Creating a hero is a tricky, subtle art. There are some ground rules that apply, though they’re more guidelines for generally creating friendly characters. For instance, don’t make them evil. That, in addition to making it very hard for them to be a protagonist, is just not very likable. Great starting point.
It’s not, however, an exact science. You can be the villain and still be liked. Loki as played by Tom Hiddleston in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is by all counts a bad guy, but people still love him. And if you look at Gru in Despicable Me, you can be evil and still be the hero. (Though the argument could be made he was bad at being, well, bad.) The point is there are no hard and fast rules for this.
This notion comes to mind when comparing two somewhat recent game releases. The first being Assassin’s Creed Unity where, with Desmond Mason out of the picture, tragically abandoned and French Arno Dorian takes the full mantle of main character. And then there’s Halo: The Master Chief Collection, which is “recent” only in a technical sense considering it’s comprised of games all two to 13 years old. And we’re all familiar, whether you’ve played the games or not, with Master Chief.
Good ol’ Spartan 117 is fine place to start, actually. Chief is, more or less, without a personality. In fact, Halo 4 opens with a cinematic accusation that he is a broken man (with the additional supposition that is the reason why he’s been so successful). He’s nearly a silent protagonist, never speaking during gameplay but then making gruff utterances during choice cutscenes.
But people find this shell of a human agreeable anyways. It’s a curious thing that this would happen. How do you identify with something that has nothing to identify with? But there are two key components to Master Chief’s ramp up into an iconic character. The first is his chronically epic circumstances. There is never a moment where his existence does not the fate of humanity or the universe or something equally significant.
This plays into the universal and very human desire to be needed and validated. And by being silent—or at least nearly silent—it makes it much easier for the player to fill those giant Spartan-sized shoes. It’s a sentiment shared even by Frank O’Connor, currently Franchise Development Director at 343 Industries, in a 2007 interview. But that only works because of Master Chief’s inability to be insignificant. Otherwise why would we even want to inhabit that role?
The second component is Cortana, Master Chief’s artificial intelligence. She carries the bulk of the responsibility when it comes to voicing the opinions and concerns of our hero, which in turn should be the voice and concerns of us. Consider her a diegetic Greek chorus, if you will. She is largely the vein in which we tap to find grounding in this otherwise unrelatable and unattached world.
So then, when Cortana enters rampancy (a state in which AIs in the Halo universe go insane after accruing too much knowledge), Master Chief sets out to right this injustice. It is just about the first time we see him decide to do something for himself, though outwardly it’s to do something for Cortana. This is not just because he would be lost without her but because we see our connection to this silent, towering beast of a man slipping away.
Contrasted, then, with Arno of Assassin’s Creed Unity, the feeling surrounding the two characters is vastly different. Namely, Arno is a dick. Some people may disagree, but even then, it plays into the idea that creating a favored protagonist is not a surefire thing. His upbringing is doubly and predictably tragic what with first his real father and then his adopted father both being murdered (don’t worry, these aren’t spoilers; this all happens in the opening bits).
But perhaps the most tragic part—and the portion of Arno that is really dissociative—is that he’s dickish but fun the very beginning. He, in fact, has an almost Ezio-like feel to him, the best of the heroes the Assassin’s Creed franchise has to offer by a mile, a charming rogue hardened by hard times but retaining his core of plucky, puckish, and snappy personality.
With Arno, though, we are left with a husk. A mean, unidentifiable husk that, while being hollow, also leaves us feeling hollow. Feeling hollow and abandoned with this grim man who is still kind of a dick but is also now not very fun at all. More than anything, it feels like a bait and switch, as if we were deceived into liking Arno at all in the first place. No one is blaming Arno for his circumstances, but there is fault when we are asked to like him anyways.
On one hand, we have a silent, basically inhuman warrior that we all manage to like, even want to be. As a sole entity, there is nothing there to latch on to and yet we do grab hold. On the other, there’s a man full of personality and victim of consequence of dire actions. And he’s the one we cannot abide. He’s been bored out from tragedy and leaves us as hollow as it leaves him.
Circumstance directs our sympathies and relational capacity towards one in concept, but it plays out very differently. Maybe it’s not just heroes that are tricky. It’s really some gamble on an emotional payout. And based on fickle hearts and malleable minds, no one really knows how it’ll go until it happens.