Me: Holy Crap! Thanks for doing that. It sounds terrible.
Hero: Don’t mention it. Like I said, just part of the job. So then I doubled back to loot the armoury, shooting guys in the head the whole time.
Me: Okay. Looting the armoury? That was really important?
Hero: Oh yeah. Very important part of the mission. I needed the bigger weapons to shoot all the minibosses, and then the main boss.
Me: Really? I mean, you deactivated the doomsday weapon right?
Hero: Oh yes, of course. Then I was trapped in a checkpoint room where I shot every bad guy in the head so that the door would open.
Me: What!? Why!? How does that work? What was keeping the door closed?
Hero: Not sure really. I just shot everyone, and then the door opened. That wasn’t the only time that happened either. One time I had to search around for one of the little grunts and shoot him in the head before the door would open. He must have clipped through a catwalk, and got caught up in some geometry. I had to use an entire clip trying to hit him in the head. Ha.
Me: Jesus!? Why didn’t you just leave him there?
Hero: Had to open the door. If you can think of a better way of opening doors than shooting heads, I’d like to hear it. Anyway, I should tell you how I tracked down the final boss, destroyed his armour, and shot him repeatedly in his exposed brain!
Me: What. The. Fuck. (scooch away silently and exit room, close door slowly)
See what I mean. That guy was a bit frightening. Also, probably an asshole. Not that it was entirely his fault. The problem wasn’t really with that character's intentions. He was trying to save the world after all. He is very definitely ‘the good guy’. The only way this guy could interact with the world around him was to shoot it, punch it, or set it on fire. Possibly with a flaming fist gun. Almost every Slam bang action movie hero kills a few baddies along the way, but they also outthink, outtalk, and outrun their opponents. One of the best, thrill ride, action movies of all time, The Fugitive, has the hero constantly making choices, and interacting with the world around him, in as non-violent a fashion as he can, considering the situation he finds himself in. In that movie, Richard Kimble’s interactions with the world define his character. He is most certainly not an asshole.
There are quite a few character action games that eschew this asshole norm. The Deus Ex series is lauded for offering so many ways for the player to interact with the world that it is possible for the player to have an almost completely non-violent experience moving through what is otherwise a shadowy, violent world. Some games, like Journey, furnish the player with no violent interactive options at all. Not only are these interactive options available to game creators, but simply including them as possibilities in a game can create a richer experience.
When press and game players are introduced to a new character action game, one of the boilerplate questions is always ‘how is the combat?’. Maybe we should strive for better than that. We interact with the the world around us every moment of our existence. My hunch is that very little of our life experience is violent, disruptive, or otherwise assholish. A game like Mirrors Edge would arguably be better had they just dropped the option for combat entirely.
After saying all this, I’ll likely want to play, or even make, a game where you shoot things in the face. In the realm of action power fantasy there is a place for that kind of game. The interactive palette is broader than that though. Where are the action games about swimming, or fire fighting, or more abstract fare, like navigating hyperspace, or living the life of a bee. Some exist, Even more are being made, now that the tools to create them are widely, and cheaply available. Someday, very soon, a game character will evoke real empathy, from a wide, and diverse audience. That characters interactions with the world will define them. They will not be an asshole.